Almost Blue

Ian Jones on making music for Alan Bleasdale

First published October 2000

A theme that threads consistently through all Alan Bleasdale’s work for television is the imaginative and striking use of incidental music. It has resulted in some perfect matches of drama with song and instrumental score, but also instances where the music itself has gone some way in redeeming some of Bleasdale’s more patchy efforts. A brief overview of the way he’s used music in his work of the last 20 years helps appreciate both the nature of all Bleasdale’s TV output besides considering an important element of nearly all television drama which often gets cruelly ignored.

The gradual shift in size, scope and production budget which marked the period from Bleasdale’s early one-off TV plays of the late ’70s through to GBH in 1991 was paralleled by a similar evolution in the manner in which he used incidental music on screen. His first three plays, Early to Bed (1975), Scully’s New Year’s Eve (1978) and The Blackstuff (1980) contained little or no incidental music at all. Any music that was to be heard arose from naturalistic settings – the sound of a radio playing pop music in a transport cafĂ©, or a busker singing in the street. The realism and earthiness of these plays was mirrored by the absence of any kind of instrumental score that could possibly distract or detract from the central “message”.

The Blackstuff had a title theme of sorts – a traditional working man’s song being sung unaccompanied by a group of labourers. It appeared over both the opening and closing credits, and its poignant celebration of working on “the blackstuff” served as a stark contrast to the actual events of the play that spelled out just how frustrating, humbling and ultimately soul-destroying a life laying tarmac had become. It was the only proper “music” in the play, aside from occasional plaintive strumming and humming from one of the workers, Kevin, on the acoustic guitar he carried around everywhere. To watch the play today, being so used to nearly all TV drama being smothered with soupy, unrelenting background music, is to be reminded of the value of silence and the old saying “less is more”.

For Alan Bleasdale’s first proper TV serial, he decided a proper score was needed. Little-known screen composer Ilona Sekacz treated Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) to a marvellously sympathetic and subtle arrangement. The haunting saxophone and clarinet theme that appeared over the end credits of all but one of the individual plays was an example of a perfect relationship between screenwriter, director and musician; it captured the core elements of the serial spot-on: pity, envy and an overbearing mournfulness, but also a resilience, a sense of humour, and a strength of heart. The incidental music heard within each episode was similarly appropriate; as was the different, unique theme that accompanied the end credits to “Yosser’s Story”. Here the normal orchestration was swapped for a solo harpsichord, picking out a grim, faltering theme that reflected the downbeat resolution of this blackest of plays.

Bleasdale moved from the BBC to Channel 4 for his next TV work, Scully (1984). The serial was the end product of a long-term fascination of Bleasdale with a collection of so-called Liverpool folk myths around which he had written his first novel, in 1975. The book Scully then became a series on Radio BBC Radio Merseyside, which then became the subject matter for his TV play Scully’s New Year’s Eve, before finally ending up as Scully the serial on Channel 4.

After the huge acclaim heaped on The Boys from the Blackstuff, there was always going to be a high level of expectation surrounding Bleasdale’s next work. As it was, while Scully was hampered by some thoughtless scheduling (up against the similarly-themed Brass on ITV at 8pm on Monday evenings) and a poor press response, the serial was more than satisfactory, peopled with the usual oddball loveable eccentrics and rounded Liverpool characters. Best of all, though, was the title theme: a specially composed song by Elvis Costello, Turning The Town Red. Costello had a supporting part in the drama, playing Henry, the slightly nerdish brother of the central character. But it was his own song, a witty and infectious track he performed with his band The Attractions, that made the serial particularly notable and which marked the beginning of a long and significant collaboration between the songwriter and Bleasdale.

Returning to the BBC for The Monocled Mutineer (1986), however, established BBC composer George Fenton was assigned to realise an appropriate period score that suitably reflected the drama’s wartime setting. The production costs of a major BBC costume drama afforded the use of a full orchestra for the first time, and Fenton’s work demonstrated a typically high standard and effective use of instrumentation throughout. The serial also benefited from the use of original wartime songs, sometimes sung by the characters themselves; though historians complained that these, such as Keep The Home Fires Burning, often dated from World War II not World War I.

Back with Channel 4 for GBH in 1991, Bleasdale wanted background music that befitted his greatest, most ambitious and complex work to date. He was not to be disappointed. Elvis Costello returned, this time working with composer Richard Harvey, who between them came up with superb score that married elements of rock, pop, jazz and classical effortlessly. It was Costello’s first purely instrumental work, and actually ranks as one of the best of his later career, though of course it is hard to know how much of the actual finished score is his and how much was conceived by Harvey.

The pair created a series of easily recognisable, recurring musical “motifs” that accompanied certain characters and situations throughout the drama, helping viewers to unpick the sometimes complex, dense storylines; and also came up with an impressively stirring title theme, that sounded as it was being played on a 100-piece orchestra including guitars, bass and drums. A fine effort all round, and one that helped secure GBH‘s greatness.

After such an achievement, expectation was again running high for Bleasdale’s next work, Jake’s Progress (1995). This time, however, the omens that had promised so much – the return of Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Lindsay Duncan – were deceptive; the serial was a highly indulgent, overlong and boring run-around the lives of the rural middle classes. Its central premise – the hyperactive child of the title, Jake, based on a character in GBH – was not enough to sustain a drama this length; and it had a terrible, winsome contrived plot, involving an embarrassingly poor and cheap baked bean of an ending. The only decent element, however, was the music – the use of the John Lennon song Nobody Told Me, plus another joint effort by Costello and Harvey, who contributed a memorable and inspired score.

Sadly, worse was to come. Melissa (1997) was a dreadful attempt by Bleasdale to rework a Francis Durbridge 1960 BBC serial, removing it from its original historical setting to the present day, but still using period costume (and music). It was a flop. Costello and Harvey returned to work on his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1999) which was Bleasdale’s first work for ITV. But as with Jake’s Progress, though musically engaging and evocative, this was more of an exercise in the (expensive) treading of water with a worryingly high level of hammy melodrama from people who should have known better (Robert Lindsay especially).

From the high peak of GBH, where music and drama blended seamlessly into stunning, unforgettable television, Bleasdale’s work through the 1990s fell back to a point lower than at any stage in his career, where not even the use of imaginative original instrumental music seemed able boost the quality or integrity of his drama. His next work is to be some kind of “state of the nation” epic for the BBC; it can only be – it has to be – an improvement on his recent output, which has been seriously wanting in almost every area except that crucial factor, the music.

It’s more than time for a era-defining, agenda-setting piece of new drama from the man who cannot go on relying on the talents of others (like Elvis Costello and Richard Harvey) to render even his most blandest of work palatable and refreshing.