Steel River Blues

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 by

At the start of this Teesside-set successor to London’s Burning, a car thief posing as a hitchhiker says to new fire station chief Bill McGlinchy: “Do I sound like a Geordie?” when Bill asks if he is. Bill shrugs and the scene continues.

The car thief may not have sounded like one, but for some inexplicable reason half of the rest of the characters appear to. Yet again programme makers – most likely from well outside the North East – appear to believe that the entire region is one vast homogenous entity where everybody sounds like Paul Gascoigne or Jimmy Nail. Even the non-local actors cast in the show seem to be putting on their best Tyneside accents for some inexplicable reason. Bizarre isn’t it?

It is a minor point to many perhaps, but this lax attitude to fundamental detail immediately gives viewers from in and around the area a jaundiced attitude towards the production. If the series had been set in Manchester, half of a fire engine crew wouldn’t be Scousers would they? The recent BBC1 show 55 Degrees North was set on Tyneside, yet didn’t use a cast from Teesside. So why couldn’t the producers have got Steel River Blues correct? The cherry on the cake is that half of the series was filmed miles away from its supposed location of Middlesbrough, in Leeds! Perhaps if Tyne Tees was still allowed to produce drama there would have had a little more accuracy in these matters.

Judging from this extended first episode Steel River Blues seems somewhat schizophrenic in nature. Hi-jinks and comedy sit a little uncomfortably alongside episodes of deep tragedy, and intermittently unusual music choices appear on the soundtrack (a rotten cover of a rotten Sting song for a start). It all feels very odd for a while. We are taken in one short segment from a strange-looking cat (which belongs to the new star striker of Middlesbrough FC) being blasted out of a tree with a jet of water, to the case of a young girl dying in her own bed after accidentally poisoning herself with iron tablets. Soon after this we are at a secure unit for the mentally ill where one of the patients sets fire to a box of smoke alarms to see if they work. All in a day’s work for a fireman do you think? This is not to mention various other scenes involving a plastic hand-grenade, a man trapped in a car, a leak at a chemical plant, a smashed-up fire engine, an owl in a freezer, a fireman cycling down some stairs and a big fat camp gentleman in an ill-fitting wig.

But, after all of this daft business the episode settles down and we finally get to see the team in some real action. Near the end of the first episode there is a huge blaze at one of the chemical plants, which they tackle quickly and efficiently. It all looks very good and it is apparent that there must have been a great deal of behind-the-scenes organisation, planning and stunt work that went on to make the scene look so realistic.

As the same crew attend all of these incidents, you could be excused for thinking that the entire area was served by just two fire engines. It seems as though the writer has tried too add a bit of everything to the mix in an attempt to use up the extra time this opener has over the regular 60-minute episodes that will begin next week.

Still, the characters seem to be a fairly likeable lot so far, although they are painted very much in primary colours. The new station commander Bill, is from Belfast and so has plenty of experience in the kind of dangerous work that he is likely to encounter in the highly-charged environment of the Teesside chemical industry. He has never, however, been in charge of a station before and wastes no time in stamping his mark on Bluewatch. We get a hint he also has something strange going on in his life back in Northern Ireland, so we can probably expect one or more members of his family to turn up on his doorstep at some point in the future.

Tony Barnes, the firefighter responsible for health and safety at the station takes an instant dislike to Bill, and is something of a stirrer, a part that is quite a departure for actor Daniel Casey considering his last major role was as the mild-mannered Sgt Troy in Midsummer Murders. Barnes is the one who takes it upon himself to dig into the past of his new boss for no good reason by phoning friends in Belfast to see if there is any dirt on him. Charles Dale takes the part of George Barnes, who seems so far to be the usual “nice guy” part that he tends to play these days. Steven Hillman’s Alan Priestly is the firefighter who makes the best impression on the new boss, and his daughter Julie works in the control room of the station. She harbours aspirations to follow her father in his profession, and immediately gets a job as a probationary firefighter as soon as McGlinchy arrives because he thinks that it looks bad not to have a woman in the crew.

The rest of the cast are only touched upon so far: one of them has a stutter, one of them is of Indian descent and likes chips with everything, one of them is having an affair with a married woman, and so on. Six more episodes are scheduled in the first season and hopefully some of the supporting cast will be developed further.

Parts of the area inspired Ridley Scott to make Blade Runner look the way that it does, and the high concentration of heavy chemical industries seems a logical choice for a setting that involves the fire brigade. Added to the chemical business, there is also a major port on the doorstep, an airport, and a nuclear power station, which ensures that there should be plenty of scope for different types of firefighting tales in episodes to come. Amazingly, director Tim Dowd manages to make what some see as an ugly vista look extraordinarily spectacular in some of his shots. Hopefully in a subsequent episode we will have the opportunity to witness the landscape illuminated at night, and viewers of Steel River Blues might see something of what Scott did all those years ago.

With a bit of luck, the people in charge at network centre will give Steel River Blues a decent chance to try to gain an audience, in a way that they never did for the last major show to occupy the 9pm slot on Wednesday nights: Making Waves. It was mercilessly cancelled by those with an eye on the viewing figures almost before it had had a chance to gain any.


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