“There’s a Poison About – and it’s Getting Worse by the Day”

Ian Jones on GBH

First published October 2000

For seven weeks in the summer of 1991, Channel 4 broadcast GBH, Alan Bleasdale’s first new screenplay for five years. Its curious title suggested some of what lay in store for the viewer: ambiguity, allusion, and lots of violence. But not the scope, or significance, of what was to follow: Bleasdale’s greatest work to date; and also the greatest original TV drama serial of the 1990s.

It deserves such a tribute not least for the writer’s effortless handling of, on the face of it, a nightmare assortment of characters and plotlines. The narrative unfolds on an immense scale, yet remains accessible at all times. It is simultaneously overawing, yet understated; outlandishly funny, and tearfully poignant; angry, defiant, but never polemical, or self-righteous – and never ever self-indulgent. Heading a production team of over 100, director Robert Young realised Bleasdale’s epic tapestry with a skill that defies description. The mark of executive producer Verity Lambert was also palpable in the serial’s grandeur and self-confidence.

GBH featured the reappearance of many familiar faces from previous Bleasdale serials. Julie Walters, Tom Georgeson, Alan Igbon and Michael Angelis were central characters in Boys from the Blackstuff; Andrew Schofield played the title role in Scully. The pattern would continue in the future, with Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and Julie Walters all appearing in Jake’s Progress and Oliver Twist.

The first episode, “It Couldn’t Happen Here”, introduces all the key themes: betrayal, allegiance, passion, confusion, incomprehension. Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) is leader of the Labour council in an unspecified Northern city. He swans around his fiefdom with his dutiful minder Teddy (Alan Igbon) ever at his side plus the obligatory coterie of toadying cronies and yes-men. He seems supremely self-assured, in control, certainly well-liked by most of his electorate (especially the black community); but his initial appearance on screen is perplexing: storming into the office of the headmaster of his old junior school, Murray bawls “It’s my turn now – my turn,” and throws the doddery scholar Mr Weller (David Ross) out. He then frantically searches through old school files for his own report, which prompts horrific flashbacks to angry beatings and an unexplained encounter with a girl – “You do want to please me, don’t you Michael?”

An incident in his childhood saw Murray wronged but he didn’t – couldn’t – understand why. Now he puts Weller “where he tried to put me – with the loonies”, assigning him to serve out his time teaching at the school for special needs kids run by affable, engaging Jim Nelson (Michael Palin). Though clearly portrayed as an unstable leader getting off on his power (“I can never remember a time when I didn’t want to be someone”), Murray has various intriguing, unusual qualities, not least the fact he employs his older brother Franky as his chauffeur.

While Murray abandons his wife and kids for endless liaisons with random beautiful women and a semi-residence in a luxury hotel, Jim Nelson is in contrast shown as a loving, devoted, wife-and-three-kids man. Their worlds collide when Murray, under the influence of a group of far-Left militants headed by veteran fusty radical Mervyn Sloan (Paul Daneman), organises a one-off Day Of Action where everyone in his city is to go on strike. Nelson, a Labour and union man, finding no pickets outside his school (due to an oversight in the Murray camp), goes to work. However, his school is soon identified as the only place “open” in the city prompting Murray to engineer a confrontation within the building.

At this early stage, Bleasdale’s political concerns are made absolutely clear: here are two men of the Left, both members of the Labour Party – but one, Murray, is abusing his status and affiliation while the other, Nelson, struggles to redefine what he believes in in the face of such extreme ideological revisionism. Murray appeals to Jim as one socialist to another to come out on strike; “Don’t ever use that word to me. Don’t ever, ever claim that what you’re doing, Murray, has anything at all to do with socialism,” rages Nelson.

But later, alone, Jim wonders “How can I be this strong – and tonight I’ll be washing my feet in the sink?” He too is suffering, but from some self-induced mild madness and insecurity that has both physical (taking the dog for a walk in the nude) and mental (lapsing into incoherent trances) effects. All this, plus the presence of Michael’s idealised, idolised mother (Julie Walters) watching over events in her tragicomic isolated world, is firmly established by the episode’s conclusion.

None of the characterisations in the serial are simple, lazy, clich├ęs. As much as Bleasdale allegedly based Murray on Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council in the mid-’80s Derek Hatton, his complex beliefs, loyalties, and conflicting aspirations are the mark of something far more than simply a case of art imitating life. If any of Bleasdale’s characters seem obvious in one scene, the next moment they’ll be doing something utterly unexpected, but still just as believable, and real. The slide from high comedy to deeply grim tragedy within a few precious minutes is another recurring element to GBH, and a fine, always effective, one.

Episode two, “Only Here On A Message”, covers the eight months following the Day Of Action as Murray keeps up his relentless intimidation of Nelson and Jim’s own behaviour gets worse (with the onset of his terrifying fear of bridges). But a variety of other storylines begin emerging. Michael’s father, another political leader, died before he was born and remains a model for him to aspire to – and measure his own inadequacies against. He continues to meet with the Trotskyites – Mervyn, accompanied by Lou Barnes (Tom Georgeson) and the gruff, menacing professional agitator Peter Grenville (Andrew Schofield). They now reveal (and implicate Murray in) their plan to provoke nothing less than a race war in the city intending to stage a far-Left uprising at the same time. They secure Murray’s approval with the mentioning of two words: “Eileen Critchley”. They seem to turn Murray into a spineless, compliant wreck. But nothing is clear – not least the appearance of the mysterious Barbara (Lindsay Duncan), whom Michael falls for instantly at the episode’s conclusion.

While the chief plotlines are cleverly unravelled and twisted throughout the whole serial, Bleasdale complements them with equally engaging secondary scenes and subplots: like the flashbacks showing Mr Weller hopelessly in love with Michael’s mother, but unable to express his feelings on the numerous occasions he has to call her in to his office to discuss her son’s misbehaviour. Jim’s visits to a psychotherapist, sympathetically played by Jean Alexander, are touching and effective, especially when she reveals to Nelson that Murray is suffering hair loss. Jim’s close friend Martin (Michael Angelis), a poet, also provides an important role not just as Nelson’s confidante but as an outlet for Bleasdale’s lyrical, creative streak (he is continually composing evocative, plaintive verse to suit the occasion).

In episode three, “Send A Message To Michael”, Bleasdale taunts the viewers with yet more ambiguity and confusion. The enigmatic Barbara, who now seems to be an item with Murray, is shown investigating both his father’s grave and visiting his mother, where she leaves a note for Michael. She also seems to know Peter, the rabble rouser with the militants, yet she still plays the responsive, caring partner to Murray; “Barbara – it’s as if I’ve always known you,” concludes Michael, with a knowing wink from Bleasdale to the viewer.

Of all the superb performances in GBH, perhaps Robert Lindsay’s is the most exceptional – especially his depiction of Murray’s collapse into utter panic and one massive juvenilia. His is such a fascinating character – from his aggression (he jogs round the park with cronies in tow chanting “Fuck-that-Lenin, fuck-that-Marx, fuck-the-workers, fuck-the-bosses, fuck-the-unions, fuck-the-scabs, fuck-the-police, fuck-the-courts, fuck-the-judges, fuck-The-Guardian, fuck-The-Times …”) to adolescent boasting (“I’ve got a hard on – and there’s nobody here!”). At heart, he is the anti-hero: “I wish, I wish I was a good man,” he cries to his brother in the back of his car.

Bleasdale’s masterstroke, however, is making Murray develop two very pronounced, comical, physical ticks: a twitchy left eye, and a spasm in his left shoulder which keeps sending his arm shooting into the air as if an over-the-top Nazi salute. They reduce Murray at times to an out-of-control physical clown but lead to some fantastically funny scenes, such as when he has been kicked out of his car by his brother, stranded on a grass verge with a nosebleed and has to suffer the arrival of a coach load of tourists, the guide mistaking Murray for Dirty Den (“but you were shot – by some daffodils!”). Suddenly GBH has become high farce.

The strange Eileen Critchley is returning to haunt Michael for some crime he committed as a child, which we keep seeing obtuse flashbacks to. The note Barbara left with Michael’s mother turns out to be from the very same “Eileen Critchley”. It becomes clear what the “message” in the episode titles is referring to primarily a clarion from Michael’s past, but also a message to various characters in the drama to change their ways or face some kind of judgement. Barbara Douglas is obviously on some kind of mission to both involve herself into Murray’s personal life but also cause him hurt by masquerading as Miss Critchley. The intensely painful fact is that the more time passes, the more Michael becomes fatally dependent on Barbara, thinking she is the only one who can help him overcome this warped persecution from his past.

In episode four, “Message Sent”, Murray engineers Jim Nelson’s suspension from his job, as well as a potential expulsion from the Labour Party. But his own decline accelerates. His nervous tics and twitches escalate, reaching their peak in an extraordinary semi-slapstick sequence in the luxury hotel with Michael falling about all over the place, angry at being shut out of a Trotskyite meeting, desperately trying to find some condoms to spend the night with Barbara, but caught up in the middle of a Doctor Who convention with Daleks roaming the corridors shouting “Fornicate! Fornicate!”

At the same time, the depth and significance of other events becomes frighteningly clearer. Not only are Murray’s plans and work as leader of the Council being infiltrated and influenced by the far-Left, the far-Left itself is being infiltrated and influenced by MI5. Both Lou, Peter and Barbara are revealed to be working for the security services, and even Teddy, Michael’s minder, seems to be keeping them informed of what his paymaster is up to. Peter spends his time posing as a Scouse provocateur engineering attacks by racist thugs on innocent blacks, but also posing (with Lou) as a left-wing militant acting out the leader Mervyn’s orders, when in reality they’re all out to bring down Murray on behalf of the establishment.

At the time of the serial’s transmission, Bleasdale rather unconvincingly argued that the title GBH did not stand for Grievous Bodily Harm but actually “Great British Holiday”. He sends most of his principal characters on a vacation for episodes five and six, with Michael’s brother and mother and family in Fleetwood, and the Nelsons plus friends to the dreadful holiday complex Woodlands in Wales. It makes for a surprisingly effective shift and refocus of the pace and style of the action, offsetting some of the more grim impenetrable machinations of MI5 and the far-Left with amusing, imaginative goings-on out in the countryside.

Episode five “Message Received” opens with Michael having just spent the night with Barbara (and feeling fully physically, and mentally, restored to take on this “Eileen Critchley”), and the Nelsons journeying to Woodlands, managed by the crackpot Mr Grosvenor (Daniel Massey). Grosvenor seems to be utterly unlikable – pompous, pretentious (“Am I the only one here who listens to Radio 4?”) and completely mad. His hotel is falling down, suffering from both extremely low flying aircraft and a hyperactive child called Jake (whom Bleasdale would return to a few years later …).

But even out here Jim cannot escape Murray’s influence – MI5 are after Michael’s school file, which Mr Weller gave to Jim and which he took away with him, and they burgle his chalet posing as CID inspectors to retrieve it. With the racial tension in the city escalating, in a safe house somewhere in the city, Lou, Barbara and the rest control events meticulously. The means justify the ends – and vice versa.

Episode six, “Message Understood”, sees a climax of sorts with Murray being presented with a dossier full of photos and evidence pertaining to his corrupt deals and transactions as leader of the council – plus a copy of his old school file. But Barbara seems to have become more endeared towards Michael as a person, a victim, rather than just her latest assignment; in another flashback it becomes clear that Barbara was Eileen’s younger sister and was taunted by her older sibling (who is clearly one obsessed, wound-up girl) to “get” Michael when she’s older. “You’ll like getting him, he’s easy.” Jim, still trying to holiday at Woodlands, is also sent a copy of the dossier, as if someone wants him to use it against Murray. All Jim seems to be able to hold onto, apart from his wife, is his beguiling mantra “Calm … calm … ” patented by his psychotherapist.

The final episode, “Over And Out”, is a stunning piece of dramatic television. While the city becomes overrun by rioting and mass uprising (ending with the Town Hall itself crumbling to the ground) the police issue a warrant for Michael’s arrest. But he is at a specially convened Labour Party meeting, with Jim. They both make powerful, affecting speeches. Jim is highly articulate and moving, putting his (and Bleasdale’s) case for political moderation and the redundancy of both the extreme Right and Left (a theme first introduced in Boys from the Blackstuff). “The further Left you go, the more Right-wing you become,” he concludes. He has now fully recovered from his “madness”; indeed, the episode ends with him driving over a bridge, cured.

Murray’s speech, however, is an emotional shambles; his nervous tics return, and the meeting is never resolved – the press arrives and Murray leaves to be taken by Barbara to the police station. We’ve see Barbara becoming more disillusioned with her life of deception; visiting her father, a high court judge, she intones, “Such Olympian heights – it must be cold up there. It is cold up there, a cold land – I should know.” Later, leaving evidence for Michael that she is Eileen Critchley, her covering note reads simply “With love from a cold land.” It also turns out that Eileen had tricked Michael at school, the infamous “Achilles heel” being that Murray was discovered trying to strangle her on her own orders.

The episode ends with the city-wide riot still in progress. Everyone’s life has changed, and hardly anyone’s for the better, but the process has accorded them experience, knowledge, a more rounded view of life and society, even if that view is resoundingly pessimistic and forlorn. As Boys from the Blackstuff pretty much nailed the 1980s, so GBH did the same for the ’90s; but it remains the superior work because of its sheer scale and verve – the enormity of the narrative, with its legions of characters and storylines all weaving in and out of each other but all complementing each other perfectly and all relating back to those key themes. In retrospect it feels as if Alan Bleasdale said all he wanted to say about so many topics in GBH that nothing he could write since could ever come close to it again.

Confronting his nemesis Michael Murray in the final episode, Jim emphasises that, at the end of the day, and after your life and work is over, surely what is most important is that “we would want to be remembered for the good that we have done.” GBH insures that there is no question of Bleasdale being remembered in any other way.