Jules and Geordie on a bench in Regents Park in London

The character who seems to me the least successful and yet most likeable is Geordie played by Daniel Craig, who by accident or design is a drifter. Of the four of them his life appears to be the least planned out, and the least fortunate, especially given that his earlier success in Soho was based on criminal activity, which was never likely to end well.

But perhaps because he comes out as the underdog it is to him I feel the most sympathy and especially in the case of his two loves, Julia and Daphne. (I haven’t forgotten Margaret Benston whom he got pregnant and ran away from but she doesn’t appear in the film).

He meets Daphne in a B&B in “Dorset” (film location Whitley Bay) while on an enforced holiday to keep him out of the way while the Met have one of their recurring clean up drives in Soho.

Daphne the waitress and her daughter Frances

Geordie is bordering on Hardyesque in his ability to reap failure from the efforts of his success. He must have realised when he took the bar job at Benny’s place early on that this was not likely to be the most stable basis for a career but it suited him at the time.


Characters

Mary, played by the lovely Gina McKee, was always likely to do well, by character and education. Nicky less so perhaps and I find him harder to like than I ought to for the way he treats Mary over the course of the film given the number of opportunities they had to make a life together.

Swap the k for an s and you’ve got what I think of Tosker. He is one of the lads with his brains in his dick, a natural Tory voter and always with an eye on the main chance. However, of the three main male characters he is the only one who supports a family for any length of time.

By a process of elimination my heart lies with Geordie not because he is an angel, he certainly isn’t that but circumstances appear to have treated him harshly early on and that seems to dog him for the rest of his life (his Father has become a violent alcoholic and his Mother is never seen). I’m surprised he lived long enough to make the end of the series: of the four of them he was the most likely to die in some random fashion.

I feel haunted by Geordie’s lack of success in love. The thing with Jules was never going to end well given he was shagging his bosses girlfriend, and in a gangland culture where bad outcomes are commonplace. But his second chance at love was thwarted by the actions of the first in that he met Daphne on holiday and was then stitched up as a result of his friendship with Jules, so it was downhill all the way after that.

None of the men come out of this well. Tosker for his bad boy approach to women (although some like it allegedly). In fairness to him he stands by Mary once she’s pregnant and they make a life together, which is more than can be said for Geordie, who abandoned Margaret Benston (never seen) to her fate.

Nicky’s treatment of Mary, given his opportunities, is hardly praiseworthy and she alone appears saintly by the end, something her horrible son Anthony appears to have trouble coming to terms with. I watched in disbelief as Nicky started shagging Alice having only just married Mary after a twenty year delay in their relationship.

Of the three least likeable characters in the film, the other two being Christopher Collins and Geordie’s Father,  Anthony goes from being an average copper to a complete shit by the end of the film. I put it down to his experiences during the miners’ strike although perhaps he was like that anyway. His lack of insight into his own and other peoples lives around him is appalling, especially for somebody in public service.

Far and away the most unfortunate is Sean Collins whose short and tragic life was blighted from the outset simply by being the son of Christopher Collins. I found myself thinking later that Sean’s life became a proxy for some if not all of Mary’s political ambitions hence her grief on learning of his death.


Politics

The thirty year period covers in chronological order Wilson, Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major although the latter features not at all and is the least memorable in any case. But then nor does Callaghan who was a better PM for Labour than Major ever was for the Tories, in my view.

Essentially the politics is about the decline of industry and how to adapt to a declining North East awash with corruption in the face of bold attempts to house the population, followed by an utter rejection of that consensus by the Thatcher government and a return to self.

Wilson’s failure to deal with the unions is ignored completely – In Place of Strife – whereas Heath failing and Thatcher succeeding are covered in more depth with the miners being the example used.

Towards the end Mary tackles Claudia Seabrook on how Tory cuts have led to deteriorating conditions on estates like Valley View but that’s about it so far as questioning the Tory mantra goes.


Was it worth watching?

Undoubtedly. Despite and perhaps because of watching it 21 years late I have been able to put the events in an even longer perspective and it has been educational in that the early events covered happened while I was still at school and therefore not in a position to fully comprehend for example the Poulson affair.


Other commentators

Peter Hitchens is ridiculously one sided in his version but then he writes for the Mail.

It even dwells on, though has no answer to, the corruption of life which produces criminal louts, and the desperate sadness that the socialist pursuit of the New Jerusalem, the new houses, the libraries, the schools, do not in fact produce a contented society on their own, and may even be followed by worsening behaviour and morals.

For man does not live by bread alone, and never will. As the grime and darkness were swept away, and the smoke cleared, another, less visible shadow fell over the places where the poor lived, the disorder and (later) the drugs. Not but what there’s a pretty accurate portrayal of desperate drunkenness and the hopeless misery of it.

A few scrappy thoughts on Our Friends in the North

All that without a single mention of the Tory cuts that undermined the New Jerusalem at every turn, controlling inflation by moneytarism, destroying long established state industries, raising unemployment for which heroin became a panacea, closing the mines, and condemning Labour’s (and the Tories in the 1950s), attempts to build the New Jersualem in favour of a Neo-Liberal approach from Thatcher onwards is a pretty cheap and subjective shot.

To cite just one example, the rising number of homeless people visible on the streets of every major Uk town and city every time there’s a Tory Government is proof enough of their moral bankruptcy in that regard.


An Amazon review

When it was first screened in 1996, Our Friends in the North reflected back the social decay of the sixties and seventies, at a time when a further big change, the rise of New Labour and Tony Blair’s seemingly inevitable journey to Downing Street was providing the pivot for mid-nineties, pre-millennial self-examination.

Tracing the lives of 4 friends from Newcastle, bonded by often clumsy and socially awkward situations, the epic piece of drama that unfolds remains one of the standout recent works in it’s genre. It’s an overtly political piece, but in a way that demonstrates how political changes inform social change. Nicky (Christopher Eccleston) is consumed by involvement in the grubby and incestuos world of sixties north-east Labour politics, dominated by the exotic Austen Donohue.

As Donohue’s corruption unfolds, and the hopes formed by the election of a Labour government at the end of the first instalment fade away, Nicky turns to radicalism and protest, spending the seventies as a political and social photo-journalist, eventually marrying his childhood companion, Mary – herself bruised by a violent and turbulent first marriage to their mutual friend Tosker, which decays with the passage of the seventies. Geordie meanwhile is drawn into the Soho strip-clubs, run by Malcolm McDowell’s grimy, fragile Benny Barrett.

Throughout, their lives are underpinned by their ‘friends in the north’ – fixers like Eddie Wells, whose life of solid political service to Labour masters is blown away in the storms of 1987, as the political tide reaches the high watermark of Thatcherism. Geordie’s escape from the vice dens of Soho is complicated by ongoing investigations into vice and corruption in the Met. Nicky and Mary’s marriage collapses under the weight of Nicky’s independence and Mary’s prospective career as a Blairite new Labour MP.

Tosker’s business and home are sacrificed at the altar of free market capitalism that he previously worshipped. Returning to the Newcastle in the nineties for the funeral of Nicky’s mother, they survey a landscape still scarred by the miner’s strike, but hope and optimism about the future. Crossing the Tyne Bridge, they step into the next phase of their lives, as Newcastle itself prepares to cast off it’s former image with ambitious social building programmes, and a Labour government prepares to take office in London. The symmetry of their lives is complete.

Taking such a broad sweep across political, social and economic landscapes whilst retaining a cohesive and compelling narrative is a challenge fraught with potential hazards. Our Friends in the North achieves all those aims. It is often icily uncomfortable, but it more than does justice to the themes and the times that it depicts. With some magnificent central performances, it remains both memorable, and essential viewing.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/DVD-Blu-ray/Our-Friends-North-1996-Christopher-Eccleston/B003N7T6PW


As I said, random thoughts. What do you think? blog@singleaspect.org.uk


Locations

When Geordie was sent on holiday I thought the lighthouse in the background looked familiar and after a bit of digging on Google Earth tracked his first appearance there to the Lower Promenade at Whitley Bay and his B&B to a house on a street with no name in the photographs below:-

I’d say those two photographs show the same location, wouldn’t you? See image below for location.

Click image for larger version

The lighthouse in the distance? Oh that’ll be St Mary’s. In spite of the sign on the kiosk saying Dorset County Council.


Postscript: Twenty-one years late I have come to this because although I was in the country at the time of first showing my life was otherwise taken up without time or space to watch television. The boxed set sat on the top shelf in the living room until Christmas 2016 when while planning a visit to Newcastle, I decided to watch it.

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