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KEITH MILES
from the scripts by Alan Bleasdale
The Boys From The Blackstuff


click to enlarge

Granada, St Albans, 1983
(price: 1.50; 208 pages)


The blurb on the back:

Chrissie, Loggo, Dixie, Yosser and George - the Boys from the Blackstuff. Together they've seen good times, but now they've hit the bad times. And to make ends meet, they're willing to try anything - anything - in spite of over-zealous neighbours who peer in from behind curtains, and Dole snoopers in disguise...
Boys From The Blackstuff was a huge critical and popular success when it was first broadcast. It was named Best Drama Series of the year by the Broadcasting Press Guild of TV Critics, and also won the British Academy (BAFTA) Award for the Best Drama Series of the Year. In addition, it won three other Academy and Guild Awards.
This novel by Keith Miles, based on Alan Bleasdale's hilarious and touching tragi-comic scripts, captures all the warmth, humour and depth of feeling of the original.


opening lines:
Liverpool. City of change and challenge. The change occurs once a week when the unemployment figures go up, but the challenge is there every day. How to survive.


1982 was a weird year. In the real world, the armed forces of the Argentinian military regime staged an illegal invasion of the Falklands, and the ditto of the Israeli ditto did ditto to the Lebanon. Elsewhere Germany swapped Helmuts (Kohl taking over from Schmidt), Leonid Brezhnev died after 16 years in control of the Soviet Union - his death was greeted with a Daily Mirror black-edged front-page headlined: 'Child of the Revolution' - and Lech Walesa was released from jail. In popular culture, it was a wrinkly old Oscar ceremony to the benefit of Fonda and Hepburn, but we lost Marty Feldman, John Belushi and The Jam, whilst the likes of Captain Sensible, the Goombay Dance Band and Renée & Renato all reached #1 in the singles charts.

Like I say, a weird little year.

And into this year came two TV series that would redefine the public perception of the city of Liverpool: Brookside and The Boys from the Blackstuff. The traditional image of Liverpool - epitomized by the likes of The Beatles and Ken Dodd - had been one of creativity, self-mocking humour and resilience in the face of adversity. The 1982 version was negativity, self-pity and capitulation.

Leaving Brookside behind ('cos I can't be arsed, basically), The Boys from the Blackstuff was a really frustrating programme. Written by Alan Bleasdale as a series spinning off from his 1980 one-off TV play The Black Stuff, it followed five Liverpudlian working-class men struggling to make ends meet in a time of industrial decline and rising unemployment. Their complaints were essentially two-fold: one, that society owed them a living and was letting them down, and two, that they weren't allowed to claim unemployment benefit and work cash-in-hand at the same time. They were, in short, victims. Helpless, suffering and emasculated.

In short, it's self-indulgent whingeing. Not a particularly terrible offence in itself (I can whinge as self-indulgently as the next man), but what annoys is that it's taken so bloody seriously. As though it's some kind of major political statement. And it's not.

This isn't necessarily Bleasdale's fault: it's more that TV - and particularly TV drama - is always skewed more to the personal than the political. It really is a crap medium, in which every event has to be treated as no more than the sum of individual experience. Even when it clearly is something more. So, for example, the attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon in September 2001 were treated by TV almost as though they were natural disasters: in the months following the attacks (and especially leading up to the first anniversary) TV was awash with stories of how fire-fighters/office-workers/police officers went to work on what they thought was a normal day, little thinking that for many of them... &c. &c. It's all a series of personal tragedies, made more acute because there were quite a few of them happening simultaneously in New York when the TV cameras were rolling. But none of it gets you anywhere near any meaning or content to the event. It's all an inexplicable calamity, differing in no discernible way from an earthquake. There's no attempt to enquire or investigate or draw conclusions.

Similarly, in the case of The Boys from the Blackstuff, you might want to ask some questions. Like, what caused the rise in unemployment? What are the alternatives to the government's policies? How can those currently suffering under those policies fight back? Are we experiencing major cultural and social upheavals as a result of de-industrialization, comparable in some way to the birth pangs of the industrial revolution? Is there a gender revolution coinciding with the emergence of a post-industrial world? If so, is this a good thing? What are the consequences likely to be?

None of these questions were answered in the five-part series. Instead, we saw individuals thrashing around with no control over their circumstances. And, er, that's it.

So we get a series of melodramatic vignettes in which madness, mayhem and death can be directly attributed to a dole officer trying to check up on whether people are breaking the law. And your natural inclination to sympathy is cynically exploited: in this version of society, those who work for the Department of Employment are comparable to the Gestapo, and those who don't pay tax are heroic resistance fighters trying to reclaim some sense of dignity to all our lives.

Sod all that gallows-humour bollocks that people claim, this is a relentlessly negative image of Liverpool. And as Steve Redhead points out in his excellent book on football culture, Sing When You're Winning (Pluto, London, 1987), the consequence of this self-image was that the rest of the country accepted the caricature. So opposition fans used to taunt Liverpool supporters with a new version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone':

Sign on, sign on,
with hope in your heart,
and you'll never work again,
you'll never work again.

Some of this could have been redressed in a novelization. The advantage of literature over television is that the internal experience of the characters can be presented, as well as their actions and words. But unfortunately, Keith Miles clings to the screen version and doesn't attempt to penetrate the thoughts and emotions of the characters. So you're still stuck with melodrama.

It's all perfectly readable, and Bleasdale's script - as transliterated - is quite decent by the standards of TV. Here's Snowy, for example, a member of the WRP:

All I'm saying is, if y' don't fight, if ... like, I mean, it was easy to be a socialist when I was growin' up in the sixties an' even for most of the seventies. Everyone was a friggin' socialist then, it was fashionable, but it's not now ... everythin's gone sour, everyone's lockin' the door, turnin' the other cheek, lookin' after number one ... But now's the time that we should all be together! Now's the time we need to be together cos ... cos, well, we're not winnin' any more. (p.30)

Nothing wrong with it, and I guess I ought to apologize for the grumpy tone of this review. But the reverence with which this stuff is treated really irritates me. It's another TV soap. That's all.

calm down, calm down
So, what, you didn't like it?


ARTISTIC MERIT: 2/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
2/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
2/5


Like this? Try this...

A Very British Coup

if you want another (more orthodox and perhaps less bigoted) perspective on Bleasdale, try this site
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