TV: Bingeworthy Northern Box Sets
With most of the country confined to barracks, we’re all on the hunt for distractions and I’m no exception. Yesterday I cleaned the cat flap. Then, while channel flipping, I came across Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and proceeded to watch the whole thing even though, some 30 years after first seeing it, I know the movie off by heart. And yes, the melting pot of accents is still annoying.
But there are better ways to relax in these self-distancing days, and box sets are one of them. But what about box sets with a Northern theme, whether that’s location, storyline or the characters? The Northern Soul writers are here with their favourites.
Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
Our Friends in the North
In the olden days, there was a time when Daniel Craig wasn’t an impeccably dressed super spy with glacier-blue eyes and a penchant for offing baddies. In 1996, Craig was making his name as George ‘Geordie’ Peacock in Our Friends in the North, a critically acclaimed BBC drama set in Newcastle upon Tyne. OK, his Geordie accent left something to be desired, as did his changing hairstyles, but he more than held his own alongside Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong and Gina McKee. Written by Peter Flannery, who would later go on to script Inspector George Gently, the impact of this inter-generational serial cannot be overstated. At the time it was a BIG deal. And if you’re any kind of connoisseur of British tele in which nothing is off limits but everything is universal then Our Friends in the North is for you. From the unvarnished working class challenges to the dirty corruption of those we once revered, this is unforgettable TV. If you’re anything like me, it will haunt you, taint you, and never leave you.
Before he made G.B.H in 1991, Liverpool’s Alan Bleasdale was best known for Boys from the Blackstuff, a 1982 BBC2 series which seared itself on the public consciousness and became synonymous with the Thatcher years of unemployment. G.B.H. was different. Michael Palin was in it for a start. And a foxy Lindsay Duncan, all quivering lips and bad intentions. But Bleasdale’s political overtones were never far from the surface: Robert Lindsay was a thinly-veiled Derek Hatton (the Militant former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council) and much of the drama was about a thirst for power. But that didn’t matter to me. I was just 17 at the time but my over-riding memory of this show is Palin’s character and his flicking of an elastic band on his wrist at stressful times. It’s nearly 30 years since I watched G.B.H. and that’s what I remember. If that isn’t superlative drama, I don’t know what is.
It took a good few episodes of Vera for me to accept Brenda Blethyn’s North East accent. My entire family are Geordies so I’m a bit precious about this, like. Once I’d surmounted that particular obstacle, I was all in. Vera’s impossibly handsome sidekick helped on that front, I’ll admit, as did the “that’s where my aunty lives” location spots. But it was Ann Cleeves‘ flawless plots and unsurpassed storytelling that really hooked me. And now? I’m all about the Vera box sets.
Life on Mars
There’s a part of me that wants to leave this space blank. After all, what can I say about one of the greatest (Northern) series ever? It’s 14 years since this never-to-be-surpassed series assaulted the British public, later giving way to the sequel, Ashes to Ashes. To this day I still share the YouTube clip of DCI Gene Hunt advocating hoops for tea. This is the TV series to which all followers are judged – and judged closely. “My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?” Sam, we don’t know, we want to find out, and we want to keep watching. Everything about this show should have grated with the viewing public: overt racism, full-on sexism, xenophobia. Maybe the time lapse made it OK to look back and say, hey, that’s how it was then but it’s not like that now? Perhaps the producers encouraged us to take it all with a pinch of salt? Or maybe it’s just that this was brilliantly written, holding an acerbic mirror up to how we used to be, all the while being flawlessly acted and damn funny? I couldn’t give a tart’s furry cup, I just loved it.
Andy Murray, Northern Soul’s Film Editor
I suspect it isn’t exactly trending on Netflix but I’m going for The Lovers by Jack Rosenthal, a 1970/71 sitcom made by Granada (actually, the second series wasn’t written by Rosenthal – he produced it but it was written by his colleague Geoffrey Lancashire – Sarah’s dad, dynastic fact fans).
Basically, we could all do with a bit of Jack Rosenthal just now. Cheetham Hill-born, Rosenthal cut his teeth on Coronation Street before writing a whole string of warm, kind, truthful TV work (and pitching in on – yes! – Yentl and Chicken Run). The Lovers tracks the mercurial romance of Geoffrey, played by the great Richard Beckinsale, and Beryl, portrayed by 70s icon Paula Wilcox. Both are flawed and hopeless, both are adorable, but they want different things (Beryl: sweeping romance, ideally with Paul McCartney; Geoffrey: to get his end away). Rosenthal appreciates all the details and tribulations of young love, though he was almost 40 himself at the time, and conjures great, empathetic comedy from it. These are characters, times and places you’ll enjoy spending time with. If you pay attention, you might even recognise the bus routes they’re talking about (and may spot Maureen Lipman, Rosenthal’s future wife, popping up in a guest role). Once you’ve devoured this, anything else by Rosenthal is worth watching and the 1972 film version of The Lovers has some corking period location footage of Manchester city centre, too.
Steve Slack, Northern Soul writer
If you like shouting “I know where that is!” at the telly, then this is a show for you, especially if you know Halifax and the surrounding towns and countryside. Anne Lister (1791-1840) was remarkable in her time as a woman landowner and industrialist, in part because she refused to accept that she couldn’t operate in what was seen as men’s society. This series, by the splendid Sally Wainwright, is based on Anne’s diaries, written in secret code and only deciphered in the 1930s. The production is pacy and even a bit saucy, revealing not only Anne’s business and travel adventures but also her exploits in the bedroom (yes, it’s a bit racy at times). And once you’ve watched the show, you can visit her home at Shibden Hall to shout “this is where they filmed it!” (once it’s reopened after the COVID-19 closure).
Robert Hamilton, Northern Soul’s Opera Correspondent
The Beiderbecke Trilogy
Well, this is something I thought I would never do – write a few pars on Northern TV bingewatching during a global pandemic. It sounds like a pitch for a sitcom right there. A quick trawl through Netflix reveals a few Northern-themed box sets including Last Tango in Halifax and the excellent Happy Valley from the talented pen of Sally Wainwright. There’s also the new streaming site Britbox with loads of stuff including all the Coronation Streets and Emmerdales you could stand as well as Life on Mars and Scott & Bailey, the latter two based in Manchester. As is The Stranger, also on Netflix. However, I would like to draw your attention to the long forgotten and sometimes underrated Beiderbecke Trilogy from the 1980s.
The trilogy was made up of The Beiderbecke Affair, The Beiderbecke Tapes and The Beiderbecke Connection, and ran from 1985 to 1988. The show, written by Alan Plater, starred James Bolam as Trevor Chaplin and Barbara Flynn as Jill Swinburne, everyday school teachers in Leeds who, in each series, became ensnared in various unsavoury scandals in a series of interconnected narratives that meandered through the plot lines. It was a gentle and witty show with pin-sharp dialogue and a will they/won’t they relationship between the main characters to keep you wanting more. It was also full of beautiful Northern characters doing reet funny things with relevant plots involving nuclear waste, political corruption and the environment. The title comes from Chaplin’s undying love of jazz cornet player, the great Bix Beiderbecke.
I looked forward to it every week at a time of great uncertainty. Thatcher was in power, the miners had gone back to work and I had just finished my MA at Leeds University. The country was in a dark place and my future unwritten, but The Beiderbecke Trilogy made me laugh, gave me a musical education and, above all, made life seem not that bad.
Desmond Bullen, Northern Soul writer
Perhaps his most satisfying work and probably the most autobiographical, Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes (first broadcast in 1997) is a bracing corrective to the watercolour depictions of the region. Certainly, McGovern has rarely made better use of his own distinctive palette – Liverpool red and addiction blue, with a backwash of Catholic purple.
In its bucolic location and the heightened pitch of its supporting cast, there may be a ripple of Twin Peaks, but the Britpop soundtrack grounds The Lakes in less haunted English soil; a kind of social hyper-realism, if you will. At its heart is John Simm’s conflicted Danny Kavanagh, made a thief by necessity, whose otherwise strong moral compass is all too apt to be thrown off course by compulsive gambling. When he takes his eyes away from the pleasure boats he hires out for seasonal wages in order to place a wager, tragedy inevitably follows.
The drownings for which he feels guilty are a catalyst for all that ensues; bereavement, betrayal, murder and a priapic, psychopathic chef. Yet, amid the melodrama, there are moments of quiet poetry. It’s no accident that Kaye Wragg’s thwarted, passionate anti-heroine, wanting nothing that she has got and everything she hasn’t, shares her name with Wordsworth’s Lucy.
Romantic in the best sense of the word, The Lakes is ultimately as striking and beautiful as the National Park itself. Not to have seen it would be a sin.
Pitched perfectly between Airplane! and Love On The Dole, the first two series of Granada’s Brass remain untarnished in their comic lustre. First screened between 1983 and 1984, its loving parody of the working class period dramas that the channel popularised in the 1970s runs ramshackle through the stereotypes of the genre without the then prevalent safety net of studio laughter.
Presiding straight-faced over the saga of lust and loathing across the class divide, Timothy West’s mill-troubling Bradley Hardacre keeps one shrewd eye on his profit margins and the other on the proud cleavage of Barbara Ewing’s Red Agnes, socialist matriarch of the proletarian Fairchild clan. Writers John Stevenson and Julian Roach take devilish glee in the details both of expositional cliché and the extremes to which both families extend, whether it be the Fairchild’s naïve poet, Matthew, in thrall to his more worldly ‘Uncle Lawrence’, or Morris Hardacre, visiting seemingly from Brideshead, clutching a teddy bear more demonic familiar than affected plaything.
The partially recast afterthought of a third series, aired on Channel 4, merits its current obscurity, but the sheer density of comic invention on display in its predecessors deserves to be unearthed from the landfill of television past. For in that muck, there’s undoubtedly Brass.
Beginning with Coronation Street, television has established a formidable lineage of flawed but forthright female characters. From Elsie Tanner to Becky McDonald, the force of their presence has tended to put their male counterparts in the shade. Until Ripley Holden.
Set in motion as a seaside murder mystery, Peter Bowker’s Blackpool, first shown in 2004, is as much that as it is the gradual descent of Ripley into a purgatory of his own, over-ambitious design. It’s a – very much pun-intended – towering performance by David Morrissey as the arcade-owning slum landlord Holden, more than holding his own against a cuckolding David Tennant. And that’s not to mention the Dennis Potter-esque use of popular song, the highlight of which is inarguably Tennant’s DI Carlisle singing along to The Smiths’ The Boy With The Thorn In His Side while arresting Ripley’s son.
Like the town in which it is set, there is a seediness behind Ripley’s front, but – more importantly – a heart and a song. It’s well worth the day trip.
Emma Yates-Badley, Northern Soul’s Deputy Editor
While the world around us is losing its collective mind and we’re facing an incredibly real and scary global pandemic, I’ve switched off the news and starting rewatching some of my favourite box sets. And what better way to create those feel-good vibes than bingeing Cutting It, a BBC drama based in Manchester? The series ran for four series between 2002 and 2005 and followed the lives and loves of a team running a hairdressing salon. It’s cheesy, witty, dramatic and nostalgic. It reminds me of Sunday afternoons cocooned on the sofa with my best pals, drinking endless mugs of tea and lazily following the journey of Ali Henshaw, the programme’s protagonist, as she navigates life alongside her dysfunctional family, friends and lovers. It’s pure soap opera-esque escapism filled with Northern humour.
Lisa Wood, Northern Soul’s Property & Interiors Correspondent
The BAFTA award-winning comedy series set in Manchester first graced our screens in 1997 and returned in 2016 after a 13-year break. It’s one of my all-time favourite shows.
Starring James Nesbitt (Adam), Hermione Norris (Karen), Fay Ripley (Jenny), John Thomson (Pete) and Robert Bathurst (David), the show follows the lives of this group of friends and is full of Northern warmth, humour, love and laughter, with a few tears and moments of sadness. It’s also a great chance to spot local haunts and see how the city and its suburbs have changed over the years while enjoying a satisfying belly laugh.
When I first started watching Cold Feet, I was a student at Salford University and loving city living and exploring the bright lights of Manchester. These characters quickly became part of my life. On their return in 2016 (by which time I was married with kids), it was like catching up with old friends. But the type of friends you can start off with from where you left off, no matter the time spent apart.
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