Our Friends in the North is considered one of the greatest British television dramas ever made and launched the careers of its actors, including Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig. It has now been adapted for radio and brought up to date with a new episode scheduled for 2020.
The original series was a landmark of British television, weaving together the fortunes of four friends from Newcastle over nine episodes set between 1964 and 1995.
When the show aired in 1996, it starred Eccleston as the idealistic Nicky, Gina McKee as the pragmatic Mary, Mark Strong as the upwardly mobile Tosker, and Daniel Craig as the downtrodden Geordie.
“I hadn’t watched it for years and years and years,” says its writer Peter Flannery, who has now revisited it to adapt it for BBC Radio 4.
“I think it held up pretty well. The writing was good, the production was exceptionally good, and the strength of the acting kept it young.”
The show’s characters were rocked by state-of-the-nation storylines that painted a bleak picture of a country with rotten political and police machinery.
Much was inspired by real events, such as a corruption scandal in the 1970s involving local northeast politicians, a property developer and a Home Secretary; and the Money for Westminster Matters case in the 1990s.
Not much has changed, Flannery believes.
“Major themes of foolishness and corruption in local and national government have never gone away,” he says. “I think the spread of pornography and violence against women has gotten worse.
“And the thing that I still find most disturbing, and I did at the time, is the appalling state the Metropolitan Police are in.”
Flannery often described Our Friends Up North as “a posh soap opera with something to say”. But he didn’t write the new episode himself. “I had finished what I had to say.”
Instead, the 10th episode, which takes the story to 2020, was penned by Manchester-born writer Adam Usden.
At 33, Usden was too young to appreciate the series when it first came out, but now recognizes it as “a stone cold masterpiece”.
He says: “The scope and scale of it is staggering. Not just the timeline, but the scale of the issues it deals with. At the same time, it’s incredibly intimate. Its heart is the focus about these extremely compelling events, extremely personal stories.
“It’s like a photograph – you kind of have the background and the foreground in focus at the same time.”
Writing in The Guardian when the series turned 25 last year, Stuart Heritage agreed it had stood the test of time. “Boy, does it hold up: as drama, as commentary, as a time capsule, as a showcase for young talent.”
He added: “Sometimes watching a show about how bad things are in the last third of the 20th century from a 2021 perspective makes you want to shout at the characters how good they have it.”
The original episodes took place against the backdrop of a different social or political event, such as the general election or the 1984 miners’ strike.
In his 2020 book The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain, Phil Harrison wrote that “the quartet felt like living and breathing representatives of us, as we grappled with the dilemmas of era”.
The show “remains a resonant work to this day,” he said, “partly because in conclusion, the feeling lingered that the baby boomer generation at its heart wasn’t quite finished. its upheavals.
“Two decades later – in the EU referendum in June 2016, to be precise – that suspicion would prove to be well-founded. The referendum would probably have split the four friends in two.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Nicky and Mary arguing with Tosker over Brexit in the 2020 installment, with Geordie forgetting there was a referendum but feeling the effects the most.
“These debates certainly creep in,” Usden says. “One of the main story threads in this episode follows Tosker’s grandson, who was in the last scene of the previous series. He has a factory that ships parts and has been very affected by the bureaucracy that come.”
Like Flanagan, Usden tried to balance the personal and the political. One of the original’s other big themes was about how parents affect – in other words, spoil – their children.
“I wanted to build on that sense of how the previous generation had shaped and impacted the people who came after them in ways that no generation has ever fully understood,” he says.
“It was almost the perfect story to be able to pick up 25 years later, and to be able to take these main characters of Tosker, Mary, Nicky and Geordie and show how they had shaped the next generation, sometimes intentionally and often from a way they may not have intended to do.”
Flanagan says he “never really thought” about what might have happened to his four friends after the series ended.
“When I was asked at the time what happened to Geordie, I think my standard response was, ‘He’ll probably be dead in a doorway within a few months.
“It was a failed color. He has nothing to back him up. He lost all his friends again. But I hadn’t really thought about it.”
If they are still alive, the foursome will be over 70 by 2020. But Usden is reluctant to reveal what happened to them in his new episode.
“All of them at least are referenced in some way, and throughout, because it’s about their influence and impact on those who followed them,” he says.
“I absolutely pick up the characters and story threads from the original series, but hopefully in surprising ways, and maybe not always the characters or stories you might expect.”
Our Northern Friends is on BBC Radio 4 Thursdays at 2.15pm and on BBC Sounds.