Back to Blackstuff

The Boys from the Blackstuff hit the stage in Liverpool

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

Alan Bleasdale’s Television classic Boys from the Blackstuff is proof that when it comes to TV drama, less can be more. The five-part series was a masterpiece of compression, following a group of unemployed working-class men dodging the DHSS “sniffers” targeting dole fraud, rubbing donkey-jacketed shoulders with right-on clerics and lofty bureaucrats, and enduring (and sometimes relishing) Tom-and-Jerry chases with debt collectors.

The series became as central to the culture of the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher, Wham! and shoulder pads — a feat of one-liners and mordant comedy set in the worst days of Liverpool’s decline. “We’re facing the wrong way, lad,” diagnoses George, the Marxist sage of the gang, as cargo trade blossoms with the European Union and the empty docks of the north-west become a place of seedy graft and poorly-paid piecework.

Bleasdale originally set the TV play that gave rise to the series before the Conservatives’ victory of 1979: cannily predicting an unemployment surge which would peak above three million when the series aired in 1982.

Given that backdrop, there was never going to be much doubt about where its sympathies lie. Yet, the portrayal of itinerant tarmac-layers (the “blackstuff” of the title) creates memorable working-class characters, outliving the tussles of the time.

a rousing triumph for regional theatre at its most ambitious

“Gissajob” Yosser (Barry Sloane, in the stage version), by turns thuggish and needy, Chrissie “too nice” Todd (Nathan McMullen) and despairing wife Angie (Lauren O’Neil), urging him to ditch the solidarity when the chance for liberation arises, and veteran George (Andrew Schofield as a nicer version of Jeremy Corbyn) are embroiled in the clumsy machinery of state security — an experiment by the then Department of Social Security to track down dole fraudsters, while they work cash-in-hand on a building site to scrape a living.

It has taken four decades for the author to agree to a stage version, with James Graham (This House, Coalition, Sherwood) finally getting to “throw his voice” into the present, with Kate Wasserberg directing.

Liverpool’s Royal Court has welcomed the return with open arms and barely a free seat in the house — a rousing triumph for regional theatre at its most ambitious and a joy to see a grand old playhouse buzzing with locals being treated to more than stand-up comic tours and jukebox musicals.

I squeezed in on the eve of what may well be Labour’s last party conference in opposition, which brought its own pathos — if Thatcherism was in part to blame for the blows dealt, unalleviated, to working- class folk in the north, it was hardly helped by the divisive and doomed politics of Militant and the rest of the disputatious hard Left. (See Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, recently screened again on the BBC, for a reckoning with the divided Left of the era.)

Theatre nostalgia loves the 1980s, but the pace of change also reminds us that this is the equivalent of watching a tale from 1880 in the 1920s. For one thing, the central capital-and-labour question Bleasdale raises is inverted today — the headache for this government (or indeed a future Labour one) is less about semi-skilled labourers struggling to find a job, than the economic and automation changes which demand more flexible workforces and a welfare state that still struggles to make work pay better than sign-offs for long-term sickness.

It is a durable story however because the stand-out character, Yosser Hughes, is recognisable across the years — a man-child on the edge of reason, macho, fragile and in frenetic pursuit of a job he would no longer be able to keep even if one did miraculously present itself.

He gets one of the best lines. At confession in “Paddy’s wigwam” cathedral, he confides to the gratingly familiar priest: “I’m desperate, Father.” “Call me Dan,” murmurs the cleric. “I’m desperate, Dan,” comes the reply, a rapier shaft of repartee which will long outlive familiarity with The Dandy.

When a cack-handed bust ends up in the death of one of the gang (here with a balletic slow-motion fall from the girders which make up the scaffolding around the stage — a moment of vertiginous drama and frozen horror) the tragedy drives a secondary round of events.

The venal building site boss suddenly needs to offer “real” jobs to explain why he had so many “trainees” on his site and there is a moral conundrum for “too nice” Chrissie, leading to a domestic row which does not end well for his beloved pet rabbits.

The social security pursuers duly have their quarry banged to rights — but will Mrs Sutcliffe (a deadpan Helen Carter) use her bulging paper files to prosecute or expiate the hapless crew? That decision would be made now by an algorithm, which would brook even less of an appeal to compassion.

You don’t have to be a socialist of the Bleasdale stripe or a leftie reverend to wonder, as George makes a last stand at the dockside, what happens now to the Blackstuff boys’ descendants — adrift amid the swirl of geopolitics and labour market shifts, along with the relentless tides of the Mersey and the Tyne.

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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