BBC4 will be showing Alan Bleasdale’s Liverpool-set 1980’s series Boys from the Blackstuff starting Wednesday July 6th. It’s an important anniversary of the work -but why and how did Liverpool theatre, film and TV become an almost institutionalised lingua franca for British working class expression and struggle from the 1980s on? What is it about the culture of that city that made it such a working class touchstone? Neil Cooper looks into the Merseyside context of Bleasdale’s writing and gives us a fully researched and detailed examination of the history and legacy of the great work done.
The Black Stuff
Storm clouds were already gathering over an increasingly broken looking Britain by the time Boys from the Blackstuff was first screened in October 1982. Alan Bleasdale’s five-part drama focusing on the everyday struggles of a gang of Liverpool labourers thrown on the dole seemed to chime with ongoing political dramas in the real world. The stakes had been raised considerably following the Conservative Party’s landslide victory in the 1979 general election, which put Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street for the next decade.
Bleasdale’s series was a spin-off from The Black Stuff, the one-off drama that first introduced the world to Chrissie, Loggo, Dixie Dean and his son Kevin, old George Malone, and of course Yosser Hughes. When first aired in 1980, Bleasdale had already written much of the five scripts it sired prior to Thatcher receiving the keys to number 10. Just as the revolutionary fantasia of Lindsay Anderson’s film, If…, captured the zeitgeist of the previous year’s uprisings in Paris and Prague, despite being filmed beforehand, Boys from the Blackstuff will forever define its era.
This should be evident when all five plays that make up Boys from the Blackstuff are screened over the next two weeks on BBC Four as part of the BBC’s centenary year celebrations. The drama season Blackstuff forms part of draws from a list of 100 game changing BBC TV moments selected by the British Film Institute. Other works being shown include Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical lesbian drama, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1996), Hanif Kureishi’s punky 1970s coming of age storey, Buddha of Suburbia (1993), and Peter Flannery’s Newcastle-upon-Tyne set state of the nation, epic, Our Friends in the North (1996).
As significant as all of these are in the development of British TV drama, there are few programmes that captured the state of a divided nation quite like Blackstuff. The trickle-down effect of the world the plays depicted is similarly plain to see. With mass unemployment, class division and living on the never-never, as Bleasdale’s Scouse playwriting contemporary Willy Russell put it in his class-based musical, Blood Brothers (1983), on the one hand, and a free-market economy on the other, Thatcher’s ideological revolution arguably led to where we are now.
This is something that a just announced stage version of Boys from the Blackstuff, written by James Graham with Bleasdale, is likely to recognise beyond mere period piece status when it opens on home turf in 2023.
Liverpool in particular was in the frontline of opposition against Thatcher. The summer before Boys from the Blackstuff was screened, what came to be known as the Toxteth riots lit up the inner city streets as tensions between police and frustrated black youth exploded. Meanwhile, the soon to be Labour run City Council following the 1983 elections would embark on a doomed confrontation with Westminster after refusing to set a budget that would have resulted in cuts in public services.
The flamboyant figure of City Council deputy leader and Militant supporter Derek Hatton was said to be a model for Michael Murray, the populist politician played by Robert Lindsay in Bleasdale’s 1991 Channel 4 series, G.B.H. Hatton even went on to 4’s Right to Reply programme to argue with the station’s deputy head of drama series and serials, Peter Ansorge, that this was the case.
With Thatcher deposed in 1990, and Hatton by now working in PR after being expelled from the Labour Party, Bleasdale’s drama took an infinitely more complex psychological turn that rendered any initial similarities between Murray and Hatton as redundant as a council worker being served notice by taxi.
As we now know as well, Thatcher’s Chancellor Geoffrey Howe had written to his boss after the 1981 riots, proposing Liverpool undertake a programme of what he described as ‘managed decline’. This meant the once great port city would have effectively had the plug pulled on it and left to rot.
Hilsborough, a citywide boycott of The Sun, and Boris Johnson publishing sneering comments about Scousers in The Spectator magazine all followed. As did Liverpool’s 2008 tenure as European Capital of Culture. The latter has largely been upended, alas, by an investigation into building and development contracts in the city that in 2020 led to the resignation of the city’s mayor, Joe Anderson, along with four other men.
All this is something to consider while watching Boys from the Blackstuff when shown three months shy of the series’ fortieth anniversary. This follows on from a screening of The Black Stuff in 2020 as part of a fifty-year celebration of Play for Today, the BBC’s groundbreaking single drama strand that between 1970 and 1984 produced more than three hundred plays. This included landmark works such as Abigail’s Party (1977), by Mike Leigh, John Mackenzie’s screen version of John McGrath’s ceilidh play, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil (1974), and several works directed by Ken Loach.
As well as The Black Stuff, other plays screened as part of the 2020 retrospective season were A Hole in Babylon (1979), Horace Ové’s dramatisation of the 1975 Spaghetti House siege; Just a Boy’s Game (1979), by Peter McDougall;and Leeds – United! (1974), Colin Welland’s convention-busting depiction of a real life strike by women factory workers.
These were shown less than six months after the appointment in June 2020 of the BBC’s current director general, Tim Davie. In August, Davie had announced his intention to ‘find a better balance of satirical targets rather than constantly aiming jokes at the Tories’, The timing of the Play for Today season may have been coincidence, but, as with the reshowing of Boys from the Blackstuff and other works from the BBC archive, its presence was worth the license fee by itself.
Jobs for the Boys
The Black Stuff charts the misadventures of Chrissie, Loggo, Dixie, Kevin, George and Yosser while on a job laying down Tarmacadam – the black stuff of the play’s title – in Middlesbrough. Bleasdale’s representation of a group of working class men struggling to transcend themselves by working a ‘foreigner’ – a cash-in-hand job done on the side that isn’t put through a company’s books – at the same time follows in a long dramatic line of everyday tragedy and thwarted dreams.
Directed by Jim Goddard, The Black Stuff was filmed in 1978, but not shown until January 1980. This wasn’t as part of Play for Today, but as a stand-alone work on BBC 2, before its popularity saw it repeated to a wider audience on BBC 1.
By this time, Bleasdale had already been commissioned to write a series of plays about the same characters set against a backdrop of encroaching unemployment that would soon see three million on the dole. This gave a bleaker edge to the new plays, made even more pronounced by the time they reached the screen. Things had changed, and for all the working men’s knockabout that ran alongside the seriousness of the original play, the five new works, directed by Philip Saville, got behind the wisecracking machismo and gang mentality to expose something more fractured and more vulnerable.
Bleasdale’s Boys were a dramatic microcosm of an unskilled labour force who had been the key workers of the industrial revolution. They were the cannon fodder who did all the heavy lifting before being thrown onto the scrapheap they’d probably been contracted to build. Chrissie, played by Michael Angelis, Loggo (Alan Igbon), Dixie (Tom Georgeson), Kevin (Gary Bleasdale), Yosser (Bernard Hill) and George (Peter Kerrigan) represented several generations of unreconstructed hunter-gatherers who previously might have expected jobs for life. Now, thrown into terminal unemployment, they were left emasculated and floundering as they struggled to survive without a safety net.
The first play, Jobs for the Boys, set the tone, as the now unemployed quintet sign on, before the old gang gets back together for one last job that ends in disaster.
The second piece, Moonlighter, focused on Dixie’s new job as a security guard on the docks, while his son Kevin is forced to look for work elsewhere. Tom Georgeson plays Dixie with a hangdog sense of frustrated defeat and heartbreaking acceptance that everyone, including himself is on the make.
When Dixie angrily talks Kevin into moving out to try and find work elsewhere, he is echoing then Secretary of State for Employment Norman Tebbit’s oft misquoted anecdote told in response to a suggestion by then Young Conservative chair Iain Picton in the wake of the 1981 UK inner city riots that rioting was the natural response to unemployment. Tebbit recalled how he grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. ‘he didn’t riot,’ said Tebbit. ‘He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.’
In this sense, bedroom bound Kevin, with an acoustic guitar over his shoulder, epitomises the dole queue dreamers who were then filling up Liverpool’s dank rehearsal rooms with a new wave of Merseybeat, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1960s days of the Cavern, the Mathew Street cellar club that begat The Beatles and so many other bands.
Rather than be afforded the luxury of time that might allow him to explore his artistic side, like so many of his generation, Kevin is forced to put his guitar to one side and get on his bike in search of the holy grail of a job that didn’t lead him down the same dead end.
The third episode, Shop Thy Neighbour, shines a light on Chrissie’s domestic disharmony as he and Loggo attempt to dodge the unemployment fraud officers. One of the most powerful scenes in the entire series comes during an argument between Chrissie and his wife Angie, played by Julie Walters. As Angie attacks Chrissie, urging him to fight back, Chrissie can only recoil, broken, before venting his own anger out elsewhere.
The fourth play, Yosser’s Story, charts the mental collapse of the most dislikeable of the gang in an episode that probably tapped into the public psyche the most, Played terrifyingly by Bernard Hill, Yosser becomes a tragic figure as he loses his job, his wife, his house and his kids. Despite this, the gallows humour of the piece saw Yosser become iconic, as his ‘Gizza job’ and ‘I can do that’ catchphrases were mimicked in pubs and playgrounds across the land, while the Kop choir at Anfield adopted it as their own.
Yosser would also partly inspire Harry Enfield’s The Scousers series of sketches on Harry Enfield’s Television Programme (1990-1992). Depicting a bubble-permed and heavily moustached trio of football shirt wearing scallies who would fight with their own shadow if they could find it, the three amigos of Barry, Terry and Gary were also inspired by Brookside, Channel 4’s Scouse soap created by Phil Redmond. The show premiered in November 1982, while Boys from the Blackstuff was still running, and featured the likes of Ricky Tomlinson in the cast, with early scripts penned by Jimmy McGovern.
Any accusations of perpetuating Scouse clichés had a get out of jail free card in the fact that, alongside Enfield, the trio was played by real life Scousers Joe McGann and Gary Bleasdale. McGann was the eldest of the quartet of acting brothers who had all come through the city’s Everyman Youth Theatre. Bleasdale, as well as being the son of the Blackstuff’s writer’s cousin, had played Kevin in the series.
Yosser’s Story might have been the Boys from the Blackstuff episode that captured the public imagination, but the final play of the series, George’s Last Ride, possessed just as much heart. As the elder of the group, George, as played in a heart-wrenching turn by Peter Kerrigan, is a working class sage, who worked on the Liverpool docks most of his life before the work dried up. Despite everything, George has retained his idealism and belief in socialism.
During the course of the episode, while George is clearly unwell, he is supported by the others. On leaving hospital, he hosts a kind of surgery, doling out advice to friends and neighbours, including Yosser, about how to navigate the labyrinthine world of benefit forms, or else imparting pearls of street-smart wisdom, as he does with Yosser. It is when he is led around the docks in his wheelchair by Chrissie in the scene that gives the episode its title, however, that is arguably the most powerful scene in the entire series.
As Chrissie wheels George around the derelict and deserted waterfront that in real life would soon be regenerated into a shiny fun palace of galleries, bars and high end apartments, George’s monologue – both an impassioned lament for things lost and an affirmation of faith in his class and its collective ability to make things better – goes beyond any notion of naturalism to become pure poetry.
Accompanied by the gymnastic camera work that tracks rusting heaps of now useless equipment piled beneath red brick monoliths that silently crumble0, as if Babel had its tongue ripped out, George’s words become an almighty elegy. With Ilona Selacz’s brass based score beneath, the few minutes of this scene are a film poem more resembling the work of Derek Jarman a few years later in his own impressionistic tirade against Thatcher’s Britain, The Last of England (1987), than a BBC prime time drama made, not with the grit of film, but on all episodes apart from Yosser’s Story, the exposing glare of video.
Bleasdale’s dialogue across the entire series of Boys from the Blackstuff – the last episode in particular – has a florid largesse to it that more resembles something Dickens might write than the clichés of kitchen sink it was sometimes disparagingly lumped alongside.
Dickens is referenced too by George, who mentions A Tale of Two Cities as he doles out advice to Yosser. In this way, Bleasdale gives his working class heroes an articulacy and an intelligence where much classical drama would have them as little more than light relief, Rude Mechanicals doffing their caps to those humouring them as court jesters. Bleasdale’s characters are funny, sure, but their humour is a way of surviving the tragedy they are immersed in.
The grotesquely comic post funeral pub scene at the end of George’s Last Ride especially is a Scouse mash up of Hogarth and Dickens. As a series finale, bedlam seems to reign as the great leveller of the local boozer erupts into last gasp chaos that counterpoints the desolation of the closed down factories close around it. It was a world Bleasdale brought to life in vivid colour.
I Can Do That
Alan Bleasdale was born in Liverpool, and began writing when he was a teacher, trying to the fill the void where any relatable stories for his teenage working class pupils should have been. He created Scully, a streetwise lad about town, whose name was just one letter away from ‘scally’, the Scouse term for exactly the sort of tearaway he was.
As outlined in Bob Millington and Robin Nelson’s book, Boys from the Blackstuff – Making of a TV Drama (1986), Bleasdale dropped off a collection of his Scully stories at the desk of BBC Radio Merseyside on New Year’s Eve 1970. These were picked up, and read by Bleasdale himself in 1971 on First Heard, a showcase for new writers.
Bleasdale continued writing while teaching for the next three years in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, where he wrote a Scully novel, and an early draft of what would become his first TV play, Early to Bed (1975). As again outlined in Millington and Nelson’s book, on his return to Liverpool, Bleasdale established a weekly slot on new independent radio station, Radio City, called The Franny Scully Show. Bleasdale’s mix of street-smart humour delivered in a broad Scouse accent gave the stories a common touch that made Scully something of a local hero. Encouraged by Willy Russell, Bleasdale submitted his latest draft of Early to Bed to the BBC.
One of Bleasdale’s Scully stories gave the writer his first TV credit when in 1973 it featured in a special Liverpool edition BBC TVs arts magazine show, 2ndHouse, in 1973. This period was the height of Liverpool’s 1970s theatrical renaissance, of which Bleasdale and Russell were key players.
Presented by Melvyn Bragg, 2ndHouse in Liverpool also featured Russell, and another playwriting peer, John McGrath, with an extract from the 7:84 theatre company founder’s play, Soft or a Girl, featuring Antony Sher.
Others taking part included playwright and Play for Today contributor Ted Whitehead, Alan Owen, writer of Beatles screenplay, A Hard Day’s Night, Alun Owen and Neville Smith, who penned Liverpool set thriller, Gumshoe. Poet Roger McGough also appeared in the programme, as did Alan Dossor, then director of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, where much of the city’s theatrical activity was happening.
Bleasdale was one of a new generation of writers to come through the Everyman Theatre and Liverpool Playhouse, at a time when the companies were tapping into grassroots working class audiences by putting on popular work presented in their own voice. Drawing from Brecht and Joan Littlewood’s similarly egalitarian Theatre Workshop company in east London, Liverpool, already steeped in 1960s pop mythology, was arguably the birthplace of the rock and roll musical.
Bleasdale’s playwriting peer Willy Russell would score a hit in London with John, Paul, George, Ringo…. and Bert (1974), in which Bernard Hill played John Lennon. Russell would go global with mega hits Blood Brothers, featuring Andrew Schofield as the Narrator, and Educating Rita (1980), starring Julie Walters in the title role two years before she was seen as Chrissie’s wife Angie in Boys from the Blackstuff.
Bleasdale’s first stage play, Fat Harold and the Last Twenty Six (1975) was produced at the Liverpool Playhouse Upstairs. Also in 1975, Early to Bed was produced as part of BBC Birmingham’s Second City Firsts strand. Bleasdale’s half-hour drama was about a young man having an affair with his neighbour before going to university.
Bleasdale left teaching the same year, and took up bursaries at Liverpool Theatre and the Contact in Manchester. Down the Dock Road (1976) was presented at the Playhouse, and its focus on a security guard at the docks can be seen as the basis for some of the material in Moonlighting , the second Boys from the Blackstuff play. For Contact, he wrote four plays, including It’s a Madhouse (1976) and No More Sitting on the Old School Bench (1977).
Scully appeared on stage for the first time at the Everyman, in a piece put together by resident actors Pete Postlethwaite and Julie Walters. The show played pubs and clubs as part of the theatre’s Vanload company touring programme. This included a date in a particularly rough establishment, which Walters recalled in her memoir, That’s Another Story (2008), when a refreshed punter took umbrage with Postlethwaite’s portrayal of Scully, mistaking the character for a real person after hearing him on the radio while detained at her majesty’s pleasure in Walton Gaol.
Bleasdale’s next TV play, Dangerous Ambition (1978) was part of another anthology strand, Sense of Place, which featured six plays set in the north of England. Later the same year, having already put Scully on stage, the character was broadened further for Bleasdale’s first Play for Today, Scully’s New Year’s Eve. With Andrew Schofield in the title role, and Ray Kingsley as his dim-witted mate, Mooey Morgan, as the title suggests, the play is set on New Year’s Eve in the Scully family home.
While knee-deep in Scouse humour, like both the radio stories and the subsequent Channel 4 series, Scully (1984), Scully’s New Year’s Eve was an increasingly dark look at the British working class at play.
Scully’s life would continue, with Schofield and Kingsley revising their roles in cartoon fashion when the pair became stowaways on Granada TV’s short-lived Saturday morning children’s show, The Mersey Pirate (1979). Designed to fill the gap while the more anarchic Tiswas was off air, The Mersey Pirate was filmed on real life Mersey ferry, The Royal Iris. The boat was a working pleasure cruiser, which, during the 1960s, had played host to the Beatles. Bleasdale wrote sketches for Scully and Mooey that went out live, with broadcasts occasionally teetering into chaos as the Royal Iris sailed around the Mersey.
Bleasdale went on to write the vasectomy based Having a Ball (1981) for Oldham Coliseum. This was the same year Bleasdale, alongside Russell, fellow playwright Bill Morrison and director Chris Bond, became joint artistic director of Liverpool Playhouse. By that time, The Black Stuff had already been screened, and Boys from the Blackstuff was pending.
Beyond Blackstuff, Bleasdale returned to more lighthearted fare. Over six half hour episodes and an hour long finale, Scully (1984) saw Bleasdale take a Billy Liar style premise, with Schofield and Kingsley returning to their roles as Scully fantasised about playing for Liverpool football club inbetween dealing with everyday home life, as well as the school panto. As well as his football fantasies, Schofield as Scully breaks the fourth wall, delivering his internal monologues straight to camera as each scene is played out.
Schofield went on to appear in Bleasdale’s only cinematic credit, No Surrender (1985), about a double booking of Catholic and Protestant OAPS in a Liverpool social club on New Year’s Eve, and was an establishment infiltrator whipping up left wing gangs in G.B.H. Bleasdale’s Elvis Presley based stage play, Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1985), appeared the same year.
If Boys from the Blackstuff pricked reactionary tabloid ire, it was nothing on what would happen with Bleasdale’s next series. The Monocled Mutineer (1986) told the story of Percy Toplis, a real life World War One British Army deserter, who was presented in the four-part series as having played a key role in the 1917 Étaples
Mutines, when there was a revolt by British soldiers stationed in France.
Bleasdale adapted the story from William Allison and John Fairley’s 1978 book, also called The Monocled Mutineer. The book’s possibly fanciful account of Toplis’ role in events at Étaplesprompted questions in Westminster, and led to the discovery that the records of the ÉtaplesBoard of Enquiry had all been destroyed.
Having originally turned down The Monocled Mutineer on the grounds of preferring to concentrate on original work rather than adaptations, Bleasdale eventually took on the project. This was down to a personal connection, with Bleasdale’s grandfather having been killed on the Western Front six months before his father was born.
Bleasdale’s drama came under even more fire than its source, arriving at a time when the BBC was under attack by the second term Conservative government for so-called left wing bias, with Conservative Party chair Norman Tebbit taking a particular interest. In more hostile echoes of recent criticism of The Crown and its historical veracity regarding the royal family, The Monocled Mutineer was questioned regarding its dramatic license. Its defence wasn’t helped by the programme’s historical adviser Julian Putkowski breaking cover to suggest that his advice had been ignored by the programme’s makers.
With Paul McGann playing Toplis, the programme was nevertheless a success, and was repeated in 1988. While the centenary of World War I prompted a number of major commemorative events between 2014 and 2018, While the series wasn’t screened on British terrestrial TV again, in 2016 it was shown on Forces TV, the satellite channel aimed at British forces personnel.
Following G.B.H. Bleasdale’s next TV drama was Jake’s Progress (1995), starring Robert Lindsay and Julie Walters as heads of a dysfunctional family. This was followed by Melissa (1997), a five-part thriller starring Jennifer Ehle. If all this was relatively controversy free compared to Bleasdale’s early work, his four-part adaptation of Oliver Twist (1999) saw him ruffle a few feathers by adding a back-story for Oliver not in his beloved Dickens’s original.
Since then, as the TV landscape has changed, Bleasdale’s last project to see the light of day came in 2011 with The Sinking of the Laconia, a two-part feature length worked based around the real life incident when a British ocean liner was sunk by a German U-boat during World War II. All of which is a long way from the Blackstuff.
The Missing Links – Loggo’s Story and The Muscle Market
There are gaps in the Boys from the Blackstuff saga. As David Self points out in his introduction to the 1984 Studio Scripts collection of the Boys from the Blackstuff play texts, the original plan was for a seven part series. As listed by Self, these were –
‘1 Chrissie’s Story;
2 Dixie’s Story;
3 McKenna’s Story;
4 The Social Security Employees;
5 Yosser’s Story;
6 Loggo’s Story;
7 George’s Story.’
As Self explains, six ‘outlines’ were commissioned and approved, and by February 1980, Bleasdale had written the first three. With various delays in production, what happened next was interesting. The BBC decided to take the third script, McKenna’s Story, based around the building site boss, and film it as a stand-alone piece for Play for Today in what became The Muscle Market (1981). While Self suggests this might have been a move by the BBC to show they were still interested in Bleasdale’s series, it was then decided Boys from the Blackstuff should be a series of five fifty-minute plays.
Self writes how Bleasdale wrote the remaining scripts, though what was now mooted as the third part – The Social Security Employees – involving Chrissie and Loggo leading the dole office snoops on a merry dance around Liverpool – was rejected. Shop Thy Neighbour – Chrissie’s Story in all but name, replaced it, with the pub scene originally planned for The Social Security Employees used in the final work, George’s Last Ride.
So what happened to Loggo’s Story? And why isn’t The Muscle Market included as part of the official Blackstuff canon?
Unlike the rest of the Boys, little is seen of Loggo’s personal life. While Dixie and Kevin, Chrissie, Yosser and George were all afforded stand-alone episodes, in which we get a glimpse at how they are being affected by unemployment, as their worlds slowly collapse in on them, Loggo isn’t given a similar space, despite him appearing in all five episodes.
As played by Alan Igbon, Loggo is the cocksure cynic of the group, who works the system, even as he mouthily squares up to the authorities. Loggo is also the social glue of the gang, whose common touch patter allows him to fit in anywhere and get on with anyone – DHSS investigators permitting. While we never get to see much of Loggo’s life beyond his function as a foil to the other Boys, his social fluidity is nevertheless a key part of the collective dynamic that drove the series.
As Bleasdale told the Liverpool Echo in 2002 in an interview marking the programme’s twentieth anniversary, “I thought Alan Igbon’s performance was so underrated. It wasn’t an easy part to play. Here was a character who could only get through his problems by putting a brick wall around himself. He WAS hurt and he WAS upset. But he didn’t want to articulate it. He was going to pretend nothing had happened. He would never show his true feelings.”
With no real back-story beyond that, Loggo becomes something of a sidekick figure.
This was a function Igbon continued when he appeared as Teddy, Michael Murray’s driver in G.B.H. Igbon later revived his double act with Angelis when both actors appeared in several episodes of a revived Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (2002), the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais scripted comedy drama about a gang of Geordie building workers abroad. Igbon played Addey, the bodyguard of crooked nightclub owner Mickey Startup, played by Angelis in that might be regarded as a kind of Boys from the Blackstuff lite.
Manchester born Igbon was of Nigerian and Irish descent
. Although race was never an issue in Boys from the Blackstuff, to delve deeper into Loggo’s life might have made this unavoidable. With the series coming so soon after the Toxteth riots, one wonders if such a focus might have been resisted by the BBC. Or perhaps Bleasdale simply wanted Loggo to help join the dots between the other main characters, and that was enough. Either way, whatever stage the proposed script for Loggo’s Story got to in the production process, it feels like he had plenty more to say.
While Angelis, Hill, Georgeson and Julie Walters went on to high profile roles on TV and film after Blackstuff, Igbon’s screen career was more peripatetic. During the 1970s and 1980s, black and mixed race actors were relatively rare on British TV unless they were playing criminals or drug dealers.
Having made his mark alongside Ray Winstone and Phil Daniels in Alan Clarke’s film version of Roy Minton’s borstal based drama, Scum (1979), originally made for Play for Today before being withdrawn, Igbon’s post Blackstuff career took in sitcoms and guest roles in the likes of The Professionals. His last semi regular role came in Coronation Street (2004).
Angelis and Alan Igbon both died in 2020, Angelis in May, and Igbon in December. While Angelis was rightly hailed in assorted obituaries, Igbon’s passing didn’t receive the same attention.
The Muscle Market
The Muscle Market focused on Danny Duggan, a different kind of building site boss to McKenna in the Blackstuff plays. Duggan was played by Liverpool Everyman stalwart Pete Postlethwaite as an out of his depth low level contractor on the verge of legality, whose attempts to be a wheeler dealer sees him come a cropper at the hands of local gangsters.
Directed by former Everyman theatre director Alan Dossor, The Muscle Market was similar in tone to Blackstuff, in that it went behind the professional front of its lead character to reveal someone more vulnerable than they might initially seem. Danny may be one rung higher than the Boys, but he and his increasingly desperate fly-by-night activities are caught in a similar downward spiral, in which seat-of-the-pants survival is all he can hope for. Like his employees, he is a victim of capitalism and the soon to be all encroaching free market economy. If Duggan resembles anyone in his navigations to clear his debts, it is Cosmo Vittelli, the hard gambling strip club owner played by Ben Gazzara in John Cassavettes’ 1976 film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. In this sense, The Muscle Market borders on a form of Liverpool noir which itself could have been developed into a full series.
The Muscle Market exposed the sort of low-level cowboy outfits bordering on criminality that the construction industry was built on, and is still rooted in. At the time, casual labour was as rife as the anti trade union blacklists being operated illegally by the innocuous sounding Economic League, Consulting Association. This was a body set up in 1919 by the big construction companies to collate information on workers deemed to be troublemakers.
Trade union activity on building sites by workers arguing for basic health and safety measures saw many activists prosecuted and imprisoned. One of those was actor Ricky Tomlinson, who in 1973 as imprisoned as one of the Shrewsbury Two for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ while picketing during a building workers dispute.
On his release from prison, Tomlinson began playing the working-men’s club circuit. This led to acting, and in 1981 he appeared in Jim Allen’s Roland Joffe directed Play for Today, United Kingdom. By that time, he had already filmed his role in the final episode of Boys from the Blackstuff, George’s Last Ride. Tomlinson played a doctor, who, after expressing his admiration for George’s socialist principles to his wife, reveals himself to be an SDP voter.
The Social Democratic Party was the breakaway party formed in 1981 by sitting Labour MPs David Owen and Bill Rodgers with former Labour MPs Shirley Williams, who lost her seat in the 1979 election, and Roy Jenkins, who left parliament to become president of the European commission.
This so-called ‘Gang of Four’ aligned in response to what they saw as left wing infiltration of the constituency Labour Party. Their new party aimed to transform British politics by offering a limp precursor to future New Labour PM Tony Blair’s notion of a ‘third way’. After an initial flourish, the SDP ended up merging with what was then the Liberal party to become the Liberal Democrats. Such opportunism in search of a whiff of power would be repeated years later by Nick Clegg’s coalition with the David Cameron led Tory party and everything that came after.
Tomlinson would go on to help define the first six years of Brookside from 1982 to 1988 as trade unionist Bobby Grant. In 1991, he would appear as a construction worker opposite Robert Carlyle in Ken Loach’s film, Riff-Raff.
Tomlinson would go on to work extensively with Brookside writer Jimmy McGovern, on Cracker (1994-1996), Hillsborough (1996) and Dockers (1999). He would also star in Caroline Aherne and Crag Cash’s sit-com, The Royle Family (1998-2012). By now a household name, Tomlinson also opened his own club in Liverpool.
When the Economic League ceased operations in 1993 following a parliamentary inquiry, its list was bought up by The Consulting Association, a similarly styled operation founded with a £20,000 by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, with further investment from a cartel of other major construction companies.
As outlined in blacklistee Dave Smith’s book, Blacklisted (2015), The Consulting Association was closed down in 2009 following a raid which confiscated files on more than 3000 construction workers deemed to be troublesome. It is likely that a lot more files never survived.
A Scottish Affairs Select Committee inquiry revealed that McAlpine projects where workers were vetted by The Consulting Association included the groundworks for the Olympic Stadium in London, the Quarter Mile development in Edinburgh, and the Marie Curie centre in Glasgow. While some £250 million has been paid out in compensation to some of those affected by the blacklisting, no-one has yet been prosecuted.
Alongside Smith’s book, a vital insight into the murky history of The Consulting Association, can also be found in Solidarity (2019), a film by artist Lucy Parker, which also includes footage of the parliamentary hearings at Westminster.
Whether the boys from the blackstuff would have been blacklisted or not isn’t part of Bleasdale’s narrative. Given the largely apolitical stance of the main characters other than George, it seems unlikely. While Dixie and Chrissie would rather acquiesce in favour of a quiet life, only Loggo is prepared to take on those investigating him face to face.
Nevertheless, the heavy-handed tactics by DHSS snoopers in Bleasdale’s plays reflects real life operations, and the determination to bring to heel relative small fry like the boys from the blackstuff was as calculated and as ruthless as anything done by The Economic League and The Consulting Association.
The Boys Are Back in Town
Perhaps more of Loggo’s back story alongside input from The Muscle Market will be fed into the just announced stage version of Boys from the Blackstuff, set to open at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, in 2023 in a production by the Stockroom company. To reimagine the five-part TV epic for the stage, James Graham has worked with Bleasdale on the script over the last two years. There are few writers more suited to the job.
Graham’s numerous stage plays include This House (2012), set in Westminster between the 1974 UK general election and the1979 vote of no confidence in James Callaghan’s Labour government which saw Margaret Thatcher succeed Callaghan as prime minister. Graham also penned The Angry Brigade (2014), about the London based anarchist cell who between 1970 and 1972 embarked on a series of politically motivated bombings.
More recently, Graham’s TV work has included Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019), while his recent series, Sherwood (2022), was on the surface a police procedural drama that begins with the murder of a veteran trade unionist in a Nottinghamshire mining village. Graham opened this out to explore some of the long-term fallout of the 1984 miners’ strike, and how communities were divided.
It may be worth noting that Graham was born in 1982, the year Boys from the Blackstuff first aired, and is of a generation of writers who have been directly influenced by Bleasdale and his generation of writers. Perhaps even more pertinent, Graham grew up in the village where Sherwood is set, writing about life on his own doorstep, just as Bleasdale did forty years earlier.
Such close proximity to their material undoubtedly gives both writers’ works their emotional power. While writing styles and TV technology has changed enormously over the last forty years, crucially, both Bleasdale and Graham’s works are dramas first and foremost, and not ideological tracts.
However the stage version of Boys from the Blackstuff turns out, the five original plays screened over the next two weeks are an all too raw reminder of how working class communities were torn apart by the sort of everyday poverty inflicted by an ideology of greed that is even more pronounced today.
Whatever happened to the unlikely lads of The Black Stuff we’ll never know. Bleasdale and his cast said from the start they weren’t interested in doing any kind of sequel, and only the announcement of the stage production has prompted Bleasdale to talk about his creation for the first time in twenty years. The cast too moved on, perhaps understandably not wanting their careers swamped by the legacy of the series, but preferring to concentrate on whatever they were working on at the moment.
How Bleasdale’s Boys might have survived the last four decades – or not – one can only speculate on. But let’s not kid ourselves that they would have become saviours. Boys from the Blackstuff isn’t about some heroic proletarian vanguard rising up against the boss class. Only George would know anything about that. As for Chrissie, Loggo, Dixie, Kevin and Yosser, they aren’t progressive or radical in any way, but are loaded with the same hand-me-down prejudices as the next man. And it is a man’s world they live in. As damaged as they are, it’s unlikely they would have it any other way.
What we’re left with instead with the entire Black Stuff canon is seven plays about people getting by, using whatever means necessary to survive. Boys from the Blackstuff is a series of snapshots of another age that are both tragic and absurd. Like George Malone, they leave you yearning for something resembling hope.
The first three episodes of Boys from the Blackstuff – Jobs for the Boys and Moonlighter are screened on BBC 4 on Wednesday July 6th. The third, Shop Thy Neighbour is screened on Thursday July 7th. The fourth and fifth episodes – Yosser’s Story and George’s Last Ride, are screened on Wednesday July 13th. They will then be available on BBC iPlayer.
Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff runs at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool from September 15th2023 to October 28th 2023. https://liverpoolsroyalcourt.com/whats-on/
Sources for this essay include –
Studio Scripts – Boys from the Blackstuff by Alan Bleasdale, edited by David Self (Hutchinson – 1984);
Boys from the Blackstuff – Making of a TV Drama byBob Millington and Robin Nelson (Commedia Publishing Group – 1986)