Our Friends In Shit Wigs, we used to call it in the office. But affectionately, you understand. Because Our Friends In The North was one of those TV serials that inspired a great deal of affection when it appeared on BBC2 in 1995. For me, personally, it was thrilling to see a chronicle of British political and social life that almost perfectly spanned the 30-odd years I'd been on the planet. Hugely engaging, with a cast that included one future Doctor Who and one future James Bond, it was television of a scale and ambition few of us had ever seen before: and we were prepared to let a few dodgy bits of ageing makeup go by, simply because the rest of it was so powerful.
It wasn't until the belated release of the DVD a decade or so later that I found out an astonishing thing: it was adapted from a stage play. A play which was just as ambitious in its scope, to the extent that after the initial 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production, nobody had dared to try and restage it. Until now, that is.
Northern Stage is the company that took on the challenge of Our Friends In The North: initially for a 2007 production in its home city of Newcastle, and then on tour around the country in March 2008. Sadly, the closest it got to London on that tour was a one-week engagement at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, which is where I got to see it. It's a shame, because this is an extraordinary production that deserves to get a much wider audience, and the press coverage to match.
There are some substantial differences between Peter Flannery's 1982 stage script and his 1995 screen adaptation of it, but at the heart of both is the relationship between four Newcastle friends. When the play starts in 1964, Tosker (Neil Armstrong) and Mary (Sonia Beinroth) have just got married. As Tosker settles down to a life of quiet domesticity, his two best mates from school are taking their lives in a much more turbulent direction. Nicky (Daniel Ainsleigh) is starting to become politically active, while Geordie (Craig Conway) has decided to turn his back on Newcastle and seek his fortune down south.
As the story moves through the 1960s and 1970s, we watch as the lives of the four friends become intertwined with the political situation at a local, national and even global level. There are three major plotlines which take their cues from real-life events from the period. Nicky's frustration as he sees local housing policy become hijacked by corrupt dealing (and the direct impact it has on Tosker and Mary): Geordie's encounters in London with the Metropolitan Police, who are being investigated themselves: and the initially unconnected story of Rhodesia taking its first bloody steps towards independence.
Aside from it being a great play in its own right - and it is, let's get that out of the way right now - the obvious fascination with Our Friends In The North is seeing how the stage version differs from the telly one. The main difference is immediately apparent: the play is driven by the politics, the TV series is driven by the people. The play is very much in the tradition of the stereotypical Keep Left Angry Theatre Company where Alexei Sayle claimed to have learned his stagecraft. Granted, OFITN was originally staged by the RSC, but even they weren't above using the plot merely as a framework for a debate of the issues of the day.
On television, on the other hand, Flannery concentrates more on the four characters at the story's centre, and their emotions and relationships: for the most part, the politics flows naturally from that. At the end of episode 2, when Nicky virtually states to camera that "the great moral issue facing modern British politics is corruption," it's a hair-raisingly brilliant moment of fourth-wall breaking, because it's one of the very few places in the eleven hours of TV where you feel the audience is being addressed directly. The play, meanwhile, opens with one of the actors explicitly telling us its theme from the front of the stage, which sets us up in a different direction. Not necessarily a better or worse one: just different. You could argue that the TV version is a more mature piece of writing that trusts in the characters to imply the message rather than yell it in our faces, but both approaches have their merits.
The epic scope of the play is one of the reasons why it's not been revived since 1982. With a huge number of scene changes, forty-odd speaking characters and a running time of nearly four hours, it's not an easy piece to stage. Director Erica Whyman and designer Soutra Gilmour have a number of imaginative solutions to the play's problems: Gilmour, in particular, bases the design around a single long box of sliding screens that can represent every location in the play in a matter of seconds. Where things get more awkward is in the use of a mere 14 actors, doubling and tripling up to play all the roles. This can make it a little to follow sometimes, particularly when Rod Culbertson ends up playing lead baddies in both the housing and police strands of the narrative. (It's possible there may be some subtextual point in that particular case, but I couldn't swear to it.)
And, as you may have noticed by now, the play's a lot shorter than the TV series - a consequence of the dozen or more years the show spent in development hell, which gave Flannery the whole of the Thatcher era to milk for additional material. Also, none of the Rhodesia sequences made it to the screen, making them the main surprise for people who only know OFITN from television. Presumably their omission helped keep the budget down on what still turned out to be one of the most expensive BBC series ever made. (Although The Long Firm - a series with a lot of peculiar parallels to OFITN, as Mark 'Tosker' Strong plays a sixties Soho gangster very similar to the one who mentors Geordie - managed to blag an African trip during its 2004 shoot.) But in the context of the play, it helps show that the theme of corruption isn't just local to Newcastle, or even the UK.
Limiting the span of the play to the years 1964 to 1979 makes for limited character development in comparison to the TV version, even with a four hour running time. Nicky still gets to become disillusioned with party politics, but we don't get to see how that manifests itself in his subsequent life. Tosker and Mary don't get to do much at all other than have a flat collapse around them, although we still get the hint at the end that by 1979 Tosker is a Thatcherite just waiting to happen. Geordie gets the most developed story, though it also means he gets to be the character who drags the play towards its overly melodramatic climax.
But at the end, Geordie does get to express the secondary theme of the play, one which the TV series glossed over: that ownership of our own stories is important. And if there's one thing which the play needs to be preserved for, it's the concern running through it that our history is being rewritten under our noses. Twenty-five years down the line, you can still feel the urgency of Flannery rushing to get these characters on stage before their real-life counterparts could suppress the truth of what they were up to. (Hence part of the huge delay between the play and the TV production, as teams of lawyers basically waited for John Poulson and T. Dan Smith to die.) It's a tribute to Northern Stage and their excellent ensemble cast that they can convey that urgency a quarter of a century later.
Sure, there are a few glitches here and there, mostly when the shooting starts in the last half hour: but that may just be the perspective of a viewer used to the more human scale of the TV show. Nevertheless, Our Friends In The North still holds up as entertaining and thoughtful political theatre: Northern Stage's touring version may be off the road now, but at least they've demonstrated that it needn't be 25 years before the play can be revived again.