BOYS FROM THE BLACK STUFF. (1978/1980/1982).
TELEVISION DRAMA SERIES WRITTEN BY ALAN BLEASDALE.
DIRECTED BY PHILIP SAVILLE.
STARRING BERNARD HILL, MICHAEL ANGELIS, ALAN IGBON, TOM GEORGESON, PETER KERRIGAN, JULIE WALTERS AND JEAN BOHT.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Gissa job. Go on, gissit. I could do that.’
‘I’m desperate, Dan.’
I was blown away by this magnificent television drama series, which I only watched for the first time this year. It’s the story of five working-class Liverpool men, trying to get by in the Britain of the late ‘Seventies/early ‘Eighties, their progress hampered by mass unemployment and the loss of life savings.
The loss of the live savings was their own fault. They were diddled by some Irish ‘gyppos’ while doing a sneaky job known as a ‘foreigner’ on the side of the job they were meant to be doing on a building site, which was unlawful as well because the lads are all claiming the dole. It’s complicated, but that’s the way it was. Here in Ireland, we’d call a side job or ‘foreigner’ a nixer.
The ‘black stuff’ is the tarmac the lads use when they’re laying the roads. It’s a hard, dirty job, but it’s what the five lads are used to, and they want to do it; it’s just that the jobs aren’t there. The dole offices are packed to the rafters with depressed, demoralised, even suicidal men who want jobs but can’t get any.
Dixie Dean and his wife, who has a little side job delivering leaflets, are being watched and followed by the dole people, nicknamed ‘sniffers,’ whose main pleasure in life seems to be shopping people who need the little illegal side jobs to supplement their dole, which is barely enough to keep body and soul together.
Dixie, whose ‘nixer’ is a job working nights as security on a ship in the docks, is so strapped for cash he has to send his eldest son Kevin out of the house and out into the world to make his own way, as there are simply no jobs round their way.
His wife is scared out of her wits to answer the door, because, in this world, knocks on the door are always bad. They come from bailiffs and repo men, social security ‘sniffers,’ social workers, rent and debt collectors, pissed-off landlords, school attendance officers and the people who come to cut off your gas or electricity. It’s no way to live, is it? Afraid to answer your own door.
Chrissie, whose wife (played by a very convincing Julie Walters) and kids are in very real danger of going actually hungry, homeless and worse, is pursued for doing ‘nixers’ by a savagely punitive and unsympathetic social security system. His mate, the younger Loggo, who at least has no hungry dependants to feed, is similarly witch-hunted.
Jean Boht plays Miss Sutcliffe, the woman in charge of Chrissie’s and Loggo’s dole cases, but it’s clear from her capricious nature, given to unaccountable, bizarre mood-swings as she is, that all she’s fit for is caring for the plants she obviously prefers to humans.
Okay, so she has a senile elderly mother whose behaviour is a nightmare, but that doesn’t give Miss Sutcliffe the right to play God with her clients the way she does. They are people too, a fact she appears to forget.
Incidentally, David Neilson, better known now as anorak-wearing, shopping-bag-carrying and trainspotting Roy Cropper, Hayley’s bloke, from CORONATION STREET, plays one of her minions down at the dole office.
Back to the tarmac-laying lads. George is very old now (he still wants to work, though, even at his age) and is terminally ill. He was a political activist for the working man in his day, and will be missed by everyone who knew him when he goes.
His ‘last ride,’ when Chrissie wheels him around his old work haunts in his wheelchair, is very sad indeed. As is the bit where he loses one of his sons, Snowy, in a tragic accident caused indirectly (or directly, depending what way you look at it) by the social security sniffers.
Yosser Hughes is the loudest, the most aggressive and the most unpredictable of the group. He’s also the one who most wants to be ‘someone,’ to be rich, respected and ‘noticed’ in his life, and his ego literally can’t handle the collapse of all his hopes and dreams when it happens.
He seems to be a man literally driven out of his mind and his sanity with the loss of his life savings, gainful employment, his wife (she’s an auld bitch, but then he was very violent to her), his home and finally his children, in some very harrowing scenes of violence, terror and heartbreak.
Yosser, whose catchphrase is ‘Gissa job. Go on, gissit,’ and who is accustomed to headbutting his problems away, is so desperate for help, solace and guidance in his predicament that he even turns to the church in his hour of need, but there’s nothing doing there either.
What we’re witnessing here is probably the total breakdown of a man’s mind, after he’s lost everything in life that anchored him to his place in the world. Can Yosser ever be helped? God knows. The breakdown seems pretty absolute.
Ricky Tomlinson (Jim Royle of THE ROYLE FAMILY) turns up here as the doctor who attends George when he’s in the hospital, and so too does Janine Duvitski (Pippa, Patrick’s wife, in sitcom ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE), as a student hitching a lift who gives Yosser a well-deserved piece of her mind on a journey into Leeds.
The writer, Alan Bleasdale, has his own kids play Yosser’s poor little long-suffering sprogs. Yosser’s dream sequence, in which a park full of people, including his mates, watch him and his kids drowning in a lake, is an extremely powerful one, and gives you a direct insight into the man’s life: he’s going under at the rate of knots, and everyone around him can see it, but they either don’t care (the dole office, the ‘system’ itself, the medical doctors) or they have their own troubles (his pals from the ‘black stuff.’)
This series has won a ton of awards and accolades. It’s gritty realism at its finest. You must see it, if you haven’t already. There’s a stand-alone episode from 1981 called THE MUSCLE MARKET which is not on the box-set I own and which I therefore haven’t seen, so if you can find that one too from somewhere, more power to your elbow.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.