Boys from the Blackstuff

Boys from the Blackstuff is a British television drama series of five episodes, originally transmitted from 10 October to 7 November 1982 on BBC2.

The serial was written by Liverpudlian playwright Alan Bleasdale, as a sequel to a television play, The Black Stuff. The British Film Institute described it as a “seminal drama series… a warm, humorous but ultimately tragic look at the way economics affect ordinary people… TV’s most complete dramatic response to the Thatcher era and as a lament to the end of a male, working class British culture.”

The television play The Black Stuff was originally written by Bleasdale for BBC1’s Play for Today anthology series in 1978. After filming however, the play was not transmitted until 2 January 1980. It concerned a group of Liverpudlian tarmac layers (hence the slang for tarmac: ‘the black stuff’) on a job near Middlesbrough.

The acclaim that The Black Stuff received on its eventual transmission led to the commissioning of the sequel serial, of which Bleasdale had already written a considerable amount.

The series Boys from the Blackstuff follows the stories of the five now-unemployed men who lost their jobs following the events of the original play The Black Stuff. Set in Bleasdale’s home city of Liverpool, and reflecting many of his own experiences of life in the city, each episode focuses on a different member of the group. The series was highly acclaimed for its powerful and emotional depiction of the desperation wrought by high unemployment and a subsequent lack of social support. Although Bleasdale wrote most of the episodes before Margaret Thatcher came to power, the series was noted by many reviewers as a critique of the Thatcher era, which was seen as being responsible for the fate of many of the unemployed working-class, particularly in the North of England. By early 1982, unemployment had reached 3,000,000 people (some one-eighth of the workforce) as a result of economic recession and restructuring of industry.

The character of Yosser Hughes was widely discussed. He was a man driven to the edge of his sanity by the loss of his job, his wife, the authorities’ continued attempts to take his children away from him and his constant attempts at salvaging his male pride (often being the main give-away of his insecurity). His catchphrases, “Gizza’ job!” (“give us a job”) and “I can do that!” became part of the popular consciousness of the Eighties, summing up the mood of many who sought desperately for work during the era. Hughes was played by Bernard Hill, who uses his Mancunian accent, with slight Scouse vocal mannerisms. The serial also helped to establish the career of Julie Walters, who played the most prominent female role as Angie, the wife of Chrissie, played by Michael Angelis.

The serial was made by the English Regions Drama department based at BBC Birmingham and was shot on location in Liverpool. The producer was Michael Wearing, who was based at Birmingham with a specific remit to make “regional drama”, and who would later be instrumental in bringing the BBC’s drama serials Edge of Darkness (1985) and Our Friends in the North (1996) to the screens. The writer Alan Bleasdale went on to write the scripts for The Monocled Mutineer (BBC1, 1986) and G.B.H. (Channel 4, 1991)

The series was so successful upon its original broadcast that only nine weeks after it had finished transmission, it was re-shown on the higher-profile BBC1. It was also transmitted again on BBC2 as part of that station’s twenty-fifth anniversary season in 1989.

In 1983 it won the British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Serial, and in 2000 was placed seventh in a British Film Institute poll of industry professionals on the best television programmes of the 20th century. It was also named as one of the forty greatest television shows in a 2003 list compiled by the Radio Times magazine’s chief television writer Alison Graham.

In March 2007, Channel 4 broadcast a “Top 50 Dramas” programme, based on input from industry professionals rather than the public, which had Boys from the Blackstuff at number two.

Episodes

  1. The Black Stuff (Play for Today pilot episode)
  2. The Muscle Market
  3. Jobs for the Boys
  4. Moonlighter
  5. Shop Thy Neighbour
  6. Yosser’s Story
  7. George’s Last Ride

The series, including the original play The Black Stuff but without the episode The Muscle Market, was released on DVD as a three-disc set by BBC Worldwide in 2003.

A counterpart for the series is the book Boys from the Blackstuff, the making of TV drama, by Bob Millington and Robin Nelson.

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