Our Friends In The North was a widely watched and critically acclaimed BBC TV series that ran for nine episodes in 1996. It is fondly remembered still by those who invested in it as one of the broadcaster’s best ever dramas. Set in the working class northern English city of Newcastle, the story tracks four friends journey through life, from the sixties to the nineties, in an emotional, political, comedic and realistic portrayal.
To say it was well cast is an understatement. A read of its quartet of leading performers is to look at a selection ahead of its time, as four great actors who would go on to bigger things; although it could be argued that none more brilliant than this cult classic. Gina McKee and Mark Strong went on to an array of television and movie appearances, from Notting Hill to Kingsman, but their impressive filmographies are surpassed by the other two, who between them went on to play two of the most famous roles a British actor can achieve: Christopher Eccleston became Dr Who, and Daniel Craig became James Bond.
Whilst their talent is evident in terrific performances by all in Our Friends In The North, the characters and the programme bear little resemblance to their upcoming parts. Far from the handsome, adored doctor and the smooth, lusted after secret agent, this was gritty and unattractive stuff, swapping the fantasy futures for uncomfortable truths. As with life, there is tragedy and heartbreak, but there is also joy and laughter, and Our Friends In The North covered the lot.
The format, written by Peter Flannery, catches up with the four characters in a specific year each episode, beginning in 1964 and ending in 1995. This allows the show to be insightfully personal, as we get to know and grow with these people, their qualities and their flaws, through their adult lives. It also provides a backdrop of the times, providing a social commentary of the world in which we have all lived.
The plot begins with Nicky (Eccleston) reuniting with his girlfriend Mary (McKee) and best mate Geordie (Craig), who in turn is friends with Tosker (Strong). Each’s subsequent story intertwines, goes their separate directions, and regularly link back up, in passionate, regretful, contrasting and meaningful ways.
Variously, Nicky leaves university to take up a political position that moves him back to Newcastle in hope of improving the city. However, his world begins to dismantle when he learns of corruption and lies, leaving his job and Mary, who had become pregnant with Tosker. Geordie moves to London to escape his own pregnant girlfriend and his abusive father, but falls into a seedy world which lands him in a cycle of prison and homelessness.
Nicky’s political ride goes through hope and despair, mainstream and anarchism. His personal life visits marriage, affairs, death, illness, success and failure. Tosker rollercoasters from divorce and beaten ambition to remarriage and riches, and back down and up again. Mary yo-yo’s between Nicky and Tosker, finding happiness with neither, but becoming increasingly successful as a political councillor. Geordie, meanwhile, continues to self-destruct.
It’s a moving portrayal of friends moving apart, in behaviour, circumstance and opinion, but remaining connected by an unbreakable bond, no matter how much they all try to shatter it. It ends iconically, after all reunite, with Geordie walking over the Tyne bridge and into the distance to the apt music of Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger. It’s an emotional farewell, for the characters, and for the viewer too; for by now, we have been made to feel that these four really are our friends in the north.
Published on May 10th, 2019. Written by John Barran for Television Heaven.