Our Friends in the North

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Christopher Eccleston as Nicky Hutchinson in a BBC publicity still for Our Friends in the North.

Our Friends in the North is a BBC television drama serial, originally screened in nine episodes on BBC2 in 1996. It follows the lives of four friends from Newcastle in the North-East of England as their lives change and develop with the country around them over thirty years from 1964 to 1995.

The four friends are Dominic 'Nicky' Hutchinson (played by Christopher Eccleston), Mary Soulsby (Gina McKee), George 'Geordie' Peacock (Daniel Craig) and Terry 'Tosker' Cox (Mark Strong). The series begins with Nicky returning from a period working with the civil rights movement in the southern United States to resume his studies at the University of Manchester and reuniting with his girlfriend, Mary, and best friends Geordie and Tosker.

However, Nicky decides to drop out and work for a corrupt local politician, much to the annoyance of his trade unionist father who does not want his son to waste the opportunity of bettering himself, of taking chances he was never given when he was Nicky's age. Nicky's relationship with Mary ends when she is made pregnant by Tosker, whom she later marries. On the run from his own pregnant girlfriend, Geordie heads for London, where he falls in with seedy underworld baron Benny Barrett (played by Malcolm McDowell).

The series takes many dramatic twists and turns as it follows the fortunes of the four friends through the 1970s and 80s, telling a story both of human emotion and tragedy and of the politics of the era. It finally reunites them in a more optimistic Britain of 1995, with the old Thatcherite politics falling away to the promise of a new era.

Writer Peter Flannery originally wrote the piece for the stage in the early 1980s, reflecting much of his own life experiences and political beliefs through the lives of the four characters and the events of the story. It was produced for the theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and BBC drama Producer Michael Wearing, who was based at BBC Birmingham with a remit for making "regional drama" and had just come off producing the successful Boys from the Blackstuff, became very keen on the idea of producing a television version.

However, through a combination of bad timing, economics and lack of enthusiasm on the part of various BBC executives, the series went into pre-production twice and both times came to nothing. It was not until 1994, at the third attempt, that the series finally went into production, commissioned by Controller of BBC TWO Michael Jackson, who was committing the majority of his drama budget for the year to it, meaning it was either going to be a great success or a potentially embarrassing failure.

The decade-long delay in Our Friends in the North reaching production had at least had the positive side effect of allowing Flannery to extend the story, which in its original form had ended in 1979 with the coming to power of the new Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. Now he had written further installments bringing Nicky, Mary, Geordie and Tosker into the (then) present day.

Even in production however all was not plain sailing - after viewing the material that had been completed for the first episode, the production team decided that it was not quite what they had wanted. Not only did they take the decision to re-film almost the entire episode - at considerable expense - but Flannery took the opportunity to re-write it, in the process changing the beginning of the story and some characters' background quite considerably.

All the effort proved to be worthwhile however when the production was eventually screened. It was hailed as one of the finest BBC dramas of the modern age, and was very quickly repeated. Although Eccleston was already fairly well-known from his roles in the TV series Cracker and the film Shallow Grave the series very much consolidated and built his reputation as an actor and star, and helped to establish McKee in much the same vein. Although they have done much television work since, neither Strong nor Craig has attained quite the same level of recognition.

The programme won a string of awards in 1997, including: the BAFTA Television Awards for Best Actress (Gina McKee) and Best Drama Serial; Royal Television Society Awards for Best Actor (Christopher Eccleston), Best Actress (McKee), Best Drama Serial and Best Writer; Broadcasting Press Guild Awards for Best Actor (Eccleston) and Best Actress (McKee), and a Certificate of Merit in the Television Drama Miniseries category at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The series was made available in the UK on VHS across two double-video packs soon after transmission, and was released on DVD in a four-disc box set by BMG in 2002. In a 2000 poll of industry professionals to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes conducted by the British Film Institute, Our Friends in the North was voted into 25th place. It was also included in an alphabetical list of the Forty Greatest TV Shows published in Radio Times magazine in August 2003.

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