by Allan Fish
(UK 1982 301m) DVD2
p Michael Wearing d Philip Saville w Alan Bleasdale ph Keith Salmon, Brian Cave, Paul Woolston, John Kenway (and others) ed Mike Bloore, Greg Miller m Ilona Sekacz art David Attwood, Andrew Smith
Bernard Hill (“Yosser” Hughes), Michael Angelis (“Chrissie” Todd), Tom Georgeson (“Dixie” Dean), Julie Walters (Angie Todd), Alan Igbon (Loggo Logmond), Peter Kerrigan (George Malone), Gary Bleasdale (Kevin Dean), Tony Haygarth (Aitch), Paul Barber (Scotty), Jean Boht (Miss Sutcliffe), David Ross (Donald Moss), Chris Darwin (Snowy Malone), Clive Russell, Andrew Schofield, Ricky Tomlinson,
“Oh, you can talk about the concrete and the boys who work the train, and the fellas in the hopper in the sun and wind and rain, but the boys who work the black stuff, sure they’re really rough and tough, when they’re working on the highway laying the old black stuff.” The words of the opening song to the 1978 play The Black Stuff introduced us to the characters who, four years later, would really grow into the public consciousness in the serial masterpiece, Boys from the Blackstuff.
The original play documented how they lost their jobs in the first place, trying to organise a get rich foreigner while on a job laying tarmac in Middlesbrough for their boss. The series took up a couple of years later, with the protagonists all claiming dole and/or social benefits due to being still out of work. The action takes place over the course of five episodes, each dealing with a different character or plotline, yet running chronologically. ‘Jobs for the Boys’ sees the boys get foreigners on a building site for a shifty Irish contractor who refuses to pay them as actual jobs. ‘Moonlighter’ sees Dixie employed as a security guard on the docks but coerced into allowing a robbery to take place. ‘Shop thy Neighbour’ showcases Chrissie’s marriage conflict as his wife grows impatient at his passivity and retreating into himself. ‘Yosser’s Story’ showcases the nervous breakdown and complete emotional devastation of the eponymous Yosser. Finally, ‘George’s Last Ride’ details the last days in the life of the elderly George, looking back on what has been a fighting, but possibly futile existence.
That very futility is largely what Blackstuff is about. Which is not to say that it’s defeatist, quite the opposite, as it is angry – nay, furious – with the status quo, exemplified in the almost toss-away line of Dixie in the benefit queue – “nobody on the dole counts”. Bleasdale’s script is knee deep in comment on the state of the once powerful industrial north ruined by Westminster’s policies, so that it is as powerful a condemnation of Thatcher’s Britain as could be imagined. No-one is treated entirely unsympathetically; even the dole sniffers seemingly aching to catch benefit fraudsters are full of self-loathing, leading to a magnificent sequence where pen-pusher Ross makes peace with his quarry in the street and walks out on his job. Whole sequences remain embedded in the memory, from Snowy’s death to Yosser’s hilarious attempt at building a wall, and from Chrissie’s tortured killing of his beloved geese and pigeons to George’s final moments on the pre-restoration Albert Docks. All the performances are quite superb, with Angelis, Georgeson and Kerrigan particularly meritorious, Walters riveting as Chrissie’s wife, and memorable vignettes from Ross and future Ma Boswell Boht at the benefit office. More than anything, however, it’s remembered for one episode, and one performance. Put simply, Bernard Hill’s Yosser is one of the greatest performances in screen history, the most searing and frightening display of a nervous breakdown caught on camera; banging his head above the fireplace in his empty house, sitting on a bench in the thundering rain, his pitiful confessional with a flippant priest (“I’m desperate Dan”) fished out of a pond like a beached whale, stomping the streets with his kids in tow, begging for work and bringing a new catchphrase into the collective consciousness. As Philip Purser wrote, “a phenomenal performance, caught in a spiral of frustration and rage as dignity, wife, family and finally home were taken from him, he was reduced to a head-banging zombie.” His performance, and its message, ringing truer down the years. A shattering and legendary milestone.