|My Christmas gift|
In the past couple of weeks, as the dismal spring weather has brought non-stop rain and wind to the UK, rivers on flood alert and the cancellation of sporting events Pat and I have begun to wade through the DVDs and watch the story again – thirty years after we last saw it. As the rain rattled on our roof, we turned up the volume so that we could hear Bleasdale’s superb writing and hear Yozzer and his friends – Chrissie, Loggo, George and Dixie - dispense their scouse wit and become increasingly desperate as they lose their jobs as tarmac layers and their lives begin to crumble in the face of unemployment. Indeed, these two facets – wit and desperation - come beautifully and pathetically together when poor Yozzer, his wayward wife having left him, his children taken into care and he, without a job, is left totally stripped of any dignity, pride and money. In desperation he goes into a church and sits in the confessional. The priest, hidden on the other side of the grill, can see that Yozzer looks a man in crisis, and asks Yozzer why he has come to confession. Yozzer begins to reply “I’m Yozzer Hughes” – the priest, kindly, interrupts and to make the meeting less formal replies “and my name is Dan” . Yozzer’s never to be forgotten reply?: “I’m desperate, Dan” – for those not familiar with British comic characters, Desperate Dan is famous children’s comic strip character – and the line became one of the great TV moments. Or, what about when Yozzer meets his look alike – Graham Souness, the then captain of Liverpool’s mighty football team. The two of them, both “hard men”, meet in a club. It’s all very pathetic and filled with black humour as Yozzer a “nothing”, a man whose wife has had serial affairs and left him to fend for his children, who has had his house re-possessed, lost his job and increasingly his mind but who desperately just wants to be “somebody” and have pride and a place in the world. He sits at the side of Souness – a man who has god like status on Merseyside and has everything that Yozzer hasn’t got and will never have. Yozzer looks deeply into Souness’ eye and says “You look like me..... I could have been a footballer but I had a paper round". It’s social comment, pathos and tragedy on a grand scale.
|Yozzer meets Graham Souness|
And Bleasdale’s story still has a resonance today, thirty years after it was made. As modern Britain again drifts into recession and again a Conservative government, Pontius Pilate like, washes its hands of the responsibility for the weakest in society it has, like all good literature, a timelessness about it – because it is about things that matter, especially in difficult times. It is about common humanity and facets of human emotions, fears, joys, friendships, failings, aspirations and ambitions. It deals with desperate situations and the most vulnerable in the same way that Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" did - just like George and Lennie in Steinbeck's tale Yozzer and his mates have a dream and only their own friendships to sustain them. And, like George and Lennie, their hopes are doomed as they struggle against cruelty, misunderstanding and poverty. Bleasdale's story is as relevant today as it was in 1982 and as Steinbeck's tale was in its time as it uses universal themes such as friendship, camaraderie, suffering, aspiration, strength and weakness. One can enjoy and understand Shakespeare five hundred years after it was written for the same reasons - we can respond to the plots and the emotions of the characters involved: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Shylock, Lear – because they are portrayed as humans with all our own strengths and weaknesses. We can read Dickens and understand why Sydney Carton behaved as he did or why Magwitch returned to repay Pip for his childhood help after his years of exile in Australia – because they were human. We can understand why Nancy in Oliver Twist, for all her failings and life style as a common prostitute and lover of the frightening Bill Sykes, tries to help the young Oliver – an act which ultimately leads to her own death. So too with Yozzer and Chrissie and the other characters in Bleasdale’s tale as they face the reality of Thatcher’s Britain and are thrown on the scrap heap of life their hopes and fears are things that everyone of us in our small and different ways might have come across in hard times. Like the Jode family in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” who cross America in the Great Depression to seek a better life– Yozzer, Chrissie and the rest have the same dreams and needs, the same hopes and fears, the same problems to face and to a large degree the same responses to those problems. As Yozzer slips into depression and perhaps madness he comments "when I was young I had dreams......I built sandcastles....sometimes I think that's all I've ever done" - a social comment that has as much resonance today in 2012 as it did in Thatcher's Britain of thirty years ago as unemployment rises and many of our young people find it difficult to get any sort of foothold on the employment ladder. And just as in Steinbeck’s great tale, Bleasdale has the power to make men angry and to feel and to understand – and that is what good literature or drama should do.
|Chrissie - like Yozzer driven to the |
edge of madness
And as we watched, perhaps the whole thing looked a little dated – it was after all thirty years old. It was not, however, out of date. The lines could have been spoken with equal truth and resonance today in austerity Britain - with unemployment rising, benefits being cut, the social and economic divide widening, the haves getting richer and the poor getting on with it – this was almost a re-run of history. As I watched it occurred to me that just as in this re-run of the 80s we have today the same situation; the economy is in depression, times are hard, our Chancellor, George Osborne reminds us that “We are all in it together” - just as Mrs Thatcher reminded us thirty years ago that “there is no alternative”. Well, and yes we are all in it together – but we are all in it differently. Just as in the series, the rich and even the moderately well off may lose a little interest on their investments, cut back a little on their holidays and leisure spending. The poor and vulnerable, however, lose infinitely more - first their jobs and their livelihoods and then their relationships, their pride their dignity and their aspirations - they all melt away and men become desperate. To say that we are “all in it together!” is a callous bending of the truth.
But back to the series. If it was dated, it was only in respect of the TV production illustrating that TV has become more “real”. Despite the series being hard hitting there was no foul language, no gratuitous violence or the unnecessary sexual content that we now accept as the norm. Its hard hitting effect was in the quality of the words and the acute observation of the characters. We have now watched about half of the series – about three and a half hours altogether – and not heard one swear word, seen one bit of gratuitous violence or explicit sex – and yet the story line, characters and situations give plenty of scope for violence and sex. Has the world and society really changed that much? I think not – but certainly what we consider acceptable viewing has.
|Yozzer with his children|
Good writing and drama does not need the explicit – indeed it is all the better without it. I am frequently reminded of the survey amongst children many years ago. Children were asked if they preferred to listen to a radio adaption of a children’s story or watch a film version of it. Many children, understandably, preferred the film. One child, however, opted for the radio version. When asked why his reply was classic – “it has better pictures”. He was absolutely right – the imagination is powerful and the radio allowed him to concentrate only on the words which fired his imagination.
Even though we might know little of nineteenth century St Petersburg, for example, we can recognise Raskolnikov, the increasingly demented murderer in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. We can relate to him and his motives in our world as he murders the old money lender, Alyona Ivanovna simply because Dostoyevsky draws the character so well without ever needing to resort to cheap violence, graphic detail or horror –that, is all in our minds. In Shakespeare you do not need to see the detail and gore of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out in “King Lear” – the words and the imagination and one’s knowledge of life and human emotions fill in the gaps. One does not need to read a vivid and bloody description of Sydney Carton’s execution, his head tumbling into the basket as he is executed in the closing pages of “A Tale of Two Cities” . None of the great characters in literature and drama need vulgarity and gore to make them more real. We do not need to see the eruption of blood splatter the walls of the tomb as Juliet plunges the dagger into her heart. We do not need hear Bill Sykes scream expletives (as surely a rough, black hearted villain like him would have done in real life) as he desperately tries to escape the howling crowd chasing him through Victorian London’s dark streets in the climax to "Oliver Twist". Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is filled with passion of the highest order and made for sexually explicit scenes – but they are not necessary and if they were there would detract from the whole – for they would grab the attention rather that the story and the characters.
I would never suggest that “The Boys From the Blackstuff” and Bleasdale’s writing is Shakespeare or Dickens or Bronte – but like all good literature the words and ideas are the things not the cheap imagery where weak story lines and poor characterisation are propped up by increasing levels of explicit violence, vulgarity and gore. And sadly this is what fills much of our modern TV screens and offerings from Hollywood – cheap imagery to prop up the banal and poor.
|The Boys From The Blackstuff|
So, as the rain beats down on my roof and runs down my office window pane, on this April Sunday morning I’m looking forward to continuing to watch the next few episodes of Bleasdale’s tale with its great characters, humour, pathos, dreams, hopes and fears. It will, I know, make me increasingly angry – still today after thirty years. But it will also remind me of my humanity and the humanity of others who are perhaps less fortunate than me. I am one of those lucky ones for whom austerity is just a minor irritation – I enjoy a good pension, have a roof over my head and can anticipate the nice things of life - a holiday, a car, a meal out and the rest. Unlike Yozzer I have a place in the world which gives me a little pride and dignity. But when I turn my TV on to watch another episode, at the back of my mind will linger the old adage “There but for the grace of God go I”. And that, perhaps, is the real power of all good literature and drama – it makes you think.