Our Friends in the North adds 25 years with a new chapter for radio

Radio 4’s new adaptation of Peter Flannery’s landmark saga follows the characters through to 2020 in a new 10th episode

A critically acclaimed and award-winning television drama series about politics, corruption and class in the north-east of England has been given a new modern-day ending in a BBC Radio 4 adaptation.

Our Friends in the North, which turbocharged the early careers of its stars Gina McKee, Daniel Craig, Christopher Eccleston and Mark Strong, has been adapted for audio by its original writer, Peter Flannery.

The drama is set in the mid-1960s to the mid-90s, but a new 10th episode takes the main characters’ stories up to the year 2020. The final episode – by a new writer, Adam Usden – picks up on and develops the themes of the original drama.

Our Friends in the North, broadcast on BBC2 in 1996, was hailed as a landmark show that combined gritty politics with personal relationships. “I’ve always said it’s just a posh soap opera – but it’s a posh soap opera with something to say,” Flannery, who was born in Jarrow, south Tyneside, once said.

The storyline follows four friends over three decades against a backdrop of political, corporate and police corruption, shoddy housing scandals, the 1970s porn empires, the 1980s miners’ strike and the rise of New Labour in the 1990s.

In 2010, the Guardian named it the third best television drama of all time. “Every school history department should own the DVD box set, for among titillating scenes of go-go dancers, gangland squabbles and unplanned pregnancies, a strong lesson about Britain’s past mistakes resonates clearly … The closing scenes in 90s Tyneside accompanied by an Oasis soundtrack are unforgettably moving,” wrote Grace Dent.

Our Friends in the North was originally written as a three-hour stage play by Flannery, when he was writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The TV adaptation – which cost £8m to make, half of BBC2’s drama serials budget for a year – was beset with legal problems because of similarities to real-life politicians and business people.

Bringing the storyline up to date was daunting, said Usden. “It was a complete story. [Flannery] had landed the plane, and now I was being asked to take off again, and not crash it.

“And the show has so many big ideas, it covers so many huge topics, it felt a bit reductive to pick up on just one or two. I tried to navigate that by focusing on what underpinned those themes – the sense of ordinary people being buffeted by forces above and beyond them. And legacy is such a core element of the show, which is helpful when you’re picking up a story 25 years on.”

Usden said he had not discussed his final episode with Flannery. “I really love the show, and I’d like to think that this is a story that picks up on many threads from the original. I hope that he’s excited to see the continuation of the narrative.”

Alison Hindell, Radio 4 commissioning editor for drama and fiction, said the themes of Our Friends in the North “illuminated the continuing north-south divide today”. She hoped the adaptation would find a new audience as well as being welcomed by fans of the original show.

The parts of Nicky, Mary, Tosker and Geordie are taken by four young actors in the R4 adaptation – James Baxter, Norah Lopez Holden, Philip Correia and Luke MacGregor.

Our Friends in the North begins at 2.15pm on Thursday 17 March on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds.