“Gizza job. Go on, gizza job. I can do that.” The hectoring catchphrase of Yosser Hughes, the character played by Bernard Hill in Alan Bleasdale’s classic BBC drama Boys from the Blackstuff, passed almost overnight into the language under the first Thatcher government.
The original TV play, The Black Stuff, which is an astonishing 40 years old this month, followed Yosser and a gang of Liverpudlian tarmac-layers as they went on a mishap-laden job in Middlesbrough. The subsequent 1982 series, Boys from the Blackstuff, depicted the effect of unemployment on the same characters just as the number of those without work in the UK topped three million. With some direr estimates predicting that post-Covid unemployment could touch four million, it seems an appropriate time to reappraise Bleasdale’s bleak but also very funny masterpiece.
Each episode focused on a different character – whether Michael Angelis’s idealistic Chrissie (his wife played by a pre-Educating Rita Julie Walters), Tom Georgeson’s more pragmatic “Dixie” Dean, and Loggo, played by Alan Igbon. But it was Bernard Hill’s stunning, Bafta-winning performance in “Yosser’s Story”, first broadcast on 31 October 1982, that captured the nation’s imagination, as a mentally disintegrating Yosser struggled to keep his three children from being taken into care after his wife left him.
“It’s kind of ironic that Bernard Hill was from Manchester but his character became an icon on Merseyside,” says Lez Cooke, who wrote about the programme in his 2003 book British Television Drama: A History. “On the terraces at Anfield they were shouting, ‘Gizza job!’”
In fact, Liverpool footballing legends Graeme Souness and Sammy Lee made cameo appearances in “Yosser’s Story”, when Bernard Hill’s character gate-crashes a fundraiser and tells the similarly moustachioed Souness, “You look like me… Magnum as well.” Another Anfield chant from the period was “Yosser Hughes is harder than Souness” (some accolade) while a little boy was apparently heard shouting at Lee as he prepared to take a corner: “I can do that.”
And Yosser is eminently quotable, whether telling a foreman, “You can’t sack me, I’m on the dole”; or speaking to a priest who’s just introduced himself as Dan, “I’m desperate, Dan.” And yet in the original 1980 play, he is a far less sympathetic character, full of angry misogynistic machismo which is beautifully deflated by the female student the “boys” give a lift to on their way to Middlesbrough. “I actually think he [Yosser] becomes a better man the madder he gets,” Bleasdale told The Independent in 2006, in a very rare interview [he declined to contribute to this one]. “He’s dramatically attractive but you wouldn’t want him in the same room as you.”
Yosser’s unnervingly demented stare and habit of head-butting anybody or anything (both a tree and a lamppost are nutted) are undercut by pathos, as his three young children (played by Bleasdale’s own kids) traipse after him everywhere like ducklings – an apt analogy given the suicidal dream sequence that begins the episode, as Yosser leads his children into the lake in Sefton Park.
Ironically for a drama that became synonymous with the effects of unemployment, the original play was actually made in 1978, before the Thatcher government and the sharp rise in joblessness. For mysterious reasons – BBC jitters are rumoured – it was not broadcast until 1980. “The series of five plays that became Boys from the Blackstuff is much more overtly about the unemployment situation than the original single drama,” says Cooke. “By the time the series came out in 1982 unemployment had risen to over three million, so it caught the moment – in particular in Liverpool and the north.”
The late Seventies and early Eighties were also the heyday of BBC1’s Play for Today, the BBC showcase for original drama that featured writers such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Caryl Churchill and David Hare, and whose 50th anniversary was on Thursday (15 October). Although commonly thought of as a Play for Today (Wikipedia certainly says so) the original Black Stuff wasn’t broadcast as part of what would have been its natural home, being relegated to BBC Two, as was the 1982 serial. Popular acclaim however led to both being almost immediately repeated on BBC One.
“Alan Bleasdale doesn’t see himself as a particularly political writer,” says Cooke. “Not in the same way as Jim Allen or Ken Loach. While it was about the political situation which the working class were experiencing at the time, it wasn’t another dour political tract. The humour made it more accessible, with characters that viewers could identify with.”
In the same week that Boys from the Blackstuff was ending in early November 1982, another drama about Liverpool, this time a soap, was launching on the newly hatched Channel 4. Brookside’s creator, Phil Redmond, who had already had a success with the classroom drama Grange Hill and who would go on to create Hollyoaks, recalls the shock he felt watching Bleasdale’s 1980 play.
“When Alan did The Black Stuff, it was contemporary and right on the edge… it was the kind of stuff I was aspiring to with Grange Hill and then obviously moving on to Brookie. That was what I was trying to do with Bobby Grant, [casting] Ricky Tomlinson with his own trade union background.
“Alan had a particular tale there which needed to be told, but what I was trying to also look at was how 80 per cent of the population tend to just mosey on through these great cyclical changes in our society. What I also wanted to show was the aspirational side to the working class, that side of Liverpool’s also about leafy suburbs. It’s not all about cobbled streets.”
Redmond, born and bred on Merseyside, sold off his production company, Mersey TV, in 2005, and is now in the midst of writing a trilogy of novels set in the northwest. He also keeps a close eye on the region’s cultural development having been creative director during Liverpool City of Culture in 2008. How has Liverpool changed since the bleak days of The Black Stuff?
“We’re still searching for our new identity,” he says. “But I would say it’s become more at ease with itself. We’d forgotten what a great cultural and creative city it was because we’d had 30 years of economic and political dysfunction, forever being told how dreadful things were.”
No doubt a great new television drama will eventually emerge from the current pandemic, but anyone hoping to write about the predicted new era of mass unemployment will probably have to find a different vessel than middle-aged male industrial labourers whose jobs vanished in the early 1980s. Young people and women are thought likely to bear the brunt of coming job losses. And as Redmond says, culture, in all its guises, now accounts for more jobs in Liverpool than manufacturing – and it’s the arts industry that faces decimation today.
“There are still the same kind of issues that Yosser and his gang were facing,” says Redmond. “But the difference between now and 40 years ago is that employment then was based on large organisations… the docks, the car industry, the building industry… the make-up of the city’s employment now is nothing like that. When we talk about unemployment a lot of it will be disguised and hidden.”
‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ is available on BritBox. ‘The Black Stuff’ can be found on YouTube