British Drama Series

Boys From the Blackstuff, the first television series by Liverpool playwright Alan Bleasdale, was a technical and topical triumph for BBC English Regions Drama, capturing the public mood in 1982, at a time of economic recession and anxiety about unemployment. Set in a grimly recognisable Liverpool, it chronicled the disparate and sometimes dissolute attempts of five former members of a tarmac gang to find work in a city hit hard by mounting unemployment and depression. As an outwardly realist intervention into a serious social problem, its impact, sustained through its dramatic power and emotional truth, was comparable to that of Cathy Come Home fifteen years earlier. With its ostensibly sombre subject matter leavened by passionate direction and flashes of ironic Scouse wit, Boys From The Blackstuff overcame its regional setting and minority channel scheduling (on BBC2) to receive instant critical acclaim, winning an unprecedented repeat run only nine weeks later on BBC1 and a BAFTA award for best drama series of 1982.

Bleasdale (who described it as "an absurd, mad, black farce") originally conceived Boys From The Blackstuff in 1978 during filming for The Black Stuff (D. J. Goddard), his single play introducing the Boys as a tarmac gang (hence the title) and culminating in their sacking for "doing a foreigner" (non-contract job). But whilst technically a sequel, Boys From The Blackstuff was a deeper and darker investigation of character and circumstance consisting of five linked plays of varying lengths (from 55 to 70 minutes). As such it proved difficult to fit into the production and budgetary system of English Regions Drama. However the delay to the production which this caused contributed significantly to the strength and originality of the final work as well as providing a timely conjunction between its transmission and the apex of British unemployment.

To cut costs the production was budgeted across two financial years using newly available lightweight video equipment except for one episode ("Yosser's Story") made on film with the unit's annual film budget. Unusually for the time, the video episodes were edited in post-production and the series' filmic qualities were further enhanced by Ilona Sekacz's specially-composed music and by the replacement of Goddard (no longer available) with Philip Saville, through whose elegant and inventive shooting style Liverpool's dereliction took on a crumbling grandeur.

Of the five central characters, Chrissie (Michael Angelis) was the most ordinary (standing, perhaps, for Bleasdale himself), desperate for legitimate work and increasingly soured by the indignity and insecurity of life on the dole. Loggo (Alan Igbon), more defiant, stood as an ironic observer least affected by the experience. Dixie (Tom Georgeson), once the gang's foreman, had become embittered and unforgiving, his pride as a working man shattered. George (Peter Kerrigan), much the oldest, represented the dignity of labour, wise and greatly respected as a trade union official, refusing to give up hope even on the remarkable wheelchair ride through the decaying Albert Dock which precedes his death--a scene which includes an emotional speech based partly on Kerrigan's own experiences as a docker. But it was Bernard Hill's maniacally self-destructive Yosser, a colossal performance of incoherence, savagery and pathos, who captured the public imagination. Deprived of his dignity and eventually of his children, he is reduced to butting authority figures with the bewildered declaration: "I'm Yosser Hughes!" Yosser's head-butts and his woeful "gizza job" became totems in the popular press.


Boys from the Blackstuff
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

The delay in production also benefitted the series in enabling the script to develop through ruthless changes initiated by producer Michael Wearing. In the most extreme case, lamenting the absence of female and domestic perspectives on unemployment, Wearing returned the original episode 3 with an instruction to "write Angie". In the rewrite, Angie (Julie Walters), Chrissie's wife, emerged as a further pivotal character and in an emotionally-charged performance uttered the lines which seemed to sum up the series' message about Liverpool and the dole:

"It's not funny, it's not friggin' funny. I've had enough of that 'if you don't laugh you'll cry'. I've heard it for years. This stupid soddin' city's full of it... Why don't you fight back, you bastard. Fight back."

As well as pricking the national conscience (helping to dissolve the popular characterisation of the unemployed as "scroungers"), Boys From The Blackstuff confirmed Bleasdale as one of the nation's leading writers for stage and television, although his subsequent television work (most notably the self-produced GBH) might have benefitted from the editorial influence of a Wearing. Equally important, it helped to establish Liverpool as a dramatic location of special significance, where brutality, decay and poverty could serve as a backdrop for the expression, through darkly defiant wit, of the resilience and spirit of ordinary people. Its indirect influence is detectable in the proliferation of Liverpool-based television and film drama of the 1980s, including the sitcom Bread, resembling a travestied Boys From The Blackstuff stripped of its social conscience, and the long-running soap Brookside, which inherited its shooting style (single camera shooting on lightweight video) as well as part of its milieu.

-Peter Goddard


Chrissie Todd...................................... Michael Angelis Loggo......................................................... Alan Igbon Dixie Deans......................................... Tom Georgeson George Malone...................................... Peter Kerrigan Yosser Hughes.......................................... Bernard Hill Angie Todd ..............................................Julie Walters


Alan Bleasdale, Michael Wearing

Five episodes of varying length


10 October 1982-7 November 1982


Millington, Bob, and Robin Nelson. "Boys From The Blackstuff": The Making of TV Drama. London: Comedia, 1986.

Paterson, Richard, editor. BFI Dossier 20: "Boys From The Blackstuff". London: British Film Institute, 1983.


See also Bleasdale, Alan