As epoch-defining TV dramas go, Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) certainly left its mark, and not only on its audience. It turned Alan Bleasdale into a household-name scriptwriter, launching an occasionally glorious career (one that seems, more recently, to have come off the rails: several of his recent projects have very publicly fallen apart). Meanwhile, Yosser himself – actor Bernard Hill – has hinted that the sudden fame the series brought him drove him towards a breakdown. All this, and an Eighties national catchphrase – the immortal ‘Gizza job!’ – from a Play for Today spin-off.
Liverpool-born Bleasdale was a teacher in the early 1970s, and wrote a series of stories about a Scouse tearaway by the name of Francis Scully to entertain his pupils. Soon, his Scully stories were being broadcast on local, and then national, radio. Bleasdale gave up teaching to become a full-time writer, working in local theatre before breaking into television under the tutelage of producer David Rose. One of his earliest TV pieces was Scully’s New Year’s Eve (1978), reviving his breakthrough character. The BBC demurred when offered a full Scully series, but Bleasdale eventually wrote it for the nascent Channel 4 instead.
Back in his youth, Bleasdale’s family had set up an asphalt firm, and he had himself served an apprenticeship within it. The firm’s loss was TV drama’s gain: Bleasdale drew on his experiences when writing a new all-film production, The Black Stuff (1980), about a cash-strapped tarmac gang moonlighting behind their boss’ back. A rich, character-driven piece, it displays the writer’s affinity for finely-balanced black comedy. Although completed in October 1978, The Black Stuff didn’t reach the screens until 1980. Meanwhile, Bleasdale had successfully persuaded the BBC to commission a follow-up, capitalising on the possibilities that the network of characters offered. What began as a proposed one-off sequel – about the gang facing unemployment – blossomed into a full series, with each episode focussing on one character.
The necessary expense, especially for an out-of-London project (based, as it was, at BBC Birmingham), meant some delays. By the time The Black Stuff eventually reached the screens, the scripts for the spin-off, Boys from the Blackstuff, were well advanced. One of the projected episodes – The Muscle Market, centring on building boss Malone – was detached and produced as a stand-alone piece in 1981 to bridge the gap. (Another episode, Pulling the Plug Out, concerning the Social Security officers attempting to outwit the boys, ended up being scrapped entirely). By the time the full series of five episodes was broadcast in 1982 – almost four years since the original play was made – keen-eyed viewers were therefore already familiar with Bleasdale’s characters. Video camera technology had advanced considerably in the interim, allowing the series to be affordably produced at last. Less fortuitously, mass unemployment was hitting Britain hard. The series’ key issue couldn’t have been more current.
This DVD set draws together the series and the original Black Stuff in one package, and in a splendid, sharp transfer. The question is, does it still stand up? It’s certainly true that, being very much of its time, it can’t help but feel a little dated. Nevertheless, it’s a vital time-capsule of early Eighties Britain, and the qualities that made the series such a phenomenon in its day still impress. Bleasdale’s writing is accomplished and powerful, with the central characters amongst the most fully-developed in TV history. Partly, it’s down to the rich variety of tone. Yosser’s Story, perhaps the best known episode, is bleak and harrowing, but with supremely well-judged moments of comedy (it’s still impossible to suppress an amazed chuckle at Yosser’s confession-box exclamation, ‘I’m desperate, Dan…’) It’s masterful stuff, with a fine cast – all of them underplaying rather than grandstanding. Rewatching the series today provides a compelling human perspective on the dramatic headlines of what now feels like another time.
The imagination runs riot with what extras this set could have contained: a documentary look at the intruiging behind-the-scenes story; footage of the series as 80s cultural phenomenon; even a full cast reunion. In fact, there’s precious little. Bleasdale provides an intruiging, chatty commentary to the original Black Stuff play, along with its director, Jim Goddard, but sadly it doesn’t go on to cover the entire series – the writer could have been accompanied, perhaps, by the main actor from each individual episode. It’s also perplexing that the stand-alone interlude The Muscle Market isn’t included, as it would have made the package genuinely complete. But these are quibbles; for a three disc set, this is attractively priced, and the contents themselves well deserve to be in the home of every admirer of British television drama.