Ochicken The Blackstuff Boys hit television four decades ago, it was hailed as a show that would shape the understanding of British history. Now leading political playwright James Graham acclaimed for his recent hit BBC One drama series sherwoodis to bring the story without compromise to a theater audience.
Graham has been secretly working on the piece with its original creator, Alan Bleasdale, for two and a half years. But this weekend the duo revealed their plan to breathe new life into the moving and witty story of the struggles faced by a group of unemployed Liverpool people in the early 1980s.
“Economic devastation may be a political thing, but it’s still a human story as well, and Alan led the way in showing it,” Graham said, quoting The Blackstuff Boys as a source of inspiration for sherwood.
“The Blackstuff Boys lived here in Liverpool,” added Bleasdale, 76, who said he avoided all interviews for more than 20 years. “The series had the most profound effect. I got over 4,000 letters, and at the time, they were from people who had to sit down and write and then go out and get a stamp. It was a moment incredibly powerful in my career.”
Since then, Bleasdale has, he said, turned down numerous attempts to bring back the drama in one form or another. “People have been asking me for 20 years now, wanting a new version,” he said.
The original series was a spin-off of the acclaimed Bleasdale television play, The black thing, about the men who made a living by laying the tarmac. “I tried to write all kinds of plays, but they were really disguised TV boxes. They were set in about 22 locations, with 30 characters, spanning 15 years. So I just thought: I don’t don’t know how to do it, but James does it.
It was Bleasdale’s admiration for Graham’s skill at bringing social history back into television entertainment that sealed the deal. “sherwood was amazing. James was so smart because he started by letting people think it was just a police procedure and then showed them what he always wanted to do with it,” Bleasdale said.
Graham was touched by the applause for sherwood, which starred David Morrissey as DCS Ian St Clair and peaked last Tuesday. “The reaction has been amazing to me,” said the playwright, who also recently won acclaim for his ITV drama Quizabout the cheating plot that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? “One of the best things of all time was the email I got from Alan after the first episode came out. It just said ‘Damn’.
Graham recognizes that the social difficulties described in The Blackstuff Boys have different causes today, but he believes there is a new relevance. “black stuff was all about poverty. We may not have high unemployment right now, but there is a lot of poverty among those who work. And, of course, there are tensions caused by the high cost of living. Alan also wrote about community and belonging, and that inspired me to do sherwood. After all, Liverpool are one of the loudest characters in black stuff. I imitated that.
The Bleasdale series made stars out of its cast, which included Bernard Hill, the late Michael Angelis and Julie Walters. It also gave viewers a frontline look at finding paid work, as the Conservative government in power began to change the structure of Britain’s economy. Additionally, it gave the unemployed an enduring slogan in the words of Hill’s character, Yosser Hughes: “Gizza job, go on, gizzit.”
The new piece, presented as Alan Bleasdale’s boys in James Graham’s The Blackstuff, will premiere at the Royal Court in Liverpool in September, directed by Kate Wasserberg. The lead roles of Chrissie, Loggo, George, Dixie and Yosser have yet to be cast.
Bleasdale thinks it’s ideal for the production to follow the screening of the original series on BBC Four to mark the 40th anniversary: ”The timing was serendipitous, but there haven’t been many times, since the New Really, till things were as bad as they are now.
The chance screening of the original series at a time of heightened unemployment awareness was also a fluke, Bleasdale recalls: “I actually wrote four of the next five episodes, under a Labor government, so the fact that it was finally exited at a grotesque time when unemployment was accidental. The BBC refused twice and then suddenly everything fell into place.
The original structure of the TV series, an anthology that focused on a different character each episode, was altered by Graham. “I worked very closely alongside Alan. They may say “never meet your heroes”, but that’s not true if it’s Alan Bleasdale. He generously gave me permission to give it a different shape.
During a workshop with actors in Liverpool, Graham initially feared that the Liverpudlian actors would be intimidated by the task. “It’s important that it’s not considered sacred text,” he said.
Bleasdale has read all of Graham’s plays, including the award-winning political drama Eis home, and chose to work with him. He, he added, found collaborating with the 39-year-old playwright from Nottinghamshire “easy”. “We’ve had considerable discussions, but he just doesn’t have tantrums. And he gave it all a sea feeling, which was not in my version. One of the actors who read the script in Liverpool said to me, ‘I don’t know where it starts and you stop’, which was great.”
For Bleasdale, the value of mounting the piece with Stockroom Productions will be in the quality of the work, but also in examining the importance of the work: “There is a lot of ugliness today because of the way the people feel their work. It is one of the problems of our way of life. But perhaps the greatest sadness for me is that in the 40 years since I wrote black stuff, we could have hoped that things would go better.
Graham plans to continue writing for stage and screen, but he believes the royal court in Liverpool is the perfect location for a “fresh and electric” adaptation of Bleasdale’s masterpiece. “It’s not a heritage experience. Theater should be alive,” he said. “You don’t want to sit and stare at something dead. It’s our responsibility to Alan’s story. It’s gritty, but it’s also fucking funny. TV news can present facts, but if you want a lived and emotional story, then you need drama.