When Boys from the Blackstuff went out on television four decades ago, it was hailed as a show that would shape understanding of British history. Now the leading political playwright, James Graham, acclaimed for his recent hit BBC One drama series Sherwood, is to bring the uncompromising story to a theatre audience.
Graham has been secretly working on the play with its original creator, Alan Bleasdale, for two and a half years. But this weekend the duo have revealed their plan to breathe new life into the moving and witty tale of the struggles facing a group of unemployed Liverpudlians in the early 1980s.
“Economic devastation might be a political thing, but it is always a human story too, and Alan led the way with showing that,” said Graham, who cites Boys from the Blackstuff as an inspiration for Sherwood.
“Boys from the Blackstuff has lived on here in Liverpool,” added Bleasdale, 76, who said he has avoided all interviews for more than 20 years. “The series had the most profound effect. I got more than 4,000 letters, and in those days these were from people who had to sit down and write and then go out for a stamp. It was an incredibly powerful moment in my career.”
Since then, Bleasdale has, he said, turned down many attempts to bring the drama back in one form or another. “People have been asking me about it for 20 years now, wanting a new version of it,” he said.
The original series was a spin-off from Bleasdale’s acclaimed television play, The Black Stuff, about the men who earned a living laying tarmac. “I did try to write all sorts of stage plays, but they were all really television boxsets in disguise. They were set in about 22 locations, with 30 characters, covering 15 years. So I just thought: I don’t know how to do it. But James does.”
It was Bleasdale’s admiration for Graham’s skill at bringing social history back into television entertainment that clinched the deal. “Sherwood was astonishing. James was so clever because he started off letting people believe it was just a police procedural and then showed them what he had always wanted to do with it,” said Bleasdale.
Graham has been touched by the plaudits for Sherwood, which starred David Morrissey as DCS Ian St Clair and culminated last Tuesday. “Reaction to it has been incredible for me,” said the playwright, who also won recent acclaim for his ITV drama Quiz, about the cheating plot that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? “One of the best things ever was the email I received from Alan after the first episode went out. It just said ‘You bastard’.”
Graham acknowledges that the social hardships portrayed in Boys from the Blackstuff have different causes today, but he believes there is new relevance. “Blackstuff was all about poverty. We may not have high unemployment now, but there is a lot of poverty among those in work. And, of course, there are tensions caused by the high cost of living. Alan was also writing about community and a sense of place, and that inspired me to make Sherwood. After all, Liverpool is one of the loudest characters in Blackstuff. I imitated that.”
Bleasdale’s series made stars of its cast, which included Bernard Hill, the late Michael Angelis and Julie Walters. It also gave viewers frontline insight into the search for paid work, as the ruling Conservative government began to alter the structure of the British economy. What’s more, it gave the unemployed a lasting catchphrase in the words of Hill’s character, Yosser Hughes: “Gizza job, go on, gizzit.”
The new play, billed as Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from The Blackstuff by James Graham, will premiere at Liverpool’s Royal Court in September, directed by Kate Wasserberg. The central roles of Chrissie, Loggo, George, Dixie and Yosser have yet to be cast.
Bleasdale believes it is ideal for the production to follow the screening of the original series on BBC Four to mark the 40th anniversary: “The timing was chance, but there haven’t been many times, since New Labour really, that things were as bad as they are now.”
The fortuitous screening of the original series at a time of heightened awareness of unemployment was also chance, Bleasdale recalled: “I actually wrote four of the five episodes ahead, under a Labour government, so the fact it eventually went out at a time of grotesque unemployment was accidental. The BBC turned it down twice and then suddenly it all lined up.”
The original structure of the television series, an anthology that focused on a different character each episode, has been altered by Graham. “I’ve worked alongside Alan really closely. They may say ‘never meet your heroes’, but that’s not true if it is Alan Bleasdale. He generously gave me permission to wrestle it into a different shape.”
At a workshop with actors in Liverpool, Graham initially feared Liverpudlian actors would be daunted by the task. “It is important that is not seen as a sacred text,” he said.
Bleasdale read all Graham’s stage plays, including the award-winning political drama This House, and chose to work with him. He has, he added, found collaborating with the 39-year-old playwright from Nottinghamshire “easy”. “We have had considerable discussions but he just doesn’t have tantrums. And he has given it all a feel of the sea, which was not in my version. One of the actors who read the script in Liverpool said to me: ‘I don’t know where he starts and you stop’, which was great.”
For Bleasdale, the point of staging the play with Stockroom Productions will be in the quality of the work, but also in examining the importance of work: “There is a lot of ugliness around today due to the way people feel about their work. It is one of the problems in the way we live. But perhaps the biggest sadness for me is that in the 40 years since I wrote Blackstuff, we might have hoped that things would get better.”
Graham plans to continue writing for both stage and screen, but he believes Liverpool’s Royal Court is the perfect place for a “fresh and electric” adaptation of Bleasdale’s masterpiece. “It is not a heritage experience. Theatre has to be alive,” he said. “You don’t want to sit down and stare at something dead. This is our responsibility to Alan’s story. It is gritty, but it is also fucking funny. The television news may present facts, but if you want the lived, emotional story, then you need theatre.”