Writer Alan Bleasdale really hit his straps in the 80s and 90s, turning out two of the most memorable and hard-hitting TV dramas of the era - Boys from the Black Stuff and GBH. Of the two, GBH is probably the slightly lighter, frothier, but more accomplished offering.
It follows two key characters - Liverpool Council Leader Michael Murray, whose vendetta against "strike breaking" headmaster Jim Nelson leads to terrible personal consequences for both.
Originally broadcast in 7 parts by Channel 4, GBH proved compulsive viewing. It's a very clever script which looks not only at the characters as they are now, but also delves into their past. Character development and revelations are carefully handled so that we are drip-fed information over the course of the seven episodes. The cumulative effect of this is that we come to understand the characters gradually, rather than having everything explained in great big lumps of exposition. Using this technique, Bleasdale achieves a very tense and compelling atmosphere that always leaves you wanting to find out more.
Initially, the story sounds as though it could be quite heavy -a battle between two superficially similar, but ultimately very different political ideologies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Discussion of political ideologies is very limited and instead Bleasdale provides plenty of his trademark black humour to lighten the mood. That might sound a little strange since the pervading atmosphere of GBH is one of despair and hopelessness. Yet, recognising the need to contrast light and dark, Bleasdale scatters each episode with some truly funny situations or amusing lines and observations. This might be a black comedy, but you'll still find yourself laughing out loud.
Since GBH consists of 7 one and a half hour episodes, there is no pressure on the writer to wrap things up neatly in a couple of hours, as there is with a film. Instead, he has the chance to explore the script and the characters in a more leisurely fashion. The net effect of this is a collection of characters who are wonderfully rounded and shaded, with not a stereotype to be seen anywhere in the series. Even those characters that appear to be stereotypes turn out to have more to them than initially meets the eye.
This gives the main characters time to breathe and develop; to feel like real people. We don't just see Nelson and Murray in relation to each other, we see them at home with their families and friends and see how their personal decisions affect the ones they love. Thanks to the slow build up and character development, you really feel like you know these people.
Whoever was in charge of casting deserves a medal too. Michael Palin wouldn't have been everyone's first choice for a straight role, but he pulls it off with some aplomb. The former Python brings a depth, gravitas and seriousness to his role that you wouldn't perhaps have expected, creating a very human, dignified Jim Nelson. It goes without saying that he can handle the comedy aspect of the role with his eyes closed, but it's in the more serious scenes where he really stands out. Robert Lindsay is superb in probably his best role to date. As Council Leader Michael Murray he produces an excellent performance as a man haunted by his past. Lindsay makes Murray nasty, arrogant and corrupt, yet charming, vulnerable and sympathetic. If anything, his role has a greater comedy element and he handles it well, wheedling laughs out of something as simple as a winking eye. Just occasionally, there's the danger that his performance become a little too pantomime-like, but he controls it very carefully and always reins it in before that happens.
It's not just the main cast who excel; the support cast also shines. Every single one of them is a fully fleshed out character with their own back story, played with relish by all the actors concerned. Particular credit must go to Julie Walters who, despite being a year younger than Lindsay is totally convincing as his mother. She is utterly brilliant and truly hilarious, stealing every scene she is in and leaving you wanting more. The same is true of a superb cameo from Gareth Tudor-Price as northern-hating snob Richard Grenville. The two episodes in which he features are amongst the highlights of the whole series and true comedy gems.
Of course, GBH will not be to everyone's tastes. Some will find it too dark; some will think it too silly. This being an Alan Bleasdale work, there is a significant amount of politics in the script and particularly a strong socialist agenda. Don't let politics put you off, though. Whilst, on face value, it might be about socialism, it's actually about power and corrupt politics (of all colours) and still has an important message to send out today.
That said, it has dated. For those of us old enough to remember, GBH is clearly based on the Derek Hatton Labour Council of Liverpool of the late 80s and early 90s. Although exaggerated, certain elements clearly reflect those events and since times and the political landscape has changed, it can be a little tricky to grasp the significance of some of them now. Similarly, towards the end, the plot does seem to lose its way a little bit and becomes a little bit too over-the-top. After the controlled build-up of the previous six episodes, the flamboyant pyrotechnics of the final part can feel a little contrived and a bit of an anti-climax.
Minor misgivings aside, however, GBH was one of the TV landmarks of the 1990s. Intelligent scripting, superbly nuanced characters and a dark script with rivers of wonderful black humour running through it, it still stands up well today. What a shame Channel 4 no longer has the guts to commission such challenging works and instead chases the commercial dollar with pap like Wife Swap.
Director: Robert Young
Running time: 567 minutes (7 episodes)
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