Saturday, 9 July 2016

"Two wrongs do not make a right or a left": Thoughts on Alan Bleasdale's GBH

In the rush to celebrate the creative brilliance of HBO, the American television production company that has given us, among others, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, John Adams, and The Sopranos, we do well to remember our own television gold. Given the annual laziness that insists on delivering yet another tiresome series of X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother, or Britain's Got Talent, it is relatively straightforward to lose sight of quality.

In 1991, Channel 4 delivered one of the most outstanding drama serials in British television history, Alan Bleasdale's GBH. Consumed by anger since the referendum on Britain's future in Europe, and the continuing madness that now defines British politics - no Government, no Opposition, no plan for the future, and an escalation in racial abuse - I watched GBH again for the umpteenth time since it was first broadcast. It speaks to our present troubled times.

This is Alan Bleasdale's masterpiece; and this is the same writer who gave us in 1982 the sizzling indictment of early Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff, which defined political drama for a generation. GBH is the story of the rise and fall of Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay), the corrupt but charismatic Labour leader of an unnamed Northern city, juxtaposed with the fall and rise of Jim Nelson (Michael Palin), a card-carrying member of the Labour party and principled headteacher of a school for children with special needs. Their worlds collide when pickets fail to materialise outside Nelson's school on a 'Day of Action', destroying Murray's ambition to dominate the news agenda with a full closure of 'his' city. Their antagonism escalates, but this is only one thread in Bleasdale's complex story. Murray is being manipulated by the hard left ... or the right (?) .. and the city explodes in violence when the ethnic minorities are used as pawns in a bigger game. Murray is haunted by his troubled childhood, the death of his working-class hero father before he was born, and the memory of Elieen Critchley with whom he played at school; while Frankie Murray, brilliantly played by Philip Whitchurch, copes with being the older, less successful sibling, vying with Michael for the attention of their mother, Julie Walters; and Jim Nelson's family try to cope with his slow descent into hypochondria and madness. In one memorable scene, Nelson's doctor strips and forces him to examine the lump in his stomach, remarking on the irony that the hypochondriac enjoys full health while the doctor heads towards a fight with cancer. (Apparently this actually happened to Bleasdale, a self-confessed hypochondriac.)

So the politics of GBH are only one part of the story. The intricate plotting and the pace at which it unfolds allows the interweaving of multiple storylines. Bleasdale could easily have dispensed with the not-so troubled marriage of his best-friend, the poet Martin Niarchos (Michael Angelis); the eccentricities of Daniel Massey's hotel owner, Grosvenor, and his rants against the great unwashed; and Frankie's sojourn to Fleetwood with his mother, wife and children.  But these and other plots-within-plots add a depth to the story and the characters that intensify the idea of ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary times. It is to Channel 4's credit and vision that it allowed the series to take its time, each episode being as long as it needed to be, with several far longer than others. It is television to savour. This is a clear reflection of Channel 4's commitment to quality television, and one cannot help but wonder if the magnified pressures of commercialism, populist scheduling, and shorter attention spans among audiences would allow this to happen today. (In an interview available on the DVD version of GBH, Bleasdale reveals that the executive producer, the legendary Verity Lambert - responsible for introducing the Daleks to Doctor Who in 1963 - exorcised 238 pages and 120 scenes from the script.)

However, undoubtedly the politics dominate the story. Bleasdale is adamant GBH is not an attack on the political Left, that he has not sold-out the socialist values that seared through his early work. Rather, the target of GBH is Fundamentalism in whichever colour it appears. The author's manifesto is laid bare by a Jim Nelson in the final episode when he confronts Murray's attempt to expel him from the Labour Party. Members of the Party today, gripping their dogmatic stubbornness ever tighter, would do well to watch this scene. Murray is testament to the idea that popularity - having followers - does not necessarily translate into leadership. Nelson tells his audience in the Labour club that his father was "never anyone's disciple. He did not believe in Messiahs", and he praises "all those who refuse to learn about life from manifestos and Marx and Das Kapital." Nelson identifies the problem: "You've only read one book", he tells the supposedly socialist mob which has made his life hell, and suggests they may wish to read two or three to challenge their "flat earth" view of the world. He laments how "lions are led by donkey jackets, living proof that the further left you go, the more right wing you become", and warns his listeners that "two wrongs do not make a right, or a left, especially not a left". Nelson concludes his speech with this sentiment: "in the short time that we all have, we would want to be remembered for the good we have done". This timely, for it is sad that, in the space of just two short weeks after the result of the referendum was announced, we have forgotten our promise to "love like Jo" in memory of Jo Cox, the murdered MP who will be remembered for the good she did in a tragically short life.

GBH is television drama at its finest: a brilliant, often angry, moving, disturbing and frequently amusing script; dazzling acting that ranges and rages across a full gamut of  emotions; original, groundbreaking, innovative - there are an insufficient number of synonyms to describe it and its impact. Above all, GBH is a timely reminder that politics plays with people's lives and that we need to be careful in the leaders we choose, especially in the Labour Party.