Carry on, gizzplay: Boys from the Blackstuff is alive again – on stage | political theatre

Wchicken Boys from the Blackstuff came on television four decades ago, it was hailed as a show that would shape the understanding of British history. Now leading political playwright, James Graham, has been hailed for his recent BBC One drama series Sherwoodis to bring the uncompromising story 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 revive the moving and witty story of the struggles faced by a group of unemployed Liverpudlians in the early 1980s.

“Economic devastation can be a political thing, but it’s always a human story too, and Alan led the way by showing that,” Graham said, quoting Boys from the Blackstuff as inspiration for Sherwood

Boys from the Blackstuff has lived here in Liverpool,” added Bleasdale, 76, who said he has avoided all interviews for over 20 years. “The series had the most profound effect. I got over 4,000 letters back then, from people who had to sit down and write and then go get a stamp. It was an incredibly powerful moment in my career.”

Playwright and TV dramatist Alan Bleasdale. Photo: Colin McPherson/Corbis/Getty Images

Since then, Bleasdale, he said, has turned down many attempts to bring the drama back in one form or another. “People have been asking me about it for 20 years and want a new version of it,” he said.

The original series was a spin-off of Bleasdale’s critically acclaimed television game, The black stuff, about the men who made a living laying asphalt. “I did try to write all kinds of plays, but they were all television box sets in disguise. They took place in about 22 locations, with 30 characters, over 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 ability to bring social history back into television entertainment that sealed the deal. †Sherwood was astonishing. James was so smart because he started tricking people into believing it was just a police proceeding and then showing them what he’d always wanted to do with it,” Bleasdale said.

Graham is touched by the praise for Sherwood, starring David Morrissey as DCS Ian St Clair and culminating last Tuesday. “The response to it has been incredible for me,” said the playwright, who was also recently praised for his ITV drama Quizabout the deceitful plot that shook up Who wants to be a millionaire? “One of the best things ever was the email I received from Alan after the first episode came out. It just said ‘You bastard’.”

Graham recognizes that the social hardships experienced in Boys from the Blackstuff have different causes today, but he believes there is a new relevance. †blackstuff was all about poverty. We may not have high unemployment now, but there is a lot of in-work poverty. And of course there are tensions caused by the high cost of living. Alan also wrote about community and a sense of place, and that inspired me to create Sherwood† After all, Liverpool is one of the loudest characters in blackstuff† I imitated that.”

James Graham, who edited Alan Bleasdale's 1980s TV series for the theatre.
James Graham, who edited Alan Bleasdale’s 1980s TV series for the theatre. Photo: David Levene/The Observer

Bleasdale’s series made stars of the cast including Bernard Hill, the late Michael Angelis and Julie Walters. It also gave viewers first-line insight into seeking gainful employment as the ruling Conservative government began to change the fabric of the UK economy. What’s more, it gave the unemployed an enduring catchphrase in the words of Hill’s character, Yosser Hughes: “Gizza job, go on, gizzit.”

The new piece, 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 are yet to be cast.

Bleasdale believes it is ideal for the production to follow the showing of the original series on BBC Four to mark its 40th anniversary: ​​”The timing was a coincidence, but there haven’t been many times, since New Labor really, that things were as bad as they are now.”

The accidental showing of the original series at a time of heightened unemployment awareness was also coincidental, Bleasdale recalls: “I actually wrote four of the five episodes ahead of us, under a Labor government, so the fact that it ended up being went out at a time of grotesque unemployment was accidental. The BBC turned it down twice and then suddenly it was all lined up.”

The original structure of the television series, an anthology that focuses on a different character in each episode, has been modified by Graham. “I have worked very closely with Alan. They may say ‘never meet your heroes’, but that’s not true when it’s Alan Bleasdale. He generously gave me permission to wrestle it in another form.

At a workshop with actors in Liverpool, Graham initially feared that the Liverpool actors would be put off by the task. “It’s important that this is not seen as a sacred text,” he said.

Bleasdale read all of Graham’s plays, including the award-winning political drama Eis home, and chose to work with him. He has, he added, found working with the 39-year-old playwright from Nottinghamshire “easy”. “We’ve had a lot of discussions, but he’s just not throwing tantrums. And he gave 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 it starts and you stop’, which was great.”

For Bleasdale, the goal of staging the play with Stockroom Productions will be the quality of the work, but also to explore the importance of work: “There’s a lot of ugliness these days because of the way people think about their work. It’s one of the problems in the way we live. But perhaps the greatest sadness for me is that in the 40 years since I wrote black stuff, we might have hoped it would get better.”

Graham plans to continue writing for both stage and screen, but 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. Theater must live,” he says. “You don’t want to sit and stare at something dead. This is our responsibility for Alan’s story. It’s gross, but it’s also damn funny. The television news may present facts, but if you want the lived, emotional story, you need theater.”

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