An Interview with Peter Flannery
Peter Flannery is one of Britain’s most highly regarded dramatic writers. After growing up in Jarrow in the north-east of England, he studied drama at university; subsequently his first major play, Heartbreak Hotel, was performed at Manchester’s Contact Theatre in 1975. He was a resident playwright at the Royal Shakespeare Company from the late-seventies onward, but over the past two decades his greatest achievements have been in film and television. Our Friends in the North, which appeared via the BBC in 1996 after years of production wrangles, was hailed as a classic of the genre. A masterpiece of Tolstoyan proportions, the series followed the lives of four friends from the 1960s to the 1990s, and dealt with grand themes of corruption, political history, and social change, while launching the careers of its leads Daniel Craig, Gina McKee, Mark Strong, and Christopher Eccleston. Since the runaway success of OFITN, Flannery has written screenplays for film and another historical epic for TV, The Devil’s Whore, set during the English Civil War.
You started writing for the theatre in the 1970s. How would you characterise that time creatively? Did you feel part of a countercultural moment?
Well, it was almost coming to an end by then, but I didn’t know that. It was the end of the building boom of subsidised regional theatres. But that movement of building new theatres in regional capitals–Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, and, particularly, in Stoke–had an enormous effect on theatre which I assumed would go on forever. That’s where I learnt about theatre. I didn’t really know much about London; I’d only ever been to London once, but I went to Nottingham Playhouse a lot, and I went to [Sheffield theatre] The Crucible the night it opened in the early seventies. There was a huge outpouring of regional talent led by writers and directors. And they were very closely in touch with the communities they were serving. When they tried to close the Shelton Barr steel mill in Stoke, which was clearly going to have a devastating effect, Peter Cheeseman’s theatre company there devised a show called The Fight for Shelton Barr. That all seemed terrific to me, and I wanted nothing more than to work in that sort of theatre for the rest of my life.
The theatre at Stoke was a theatre in the round. Open theatre forms were very fashionable in the sixties and seventies. It was the end of the proscenium arch theatre, the end of the audience and the show being separated. It was all very democratic and the things they were writing about were similarly democratic. It wasn’t about presenting high art to the audience for our edification; it was about reflecting very directly what was going on at the time. What I didn’t realise was that it was all on its way out already, because the great era of centrally funded regional theatres was dying. The cuts were about to start happening even in the late seventies. As the minister for local government at the time said: “the party’s over”.
What sort of political spin would you put on that regionalist narrative? It seems to a certain extent that whenever England shifts to the left politically, the more power gets spread evenly across the regions.
Yes, I think they still believed in regionalism then. They sort of do now, but without funding it. It was a time when there were powerful voices at work in regional politics. I don’t really know what was happening in the south, to be honest, because I was an absolutely northern bloke. I never lived in the south until the late nineties.
How do you feel about that London-versus-the-rest-of-the-country dynamic?
I think it’s wrong and I don’t think we get the best out of people being so metrocentric. I think it’s incredibly unfair. I mean, I think London is the greatest city. I’d rather live there than Paris or Manhattan. But everything I like about it costs a lot of money and the reason that I like it so much is that there’s so much that I want in terms of galleries and theatres and movies and general cultural events that is concentrated here. And frankly I think a lot of it should be somewhere else. There’s a sort of half-hearted movement to move things out. The BBC, to be fair, have moved an awful lot of stuff up to Salford, and people are kicking and screaming about it. Of course, I accept the argument that it’s silly for them all to go up there on the train, and then all get on a train and come back. But in the long run the jobs will go to those places and that’s correct. That’s the right decision. We should keep doing it and government should move, frankly.
It seems that one of the great themes of your writing is an opposition between the establishment and the margins.
It was natural for me to begin to write about that because I didn’t have to choose it: it chose me. It was the everyday background of my life. Geordies, as you probably know, feel themselves to be outsiders and to have been somehow cheated by life.
Why do you think that is?
Well, because they have been. They’ve been denied resources. If you grow up as my parents grew up–dirt poor, without the slightest chance of being able to change that because the education simply wasn’t available to you–of course you grow up with a chip on your shoulder, thinking the dice has been loaded against you. So they have been, they were, they still are actually, even more so because what they had was a solidarity, a neighbourhood solidarity and a class solidarity, which doesn’t exist now. The kids who are growing up now are almost as deprived–not in absolute material terms, but in many other ways–as my parents were. I was the lucky generation, the baby-boom generation: we got everything. We got free education and that transformed our lives, and my life wouldn’t be what it is without those opportunities. My parents didn’t have that, and this generation and succeeding generations aren’t being given that. But as I say, that class and my parents’ generation had a network of support, a class and neighbourhood network of support that meant they really were “in it together”. It wasn’t merely the empty rhetoric of Cameron’s.
Another of your major themes is history. Is that part of this need to tell the tale of tribe? Is there a collective impetus to your work?
I think there is, although it’s one of the more individualistic jobs you can do, to be a writer. However, you need a system to express it and there are a lot of people in theatre, in TV as well. But yes, I’m obsessed with history. Now why is that? I’m not really sure. It’s not because I think the past was better, it’s just that I’m obsessed with the way that history produces us, the way you can understand now only really by looking at then. That’s why I’m constantly looking at some historical issue, whether it be abortion, or child abuse, or corruption. You set a story when attitudes were different and you’re looking through a prism of time with an audience.
The Devil’s Whore was a leap back through the centuries. Were there similarities between that and Our Friends in the North, between those two wide-angle views of history?
Well they’re both about how you make change. I do write about that an awful lot. OFITN is all about that, it’s about how you effect political change while not losing sight of why you wanted to start doing it in the first place. In other words, how easy it is in the British political and social system to be corrupted or diverted.
When we started writing The Devil’s Whore, it was really a sort of Robin Hood story, it just happened to be set at that time. But there was something about the period that really grabbed me. I spent about a year reading around the period, and the more I got into what Cromwell and Rainsborough and Milburn and, latterly, Sexby did–the way they lived and how extraordinary the times were–I slowly turned it into another story of four friends, growing up and drifting apart and coming back together again. It’s always got to be grounded in character for me. And dialogue is my basis, my core skill. I’ve been doing that since I was a child. Sitting on buses and listening to people and writing it down.
Like OFITN, which I once joked was a history of post-war British housing, The Devil’s Whore is about fundamental beliefs. It keeps coming back to property, because you can change almost anything–you can cut the king’s head off–but if that basic capitalist urge to enclose and own is not dealt with–and I don’t know how you deal with it–then the same systems will keep running. As soon as land can be owned, you have the dispossessed. And we’re writing about that even more directly in the sequel to The Devil’s Whore, which is half set in New England, where they apparently escaped in order to create the city on the hill, and the holy experiments of Pennsylvania, and so on. And what they did was to very quickly create a rampant form of land speculation and land capitalism. And as they say, the puritans got down on their knees and then they got down on the aborigines. So again, it’s about land, and property rights, and how you create a fair world. I’m sorry if that sounds la-di-da and airy fairy.
No, it’s very interesting.
I think the interesting thing about our revolution is that nobody really wanted it. What they wanted was what they got in 1688. But having had a revolution we then spent the next 300 years pretending it hadn’t happened. So it did feel like The Devil’s Whore was, in its own little way, a means of bringing what [left-wing historian of the English Civil War] Christopher Hill and all those guys had been doing from the sixties onwards into a popular place. And if, for a small percentage of a generation of kids and young people in this country, it makes some kind of change in the way they see what I think is an important, compelling part of our history, that’s all I should be expected to do. Some historians complained about it and I understand that because they’re historians (and also, nobody reads their books, and so it’s galling for them that three million people watch my version). But I would say what they should get their teeth into is Downton Abbey, because it’s bollocks stories that do damage, not The Devil’s Whore, or OFITN with its partial view of the Labour movement in the 1960s. When I look at the sheer lack of ambition and scale of drama on television, when I look at the money that’s poured into just entertaining people, just helping the time to pass… As Beckett says, the time passes anyway.
Do you think it’s become more difficult to tell historical stories over the last couple of decades? To me, someone like Christopher Hill seems to be part of a post-war, leftist moment. That climate seems to have dissipated since the nineties. Downton seems to be the result of a shift away from history and into fantasy in the postmodern period.
That’s where we are at the moment. But has it got harder to get historical drama out there? No, it’s got easier, it’s just got harder to get good historical drama. Sometimes you get pleasant surprises. I watched some of The Borgias recently, and I was expecting to hate it, but it’s very good. But then you look at The Tudors and it’s bollocks, mainly. The thing is that American television companies like Showtime and HBO have realised that there’s an awful lot of money in sex and adrenaline in costume, and they are busy ransacking our history in order to turn it into cheap entertainment. Was The Devil’s Whore a part of that? In some respects it was, but it’s a question of what you’re trying to achieve. And I do think my ends were different to what they were trying to achieve with The Tudors, which seemed to me to be empty.
Would you consider doing an American series? What do you think of The Wire for example?
I never got into The Wire, but it did have an ambition. The ordinary American programmes are worse than ours, but their best programmes are better. The thing is, when Americans get a genius, like David Simon, they do create the place and the time for them to work properly. They have to make money of course, but that’s easy to do when you control the entire world’s output. We don’t do that anymore. They are the cultural imperialists and we are a buying nation. We still have the ability here; however, I don’t think British television is run by people who have the belief in it anymore. They’re being led by what they regard as the audience’s taste, but if you try to figure out what the audience likes you’ll never do anything. I mean, nobody expected there to be an audience for OFITN. But if they did put out OFITN now, they’d put it out at 11 ‘o’ clock on BBC4 to make sure an audience didn’t find it. I’ve no doubt that the audience is there, but broadcasters don’t want to take chances. When we did OFITN it was BBC2’s drama budget for the whole year.
On that note, ideally how do you think writing should be funded?
I’ve managed to make what is essentially a capitalist system work for me, because there’s always a corner of capitalism anywhere where you can make things work and do good things. But, by and large, if they do away with the licensing system, as Murdoch wants, and the BBC almost seems to be begging to happen at the moment with this series of crises, I think it would be chaotic. It’s one of the few good things we’ve still got. Although I criticise and carp, you can’t imagine life without it. I’d pay the license fee just for Radio 4 and Match of the Day, let alone everything else. I don’t get it when people say “why am I paying 140 pounds a year?” And you look at what they waste their money on…
Do you think there’s a mood of fatalism at the moment? An interesting thing about OFITN is that it concludes optimistically, in line with a general mood in the nineties of rapprochement with the political centre, and New Labour, and so on. What do you think the postscript is to that? Would you write something about the twenty-year period since the mid 1990s?
Yes I would. In my head I’m working on it all the time. We had no idea how bad it was going to get, we had no idea what was being cooked up for us in the commercial world, with the bankers and so on. That’s what they want me to write about. If someone will say that in 5 years time, 8 hours will be made available to me and the budget to make it, then I’ll commit myself to doing it. It’s a story called “The Fall”. It’s another one that looks at our entrails and asks how on earth we got here.
There almost seems to be an appetite for that sort of thing, with series like The Hour. It’s not very good but it offers a template.
Maybe there is, but The Hour isn’t saying enough for me. It’s almost as if we still want series like this, but we don’t want them to be about anything: we want the form but not the content. That’s why Just a Minute is the perfect radio programme, because it’s entirely form. You’re not allowed to talk about anything. It’s an analogy for the whole of broadcasting: talk as much as you can, as loudly as you can, without saying anything.
Alex Niven is studying for a D.Phil in English literature at St. John’s, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.