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Bleasdale, Alan (1946-)


Main image of Bleasdale, Alan (1946-)

Born in Liverpool on 23 March 1946, Alan Bleasdale is one of a number of British scriptwriters whose work is firmly rooted in the city of his birth and whose plays and television series have often celebrated the lives and culture of the disenfranchised working-class. While this has led him towards social realism, Bleasdale's writing has invariably been enriched by humour, often veering towards black comedy and farce.

After training as a teacher, he taught for four years in a secondary modern school, where he wrote a series of short stories about a teenager called Scully, originally to entertain his pupils. The stories were broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside in 1971, read by the author, and Bleasdale subsequently used Scully as the basis for a novel, stage and television plays, and a seven-part television series.

His first televised drama was for the BBC Second City Firsts series in 1975. 'Early to Bed' (tx. 20/3/1975) was a half-hour drama about another teenage boy, Vinnie (David Warwick), living in a Lancashire mining town where he is having a casual affair with Helen (Alison Steadman), the married woman who lives next door. Shot on film by Les Blair, the drama makes good use of its working-class environment - terraced houses, fish and chip shop, working men's club - ending with Vinnie leaving town to go off to university.

A number of stage plays followed, including at least two featuring the character of Scully. Bleasdale's radio and theatre work in the 1970s was crucial to the development of his own personal style. Reading his own stories on radio enabled him to develop a sense of comic timing, as well as an ear for dialogue, while seeing his plays performed in various venues in Liverpool enabled him to appreciate which material worked with an audience and which did not.

Another Scully story, 'Scully's New Year's Eve' (tx. 3/1/1978), was screened as a BBC Play for Today in 1978, but it was 'The Black Stuff' (tx. 2/1/1980), about a group of road workers from Liverpool laying tarmac in the north east, which launched Bleasdale on a new path which culminated with Boys From the Blackstuff in 1982. 'The Black Stuff' was filmed in 1978, and it was while it was being edited that Bleasdale wrote to David Rose, Head of BBC English Regions Drama, and Michael Wearing, script editor on 'The Black Stuff', outlining his ideas for developing the drama into five plays, using the characters in 'The Black Stuff' to explore the issue of unemployment and attitudes towards it which were prevalent at the time.

'The Black Stuff' was not transmitted until after Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government had come to power and unemployment increased dramatically as a result of the new government's economic policies. By the time that Boys From the Blackstuff was screened, in October 1982, over three million people were out of work, the highest figure for fifty years. Boys From the Blackstuff echoed a national concern about the effect of Thatcher's policies on working-class communities in the industrial heartlands of Britain, giving expression to the frustration and despair that working-class people were experiencing. Bleasdale channelled all of his previous experience as a writer into producing scripts reflecting this frustration, incorporating elements of 'scouse' humour and black comedy, ingredients which helped to make the plays both realistic and entertaining for working-class audiences.

After developing Scully as a seven-part series for Channel 4 in 1984 and writing a feature film, No Surrender (UK/Canada, d. Peter Smith, 1985), about a chaotic night-out in a Liverpool nightclub, Bleasdale turned to historical drama with The Monocled Mutineer, a four-part serial for BBC1 about Percy Toplis, a soldier in the First World War who led a mutiny and then took on the persona of an upper-class officer before being killed by an MI5 assassin. The serial proved very controversial, partly because it was promoted in a BBC press release as being 'historically accurate'. However, Bleasdale had included scenes, such as an officer being shot for cowardice, which were subsequently questioned for their veracity, prompting right-wing critics and the Daily Mail to smear the series as a whole.

His next major project was a seven-part serial, GBH, produced by Verity Lambert's production company, Cinema Verity, and screened on Channel 4 in 1991. Bleasdale had been working on GBH for several years, having previously tried to write it as a novel and a film script. GBH was clearly a response to events in Liverpool in the 1980s, when members of the left-wing Militant Tendency gained control of the city council. Bleasdale's megalomaniacal council leader, Michael Murray, was a thinly-disguised version of Derek Hatton, the outspoken deputy-leader of Liverpool City Council. Robert Lindsay's performance as Murray was a tour de force but it was Michael Palin's moderate headmaster, Jim Nelson, who is Bleasdale's alter ego in the serial, becoming a symbol of resistance to the totalitarianism of Murray and his gang of bully boys. A sprawling but highly entertaining serial, GBH (which stands for the 'Great British Holiday' that Nelson goes on, rather than 'Grevious Bodily Harm') seems remarkable now not so much as a satire on left-wing politics but as an example of a dying television form, the 'tele-novel', clocking in at over ten hours of screen time.

Robert Lindsay also featured, with Julie Walters, in another Bleasdale 'tele-novel', the six-part Jake's Progress (Channel 4, 1995). Jake's Progress was over eight hours in length but, lacking the biting political satire of GBH, its story of a couple struggling to cope with a 'difficult' child (a remarkable performance from Barclay Wright) was a disappointment, suggesting that, while Bleasdale has never considered himself a 'political' writer, it was the social and political aspects of Boys From the Blackstuff, The Monocled Mutineer and GBH which made these dramas distinctive. Without this dimension, Jake's Progress lacked focus.

In the late 1990s Bleasdale adapted two novels for television: Francis Durbridge's Melissa (Channel 4, 1997) and Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (ITV, 1999), reaffirming his predilection for the tele-novel while suggesting he is no longer motivated by contemporary events as he was in the 1970s and '80s.

Lez Cooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

Pivotal drama about unemployment and desperation in 1980s Liverpool

Thumbnail image of G.B.H. (1991)G.B.H. (1991)

Alan Bleasdale's ambitious satire about corrupt Northern politics

Thumbnail image of Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)

Alan Bleasdale's controversial drama based on a real WWI mutiny

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