There have been few TV plays as influential or as seminal as The Black Stuff, Alan Bleasdale’s 1980 Play for Today which led to possibly the most famous anti-Thatcher serial of them all, Boys From The Blackstuff, which ranked seventh in the BFI TV 100 of the 20th century. Yet ironically, the play concerning a group of Liverpudlian tarmac layers on a job near Middlesbrough (‘the black stuff’ being tarmac), was actually written in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.
This original play was a reaction to Britain’s declining economic fortunes under Labour, with 1.5 million people unemployed – a 40-year high – at the time of its writing. The play featured the now-famous characters of Yosser (Bernard Hill), Loggo (Alan Igbon), Chrissie (Michael Angelis), George (Peter Kerrigan) and Dixie (Tom Georgson) coming across a group of gypsies who offer them a ‘side job’ while they’re on their properly contracted job. The gang reluctantly agree and after that, it all goes downhill…
The acclaim for the play led to the commissioning in 1981 of a play about the gang’s boss, Danny, played by Peter Postlewaite, called The Muscle Market. That was swiftly followed by the 1982 Boys From The Black Stuff, by which point unemployment had reached 3 million. Each episode focused a different member of the gang, now unemployed or in a different job. Best remembered for Yosser’s catchphrases “Gizza’ job” and “I can do that”, the serial showed how unemployment was destroying lives and how little support there was for those without work. As well as Hill and others, it launched the career of Julie Walters, who played Chrissie’s wife.
Since BBC Worldwide sucks, they won’t let me embed the video below, but head straight on over to YouTube to watch the full thing; I can at least embed The Muscle Market and the episodes of the serial itself below. As always, if you enjoy it, buy it on DVD (unfortunately, The Meat Market isn’t available on DVD).