Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Christopher Eccleston and writer Peter Flannery: how we made Our Friends in the North.


Christopher Eccleston, actor

I was filming Shallow Grave, and Danny Boyle mentioned that he’d heard good things about this TV project called Our Friends in the North, which he was originally going to direct. I got hold of the script and right from the off, I knew I had to be in it.

It’s about four friends from Newcastle, telling their story from 1964 to the mid-90s, what was then the present day. At first they offered me the part of Geordie Peacock, the role that eventually went to Daniel Craig. But I had my eye on this terrific character Nicky Hutchinson – a young, educated lad from a working-class background who starts out a firebrand but is ground down by political corruption. I loved the politics of the series, the way it connected the story of postwar Britain – Harold Wilson through to Thatcher and beyond – to individual lives. Plus I couldn’t have competed with Daniel; he brought such sexiness and charisma to Geordie. That’s not really my department.

Normally you only get to play a character from the age of 19 to 60 at drama school. I was in my early 30s at the time, so it involved plenty of terrible wigs, and the accent was a challenge. I found a non-actor who recorded all my dialogue, so that I could keep working on it. In the end I was told it was closer to Sunderland than Newcastle. But I was happy with that. And it was a great opportunity to learn: I wasn’t long out of training, and here I was, surrounded by all these amazing actors: Alun Armstrong, David Bradley, Gina McKee, Peter Vaughan, who played my father.

It was hard. It took nine months to film and one of the directors left a few months after we started shooting in 1995. The very first episode had to be rewritten and reshot (which actually spared the audience hearing my singing). And it was an intense set: things were tense with Peter Vaughan, working through our difficult father-son relationship. Mark Strong and I didn’t get on in real life, just as our characters Nicky and Tosker didn’t get on. We were well cast in that respect – that’s as much as I’ll say.

I’m suspicious of the label it often gets as the best drama ever; things have to be looked at forensically. There were many flaws in Our Friends in the North – those wigs, the lack of budget, the internal politics – but I think they were flaws because it was so ambitious. It came from a particular era of television: writer-led, issue-led. I genuinely don’t think anyone would have the balls to make it now.