Year: 1980; re-broadcast 2010
Broadcaster: BBC FOUR
On 2 January 1980 the BBC broadcast a ‘Play for Today’ entitled The Black Stuff. The programme, which spawned a series two years later, followed a group of tarmac layers from Liverpool who had been employed to work on a construction site in Middlesborough. Set against a background of social and economic turmoil, it aired at a time when unemployment was rising rapidly. This was the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and the spectre of unemployment and union militancy loomed somewhat over the programme. It is easy, therefore, to read The Black Stuff as a firm critique of Thatcherism – this was certainly true of The Boys from the Blackstuff, the follow-on series which aired in 1982. But the original screenplay had been written (and recorded) two years previously – under a very different political context. What, then, can The Black Stuff tell us? Before getting on to questions of cultural (and historical) significance, I will first give an overview of the programme itself, focussing on the original ‘Play for Today’.
Opening with views of the River Mersey, replete with docks, but not necessarily much docking, the camera pans to familiar landmarks; three ‘Graces’, two cathedrals, and one radio tower. Over this scenery was a song about tarmacking. The tongue-in-cheek optimism of the lyrics contrasts starkly with our image of manual employment from the period (and, by the end of the programme, the experiences of the main characters): “There’s not a service equal to the old black stuff” and “If it doesn’t last forever then I swear I’ll eat my hat” being favourite lyrics. The main characters, Yosser, Dixie, Chrissie, Loggo, George and Kev, are setting off to Middlesborough with the promise of work. Though we get early glimpses into the lives of the characters, it was Yosser, played by Bernard Hill, who stands out – and not for good reasons.
Yosser’s tumultuous relationship with his wife, who had left him all night with the children to go to the casino and had, by the time of his intended departure, still not returned, perhaps most poignantly raises the issue of masculinity. It is a theme which appears in many different guises throughout the programme, but it is at its most heightened through the spectres of misogyny and domestic violence, as encapsulated by Yosser. When he raises his fist to his wife, she declares that she is no longer afraid of him. A poignant moment early on, but one which foreshadows Yosser’s behaviour throughout.
On the way to Middlesborough, the boys stop at a café for breakfast. The light-fingered Loggo proclaimed to be on a diet, eschewing the fried breakfasts enjoyed by his friends. Of course, this is a means to save money, and out of his pocket comes a fully-plated cooked breakfast, covered in cling film. The show contains many light-hearted, humorous moments, contrasting nicely with the day-to-day struggles of making a living and, as we’ll see, retaining a strong sense of masculinity; at different points, various characters are criticised for being “soft”. The café scene also introduces a student, played by Janine Duvitski, hitch-hiking to Leeds. Yosser took an immediate dislike, the reason for which became immediately apparent, and tried to talk Chrissie, the driver of the boys’ van, into leaving her by the side of the road after promising a lift. Once again, gender is the principal issue. “Been raped lately, love?” berates Yosser, obviously taking the student to be a second wave feminist. “Not for ages”, comes her reply, to the enjoyment of all the boys, with the exception of a humiliated Yosser. Indeed, to Yosser’s assertion that “You don’t need an education like you’re getting to change nappies and cook chips” came a reply which can be summed up in the student’s words: “You’re scared”.
What the programme says about the gender politics of the late 1970s alone is interesting, but what most struck me was its relationship to seemingly anonymous economic forces. De-industrialisation, the closure of factories and loss of manufacturing employment is, along with ideas of ‘decline’, an important theme in contemporary British history. But the process was gendered; while the male-dominated manufacturing sector was shedding employment, services were hiring increasing numbers of women. In the face of the supposed ascendency of women, in Yosser’s case both inside and outside the home, Hill’s character increasingly struggled to maintain his strong masculine identity. It was something which would play out in the follow-up series, but with the precarious nature of tarmacking shown in the programme, also came the potential for unemployment. And if masculine identity was linked to employment and bread-winner status, then what would unemployment hold for a man like Yosser’s selfhood?
The programme drew on many more themes; the politics of trades unionism was crucial, as was hostility to Irish travellers. But identity is key. As events spiral out of Yosser’s control and he ends up unemployed and out of pocket (the travellers having taken his money), Yosser lambasts his “soft” friend Chrissie. Finally, his identity crisis is laid bare for all to see: “I wanna be somebody! I’m alive! I’m a human being! Look at me!”
Aaron Andrews is a PhD student in the Centre for Urban History at Leicester and is funded by Optimum-MBA. His thesis is entitled ‘Whither the City? Urban Decline in Glasgow and Liverpool, c. 1960-1990’. It looks at the various processes of social, economic and environmental change in the two cities and how they can inform our understanding of ‘decline’ in Britain.