‘Gizza job!” That phrase – “give us a job” – echoed relentlessly through Britain in 1982. It was a catchphrase, almost as commonly heard in conversation as the name of the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979. Three years later, her most powerful opposition figure was the guy saying “Gizza job!” on TV. That was Yosser Hughes (played by Bernard Hill), a Liverpudlian labourer, unemployed and losing his sanity as he dealt with the absence of his wife, who had left him, and the presence of his young kids, whom the authorities wanted to take from him. Yosser was the key figure in Boys from the Blackstuff, written by Alan Bleasdale as a portrait of Thatcher’s England – grim and despairing, with traditions, families and communities torn asunder by her policies.
The series was oppositional in perspective, as was much of what followed in a golden period for British TV. At the same time, though, Boys from the Blackstuff also stood as a retort to Brideshead Revisited, that gorgeous exercise in nostalgia, and another key emanation of the Thatcher era, which had aired in 1981 on British TV and around the world to vast acclaim and popularity.
That’s what Thatcher did – mostly by accident and partly by design (her government’s creation of Channel 4) – she gave birth to the glory days of British TV. She helped create magnificent art. It was a time of TV auteurs whose work, in turn, inspired American and Canadian creators to instigate serious-minded long-form TV drama. It was a time of original, lacerating television and a time of beautiful escapism. While many of those who created that superb TV might not lament her passing, British TV has never been as good.
Thatcher had no time for the arts, disliked the BBC and was intent on reshaping British society. With a weakened opposition Labour Party struggling to unite and assail her, the authentic opposition, the counterattack, came from the arts and through the most populist, easily accessible art form, television. Her certitude was matched by the fierceness of starkly political TV.
The Thatcher era included such provocative, profoundly political dramas as The Monocled Mutineer, G.B.H. (both by Bleasdale), Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Edge of Darkness and A Very British Coup. And what Thatcher begat in her opposition writers and creators continued into the immediate post-Thatcher, John Major era. Prime Suspect, that corrosive portrait of a broken society, under the guise of crime drama, arrived in 1991, just as Thatcher left office. Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker, equally bleak about Britain, came two years later.
It was a period when the works of Potter, Bleasdale and McGovern were taken with a new seriousness. It was a time when playwrights such as Steve Poliakoff began writing regularly for British TV. Their work – the consistency of tone and theses, the demolition of the orthodoxies of commercial television – established the idea of the TV writer as auteur. Most of their work was seen in the United States on PBS and that helped educate a new generation of American TV writers who took full advantage of what they had learned when new cable channels offered the opportunity to make serious-minded TV in the U.S. All of this Thatcher begat.
There is an obvious irony in Thatcher inspiring greatness in a popular art form she disliked. Such is often the way when a new, hard-line political regime gives birth to genius by creating an oppositional climate in the arts.
But there is a deeper irony that emerges in hindsight. Much of that great British TV was rooted in a clinging to the past – an England defined by trade unions, working-class solidarity, the National Health System and easy access to jobs, grants and education. What Thatcher wrought was the end of all that, and she definitely won.
Yet there is a greater irony more obvious now – the two strands of excellence that Thatcher inspired no longer seem so contrary to each other. Boys from the Blackstuff seems as quaint now, as much a lament as Brideshead Revisited.
Later in the Thatcher era came another of those sublime excursions into fondness for empire and Britain’s old greatness, The Jewel in the Crown. That serial, imbued with longing for the bittersweet end of the British Raj in India, was part of a package of Thatcher-era entertainment, a package inspired by a Conservative Party measure of England that included the Merchant Ivory movie Room with a View (1985) and David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984).
Meanwhile, yet another oddity emerges in the case of Channel 4. The Thatcher government pushed it into existence as a counterweight to the dominance of the BBC and ITV. The idea was for Channel 4 to be “commercially self-funded yet publicly owned” and add competitiveness to the British TV market.
It did that, but Channel 4’s policy of funding both new film
and TV projects was responsible for great swathes of provocative, anti-establishment material, such as Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette and David Leland’s Wish You Were Here.
Yosser’s catchphrase “Gizza job” is worth savouring. Mostly by accident, Margaret Thatcher gave jobs to countless artists in film and TV, and their job was to oppose her policies. Many did it very well and that, too, is part of her legacy.