1 9 9 1 (UK)
7 x 80 minute episodes
After the success of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) and The Monocled Mutineer (1986), writer Alan Bleasdale continued his exploration of the roots of social conflict in Britain with G.B.H., a topical, highly ambitious work that remains his longest, most complex and expansive project to date.
The intricate story is set in an unnamed northern town (it was mostly filmed in and around Manchester), now under the leadership of venal and corrupt Labour politician Michael Murray.
Most viewers found Murray reminiscent of Derek Hatton, whose election to Liverpool City Council in the 1980s sparked great controversy for his affiliations with the Trotskyist group Militant Tendency, which eventually led to his expulsion from the Labour Party.
The role of Murray was originally offered to Michael Palin, who eventually played Nelson, the headmaster who inadvertently sabotages a day of industrial action.
The flashier role of his nemesis went to Robert Lindsay, who is enormously impressive as the philandering, massively egocentric but psychologically haunted and ultimately pitiable politician.
Although almost ten hours long, G.B.H. never feels bloated despite many of the individual scenes being told at great length, a style that may perhaps have been more appropriate for a studio drama shot on video rather than a filmed series.
In keeping with the narrative’s split focus between the two central characters, the series frequently surprises and impresses by veering from tense drama to hilarious farce.
The use of extended sequences pays considerable dividends in several extraordinarily well-executed episodes, most notably the terrifying picketing of Nelson’s school; and the hilariously extended sequence which culminates in Murray succumbing to a whole range of involuntary tics, spasms and gestures while trying to keep a low profile at a hotel hosting a Doctor Who convention (an in-joke aimed at G.B.H.‘s executive producer Verity Lambert, who had also produced that science fiction series in the 1960s).
Through a series of interlocking flashbacks, guided by the actions of Lindsay Duncan’s mysterious femme fatale, we eventually learn Murray’s dark secret.
When the plot to destabilise his Council is explained as an Establishment dirty tricks campaign to discredit the Labour Party, this seems facile, convoluted and somewhat unconvincing.
Much better is the conclusion, which leaves Murray a glimmer of hope and shows Nelson conquering his fear of bridges while rioting in the city continues.