Our Friends in the North writer Peter Flannery talks about BBC TV's George Gently
Posted: 11 Oct 2009
Our friend in the North
Hit BBC detective series Inspector George Gently is set in Northumberland in the Sixties - and was actually born in the North East
Exclusive interview by Michael Hamilton
* Following this interview the good news is that the next series of George Gently is to be filmed in the North East
Award-winning Geordie screenwriter Peter Flannery – who wrote the epic BBC drama Our Friends in the North in 1996 – was browsing in bookshops, looking for clues to resurrect his TV career.
That took him to Barter Books in Alnwick – one of the largest second hand bookshops in the UK – where he stumbled across the Gently stories written by Alan Hunter.
He says: ‘Ten years had gone by and I had written lots of stuff for television that didn’t make it. I said to myself: “What do they want? Detectives. I’ll go and find one.”
‘The joy of writing the Gently stories lies in the period and the place: the place because it’s where I grew up – the period for the same reason. It gives me a chance to write about a country on the cusp of change.’
Like Geordie actress Jill Halfpenny who made a star guest appearance in the series, Peter is frustrated that it is shot in Ireland* (see above).
‘I hope one day, if we go on, that we’ll be able to film it in Northumberland. We do it there because the Irish Film & TV Commission makes a big contribution. We couldn’t do the show with the money the BBC pays without having the grant.
‘It’s maddening to be setting a scene in Durham – like we did in the pilot – and not be able to show the Cathedral.
‘We used a little side church altar in a small church in Dublin and never remotely got away with pretending it was Durham!’
‘I set it in the Sixties because I think the country changed a lot from the mid Sixties. Culturally there was a huge change, a revolution in music, fashion and pop culture.
‘Swinging Britain was partly born on the crest of that wave of teenagers having money to spend and an identity for the first time.
‘Then there were the great Liberal reforms of that Wilson government which brought about legalised abortion, legalised homosexuality and did away with capital punishment.
‘I wanted to set it just before all that was coming because it has not been a complete blessing.
‘It brought about a diminishing of respect for authority which seemed like a brilliant idea at the time.’
In 1964, Peter born and bred in Jarrow, was 13.
‘My memories were very much about being out of the centre of things and craving a big city life.
‘It seemed like a great idea, this loosening of respect for authority, sweeping away the old, but then look at the bloody mess the country’s got itself into.
‘Respect for authority – sometimes too much – kept a lot of things in check and a lot of people were better off for that.’
Gently is played by Martin Shaw and Bacchus by Lee Ingleby in the BBC drama which was screened in May.
‘Gently sees all that, whereas his sidekick Bacchus can only see himself kicking over the traces,’ says Peter.
‘Bacchus isn’t in the book – I made him up for the television. Gently has spent the majority of his career in the Met and he’s left because it’s corrupt and gone to the North East. Bacchus is doing the reverse – he’s dying to go to London.
‘He’s in his late twenties and can’t wait to get out of the North East just like a lot of people in 1964 couldn’t wait to London where the real action is. He’s a bit like Geordie’s character in Our Friends from the North.
‘Gently is much steadier and more experienced. He doesn’t mind roughing people up in the way the police did in those days. But he’s scrupulous about how he gets his evidence while Bacchus is much more likely to take a short cut.’
Although best known for Our Friends in the North – it won him a British Academy Television Award for outstanding achievement in television writing in 1997 – he worked as a resident playwright at the RSC in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Last year his drama about the English Civil War, the Devil’s Whore, was screened on Channel 4. And his acclaimed play Burnt by the Sun completed a run at the National in London earlier this year.
He also did a lot of work with Newcastle’s Live Theatre in the Nineties including The Bodies in 2005 – which starred Jill Halfpenny and husband Craig – an adaptation of
Zola’s Therese Raquin.
‘I’ve got several more Gently stories I’d like to do. The BBC is currently making its mind up. If it maintains or improves on the last series viewing figures then we should be OK.
‘I’m planning more theatre but, because I’ve had this big success at the National, it’s more likely to write something for them. I did a lot of work for Live in the Nineties.
‘I was disappointed that The Bodies didn’t go into London – it went really well in Newcastle. It’s a lot work to do for a show that just runs for a few weeks.’
Peter, who now lives in Wallingford, Oxfordshire still likes to retreat to a little cottage in Alnmouth to do some of his writing.
‘It makes it easy to see my mum too. My folks are still up there although I haven’t had a place of my own in the North East since I left home to go to university.
‘I still find myself drawn to Marsden Rock every time I’m home. It’s iconic for me because I grew up there, played on the beach there as a kid. I had my first camping holiday there as a teenager.
‘I love it. There are prettier places in the North East but it’s iconic for me.’