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Friday, 15 October 2021

OPINION: Why the BBC's crime-musical drama 'Blackpool' still Rocks!

A Look back at one of the bravest, boldest and different crime dramas of the noughties

"VIVA LAS VEGAS" - Peter Bowker's Blackpool.

First aired Thursday 11th November 2004 on BBC One. 

Contributed by Michael Lee 

When Blackpool first launched on BBC One in 2004 it was something of an anomaly. Seventeen years later, bar the poorly received US remake it still is. On paper, it sounded utterly bonkers. Coming two years before another out there crime drama that saw a modern-day policeman transported back to 1973, Peter Bowker's six-part musical crime drama was probably the most audacious, brave and surprising drama of the early noughties.

Beloved by fans, it was a show with a  colour palette of the filter which was certainly of its time but also rather fitting of the Blackpool illuminations themselves. On the surface, it's a story that exudes pizazz with outlandish broad strokes but the real heart of proceedings is one man’s descent as his world crumbles around him.

We spoke to writer Peter Bowker and asked how such a very different crime drama came to be. "It was a remarkably easy sell at the time. I pitched it to Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie. We knew each other well, had come up together through Casualty. I remember describing the show to Laura and Sally and adding, “It’s a musical.” and rather than run to the hills they liked the idea even more. The other thing I have to say is that I was “having my moment” as a writer. All writers will tell you this happens. All it really means is that the people you are working with trust you and have a good instinct for who will work well with you. Kate Lewis joined as Producer and we really got on. Julie-Ann Robinson (who was relatively inexperienced at the time) joined as Director and we just clicked."

"The other thing was that the BBC was quite gung ho at the time. Greg Dyke had come in and told the institution to stop apologising for itself and defending itself with the quality of what he did. Ironically, on the day the series got greenlit I think Greg Dyke resigned because of the “sexing up the Iraq War dossier.” 

Blackpool centres around Ripley Holden (David Morrissey), an arcade owner with big dreams of turning the town into the casino capital of the North West. He's a character whose big ambition is matched by a larger than life personality. The first episode opens with the Holden family, Ripley's wife Natalie (Sarah Parish) and adult children Shyanne (Georgia Taylor) and Danny (Thomas Morrison) preparing for the casino opening whilst singing along to Elvis's Viva Las Vegas. It's an opening sequence that makes you sit up and take notice. It's a testament to the whole production that the musical numbers feel immediately at home. They mainly involve the cast singing along to the actual tracks. It's a device that could feel awkward and clunky but somehow it never does. There's a joyous aspect to them. 

When a dead body is found on his property, Ripley no longer holds any of the cards. His ego takes a bruising and amid a murder investigation, his family fragments and his past comes back to haunt him. Morrissey is incredible in the role, revelling in Ripley’s sourpuss complexity, crafting that fine line between arrogance and fragility. Ripley is an anti-hero in the same way Tony Soprano was, a man doing terrible things with greed at the heart of every decision he makes. Ripley has a charisma that makes him irresistible to those around him and the viewer.  

David Tennant is at his mischievous best as the Dastardly D.I Peter Carlisle. No Ice Cream is safe as he aims to bring Ripley and his family down (or with him, ahem). His long-suffering assistant Blythe (Bryan Dick) is just another of his fall guys. Tennant’s intensity in delivering a nuanced and very comical performance deserves more plaudits. For context, it's important to know where Tennant was in his career. Blackpool came nearly a year before his landmark performance as the tenth Doctor. It's fair to say the show was his first real breakout performance in a BIG role and it's clear from the first moment we meet Peter Carlisle it's clear that Tennant is going to be a big star and he's a clear foe for Morriesery's Ripley Holden. The battle between the pair, with Carlisle digging around in every inch of The Holdens' affairs provides a great central rivalry.  

Sarah Parish delivers a powerhouse performance as Ripley’s wife Natalie. Stuck in a loveless marriage and with very different ambitions, it sets things on a course where two worlds collide. The affair that slowly develops between her and Tennant's character feels tender and sweet at times, but Bowker's script always keeps you questioning Carlisle's motives. Has he really fallen for Natalie or is it another way of getting closer to Ripley?

Aside from being a properly compelling and expertly plotted whodunnit, it's those musical numbers that make Blackpool something really special. Through glam rock, country ditties and eighties power ballads the cast sing, dance and fight in imperfect harmony, breaking out into songs at random moments. Here’s the thing, they do actually sing too, albeit over the tracks and not always in tune but it is a touch that just adds to the show’s unique charm. Highlights include Holden’s son being arrested by Carlisle to the tune of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, replete with the most stilted dancing since I last went clubbing. Then there’s the water fountain based fight set to Should I Stay Or Should I Go or the first time the pair meet, which results in a brilliant rendition of Nancy Sinatra's These Boots are Made for Walking.         

Writer Peter Bowker admits he wasn't sure about what was involved in incorporating the musical aspects of the show. "I had no idea about music clearances so just came up with tracks that I thought would fit the bill. For the most part, I wanted songs that would be likely karaoke numbers. Blackpool struck me as a karaoke town. Everybody pretending to be someone else - their holiday self. The whole town a kind of fantasy, but with a Northern wink to the audience part of the attraction. I wanted each song to move the plot on either by fleshing out the concerns of the character or telling more of the story. I think my rationale was this: at heightened moments in my life I can tell you what songs were in the charts long after I have forgotten the emotion. It was drawing on what Dennis Potter said about the potency of cheap music. What became clear in terms of using music was often the rights would not be available for the original artists. But this made it even better. So it is an Elvis soundalike singing the Elvis and a Nancy Sinatra soundalike singing ‘These Boots’. And it was fun not to use Johnny Cash but to use Val Doonican for instance. It makes sense in a Blackpool context."

"The main challenge in the edit was to shift from lip-syncing to singing along. The lip-syncing just wasn’t working for certain actors and the singing along gave the songs a whole low-rent quality that helped rather than hindered the tone of the piece."

He didn't need to worry. The moments when the characters burst into song are often the best moments of the series. All of the sequences are beautifully directed, funny and heartwarming. Music has often been an important part of Bowker's work. His last BBC drama, The A Word, began with autistic boy Joe, singing along to one of his many favourite songs as he walked down a deserted road in Yorkshire, but Blackpool puts the music front and centre. It's admirable that the musical interludes never feel intrusive or shoehorned in. They are there to propel the story and often show the characters at their most vulnerable or vindictive. Another favourite is a romantic slow dance between Tennant and Parishs' characters. It's set in a vast Blackpool ballroom. The camera swings, above and to the side of the pair who are locked in an embrace whilst serenading each other by singing along to Gabrielle's criminally underplayed 2000 hit Should I Stay. It's a standout moment that proves the musical moments are just memorable as the twists and turns of the central mystery.

Bowker finessed a story that encapsulated the extremes of Ripley’s teetering mind. It’s brash and over the top but also has a very dark heart. He mastered brooding tension with incredibly light comical moments. Nuance dictates the characters, the series arc and the dialogue. Throughout the course of the six episodes, we discover that Ripley was raised by an abusive father, which goes some way to explaining his emotionally domineering behaviour, without excusing it. He pictures other women while in bed with Natalie, he disapproves of Shyanne dating his schoolmate Steve (the brilliant Kevin Doyle) while also messing around with girls young enough to be his daughter and he belittles the closeted Danny. He's a character who is hard to like, but also one, who despite your best efforts, you want to see him achieve his goals. 

Themes of depression, drugs and murder intertwine with riotous silliness. The fruit machine is used as a method to illuminate where the characters are at was a masterstroke. On the other side of the coin is Holden’s moralistic battle with protester Hallworth (David Bradley).

The supporting cast is paved with gold. Steve Pemberton, John Thomson, Georgia Taylor, Thomas Morrison, Kevin Doyle, Lisa Millett and Paul Ritter add to the rich tapestry and that ultimately makes us, the viewers the real winners. Underneath the sheen of Blackpool’s bright lights lurks a gritty underbelly and there lies the faded glamour of this lost TV classic.

Ripley returned in 2006 for Viva Blackpool. The 90-minute single drama revolved around a plot to steal England’s 1966 World Cup, which has been bequeathed to a character played by Annette Crosbie after her dodgy-dealing son passed away.

Tennant and Parrish didn’t return, but David Morrissey headlined once again, with Georgia Taylor returning as Shyanne. The sequel found a divorced Ripley’s ambition curtailed somewhat, having come back from Vegas to live in a caravan with Shyanne and her young son, after Steve (ironically) left them for an older woman. It didn't quite recapture what made the original so special, but I appreciated being able to revisit Ripley Holden. That was it for Ripley on OUR screens. He would appear again when CBS ordered a US remake entitled Viva Laughlin in 2007. The remake found Ripley Holden, (played by Lloyd Owen) fending off rival casino owner Nicky Fontana, ( Hugh Jackman) as he struggled to complete his casino in Laughlin, Nevada as financial troubles threatened to overwhelm him. His ex-business partner turns up dead on the premises, and he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation.

Bowker remembers that the remake came about because the series had been really well received on BBC AMERICA. 

"My Agent rang and said she had an offer for the Format from Sony to do a US remake with CBS. I remember saying, “Blackpool is about a man in Blackpool who fantasises he is in Vegas - are the Americans saying there is a man in Vegas fantasising he is in Blackpool?” She was puzzled too but it all went ahead - although she said to me, “Don’t have anything to do with it OR be the lead writer, don’t think you can dip in and out." They got a nice writer on and he delivered the pilot and his problem was the problem I had had trying to imagine it. The dramatic tension at the heart of Blackpool is a man who has dreams bigger than the seaside town. We can see his delusion is leading to disaster. But once someone owns a Vegas casino - what is the story? Also, it was for CBS not HBO so it was trying to be a mainstream drama with all the dark undertones toned down. But, it seems to me, most disastrously of all, it had a huge budget and access to a massive music catalogue through Sony so the cheap karaoke aesthetic was completely screwed. Rather than Dave Morrissey singing Val Doonican they had Hugh Jackman flying in on a helicopter doing a karaoke cover version of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’! Which has never been a karaoke classic in any world!

Anyway, I read the pilot script and thought that will not be filmed. Then it was filmed and I watched the pilot and thought that will not be picked up. Then it was picked up and went to series. And I think it was pulled after three episodes."  Actually, it was axed after two after a complete savaging from US critics who couldn't get their head around the concept at all. 

One critic branded it, "Narratively lax, creatively unfocused and in every way inferior to its British source material." The New York Times was even worse, " “No question this is the worst show of the new season. The question is is it the worst show of all time?!"  Another saying, "It's the most frustratingly wrongheaded series I've seen this year. Peter Bowker, who knew the series was doom to fail, has no hard feelings. "The odd thing was that my reputation came out enhanced. The worse this show became the better the original’s reputation - even amongst people who had never seen it!"

Critical reception to the series was mixed here too, but the viewers remained loyal. In 2005, the series was nominated in the Best Drama Serial at the British Academy Television Awards, eventually losing out to Channel 4's Sex Traffic. It did, however, win the "Best Miniseries" and Grand Prize accolades at Canada's Banff Television Festival. It's time on BBC America saw the original series nominated for a Golden Globe and winning a Peabody Award! Ironically, it is this success that led to Viva Laughlin

Revisiting the show for this piece, you realise how truly unique it was. With more in common with The Singing Detective than any of the mysteries to come before or after it. It arrived at a time where the BBC was taking big swings in their dramas. Paul Abbott's political thriller State of Play, hairdressing drama Cutting It, and Tony Jordan's Hustle all being highlights of this era. but Blackpool still stands out as something special. Quality runs through everything like a stick of Blackpool's famous rock. Enjoy the sugar rush but boy, just to warn you all there’s quite the comedown.

                                      Blackpool is now streaming on BritBox

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