1982. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Unemployment had topped 3 million, and accounted for about 15% of the populace of most northern towns. There was an economic recession. Industry was being “restructured". Things looked bleak. Cue Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to brighten up our lives. But they didn't do it by escaping from the realities of the time, on the contrary, they mined those desperate days for all their blackly comic worth, and consequently highlighted the plight of the working man. Much like Alan Bleasdale did with Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), Clement and La Frenais mixed gallows humour with human drama to paint a picture of the state of the nation, but on this occasion, they did it whilst setting the action in Germany.
We follow seven building workers from the dole cues of Newcastle, Liverpool, West Bromwich, London and Bristol to the tax-free building sites of Germany, in this case, Düsseldorf, a bleak urban area filled with *** theatres and beer kellers, where the sun never shines. Dennis (Tim Healy), Neville (Kevin Whately) and Oz (Jimmy Nail) are from Newcastle. Dennis exudes authority, so much so, and much to his chagrin, the others all bring their problems to him, and problems are something that he is not short of himself, notably his complicated divorce from Vera (Caroline Hutchinson), and his relationship with the German, Dagmar (Brigitte Kahn). In the final episode he uses a building metaphor to describe his relationship problems to his workmates that is devastatingly brilliant. Neville is young and is spending time away from his wife, Brenda (Julia Tobin), for the first time. Being away from home is a painful, but necessary, sacrifice for him, as strives to save enough money for a house on a nice estate. Oz is the complete opposite of Neville; he is there to have a good time, visit a few brothels, and piss his wages against a wall; he has no intention of sending money back to his wife and young child (whose age he can't remember. )
Barry (Timothy Spall) is from West Bromwich (the former captain of the West Bromwich and District Sunday Methodist Table Tennis League), he is regarded as a radish, as boring, but his only real crime is that his interests stretch beyond womanising and binge-drinking; he is slightly naïve, and lacks confidence around members of the opposite sex (in fact he could have been based on me, if not for the fact that I was six or seven years old at the time. ) Bomber (Pat Roach) is a hulking giant of a man from a Bristol, but a generally gentle one at that. He describes himself as being daft as a brush, and on occasion, does indeed over-indulge in drink, gambling and prostitutes. Wayne (Gary Holton), a wiry, blue-haired Londoner, spends his time chasing young frauleins and washing his hair. And finally, there is Liverpudlian Moxey (Christopher Fairbank), a scrawny, perpetually ill plasterer with a dartboard.
There is no real, over-arching storyline, with each episode having its own fully realised plot. Having said that, the story (wonderful as so many of them are) is never really as important as other elements, such as the brilliantly drawn and fleshed out characters, and the way that they interact with each other in such humorous and credible ways; and the dialogue is constantly excellent (particularly anything delivered in that beautiful, melodic, Scandinavian-sounding, Geordie accent. ) The characters all feel like real, rounded human beings. Despite their many failings - sexism, racism, over-indulgence, etc. - we come to care for them. They have become real people.