was a seven-part British television drama
written by Alan Bleasdale
, made by independent production company G.B.H (Films) and shown in the summer of 1991
on Channel 4
, and repeated in July-August 2006
. The central characters were Michael Murray (played by Robert Lindsay
), the far-left Labour
leader of an unnamed City Council in the north of England, and Jim Nelson (played by Michael Palin
), the headmaster of a school for disturbed children. The series was controversial partly because the character of Murray appeared to be based on Derek Hatton
, the real-life former Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council
- indeed in an interview included in the G.B.H.
DVD boxed set Bleasdale recounts an accidental meeting with Hatton, before the series had even been recorded, in which the latter indicates that he has caught wind of Bleasdale's intentions, but does not mind as long as the actor playing him is "handsome".
is set in the early 1990s, towards the end of the Thatcher
years, when numerous attempts were made by local left-wing councils to achieve significant degrees of autonomy (not least in Bleasdale's home city of Liverpool, see municipal socialism
). The plot revolves around the deliberate attempt by UK government secret services to discredit and bring down Murray's leadership. On an ideological level this involves a left-wing theoretician, Mervyn, who is himself manipulated by MI5
agent Lou. Meanwhile, another MI5
agent Peter has recruited a gang of thugs, posing as left-wing activists (and, later, policemen) as agents provocateurs
. Each episode reveals more about the convoluted nature of the plot to discredit Murray.
Episode 1: "It Couldn't Happen Here"
In the opening scene, the newly-elected Murray returns to his old primary school
, where he burns copies of his school records that describe an event that almost caused him to be committed to a juvenile offenders' institution. He then uses his position to force the headmaster, Mr Weller, to work in a special school run by Nelson. Murray, a Labour
councillor with links to a far-left
political organisation, largely based upon Militant
, is persuaded by its leaders to call a 'Day of Action' to protest against government policies, but due to the incompetence of Murray's supporters Nelson's school is not picketed
and remains open. Murray tries to intimidate Nelson, who is a moderate member of the Labour Party, to join the strike
, and when this fails, thugs hired by the militants besiege the school and terrorise the children.
Episode 2: "Only Here on a Message"
Nelson, a chronic hypochondriac, develops a growing collection of neuroses as Murray and his supporters continue to picket the school. A local farmer promises Nelson that the majority of traditional socialists in the area will defend him against the "young snots" in the militant wing of the Labour Party. Meanwhile, Murray also finds himself suffering from pressure, in a conflict between the practicalities of running a city and the revolutionary plans of the militant wing of the Party who are threatening to blackmail
him. Finally, Murray meets a mysterious, wealthy and beautiful woman.
Episode 3: "Send a Message to Michael"
Murray is now in love with the mysterious stranger, Barbara Douglas, who initially pretends to admire him despite his crude manners. The 'message' in the episode title is a letter to Murray purporting to be from his childhood friend, Eileen Critchley, but actually written by Murray's political enemies and delivered secretly by Douglas. It is not yet clear whether Douglas is Critchley or an impostor, but she resembles the girl in the flashbacks
and knows about Murray's past. Critchley was the victim of Murray's as-yet unnamed childhood crime. Eileen's warning in the letter that she is about to 'have some fun' with Murray drives him further into a state of hysteria.
Murray's elder brother and downtrodden chauffeur Franky has had enough of Murray's arrogance and resigns on the spot, leaving Murray, humiliated, by the side of the road. Franky then picks up his wife and family and his mother (Murray's mainstay) and drives off to spend time on holiday in Fleetwood where he becomes enamoured by the idea of a life at sea.
Meanwhile, Peter's gang is conspiring to commit racially targeted assaults in order to provoke riots in the city.
Episode 4: "Message Sent"
We learn that Barbara Douglas is Eileen Critchley's younger sister, and that Eileen died while a university student. Eileen, having a morbid fascination with death inspired by the hanging of Ruth Ellis
, once cajoled her school-mate Murray into trying to strangle her, and this is the guilty secret that Murray is trying to hide before it destroys his career. Douglas is herself a government agent, working alongside Lou and Peter in the campaign to destabilize Murray. She tries to trick her former headmaster, Mr Weller, into handing over his copies of Murray's school records, but fails. Weller, rightly suspecting a conspiracy against him, delivers the records to his former colleague Jim Nelson for safekeeping.
Meanwhile, Nelson sees the militants beginning to take control of his local branch of the Labour Party. The conspirators are tormenting Murray by sending him messages purporting to be from Eileen; and, to make matters worse, Murray's neglected wife is searching for him in the hotel where he entertains his mistresses. Murray is now reduced to a ridiculous nervous wreck with a twitchy left eye, and an uncontrollable left arm reminiscent of Dr Strangelove's errant limb. The gang's campaign of violence begins with an assault on a black waiter. Needing more time to gather evidence against Murray, the conspirators order Douglas to calm him down by seducing him, which she duly does.
Episode 5: "Message Received"
After sleeping with Douglas, Murray temporarily regains his sanity and even displays some likeable characteristics, such as his genuine concern for the first victim of the violence. As the beatings continue, public anger grows and Murray is forced to appeal to community representatives to remain calm. To the surprise of the plotters who are hoping that Murray will fail and that riots will follow, he addresses the meeting with considerable rhetorical skill and passion, and persuades the audience to refrain from 'taking the law into their own hands'.
The Nelson family has gone on holiday, to a country house run by Grosvenor, a cynical, snobbish but impoverished aristocrat who refers to his guests as the 'Great British Holidaymakers' (this is a reference to Bleasdale's original working title for the screenplay, 'The Great British Holiday'. The plotters search the Nelsons' house for the file on Murray, but Nelson has taken it with him. They also meet the journalist 'Bubbles' McGuire at the house, where Lou and Peter reveal to him that they are actually government agents who have been sent to infiltrate the Labour Party. Once inside the Party, they explain, they found that the hard left had withered away, leaving only a few dreamers like the grey-haired Mervyn. Since there were not enough genuine revolutionaries to stir up, Lou and Peter had to hire mercenary thugs to carry out a campaign of violence to discredit the Left. To convince McGuire that the plot is sanctioned by the authorities, and to frighten him into submission, an unidentified high-ranking official briefly appears at the house. Another senior official, whom Lou and Peter refer to by the code name 'Mother', arrives by helicopter to check up on the progress of the plot. He appears to be a personal friend of Barbara's father. He tries to excuse the violent tactics of the plot by saying that 'these are brutal times'.
Douglas describes Murray to her colleagues as 'foul', but admits that she is also enjoying her liaison with him.
Episode 6: "Message Understood"
The plotters, posing as CID
agents, raid the Nelsons' holiday home and retrieve the file on Murray. Murray's mother disowns him when she finds out about his extramarital affairs and his history of political corruption. The plotters deliver the final blow to Murray by releasing the files on his past to the journalist 'Bubbles' McGuire.
Douglas, having read of her sister's childhood attempts to destroy Murray, begins to sympathise with him. She helps him to make a secret recording of a conversation in which the plotters admit their intention to provoke riots.
Episode 7: "Over and Out"
Nelson is summoned to appear at his local Labour Party branch to defend himself against charges, made by the plotters, of 'bringing the Labour Party into disrepute'. Murray is also present. The traditional Labour-supporting farmers who promised Nelson their support in Episode 2 turn up and save him from the militants. The meeting is interrupted by the press, who have learned that an arrest warrant has been issued for Murray for 'inciting a riot'.
Extensive flashbacks show that Murray was truly the victim in the childhood incident with Eileen Critchley. She, the daughter of a wealthy senior judge, wanted to destroy the working-class Murray just because it was 'so easy'. Douglas, after a lifetime of vengeful feelings towards Murray, now realises that he was an innocent victim of her sister's cruelty. In a meeting with her father, the judge, she finds that he too was part of the class-driven conspiracy against Murray. Murray finally learns Barbara Douglas's identity, but it is too late to save himself, as he is now emotionally dependent on her. As riots spread through the city, Murray allows Douglas to deliver him to the police. Finally, there is a hint that Douglas may sympathise more with Murray than with her employers, as she returns to him the tape recording that contains evidence of the plot and informs Lou that his own attempts to eradicate the recording have failed.
The series was released in the UK (Region 2 DVD) on 12th June 2006 - besides the standalone release of the series, it was also released in "The Alan Bleasdale Collection" box set with two other Bleasdale drama series: Jake's Progress