When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of England the country became polarized between the two extremes of the political spectrum. While her Conservative government gutted England's industry in the name of the economy but in reality as a means of destroying the country's unions — if there are no jobs for union members there's no need for unions — extremists in the left wing of the socialist Labour Party seized the opportunity to take control of the party whereever possible. Municipal governments — town councils as they are called in England — became bastions of opposition against the federal government and did their best to disrupt the federal government whenever possible.
With both these elements intent on destruction rather than doing anything constructive for their constituents, there were plenty of people who ended up being caught in the middle and suffered accordingly. Those who under different circumstances might have voted for either the Labour or Conservative parties found themselves being left out in the cold. In the early 1990s British screenwriter Alan Bleasdale created a ten-hour miniseries loosely based on events that occurred in the city of Liverpool during this period. GBH, being released as a four-DVD set by Acorn Media on Tuesday February 23, 2010, is more than just your average political drama however, as it recreates the events of the period and shows them through the eyes of two people who have been ensnared in their web.
Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay play Jim Nelson and Michael Murray respectively, two men who find themselves on opposite sides of the political fence. Nelson is the headmaster of a school for children with developmental handicaps and Murray is the Labour Party mayor of a mid-sized industrial city in England during the Thatcher era. In an attempt to consolidate and increase his power base, Murray hooks up with the radical wing of the Labour Party who encourage him to call a general strike in his city as a means of protesting against the Thatcher government. Pickets are placed around all the public services in the city from buses to schools, effectively bringing it to a stop, save for one small institution — Jim Nelson's school.
With Murray having boasted in the lead-up to the "Day Of Action" that he would close the city down, when the press catch wind that one school has stayed open they rub it in his face. Furious that he's been made to look foolish, Murray hurries out to the school with a group of "pickets" and surrounds the place, attempting to intimidate Nelson into closing the school. Thus begins what will be an ongoing battle of wills between the two men that will last for the rest of the series. While on the surface this appears to be not very much to build a ten-hour television mini-series around, what makes it fascinating is not only the way the show takes on everything from the press to the behind the scenes scheming in political parties, but the two characters who are the focus of the confrontation.
At first glance Murray appears to be your average ambitious politician, willing to hook himself to anyone and any cause that will further his career. He's not above pressuring an area hotel manager into rigging one of his rooms with cameras and recording equipment in order to catch people in compromising situations. However, underneath his slick surface is a boiling cauldron of insecurities and fears that are a result of things that happened in his childhood. We know from the start that his father was a great union organizer who died before Murray was born, but we learn throughout the series how that was the least of his problems.
Jim Nelson turns out to be something of a hypochondriac with a history of going to the doctor complaining of mysterious diseases and unexplainable symptoms which invariably turn out to be imaginary. While at first he appears to be somewhat of a figure of ridicule for this silliness, we gradually discover that he has very real psychological problems which manifest themselves in very strange ways. At first it's the imaginary illnesses, but as the pressure on him increases at work from Murray he starts to find himself waking up in very odd places without any clothes on. If the naked sleepwalking isn't bad enough, he then begins to develop an unaccountable fear of bridges to the point where he has to start planning car trips carefully in order to avoid even the smallest of bridges passing over local streams,
What makes GBH so brilliant is the way it develops certain expectations, Michael Murray is a villain and Jim Nelson the victim, and then gradually starts to turn them upon their head. While Nelson is always going to be the hero of the piece as he struggles to overcome his personal problems and deal with the political pressure being brought to bear on him, the more we get to know about Murray, the more we realize that he's even more of a victim than any of his opponents. Whether it's the way he's being manipulated by those in his political party, or his past coming back to haunt him in the form of nightmares and blackmail, he gradually loses control over what's going on in his life and becomes little more than a puppet.
The performances of the two leads, Palin and Lindsay, are nothing short of magnificent. Lindsay in particular does a wonderful job in somehow making his despicable character sympathetic. He has these wonderful moments where Murray's smooth surface cracks and we see the turmoil beneath the surface, and then just as alarmingly see the veneer snap back into place and him carry on as if nothing had happened. Over the course of the show the surface gradually breaks down more and more as his control over events disintegrates and he watches his dreams of political power evaporate. The irony is that even at his most corrupt, he was genuinely doing things that were good for his community, creating more housing for the poor, easing relations between the black and white populations of his city — at a time in England when race riots were common — but those good things are gradually undone by his ambition for more power and what he does to try and achieve it.
GBH originally aired in the early 1990s so the technical quality isn't probably up to the standards you're used to from modern television shows, but the sound is stereo and well balanced so the dialogue isn't buried under the soundtrack or background noise. Speaking of the soundtrack, it was partially created by some guy named Elvis Costello, but don't be expecting it to sound anything like what you're used to hearing from him. He's done his job in creating music to augment what we are seeing on the screen, and a good job of it as well, as it doesn't interfere with the show, while helping to generate appropriate atmosphere. The special features include the usual filmographies of those involved in the production, an interview with the script writer Alan Bleasdale, and commentary for episode one provided by the two leads and director Peter Ansorge.
While GBH will probably be appreciated most by people who know something about contemporary British history and the British political system, there's still plenty for everybody else to enjoy in this production. Aside from the two leads, the cast, which also includes Julie Walters, is universally excellent, the scripts are well written and intelligent, and you can't help but get caught up in the story of the conflict between the two men. It's not often that a ten-hour television drama can hold your attention throughout its entire course, but without a doubt this one will have you glued to your screen from start to finish.