why Boys From the Blackstuff’s most tragic character remains relevant to this day

The ironic tragedy of Yosser Hughes, the chronically unemployed asphalt worker in Alan Bleasdale’s drama Boys From The Blackstuff, is that he screamed and wailed into a void. Nobody listened. His now legendary plea to anyone, anyone he met on the streets of Liverpool, to ‘suggest’ him a job went unheard and ignored. People, and even the world, turned their backs on Yosser; his despair and the collapse of his dignity were too ugly and uncomfortable to watch.

It is therefore remarkable that, more than forty years later, after the announcement of the death of Bernard Hill, the deeply admired British actor who played him, the ignored Yosser achieves the rare feat of remaining deeply in the nation’s mindset, and to continue to define and represent an entire era in the 1980s and a class of people who hold him as a mascot, to be feared yet proud. A symbol of resistance and a warning.

We all know the shape. When a beloved actor passes away, there is a dangerous tendency to reduce a long career to a single part. Modern social media can quickly respond to hastily written articles declaring that so-and-so is “known for their role in…” with shouts and comments about the parts fans would rather be remembered for.

That includes Hill, who had a varied and distinguished career on stage and screen, in Shakespeare and new plays, from hit British films like Shirley Valentine to Hollywood giants like Titanic and Lord of the Rings.

You also got the sense that Hill was understandably growing weary of being unable to hit the asphalt of the city he called his “second home” without being confronted by a stream of fans parroting Yosser’s catchphrase at him. “Giz a job, go ahead, giz it, I can do that”.

This, however, was a frustration that softened in later years, as he became aware not only of the importance of such a legacy, but also of the sad resonance that the character’s desperation continues to carry for desperate people.

The cast of Boys From the Blackstuff (clockwise from top left): Alan Igbon, Michael Angelis, Gary Bleasdale, Tom Georgeson, Peter Kerrigan and Bernard Hill

Fine ensemble: the cast (clockwise from top left) – Alan Igbon, Michael Angelis, Gary Bleasdale, Tom Georgeson, Peter Kerrigan and Bernard Hill – BBC

It’s a resonance that echoes every evening around the walls of the Liverpool Royal Court, where – alongside Alan Bleasdale – I have had the great privilege of filming Boys From the Blackstuff for the stage here, before it makes its journey to London’s National Theater and the West End this summer.

A privilege for me because, growing up in my own deindustrialized community, I watched Yosser make sense of the situation my neighbors found themselves in. I channeled my inner Bleasdale when I wrote Sherwood for the BBC, and pinch myself every day that I now get to work with my idol. Sometimes you should meet your heroes…

Yosser is not a hero. He is a complicated and paradoxical man, violent and gentle, a frightening man and a scared child. He hates the world and loves his children. A single father headbutting lampposts and hugging his children. He is broken, struck with a painful blow, by his unemployment and bureaucracy.

Why does Blackstuff matter today? And why the outpouring of affection for the character Hill and Bleasdale created? After all, we no longer live in the world Yosser lived – alongside Chrissie, Dixie, Loggo and George, the ‘Boys’ whose names are now as familiar to the people of Liverpool as any street.

When a group from a youth theater recently came to see the play, they asked if it was really true that you couldn’t find a job at the time. Their experience is that people now have to have multiple jobs. You almost have to do ‘too much’ work, too many jobs, to make ends meet in a cost-of-living crisis in which wages have barely risen for a decade.

Barry Sloane as Yosser in James Graham and Alan Bleasdale's stage adaptation at the Royal Court in LiverpoolBarry Sloane as Yosser in James Graham and Alan Bleasdale's stage adaptation at the Royal Court in Liverpool

Barry Sloane as Yosser in James Graham and Alan Bleasdale’s stage adaptation at the Royal Court in Liverpool – Jason Roberts

But what they did recognize is that this is where it all started. The origins of the ‘levelling-up dilemma’ where entire industries disappear from an area and there is no investment or plans to replace them.

Many wrongly regard Blackstuff as Bleasdale’s specific approach to Thatcherism. Alan is always quick to point out that he started writing in 1978, under a Labor government. But certainly when the series was broadcast in 1982 – whether you agreed or disagreed with the need for such a correction policy – half the country watched with open mouths in disbelief at a drama that showed the human price of all this. showed, and the other half felt like their lives were finally being seen.

Yosser himself was essentially a Thatcherite and rejected the collectivism of the more community-oriented George (played by veteran Peter Kerrigan). In the original 1978 Play For Today, which spawned the anthology series, Yosser believes that if an individual is smart enough and ambitious enough like him, he will thrive. He didn’t want handouts, he wanted to stand proudly on his own two feet.

Blackstuff was never an overtly left-wing, penny-pinching, woe-is-me whiner who demanded sympathy for people on benefits. The cruelty of the system that drove Yosser mad was that here were hard-working men, proud of their trade as asphalt pavers who “built the roads,” brought to their knees by forces beyond their control, and suffered the outrage of weekly visits to the benefits office where they were told to look for a job, but there was none.

Hill’s death also reminds us of a time when working-class actors and writers like himself could rise to the top of their industries. There was clearly something in the water in Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s. The community of performers who gathered alongside Hill and Bleasdale in the bar of the Everyman Theater in Hope Street included Julie Walters, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite, the playwright Willy Russell and musician Barbara Dickson. Here was a place that was determined to have a voice and tell their stories. Blackstuff was indeed a family affair. Yosser’s children are played by Bleasdale’s own children, who saw Hill as another father figure, with everyone always being around others’ homes.

Hill actually did his Yosser research by working for a few weeks as a blacksmith for Bleasdale’s brother-in-law, who was himself a paver. Bleasdale fondly remembers how the asphalt layers were very suspicious of this actor, but towards the end he became very good at it. After all, Yosser was right. He could. So much so that Hill, in between acting jobs, again gave the boys the black stuff to pay his money. A case of life imitating art.

If Yosser’s legacy is one of hopelessness, then Hill’s should be one that reminds us of the value of arts and culture in regional working-class communities. His story was a story that needed to be told.

Yosser’s pleas went unheard. But thanks to Hill’s fierce, authentic and humane portrayal, his howls of anguish echo through the decades.

‘Boys From the Blackstuff’ is at the Royal Court in Liverpool until May 11 (liverpoolsroyalcourt.com), and then from May 22 to June 8 at London’s National Theater (nationaltheatre.org.uk) and Garrick Theatre
from June 13 – August 8 (boysfromtheblackstuff.com)

Leave a Comment