Our Friends in the North High-Rise Council Housing traduced from the start


I managed to miss the iconic nine-part television drama ‘Our Friends in the North’ in the 1990s as John Major’s Conservative administration fell apart. A shortage of anything much to watch on television has driven me to catch up with it on i-player before the BBC whisks it away. Now four episodes in, I will definitely make sure I see it to the end. 

One major sub-plot, based on the notorious real-life corruption issues perpetrated by T. Dan Smith and John Poulson in Newcastle in the 1960s, shows local politicians seduced by bribes into approving contractors who use cheap, but defective, high-rise construction systems to build a new generation of council housing. As the drama has it, the towers were so badly built they were infested with damp within months of completion while leading local politicians were accepting huge bungs to approve the schemes, which the more honest among them knew were inadequate.

To be fair, they were under considerable pressure to expand public housing stock at speed, given the decay into slums of much surviving Victorian terracing. An early scene has Daniel Craig’s ‘Geordie’ standing in front of the front wall of a row of terraced houses being demolished as local politicians struggle to understand what modernist, European council estates were. Paid-up trips to exotic places to look at such developments were the start of the slide into corruption for some. Long before neglect, poor tenant allocation, and the ‘right to buy’ turned the perception of council towers into dysfunctional nests of social deprivation, too many badly built blocks were disastrous advertisements for high-rise. The reputational rot set in early.   

Nicholas Russell