I was a great fan of the drama series When the Boat Comes In, written mostly by James Mitchell, when it was first screened on BBC television in 1976 and 1977. While my initial viewing was random and perfunctory – it was scheduled after the essential Top of the Pops and I was already a fan of its lead actor James Bolam through Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – I was soon engrossed in its dramatization of working-class life in the north-east of England in the years directly after World War One. In particular by the exploits of Jack Ford, played by Bolam, the handsome, clean-featured ex-sergeant who appears to have survived unscathed four years of trench warfare in France and Flanders , plus a period of unspecified “intelligence” work with the British forces supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Ford is simultaneously presented as ambitious, charming, generous, resourceful and ruthless, whose leadership qualities are variously used in becoming the local head of his trade union and in challenging local employers, making money as an independent capitalist and promoting the careers and employment of those he regards as friends.
That historical period was a popular setting for drama then, as it still is. It was a time of great social upheaval as people moved out of domestic service and farms into factories and as women gained a more independent and public role. The battles of the Great War were fought over small geographical areas by soldiers who knew similar small geographical areas, serving alongside men from the same locality as themselves. The scale of its casualties was horrendous and notorious so those who returned home without serious injury must have been regarded with some awe.
Watching the series again provides a striking reminder of how many ways and on how many occasions it is that recently fought war which specifically influences the present behaviour and ideas of the characters. This begins in the very first episode, pointedly entitled “A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots”, with Jack Ford’s overt cynicism at inaccurate newsreel footage of the war and his organised political protest of throwing down campaign medals in scorn at the victorious Liberal parliamentary election candidate. 40 episodes later, in the story “High Life and Hunger”, Ford scornfully refers back to that Lloyd George “Land Fit for Heroes” promise as he watches hunger marchers .
In between those two episodes, James Mitchell and the other scriptwriters contrived many other convincing devices to show the dark shadow of war experience stretching into every area of post-war existence. For example, the way in which Ford plans a sheep-stealing expedition like “a trench raid” and how he publicly identifies the former regiments of Fitters Union members to show the union official from London that his members are professionally trained to “deal with” strike-breakers; how the unpleasant Channon knows as much about explosives as Ford or any of the more heroic characters from his own war service with the engineers and so is unpersuaded by their explanation of the destruction of the priceless Vanburgh-designed house Mandrake Place; the plight of the widow Elsie Carter who gets no war pension because her husband though killed in France was not on active duty; the reason why “Ten Bob” Tiverton the artist who had lost an arm took to forging bank notes. The war is also the source of one of the longest narrative threads: Ford’s business association and rivalry with Sir Horatio Manners, the nouveau-riche father of his former company commander. Small wonder that female characters of different social classes, whether Sarah Headley or Lady Caroline Summers, often make at different times comments like “You men and the war” at yet another memory or anecdote.
The programme’s fourth and final series, broadcast originally in 1981, stretched the story into more specific events, beyond the Wall Street Crash and into the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. These did allow some variation of the Ford character, presenting him as prone to excessive drinking, a little less impressive and a little more jaundiced, still ambivalent about how to balance and blend his competing individualist and collectivist instincts. He angrily lists at one point the only true friends he ever had: army comrades who are now dead.
Living now in London, he criticises a beggar who is exaggerating his war experience to encourage more generous donations. By this time we have heard Ford himself repeat on several occasions one particular war experience about watching the death of the young officer, Captain Manners (“What am I doing here, sergeant? I should be at the Savile Club” ) – always to impress the listener, usually female. From the very start of the series we know that he had had saved the life of Matt Headley, his later union colleague and Labour councillor, but only much later that his own life was once saved by a Sergeant Major Fred Randall. His parting advice to the beggar is “Get your story straight”. Perhaps we wonder by this time how many of Ford’s past exploits are true, how often we the audience might have been taken in by his charming loquaciousness, but nobody is now around to provide an alternative version.
Like all TV drama series from the 1970s and 1980s, When the Boat Comes In is true to its own period, showing its debt in construction and presentation to theatre plays such as by Shaw or Priestley. This means that it includes one or two comic-dramatic set-pieces which tend to slow down the excitement of the narrative, like the party turns at the Seaton family’s New Year party and the storyline of digging for coal under the Seaton front room. However, most of those first three series contained richly written and convincingly acted stories of poverty, unemployment, industrial conflict, political activism, slum living, hand-to-mouth subsistence and the slow struggle to comfort and (sometimes even) prosperity. And even the weaker episodes still show a craftmanship which is missing from 21st century TV standards.