After the Power Game...
WHEN THE BOAT COMES IN (BBC 1976-1981)
Jack Ford (James Bolam) says My Bonny Lass Goodbye to Jessie Seaton (Susan Jameson)
Jack Ford (James Bolam) returns from the First World War to the Tyneside town of Gallowshield. Employment is precarious for shipyard toolfitters like Jack, and miners like the Seaton's - the family Jack becomes involved with after meeting independent schoolteacher Jessie Seaton (Susan Jameson). Jack becomes first a union organiser and then a businessman, determined to improve his lot in life.
Although many boardroom drama’s followed The Plane Makers, this series, set in depressed Tyneside, created a true heir John Wilder. Both Wilder and Jack Ford are self-made men. True, Jack Ford as played by James Bolam, has a rougher edge than Wilder (a Doctor's son) but Ford proves capable of moving among and besting the gentry. More importantly, both characters have a strategic, calculating nature. The excitement they create comes from seeing all the odds against them at the halfway mark and wondering how they are going to resolve the situation by the end of the show.
"A vote is a weapon that can hit as hard as any hammer, " Jack tells an election crowd, "It's a weapon that some of you are too daft to use!"
When The Boat Comes In was created for the BBC by James Mitchell, until then best known for the ITV spy series Callan. Although When The Boat Comes In was not a crime/espionage series, the character of Jack Ford (James Bolam) has some similarities with Callan. Both are loners; although Jack Ford has many women, the relationships never last. Both have been psychologically wounded by their experiences - Ford has served as a military interrogator in Murmask.
There are some differences: Where Callan stands apart from society, Jack Ford is entwined with it. Callan is an orphan of war, and Jack Ford’s only mention of a family is a comment to Mrs Seaton in the first episode that, “I had a lovely Mam”. Unlike Callan he seems to have a need for family relationships. Although he is forced to abandon his sweetheart Jessie Seaton (Susan Jameson) he continues to be involved with her family. In the second series episode, Whatever Made You Think The War Was Over , her mother Bella (Jean Garbutt) gets drunk after a family dispute She flirts with Jack (“All my life, just one man. My canny pitman that loved us and needed us. Then you come along.”).As she passes out he kisses her, saying, “I Loved You All, Mrs Seaton. I still do.” In the final episode, the cynical Scott-Palliser (Clive Merrison) tells Sarah’s brother Billy that "You talk about Ford as if he’s part of your family". Billy snaps back,"I detest the man," and gets the reply "Exactly!"
Jack Ford negotiates with Labour agent Stan Liddell (Roger Avon) and candidate Geordie Watson (Ian Cullen)
Just as Callan has a supportive/exploitative relationship with the thief Lonely, Jack Ford has an ambiguous relationship with his friend Matt Headley (Malcolm Terris). But this is more reminiscent of John Wilder and Don Henderson in The Power Game. Ford was Matt’s sergeant during the war, and Matt hero-worships him. When Jack Ford is elected as Secretary of the Fitters Union, he appoints Matt as his assistant. When Ford moves into business, he pushes for Matt to take over his job as Secretary and become both a town councillor and Justice of the Peace. Matt undoubtedly benefits from his relationship with Ford, but it is also clear that Jack is using Matt in his commercial ventures. In Whatever Made You Think The War Was Over, Jack is unable to act openly against a factory owner and uses Matt’s name to make an enquiry with an American union about the safety of machinery that the factory owner has bought. Matt sees the world in clear boundaries, unlike the pragmatic Jack. The only time they fight is when Matt thinks Jack has betrayed his union members in a business deal. It is also Matt's sister Dolly (Madeleine Newton) who Jack gets pregnant - ending his dreams of marrying Jessie Seaton.
Jack's relationship with Matt is mirrored by the recurring characters of Labour MP Geordie Watson (Ian Cullen) and his agent Sid Liddell (Roger Avon). The lugubrious Watson is a pragmatist, who recognises in the second series episode The Way it Was In Murmansk that he lacks the fire to win over electors and needs Jack Ford to speak for him at the election. The idealistic Liddell refuses to bargain with Jack, but Watson overrules him. Both characters return in the fourth series - Liddell helps Jack tackle the rise of Fascism in Gallowshields, while Geordie Watson gives Jack inside information which helps increase his fortune. In the episode, Friends, Romans, Countrymen both Watson and Liddell are involved in one of the many marches for jobs which preceded the famous Jarrow March. Stan is footsore having walked the 300 miles from Gallowshield while Watson guiltily admits that he was already in London making speeches in Parliament.Later on, Geordie meets Jack at a fundraising party. Jack tries to calm his fears that he's betrayed his class saying, "Only politicians use words like betrayal." Geordie admits that, "I like champagne so I drink it." He adds that, "back home in Gallowshield I drink bitter. I don't like it but I drink it."
The Power Game is also evoked in the series three episodes where Jack leaves the union to become a businessman. In a trilogy written by Colin Morris, Jack is used as a frontman to take over and ‘squeeze the assets’ of a patriarchal engineering firm run by Ryder (Colin Douglas). The three episodes detail the process by which the confidence of shareholders is undermined in order to tempt them to sell (coincidentally the legal advisor in these episodes is played by Murray Hayne, who played Al Bonner in The Plane Makers episode Sauce For the Goose). Jack’s silent partner is Sir Horatio Manners, the father of Jack’s commanding officer during the war. The death of Captain Manners is one of Jack’s set-pieces throughout the series, a sure-fire seduction technique in which Jack recalls how he held Manners in his arms after a shell burst as he asked, “What am I doing here, Sergeant. I was supposed to be dining at the Saville.” Sir Horatio has interests in the local shipbuilding firms and becomes both an ally and antagonist of Ford’s as Jack moves from being a union representative to a businessman. Sir Horatio is played by Basil Henson, who had been journalist Sandy Warren in both Front Page Story and The Power Game.
A Land fit for Heroes
The first series of When The Boat Comes in was broadcast from January 1976. It opens in 1919 with Jack Ford (James Bolam) still in uniform as he returns to Gallowshield. Jack is on leave pending discharge after service in Russia. He is chastised by schoolteacher Jessie Seaton (Susan Jameson) for laughing at propaganda films about the recently concluded war. In a pub he explains to Jessie and her brother Tom (John Nightingale) that his laughter was ironic (“it wasn’t all brave Tommies and up and at ‘em!”). He accepts her invitation to come home (“since you’ve made up your mind you’re one of the family you might as well be on time for supper!”). Jack ingratiates himself with mother Bella (Jean Heywood) and father Bill (James Garbutt) with some bottles whisky and port. With the miners on strike and starving, Jack and his friend Matt Headley steal sheep to feed their families. Principled Jessie objects at first but is soon won over (Tom's wife is dying of consumption and they need the food). Jessie is a socialist who wants to bring about a legal change to the system, but Jack Ford is more interested in direct action. Despite these differences they are passionately in love and seem destined to marry. But in the episode Empire Day at the Slag Heap, Jack learns that he has got Matt’s sister pregnant. Jack tells Jessie that he can’t marry her, because he has to marry Dolly (Madeleine Newton). At the same time, Bill Seaton’s back has been broken in a mining accident.Jack intervenes to get compensation from the Mine Owners.
Bella convinces the wheelchair-bound Bill to invest the compensation money in turning their front room into a shop. Jack secretly builds the shelves they need although Bill tells his family he wants nothing to do with "the fornicating bastard". Meanwhile Jessie marries school headmaster Arthur Ashton. In the episode King For A Day, Sir Horatio Manners pays Jack to pose as a businessman so he can negotiate a cut price for a house a member of the impoverished gentry is selling. Ford pulls off his performance at a shooting weekend and learns enough about the motivations of the family to turn the deal to his advantage. Tragically, Dolly loses their child and is told she will never conceive again. In counterpoint, Tom Seaton is left to bring up his young son after his wife dies.In the final episode of the first series (April 1976), Tom Seaton is arrested for theft. Jack breaks into a house to retrieve the furniture of an evicted widow and then waits for the police. He uses his trial to make a speech against inequality. Tom is sentenced to three months in prison, while Jack is sentenced to one month, and returns to a victory parade, elected secretary of the union.
The success of the first series meant that a second series quickly followed in October 1976. As secretary of the Fitters Union, Jack uses his connections with shipyard chairman Sir Horatio Manners to win a pay victory and see off opposition from his hardline rivals. Jessie’s brother Billy (Edward Wilson) has graduated from medical school but is unable to get work because of his socialist beliefs. He begins volunteering at the free clinic and comes into conflict with Bill and brother Tom who believe he should get a proper job so he can repay them the money they lent for his medical school fees. Jack continues to socialise with the local gentry, and an out-of-place Dolly leaves him for Tom Seaton.
In the third series, (September 1977) Arthur is offered a housemaster’s job at a public school in Kent and Jessie is forced to leave Gallowshield ( in real life, Susan Jameson was married to James Bolam and gave birth to their daughter in 1977). While Matt takes over his job at the union, Jack continues to move between the workers and the gentry, introducing a savings stamp scheme to Bill’s shops and fronting for Manners to take over a paternalistic but stagnant firm . In the final episode of the series, Jack leaves for America and a career as a bootlegger.
James Bolam spent the next three years starring as the hypochondriac Roy Figgis in Eric Chappel’s comedy Only When I Laugh for Yorkshire TV. He returned as Jack Ford for the final series in 1981. Where the previous three series had gradually covered a period from 1919 to 1926, the final series cut forward six years to 1930 with Jack having lost his fortune in the Wall Street Crash and returning to England on the run from the mob. This final series concentrated on the now alcoholic Ford trying to rebuild his fortune. On returning to Gallowshield he learns from Sarah Headley (Rosalind Bailey) that Matt has died in a mysterious boating accident. With Tyneside now impoverished and the shipyards closed, Jack sets up a market stall with Sarah and becomes rich once more. Jack unites with the local Labour party to defy Blackshirts in Gallowshield. In London, he meets Billy Seaton – now a wealthy doctor and communist fellow-traveller. Billy and the zealot Scott-Palliser (Clive Merrison) use Jessie (now separated from her husband) to recruit Jack in a scheme to smuggle guns into Spain during the Civil War. Jessie believes the guns will go to the Socialists but Scott-Palliser is under orders from Moscow. Jack will be betrayed to Franco’s forces, and the guns will go to the Communists.
When The Boat Comes In is at its strongest in the first three series. Jack Ford’s machinations are fascinating to watch, but lent a counterpoint by the characters of the Seaton family. Unlike The Power Game, where the Bligh’s are often in conflict with John Wilder, the Seaton’s are usually the recipients of Jack’s good nature. Each character represented a different reaction to the poverty of the 1920’s. Idealistic doctor Billy (Edward Wilson)was a hardline socialist, working for barter (usually vegetables or fish) at a free clinic. Billy was unable to get work with the local medical practices because his left-wing views would offend the wealthier patients. Tom (John Nightingale)had scabbed during a strike to feed his dying wife. Later, a widower, Tom is allowed back into the mines only to leave after seeing a 15 year old boy killed during his first day down the pit. Turning to theft, he is jailed but forms a strong friendship with Jack Ford in Durham jail. Released he becomes a gardner, providing Jack's wife Dolly with the simple life Jack can't settle for.
Irascible Bill Seaton (James Garbutt)is a more warm -hearted Caswell Bligh. Crippled in a pit collapse, he is persuaded by Bella to use the compensation won by Jack to open a shop. Initially suspecious, Bill embraces commerce (designing a sign reading ‘The Clock Ticks, We Don’t’) and gradually builds a small empire of shops. Bella (Jean Haywood ) prematurely aged by steering the day to day labours of running a pre-electric, pre-welfare state house. Jessie, principled socialist, sometimes self-righteous. After Jack abandons her, she marries her headmaster, Arthur Ashton (Geoffrey Rose, ominously usually credited as ‘Ashton’ in the closing credits). An effete, upper middle-class Southerner who had moved to Tyneside to be near his first wife’s family, Arthur is introduced in the episode Empire Day at the Slag Heap, parading the schoolchildren and paying tribute to the glorious dead. With a stiffness to rival Michael Portillo, Arthur is an ambiguous figure, clearly resenting being “second-best” to Jack Ford and coming into conflict with Jessie during the local elections (she puts a ‘Labour’ poster in the window and he puts a ‘Conservative’ poster next to it.
Arthur does his best to show affection, doing the books for Bill’s shop and swallowing his dislike for Jessie’s socialist activities. Probably his finest hour comes in My Bonny Lass, Goodbye, where Jessie storms back to her parents house after he tells her he’s been offered a job as a housemaster at a public school in Kent. Left alone with their baby son, Arthur finally puts the child in a pram and wheels it through the streets. The sight of a man pushing a pram through the streets (especially in his black coat and bowler hat) draws derision from the children who chase him chanting, “His Daddy is his Mammy”. Two women are aghast commenting: She’ll have him in a skirt before the bairn’s grown. Arthur finally makes it to the Ashton house and wins the family round, explaining that the job brings a guaranteed place for their son at the school, and that he’ll be earning more money.
The final series is set apart from the first three both by time and atmopsphere. the storyline concentrates on Jack Ford, passing quickly through the 1930's. We hear a few lines about the Seaton’s (sadly John Nightingale had died prematurely the year before) but only meet up again with Jessie and Billy in the final episodes. James Mitchell’s scripts are still as sharp as ever, with Jack Ford’s social conscience being tested by the rise of fascism, but like the final series of The Power Game, some of the heart has gone out of the show. As with Callan , James Mitchell ended the series with Jack Ford betrayed and under fire. Although Ford was able to outwit his enemies, there was no final reprieve for the series.
One interesting little bit of continuity came in James Mitchell’s first series February 1976 episode 'Paddy Boyle's Discharge'. Still unemployed Jack is invited to a meeting by former WW1 comrade Sid Hepburn (George Irving) who had served with Jack, Matt and Paddy Boyle. Hepburn and Bartram (Patrick Durkin) are serving in the 'Black and Tans', the para-military force assisting the Royal Irish Constabulary against the Irish Republican Army at a princely ten shillings a day.
While Bartram revels in the job, Hepburn’s nerve or conscience is frayed. He wants to get out, and has been promised by a recruiting officer that he’ll be released if he can get Jack Ford to sign up. At the station hotel, Jack Ford meets Captain Leslie (Terrence Hardiman) who says Ford's war record showed he worked as an intelligence interrogator in Murmansk. Leslie tries to recruit Ford for the same work in the new Auxiliary Division. "I can get all the thugs and prizefighters I need. I want brains!"
Coincidentally or not, the Callan episode, 'The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw' by James Mitchell featured Ronald Radd as Colonel Leslie. The story had been held over from the first series of Callan in which Radd had played "Hunter", Callan's controller. Radd had been succeeded in the second series by Michael Goodliffe, who was then replaced by Derek Bond. With “Hunter” now established as a codename, the decision was taken to revive the held-over first series episode. New scenes were filmed to show Bond being drafted on a diplomatic mission and Radd’s Colonel Leslie agreeing to cover the role of "Hunter". This raises the tantalising question of whether Terrence Hardiman was playing the father of “Hunter” in this episode.
Unfortunately, Hepburn is recognised by Paddy Boyle (Ralph Watson) one of Jack’s band of sheep rustlers from earlier in the series. Boyle is a member of the local Irish league and they want the Black and Tans to account for rape and murder in Ireland. Paddy tries to follow Jack to his meeting, but is beaten up by Bartram. Jack stops Bartram from kicking the unconscious Paddy and later visits the Irish lodge to tell him he’s refused Captain Leslie’s offer.
Later on Jack realises that a drunken Matt has disclosed when the two Black and Tans will be leaving Gallowshield. Boyle had saved the lives of the company (including Hepburn) by throwing a German grenade out of their trench. But as Sid and Bartram wait for their train , Paddy and his leader shoot them down. Jack and Matt run onto the platform just in time to see Captain Leslie open fire. “Mons, Wipers and the Somme,” a tearful Matt concludes, “And the poor bugger has to buy it at a bloody railway station.”
More recently, When The Boat Come In has returned to its roots. A stage play by Peter Mitchell was performed at the South Shields Custom House in August 2018. Based on James Mitchell’s first series scripts, the show was received well enough to justify a sequel in September 2019 When the Boat Comes In: The Hungry Years .
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