Working on the site from morning till night, that’s livin’ alright…MARK GODFREY looks at life in a foreign land for a bunch of British labourers in the third part of our football on the telly series.
As recognisable now as it was when it was first aired back in 1983, episode 3 of the classic comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet slips effortlessly onto the screen with its memorable opening sequence depicting the different fates that have befallen our rag tag bunch of (barely) working class heroes. The theme tune – Breaking Away by Joe Fagin – is like a big hug; warm, friendly, comforting. It insists you sit down and banish your everyday worries for the next hour of televisual therapy.
Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the guys behind Porridge and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet quickly became a national treasure. Set against the backdrop of mass unemployment, recession and the hollowing out of Britain’s traditional industrial might by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, the series follows the fortunes of a disparate band of labourers thrown together in a foreign field – or rather building site – that will be, to them, forever England.
Brickies, sparkies, chippies, an ex-wrestler and an arsonist. They were the Magnificent Seven in donkey jackets.
The Girls They Left Behind opens with the lads kicking their heels outside one of the huts on their building site in Dusseldorf. Herr Pfister – the agent who hired them – is late with their wages and tensions are rising. Treated as third-class citizens and only marginally better than the despised cheap Turkish labour, there is no job satisfaction or loyalty to be had here; they’re in West Germany for one reason, and one reason only – the money. There are mortgages to be paid and kids to be fed back home. There are beers to be sunk. And the brothels…
When the aforementioned Pfister does finally shows up, he is flustered and bloody-nosed after an altercation with McGowan, the Irish firebrand played by Michael Elphick. What it means, of course, is that the weekend is rescued. The Deutsch Marks have arrived so it’s out on the town!
Dennis (Tim Healy) and Neville (Kevin Whateley), two of the calmer heads in the group, are to be found in the local social club as fellow regulars – probably Germans – play noisily on the foosball table in the background. Hearing that Sunderland are playing a midweek friendly in Belgium (Liege), the pair hatch a plan to go, although cautious Neville’s reluctance is abundantly obvious: “It’s in Belgium, that’s another country”, to which Dennis remarks that it’s no further than Sunderland to Wembley. Neville’s comeback is withering, but devilishly accurate: “There’s nee chance of Sunderland getting to Wembley, is there?” Dennis, Neville and the loud-mouthed Oz (Jimmy Nail) might all be Newcastle United fans but the trip to Liege provides them with perfect opportunity for some much-needed respite from the daily grind in Dusseldorf, and certainly enough to dilute the usual Tyne-Wear rivalries.
Eventually, only Dennis – the unofficial leader of the group – and Oz make it to Liege by train. Henpecked Neville is consumed with self-reproach that he might actually have a good time; nagging wife Brenda guilt trips him into staying behind in Dusseldorf while Oz and Den head to Liege. He consoles himself by listening to Oz’s new radio, hopeful of picking up a broadcast of the game back in the hut. Unknowingly, he finds a game with Dutch commentary in the belief he’s listening to Sunderland take the lead when in fact it’s Ajax going a goal up against Bayern Munich. In a prescient sequence, Neville laments the behaviour of British fans abroad, a scourge that would lead to the Heysel Stadium disaster (also in Belgium) and the European ban on English clubs just two years after the show’s recording: “I’ve got no desire to go rampaging through the streets of Liege with a bunch of drunken savages.” It leads the dour Brummie Barry (Timothy Spall) to dig deeper into football’s ills. He often tries – and fails – to portray himself as an intellectual amongst his less pretentious workmates, but his is a social commentary that hits the spot without the need for any great contrived soapbox rant on the writers’ behalf.
When we catch up with the two absent workmen, it’s inevitably in a Liege bar. Dennis is chatting to two Sunderland fans with Geordie rather than Mackem accents (when you know, you know). The game may have ended in a 1-1 draw but this doesn’t dissuade Oz from getting rowdy with a group of overdressed, over-propped Sunderland supporters. He moves onto another drinking establishment with his new friends, looking “for action” with Dennis’ pleas still ringing in his ears. Don’t miss the train! You don’t need me to tell you what happens, but I will anyway.
The low constant drone of jet engines fail to raise Oz from the dead, until a fellow passenger and match goer taps him for cash for a whip round for the ‘driver’ who is, of course the pilot. Oz has somehow blagged himself a seat on the flight back to Newcastle. It appears he sneaked on board on a group ticket (those were the days). Some of the Sunderland lads don’t make it back on time from their away days, you see – some never make it back at all, “like Sporting Lisbon last year.”
Oz uses the opportunity to go home; his wife Marjorie, all mouth and leopard print – unaware he’s about to pitch up – has just said “ta’ra pet” to some dapper gent who spent the night. The two men pass each other at the bottom of the stairs oblivious to each other and the ruckus that was barely avoided.
Oz attempts to bluff his wife as to the reason for turning up at their flat in Gateshead; making peace and looking concerned when all along he was just hungover from the football trip. He’s soon rumbled.
Dennis knows Oz better than anyone and guesses what’s happened when his fails to show up for work on the Monday, (note the erroneous statement that Oz got caught up with the ‘Geordie’ lads). Oz returns to little happiness in the hut. Thinking he wasn’t coming back, the lads have divided his stuff amongst themselves, and to make matters worse, the proceeds of the auction plus his wages have been sent back to his wife – the very person he has been trying to keep his money from all along.
While football is the vehicle which brings this episode’s plot lines together, the central themes remain constant throughout the series: economic hardships for everyday working folk in Britain in the early 80s; the desperate search for work and the need to put food on the table; the uncertainties of married life; trust and infidelity; camaraderie; and, of course, humour in the face of adversity.
Even though Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was very much a show of its time, only the fashions feel dated. Austerity, social unease, mistrust in the government, fraught domestic circumstance, and an uncomfortable relationship with Europe – these could all be issues covered in any drama of 2017. La Frenais and Clement took what they knew best – working class, down-at-heel people – and spun their stories with sincerity, sympathy and subtle wit. Utilising the common man’s favourite distraction – football – is an obvious, but welcome addition to this already fabulous show.