Celebrating BBC One’s Blackpool

David Tennant, David Morrissey & Sarah Parish sang, danced and misbehaved in the wonderful Blackpool, which aired a decade ago on BBC 1...

Warning: contains Blackpool spoilers.

It’s been ten years since BBC One aired Blackpool, the musical murder mystery serial that starred David Morrissey, Sarah Parish and David Tennant. We thought it best to start by pointing that out, just so we can all get the “Man, I’m getting old” that comes with such anniversaries out of the way early on.

Peter Bowker’s serial launched the careers of several stars who are now household names, particularly the aforementioned leads, and there probably hasn’t been such an unusual BBC drama commission since, with characters bursting into song and dance numbers at pivotal moments in the plot.

That’s not to say it invented the musical TV show – far from it. One of the most obvious influences in British television would be Dennis Potter’s musical drama serials, Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and Lipstick On Your Collar, which also featured characters bursting into renditions of popular songs.

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Plus, on American TV, musical episodes are rolled out every once in a while for shows as diverse as Star Trek: Voyager and The Simpsons. Most notably, Once More With Feeling is fondly remembered as one of the best ever episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, with a demon bringing the unspoken inter-personal issues of the Scooby gang to light in uncontrollable musical numbers.

Blackpool came after all of this, but it still stands out as unusual for a BBC drama, and was under-appreciated in its time. Join us as we look back at the all-singing, all-dancing musical serial.

The Gambler

Bowker’s setting isn’t so much Blackpool as the fully realised “Las Vegas of the North” that may only exist inside businessman Ripley Holden’s imagination. Ripley (Morrissey) owns an arcade on the seafront and acts as landlord for a number of rubbish flats, but he has designs on converting the arcade into a Vegas-style casino hotel. Ostensibly, this is to revive the town’s fortunes, but it’s really as much about his own ego.

At the outset, Ripley, his long-suffering wife Natalie (Parish), and their grown-up children Shyanne (Georgia Taylor) and Danny (Thomas Morrison) are heading off to open the arcade, all while singing along to “Viva Las Vegas”. His family are swept up in his charismatic bravado, but as the serial unfolds, he proves to be much more of an anti-hero.

We discover that he had an abusive father, which goes some way to explaining his emotionally domineering behaviour, without excusing it. He pictures other women while in bed with Natalie, he disapproves of Shyanne dating his schoolmate Steve (Kevin Doyle) while also messing around with girls young enough to be his daughter and he belittles the closeted Danny.

Moreover, and quite fitting for his business, he’s a gambler. As we discover from troubling meetings with his accountant Adrian, (Steve Pemberton) Ripley doesn’t quite have the capital to back up his ambitions and sooner or later, something’s got to give.

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Ripley seems at the top of his game when the story begins, but it all comes back to bite him in the arse when a young man is murdered in the arcade after hours, bringing DI Peter Carlisle (Tennant) down on his head. Pre-empting the Tenth Doctor, Tennant still dons sideburns and a long coat for the part of Carlisle, a manipulative charmer who plays a pivotal role in the story when he starts a passionate affair with Natalie.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’

Aside from bursting into song, the show is memorable for the surreal dance numbers that accompany each big number, skewing closer to the Once More With Feeling musical universe than any of Potter’s dramas.

Dance-related highlights include a passive aggressive paso-doble between Ripley and Carlisle as they sing Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking”; a self-destructive tour of the arcade set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”; and Carlisle’s arrest of Danny to the strains of The Smiths’ “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, complete with bobby backing dancers.

Even if they sometimes come out of nowhere and often blur the line between the story reality and the characters’ imaginations, the music and dance numbers always move the plot forward in a melodramatic function. It’s no less valid than delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy and the cast certainly throw themselves into it with as much gusto.

It’s certainly over-the-top, but it looks like it was a hell of a lot of fun to be in, considering the subject. Over the course of six episodes, the murder mystery was ever present, but sub-plots like Ripley’s unravelling lifestyle, Carlisle’s affair with Natalie, Shyanne’s relationship with the much older Steve and Danny’s trouble with drugs, all come to the fore in intriguing ways.

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Looking back though, the star-making turn here is Tennant’s. Straight from the Brad Pitt school of acting, Carlisle seems to be eating junk food in every other scene. It always lends to the character detail though- whether he’s dropping a half-finished bag of chips as he goes to get on with his work, or using a ice cream as a microphone while he stakes out Ripley’s arcade and warbles Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”.

At once a romantic anti-hero and a slightly crooked copper, he’s the most beguiling character in the serial. Nobody who’d seen him here could be too surprised when Tennant was handed the key to the TARDIS within 12 months of transmission.

But it’s the chemistry between the three leads that really keeps Blackpool burning for the full length of its run. The heart-wrenching negligence between Morrissey and Parish, the lustful inter-play between Parish and Tennant, and the venomous rivalry between Tennant and Morrissey, all make for compelling viewing.

Viva Las Vegas

Aside from the more melodramatic leanings, the central crime remains a crucial part of the tone, as Bowker uses the murder as more than just the inciting incident in Ripley’s fall from… er, grace. In the real Vegas, this would be a story-of-the-week on CSI, but it hangs over Ripley and his family throughout the serial, even while their own personal issues come to the fore.

Set in the overcast Northern English equivalent, that tempers the more fantastical element. Although the crime feels as out of place here as the mass musical numbers, there’s a balance between the light and the dark that keeps it from getting too cheesy.

Carlisle becomes determined to nab Ripley for the murder from the moment he meets him. He may not be wrong to judge him for being capable of murder – the episode 5 cliffhanger sees Ripley  burning his tenants out of house and home for insurance money on his flats, after he comes close to bankruptcy – but it’s clear that his personal affair is clouding his professional judgment.

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At one point, Danny takes the fall for his father while Carlisle questions him, which is dismissed as an attempt at a noble self-sacrifice. As it finally transpires, Danny is the killer after all, having killed in self-defence and hidden the body in his father’s arcade.

With Ripley having found out about his wife’s affair, he manages to wangle a deal that probably wouldn’t be quite so acceptable on CSI – he gives Natalie and Carlisle his blessing on the understanding that no charges will be brought against him or his son for the murder. All’s well that ends well, as the two lovers are free to be together, Shyanne and Steve get married and Danny inherits the arcade as Ripley leaves the Vegas of the North behind for the real Las Vegas.

I Second That Emotion

Although the serial’s audience figures didn’t set the world alight, there was more than enough critical goodwill towards the series to justify the commission of a follow-up special in 2006, and even a short-lived American remake.

In a change of topic from the first time out, Viva Blackpool revolved around a plot to steal England’s 1966 World Cup, which has been bequeathed to a character played by Annette “Mrs. Meldrew” Crosbie, after her dodgy-dealing son passed away.

Tennant and Parrish didn’t return, but David Morrissey headlined once again, with Georgia Taylor returning as Shyanne. The sequel found a divorced Ripley’s ambition curtailed somewhat, having come back from Vegas to live in a caravan with Shyanne and her young son, after Steve (ironically) left them for an older woman.

Rather than trying to reinvigorate the town’s economy, he’s now opened a gaudy wedding chapel, playing the role of an ordained minister himself. When an opportunity to nab the Jules Rimet opens up, he promises it to both a seedy football agent (Keith Allen) and an avid collector of World Cup memorabilia, (Mark Williams) starting a bidding war that could restore his finances in one fell swoop.

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The sequel is inevitably a much lighter affair than the serial, but it brings some brilliant new musical numbers too. The Proclaimers’ “I’m On My Way” makes for a particularly fun duet between David Morrissey and Mark Williams, which then picks up a bawdier momentum when Ripley takes love interest Kitty De-Luxe (Megan Dodds) back to the caravan.

Some have said that the sequel suffers fatally for the absence of David Tennant, (whose Tenth Doctor was seen dropping himself into The Satan Pit, earlier in the same evening as Viva Blackpool was broadcast) but that’s not the only problem. There’s still plenty to enjoy, but the rhythm feels slightly off, as if the special is slightly out-of-step with the pace of its more serious, and relatively grounded predecessor.

Viva Blackpool the special is not to be confused with Viva Blackpool, the title given to the original serial on US TV. The CBS remake that followed, co-created by Bowker and produced by Hugh Jackman(!), was the infamous Viva Laughlin.

The remake found Ripley Holden, (played by Lloyd Owen) fending off rival casino owner Nicky Fontana, (Jackman) as he struggled to complete his casino in Laughlin, Nevada (rather than Vegas) as financial troubles threatened to overwhelm him. His ex-business partner turns up dead on the premises, and he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation.

Viewers never got to find out how that one wrapped up because Viva Laughlin was excoriated by critics and cancelled after two episodes. Scheduled after CSI, it was a huge dud with audiences too.  The New York Times’ review opened: “Viva Laughlin on CBS may well be the worst new show of the season, but is it the worst show in the history of television?” Ouch.

Does that just mean that Blackpool was intrinsically British? Around the same time, a long-gestating remake of Potter’s The Singing Detective, which was produced by Mel Gibson as a vehicle for then-comeback kid Robert Downey Jr, was also poorly received.

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Perhaps there are irreconcilable transatlantic differences when it comes to musical procedurals – shows like Glee have gone on to make a boon of the jukebox musical format on US TV, but then few people ever get murdered at William McKinley High School.

Always Something There To Remind Me

In short, despite its critical approval, Blackpool was never a runaway success, drawing audiences of four to five million on its original transmission on BBC One. Any attempts to replicate it tended to go awry, but it’s well liked by the audience who saw it at the time, and by those discovered it later through the popularity of the cast in their subsequent projects. Heck, it must feel like Christmas whenever anybody who runs a Tumblr about Tennant GIFs discovers it.

You can get it if you really want, (seriously, I think I have a problem) on DVD at a very reasonable price. The Blackpool Collection contains both the serial and the one-off special and it’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it, or if you fancy reacquainting yourself with something that still feels like a unique curiosity in the landscape of BBC drama in the twenty-first century.