It’s a compelling, gritty portrait of a city coming apart at the seams. We witness the disintegration of friendships and families under the strain of crime, corruption and racism.
In a multi-layered narrative, we see the drama unfold from different perspectives of victims and villains and those caught in between.
Sound familiar? No, it’s not The Wire. It pre-dates David Simon’s Baltimore epic by five years. This is Holding On, an eight-part series set in London and made by the BBC in 1997.
Yes, you read that right – made by the BBC. This was in the days before the all-consuming ordure of reality TV clogged up the TV schedules, when Big Brotherwas just a twinkle in some fat, lazy commissioning editor’s eye and fame was more than just a four-letter word.
OK, so I’m harping on about the good old days of British TV again, but I think I’m entitled to having just re-watched the DVD box-set of Holding On. It’s hard to reconcile its high production values and all round quality with most of the dross being churned out by the corporation today. It’s from the days when the BBC was more HBO than BYO, when the quality of the script counted for more than the quantity of the ratings.
We all raved – quite rightly – about The Wire because it challenged audiences.
“I have a certain amount of indifference to the idea of the average viewer,” declared David Simon before blowing our minds with plots, dialogue and characters the likes of which we had never seen before. Or had we?
I’m not for one minute suggesting the one season and eight episodes of Holding On are the equal of the five seasons and 60 episodes of Simon’s creation. But there is no denying the breadth of vision contained within Tony Marchant’s BAFTA Award-winning script, director Adrian Shergold’s deftly-paced direction and Nick Bicat’s menacing score.
Big themes, convincing characters and real locations (including outside White Hart Lane on a match day - imagine the logistical nightmare of trying to obtain that filming permit today?) are at the core of Holding On.
"OK, so I’m harping on about the good old days of British TV again, but I think it’s hard to reconcile its high production values and all round quality with most of the dross being churned out by the corporation today."
The cast is tiny compared with the Dickensian sweep of characters in The Wire, but at its heart is a maverick public servant driven to the edge by the pressure of chasing bad guys and trying to be a good father to his kids. Yep, just like cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire. Except this time, our tragic hero is an Inland Revenue tax inspector. Honestly. His unraveling is at the core of the series. And he is played, brilliantly, by a barely-known young actor called David Morrissey.
Elsewhere is the food-hating restaurant critic Gary Rickey, played with relish by Phil Daniels. It might be stretching the analogy a bit, but he’s almost Holding On’s answer to The Wire’s Bubbles in that he’s ultimately a likeable rogue who becomes a physically repulsive wreck through his condition (for Bubbles’ drug addiction read Rickey’s gastric problems) before finding redemption (in the unlikeliest of places).
Rickey is also a kind of Greek Chorus commentating directly to camera on the city he lives in and the action unfolding around him. This, by the way, includes a couple of brutal murders, institutional incompetence, a miscarriage of justice, dollops of senseless violence and a sprinkling of empty sex.
Holding On even manages to top The Wire in one respect. Beyond Morrissey’s and Daniels’ roles, the key protagonists are female, including stand-out performances from Saira Todd and future Eastenders star Diane Parish as the sisters of two different murder victims.
But ultimately it’s the setting and the stories that make Holding On so special, especially when you consider it was made – in television terms – a lifetime ago. Writer Marchant – a big fan of The Jam and The Clash, by the way, as if he needs any further endorsement in my book – said he wanted to reflect how the actions of a set of characters in one part of the capital could directly affect the lives of people in a completely different part.
Such a startling concept would be laughed out of most TV commissioning editors’ offices these days. Much easier to fill the schedules with three hours of X-Factoror The Secret Life of Giant Squids (don’t laugh, both Five and Channel Four have shown separate, imported, i.e. cheap, documentaries on this subject in recent weeks).
Will we ever see the like of Holding On again? I doubt it. The writing, directing and acting talent is all out there, but no commissioning editor is brave enough to share David Simon’s and HBO’s philosophy: “Fuck the average viewer.”
*The DVD boxset of Holding On is available now for around £16, click below to buy.