And there were plenty of other great performances. Peter Vaughan as Nicky’s father gave a heartbreaking portrayal of dementia. Fifteen years later Vaughan would win a whole new generation of fans in his late 80s as Aemon Targaryen in Game of Thrones. David Bradley, another future denizen of Westeros, was superb as MP Eddie Wells. Malcolm McDowell made his TV debut as the Soho porn baron Benny Barrett. Julian Fellowes, future creator of Downton Abbey, played pompous Conservative politician Claud Seabrook. There were more than 100 named characters in the cast.
Almost three years to the day after Our Friends in the North began, The Sopranos debuted. This US-made saga about an organised crime family is often hailed as marking the beginning of a “golden age” of television drama that includes such complex works as The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But a case can be made for Our Friends in the North as the start of this period.
“At the time it was quite revolutionary,” says Pattinson. “It really was one of the very first of these massive, serialised pieces of story-telling. It’s perfect Netflix-style bingeable viewing. It captured the zeitgeist not just in terms of the story it was telling but also in the way that it told it.”
According to Harrison, “There were series such as A Very British Coup and Edge of Darkness before Our Friends in the North. Not to mention loads of adaptations and all the Dennis Potter works in the 80s. Maybe Our Friends is more of a bridge – marking TV’s evolution from those kinds of things to what are traditionally thought of as the Golden Age dramas. I guess the cast is part of this too – because it launched so many careers, it’s tempting to see it as the start of a new era in a wider sense.”
Christopher Eccleston has said it is “one of my great hopes for my career” to revisit Our Friends in the North. Flannery told BBC Culture: “there’s no chance of a sequel and never has been for me” but reveals he has thought about the possibility of a prequel and even discussed it over dinner with Eccleston. He also offered it to the BBC but “they didn’t want it, needless to say”. Of course, that’s what they initially said the first time around too.
Our Friends in the North is streaming now on Britbox.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.