IT’S now two decades since The Fifteen Streets launched what became the first in a hugely popular series of TV adaptations of Catherine Cookson’s romantic sagas.
Starring Owen Teale as a working class hero, with Sean Bean as his wayward brother, and filmed by a local crew on specially-cobbled streets in Tyneside, the drama shouted quality and the public loved it.
If anything, viewers couldn’t get enough of the South Shields author’s gritty, class-conscious romances – or historical novels as she called them.
So, 17 more mini-series followed The Fifteen Streets, helping to launch the careers of then relative unknowns such as Bean and Catherine Zeta Jones.
Those were happy days – before local TV fell victim to cash-strapped times, of course – for award-winning producer Ray Marshall who set up independent company Festival Film & TV in 1992.
He recalls his conversations with the late authoress, and the fact The Fifteen Streets was a particularly special book; one she called ‘my little miracle’ because the story had come to her in a moment of inspiration.
Ray thinks the 1989 drama “came at the right time”.
“Catherine’s popularity was at its height and she was a North East institution,” he says. “The Fifteen Streets musical was on in the West End and it seemed logical to try to bring that to the screen first.
“Catherine was very happy for us to make it and told me that if I got that right I could do some more – so the pressure was on to get it right!”
With Teale as dock worker John O’Brien, Bean was cast as his brother Dominic and Clare Holman as his love interest Mary, a teacher from a wealthy family.
Among more well-known actors, such as Billie Whitelaw and Ian Bannen, the cast also included Jane Horrocks and local talent Scott Frazer who made his acting debut as young brother Mick O’Brien. With a budget of £1.3m, Ray set about creating an authentic 1900s backdrop.
“Considering everything we had to do – cobbling entire streets, major snow scenes, filming drowning sequences in the middle of the Tyne – it was quite an achievement,” he says.
“Interestingly enough, 20 years later, if we were making it for ITV now, we would only have a budget of about £1.6m.”
He adds: “I’d agreed with Catherine that we would shoot in the North East – not just because the stories were based there, but because we wanted to support the economy and use North East cast and crew where we could.
“So when Tyne Tees agreed to fund it, that was a perfect solution.
“The success of The Fifteen Streets -– which had a big TV audience – made it possible for us to continue. The Black Velvet Gown, which came next, won an Emmy and, after that, attracting big names became easier.” Along the way came The Cinder Path with Catherine Zeta Jones, The Round Tower with newcomer Emilia Fox and The Gambling Man starring Robson Green.
Right up to when the plug was pulled eight years ago, the dramas were a hit, with 13.5m viewers at their peak.
Ray’s last production was A Dinner of Herbs in 2001 – three years after Cookson died at the age of 91, having written almost 100 books and selling more than 123 million copies around the world.
“The Fifteen Streets established all the things that the Cooksons came to represent to viewers – high production values, great cast and strong stories,” says Ray.
“Its cast was as good as we could have hoped for. Sean Bean and Owen Teale were just at the breakthrough point in their careers and, to put them alongside big names like Ian Bannen and Billie Whitelaw – both established big screen actors, was fantastic for us.”
Scott Frazer, originally from Westerhope, also has fond memories of that cast and of his first-time acting experience, as a 15-year-old, in the series -– and particularly of his first pay cheque which caused such excitement that he remembers he swore for the first time in front of his parents.
The actor, who last year was in Durham playing the part of Terry Collier in Gala Theatre’s new stage version of TV comedy series The Likely Lads, still receives royalties from The Fifteen Streets, as it continues to be screened around the world.
While now based in London, he is glad of any opportunity to return, as he loves working in the North East.
Recently he spoke out about the decline of TV and film-making in the region, and says, with the wealth of local talent available, all the tools are in place to pick up where quality dramas like these left off.
Ray, meanwhile, whose recent work includes Half Broken Things – a successful one-off film for ITV, starring Penelope Wilton, is currently developing TV and feature film projects, but would love to do another Catherine Cookson. There are plenty more to choose from, of course, but Katie Mulholland would be his choice.
“We made 18 Cookson dramas in total and when ITV decided to bring it to a halt in 2001, we were still getting large audiences,” he says.
“I occasionally ask if they want to make more but, so far, no luck.
“It’s a shame that there is so little production in the North East.
“We had a wonderful team working on the Cooksons and they are now having to use their talents elsewhere.”
Page 3 - Children bring Fifteen Streets up to date >>
Children bring Fifteen Streets up to date
A CATHERINE Cookson novel is to be given a science-fiction twist.
The Fifteen Streets, set in Victorian Jarrow, will once again be turned into a film – it was the first of Cookson’s novels to be given this treatment back in 1989, starring Sean Bean.
But this time, playwright Tom Kelly and a team of South Tyneside school children will be in charge of what goes on screen.
And followers of the popular author’s historical novels will be in for a shock – the film will be made in a “Steampunk” style, fusing Victorian history and modern technology.
Tom said the project, being run by the Customs House in South Shields, was designed to help young people connect with history.
He said: “Rather than the past being like a sepia print, I want the young people to engage with it and have it help them in the way they see their society and their lives
“Catherine Cookson is synonymous with South Tyneside. Projects like this are important because for kids, the past can be another country and it’s important to make it mean something to them.”
Ten children from South Tyneside schools will be selected on Wednesday to work on the script over eight weeks and design the Steampunk setting.
Tom continued: “We will be using Cookson as a starting point, but the work will be very much the children’s own.”
Mr Kelly, who was born in Jarrow and lives in Blaydon, is also the author of Tom and Catherine, a 1999 musical about Cookson’s four-decade marriage to her husband Tom.
The film will be shot in South Shields and Jarrow and has received the backing of Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, MP for South Shields.
It will be the latest in a line of film adaptations of the book.
Customs House executive director Ray Spencer said: “This is without doubt one of the most exciting and ambitious projects that the Customs House has been involved with.”