Set against a backdrop of rapidly rising unemployment during Margaret Thatcher’s brutal supremacy, it’s little wonder that Auf Wiedersehen, Pet made such a strong connection with TV audiences when it was first broadcast.
Devised by Franc Roddam, the series tracked the exploits of seven working men whose skills in the building trade had been rendered largely irrelevant in the post-industrial meltdown of the early 1980’s. Unable to find work in their own country, the characters were forced, as many were at the time, to seek employment beyond these shores.
Originally aired on ITV in November, 1983, the first episode of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet focussed primarily on three Geordie brickies – the hardened and gradually unravelling Dennis Patterson (Tim Healy), the insecure Neville Hope (Kevin Whately) and the abrasive Leonard ‘Oz’ Osborne (Jimmy Nail) as they made for Germany in Oz’s less than roadworthy Ford Zephyr.
The three would be joined by towering bricklayer Brian ‘Bomber’ Busbridge (Pat Roach), womanising joiner Wayne Norris (Gary Holton), bumbling electrician Barry Taylor (Timothy Spall) and part time arsonist/plasterer Albert Moxey (Christopher Fairbank).
The first series of AWP saw the cast housed in a Prisoner of War style hut on the Beko building site on the outskirts of Dusseldorf; the grim reality of their surroundings punctuated by a series of comic misadventures and romantic interludes.
As the series develops so does our understanding of the characters themselves. Their motivations for leaving the UK as well as the complexities of their relationships ‘back home’ thread through the series, adding context whilst making each individual increasingly identifiable to the viewer.
Following a hugely successful thirteen episode run it was clear that ITV had a significant television hit on their hands.
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The largely unknown cast had become household names in a relatively short space of time and were increasingly in demand for big budget TV and Film work.
Indeed, Nail and Healy’s characters were immediately recognisable as part of a national advertising campaign to promote safe sex as the spectre of rising HIV related deaths became a major talking point across the country.
In 1986, the cast were duly reunited for a second series of thirteen episodes, again with legendary writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais on script duty. While each of the seven had returned to the UK with a positive refrain, the dour economic outlook had not improved their circumstances.
Riddled with gambling debts, newly divorced Dennis had been forced to work as a lackey for local gangster Ally Fraser (Bill Paterson), who would became a key character during the course of the series.
A short term reunion for the boys ahead of Barry’s wedding led to the group agreeing to work together once more, this time as ‘reliable cowboys’ for the duplicitous Fraser. No longer confined to a single location in Germany, the ‘Magnificent Seven’ were now pitched to graft on shady projects in the Derbyshire Countryside and then on to the Spanish Costas.
Series Two permitted Clement and La Frenais to expand each of the main characters thoroughly, placing less emphasis on the Geordie trio alone. With the scripts at sacrosanct level and the cast – with Paterson a very welcome addition – confidently able to flesh out their roles substantially, AWP defined television for the decade. However, its success was tinged by tragedy.
On 25 October, 1985, Gary Holton, who played Wayne on the show, died following a combined overdose of morphine with alcohol. With several scenes still to be filmed, much of the latter episodes of series two had to be reworked to accommodate Holton’s absence. Indeed the final episode was introduced by a clearly still shaken Healy and was dedicated to the actor’s memory.
While Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff reflected the grittier reality of a generation headed for a lifetime on the dole, AWP provided pitch perfect comedy, introduced a talented group of young actors to our screens and delivered some of the best lines ever witnessed on British Television. The camaraderie among the seven was infectious, due largely to the exemplary casting but also to the exceptional writing of Stan Hey, Clement and La Frenais and an outstanding production team led by Allan McKeown.
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet returned to British TV screens in 2002, but for true aficionados – of which I am one of many – the latter series, while enjoyable, are not recognisable when compared to their pioneering forerunners. Both original series have aged particularly well and act as an important narrative to the hardships that many working families faced in the early 1980’s. Indeed the issues facing migrant workers when taken in a modern context remain incredibly pertinent.
Above all else, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet remains incredibly warm, funny and is rightly recognised as a landmark in British Television history. If you’ve not yet watched, you need to put that right as soon as possible.