Preston Front has a very simple premise. It is set in a fictional town in
Lancashire called Roker Bridge and concerns the exploits of a group of young
people who are members of the Territorial Army (TA). This means that that as well
as having normal jobs they spend evenings and weekends training as part
of Britain's reserve armed forces.
However, as writer Tim Firth later admits, this TA setting was very much a means
to an end. "I had to pretend it was about the TA, with guns and tanks - like
a funny Soldier, Soldier - in order to get it off the ground," Firth told the
Radio Times in 1997. The series is definitely about the characters and their
relationships, which could be explored within the context of the TA. "What interested
me about the TA was the etiquette, the way people related to each other. It's
the ultimate social potpourri."
Like much of Firth's other work, Preston Front is set in his native northern
England. Roker Bridge in particular is based on his hometown of Warrington. "It looks
ordinary from the outside, but when you live there it's Planet Surreal." However,
more than this the series appears to be quite a personal venture for the writer.
One of the themes of the series concerns people who are still living in the town
in which they grew up, something which applies to Firth who still knows many
of his schoolfriends. Many of the characters also have a grounding in real life.
"They are people who I know, or are projections of what they might have become."
The catalyst for the TA setting arose initially when a girl whom Firth had known
at junior school joined the local unit. This was an organisation that had previously
seen the involvement of Firth's history teacher. "They couldn't have had less
in common and yet they spent the weekend together doing the same thing," the
writer explained. He was also intrigued by the fact that a young girl could end up
ordering the teacher around. "That reversal of status between your TA rank and
your real life, the relationship between commanding and commanded, was fascinating
to me". Indeed this aspect was explicitly explored during the first season
of the show, when the characters Polson and Rundle experienced this exact type
With regards to the way in which the characters are based on reality it
is interesting to note that another character, Spock, is a history teacher. However,
in another article for the Radio Times, Firth explained how Spock and his verbal
sparring partner, Lloydy, originated as two of his friends from his youth, who had little
in common and were often in conflict but remained good friends. The real Spock was
killed in a train accident while he was at university, but this concept of friendsip
is something else which is at the heart of the series. "For me, friendship is the
ability to have a blazing row with someone one day and sit down and have a cup of tea
with them the next," Firth explains. This is clearly reflected in Preston Front.
"My characters don't hug to show they care, they argue bitterly, which demonstrates
the depths of their friendship. It's a very English thing."
The Original Series
The series was first shown on BBC1 early in 1994. It was originally known as
All Quiet On The Preston Front, a pun based on the 1930 war film All Quiet
on the Western Front and a town in Lancashire in order to reflect
both its military and northern settings. This initial run of six episodes was
directed by Brian Farnham, who had previously worked on Rock Follies
and would later direct episodes of Bugs. The producer was Chris Griffin, whose credits
included Max Headroom and the Bob Hoskins movie The Long Good Friday.
The series featured a large ensemble cast who
were mostly newcomers to television. Perhaps the most well known cast member was
Stephen Tompkinson, who played the hardened journalist Damien Day in Drop The Dead Donker.
The series gained co-operaton from the army and the real TA. Indeed, prior to filming
the actors were sent on a special five day basic training programme in order
to instill a basic fitness and familiarise them with army practices. This was
codenamed Operation Bold Thespian.
Despite the fact that the series was set in Lancashire it was actually made
by BBC Pebble Mill, based in Birmingham. This meant that although Roker Bridge itself
was represented mainly by the town of Padiham near Blackburn, many other locations
were further south. In particular, the interior of the TA hall and the garden centre
where Hodge works were in Kidderminister in Worcestershire.
Although the individual episodes generally featured a self-contained story, normally
focusing on one of the characters, the original All Quiet On The Preston Front
is structured very like a serial. Each episode is numbered and featured a pre-credits
recap of the important scenes from previous installments. It also
featured continuous storylines, principally concerning Hodge and the entry to
his life of the daughter that resulted from an affair with an older woman when he was 17.
The series featured an eye catching title sequence, based on the life-long relationship
of Hodge and his best friend Eric, showing toys and other items falling from a cupboard
as the pair grow up. The sequence features a newspaper (The Roker Guardian) with the
headline "Roker River Rescue by Two Local Lads", the signicance of which would
be explained a few years later in the very last episode. As a theme tune, the show
used a pop song which actually pre-dated the series, namely "Here I Stand" by The
Milltown Brothers. It had previously reached number 41 in the UK charts in 1991. An
instrumental was used to accompany the title sequence, whereas the full version
was used for the end credits.
After six episodes the series finished. Although it did not produce staggeringly
high ratings it received a warm reception, both from critics and viewers. So,
in a show of surprisingly good sense by the BBC a second series was commissioned.
Back For More
When the series returned in 1995 there had been a few changes. Perhaps most
noticeably the title was now shortened to Preston Front. This was apparently
due to the fact that this is how the show had been referred to in
the many items of correspondance that the BBC had received from viewers,
so the producers decided to follow this trend, ignoring the fact that it
is fairly nonsensical without knowledge of the full title!
Another change was apparent in front of the camera. Stephen Tompkison had left
the cast, so Spock was now played by Alistair McGowan. McGowan is perhaps
better known as an impressionist, explaining his accurate parody of Lloydy
heard in a number of episodes.
With the series now established, Tim Firth could start to reduce emphasis
on the army setting and concentrate even more on the characters. "Because we
know who the main characters are it has given me the scope to indulge the
bizarre nature of the comedy of the group. The stories push the characters from
this ordinary Lancashire town setting into the most absurd positions. Then we
see how the react."
With the change in title, a new opening sequence was produced. This new version
was clip based, with a bizarre range of clips encompassing roller coasters,
countryside and explosions acting as a backdrop to a parade of the main
characters, although strangely it resisted the temptation to actually credit the
actors concerned. The theme tune remained the same, and the episodes were still
numbered. However, in an unusual move the episode title and number was declared
at the very start, in the pre-credits sequence.
Chris Griffin remained as producer but there were two new directors. The first
three episodes were helmed by Marcus Mortimer, a producer and director with
many credits for series such as Alexei Sayle's Stuff, The Two Ronnies and
Jonathan Creek. The subsequent three episodes were handled by Betsan Morris Evans, who
had previously directed episodes of the sci-fi soap opera Jupiter Moon.
The second series was to find more success than its predecessor. In 1995 it
won the best comedy drama category at the British Comedy Awards and best drama
at the Royal Television Society. It was also nominated for best drama at
the BAFTAs. Perhaps most bizarrely it won the trophy for best mini-series at
the San Francisco Television Festival.
A Final Bow
With the critical and popular success following season two, the BBC were keen
for another series. However, it was to be over two years before it appeared on screen.
This was very much down to Tim Firth's schedule and the fact that he wanted
to retain sole creative control. "If a TV series works then there is immense pressure
to turn it round quicky," he told the Radio Times at the launch of series three. "I'm
pleased that I have written every episode. It takes a long time...but it means you
keep the original flavour of the writing." Firth also revealed that his method
of writing would not be suitable for working as part of a team. "I never have
a plan from episode to the next. I just start writing on page one and hope that the
characters will show me the story."
The decision was also made that this would be the final series. "Knowing that
this was the end stopped the series from being like a dreadful third term of
government when you're not sure whether you are going to get back in or not. It
also meant that everyone involved put a huge amount of passion into these episodes."
Series three was allocated an extra episode compared with its predecessors. However,
the length of each of the seven episodes was reduced to 40 minutes, an odd length
which made each episode seem slightly truncated. The series also
featured another new title sequence, and for the first time it included credits for
the main cast.
The series saw a new producer, in the shape of Bernard Krichefski, and two new directors.
Chris Bernard, who helmed the first four episodes, had previously worked on the
film Letter to Brezhnev and has since directed The Locksmith, also for BBC Pebble
Mill. The final three episodes were handled by Rick Stroud, who had previously directed
episodes of Crime Traveller
For the third season, the TA plot line was even less prominent than previously
and indeed did not feature at all in some episodes. "It's
a process of evolution," said Firth. "Once you've explained the reason why these
characters have been brought together, you can start to move outwards. The characters
become the plot; their relationships are the equivalents of the explosions and
battles. That's why the series has stopped being about what it's like to be in
the TA, and more about how real life is reflected through the green and brown
of the TA."
The final episode of Preston Front was shown on BBC1 on 8 September 1997. It
is clear that there will be no more new adventures for Hodge and Eric and the
others, at least meaning that the series went out on a high point, unlike many
other shows which continue past their best.
The series has never been repeated and has yet to be issued on video. However,
it is a show which was keenly appreciated by those who saw it, and will at
least live on because of that.