Newton's laws of television

Once Upon A Time In The North

An overview & episode guide by Matthew Newton

Once Upon A Time In The North was a series from 1994 that got very little attention at the time. It was written by Tim Firth and defies easy classification as a comedy or drama in a similar manner to much of the rest of Firth's work such as Preston Front. Although shown in 30 minute episode and often very funny, it is certainly not a sitcom, and indeed it was spared the indignity of canned laughter.

The premise of the series is very simple, concerning the exploits of a working class family who live in Cheshire in northern England. Len Tollit is a man determined to provide for his family. Despite being made redundant he has dreams of success, and is undeterred by the failure that inevitably dogs him. As a result, Len tends to resent those who have had success, in particular Bob Carling, an old schoolfriend with a successful business.

Len is married to Pat, a realist who attempts to keep Len in reality while trying to hold the family together. They have two children - Siobahn, a 16 year old with a sarcastic sense of humour and boyfriend problems, and Sean, who is younger and has learning difficulties, but has some apptitude for football which Len tries to build up.

Other characters are Morris, Len's hippy brother. Morris is a lorry driver who has a "spirit guide" in the form of a Native American called Geronimo. The family is completed by Mr Bebbington, a Yorkshireman who was the boyfriend of Pat's Mother who is still living in the granny flat six months after her death. Pat resents this, and in particular dislikes the presence of Pavlo, Mr Bebbington's smelly bulldog. However, Mr Bebbington often proves to be the source of unexpected gems of philosophy.

Len was played by Bernard Hill, an actor previously best known for more gritty fare, principally Boys From The Blackstuff and has since appeared in a number of high profile movies such as Titanic and The Two Towers. Most of the rest of the cast were little known. However, the star of the show was undoubtedly Tim Firth's script, which managed to be often moving and very funny.

Only a single season of 6 episodes was produced. However, one particular character did live on in other work by Tim Firth. Morris Tollit was referred to in an episode of Preston Front when he gave a character an off-screen lift in his lorry. He then actually appeared in an episode of Firth's most recent television series, Border Cafe, albeit played by a different actor.

A Phil Partridge Production for the BBC. Colour. 6 x 30 minutes.
Broadcast dates for original UK transmission on BBC1.

Written by: Tim Firth
Producer: Phil Partridge

Regular Cast

Len Tollit: Bernard Hill
Mr Bebbington: Bryan Pringle
Pat Tollit: Christine Moore
Siobahn Tollit: Susan McCardle
Sean Tollit: Andrew Whyment
Morris Tollit: Bob Mason [1-3,5-6]
Troy: Garry Roost [1-2,4-6]
Bob Carling: Bill Stewart [1,2,4,6]
Norman: Claude Close [2-4,6]
Jorgen: Stefan Marling [3,4,6]

1:   The Time Len Spent His Redundancy Cheque 3 May 1994

Guest Cast: Simon Cowell-Parker (Jag Man), Sharon Muircroft (Receptionist).

After being made redundant from North Cheshire Lubricants, Len Tollit spends his redundancy cheque on a 4 foot television set and starting up his own business selling cell phones. However, as Pat points out, he first needs some phones to sell. Meanwhile, Morris has bought himself a boat.

Best Line: "You don't want to rush your forbidden fruit. If you drink, smoke and have sex at 16, all you've got to look forward to is driving a heavy goods vehicle." (Mr Bebbington attempts to console Siobahn, who believes she is still being treated as a child).

2:   The Time Sean Got Into The Final 10 May 1994

Guest Cast: David Neilson (Mr Dacre).

Sean's team has reached the final of a football tournament. Len is determined to help his son's team win - especially when he finds out about Bob Carling's involvement in the opposition. Meanwhile, Siobahn has a new boyfriend in the shape of Troy, a druidic motor mechanic from Walsall who wants to take her away to Glastonbury.

Best Line: "I don't drive executive coaches. I drive frozen turkeys to Aberdeen".   "Don't you ever use a coach?"   "No - it's uneconomical to give them each their own seat." (Morris proves unable to provide a coach for Len to use to transport the football team to their final).

3:   The Time Morris Launched His Boat 17 May 1994

Guest Cast: Jason Done (Policeman), Terry Gilligan (Sergeant).

Morris is launching his boat on the canal and Len wants to make it a family event. Meanwhile, Siobahn is immersing herself in feminist writings having split up from Troy, and Pat fears that Len's unsympathetic approach to her is not helping.

Best Line: "I read Jack Higgins novels, but I don't go round sabotaging chemical plants". (Len is doubtful that reading Sylvia Plath is going to influence Siobahn into killing herself).

4:   The Time Pat Was In The Sound Of Music 24 May 1994

Guest Cast: Lynda Rooke (Celia Carling), Tim Barker (Photographer).

Wanting some fulfilment in her life, Pat is appearing in the chorus in a local production of "The Sound of Music". However the influence of Bob Carling can even be felt here, since his wife happens to be playing the lead.

Note: The credits accidentally reproduce the cast list for the previous episode.

Best Line: "We're finding some of the numbers we need to dial in the area a little difficult to obtain using the Humspurt."   "Right...Well, that's probably because you're a little outside the network."   "No Mr Tollit. It's because they have a 9 in them." (One of Len's customers explains a problem he has with Len's cell phones).

5:   The Time Everyone Went To Wales 31 May 1994

Guest Cast: Giles Thomas (Dewi), Roger Delves-Broughton (Trevor).

It is the half-term holiday and Len drags everyone on a camping holiday to Blethyn Sands, his traditional holiday destination. With the collapse of his business, Len is trying to prove his worth as a father, but the holiday simply sparks another crisis.

Best Line: "Will you lay off the Nick Faldo masterclass - he's got to get it through a windmill!" (Pat thinks that Len is taking crazy golf too seriously).

6:   The Time Len Started A Business With Morris 7 June 1994

Guest Cast: Angela Curran (Ingrid), Karl Stimpson (PC Watson), M J Pepper (PC Cuthbertson), Colin Meredith (Dad with Toffee Apples).

Len and Morris start a landscape gardening business, despite not knowing anything about gardening. In order to gain some publicity, Len persuades the family to take part in Sutton Moore carnival.

Best Line: "English is like a white wine, you know. It's light, very light, but in its depth it has a thousand tastes and colours. Swedish is like a banana milkshake. It's very nice and cheerful, but half way down it's still a banana milkshake and it starts to clog your mouth up". (Siobahn's Swedish boyfriend extolls the virtues of the English language).

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