A young man is sitting on the edge of a small road bridge. “Chucking yourself off, Vinnie?” asks a curious passerby. “It’s too low. Tower block. Or fast-moving train. That’s what you need.” You would know we were in the north even if the accents didn’t give it away.
Brassic (Sky One) follows the (mis)adventures of Vinnie – played by the series’ co-creator, Joe Gilgun, as seen in This Is England – and his gang of friends, who have spent their lives creating their own entertainment on this and that side of the law in the small Lancashire town in which they have grown up. There is kebab-loving Cardy (Tom Hanson), named after the premature cardiac arrest his passion is surely leading him towards; Irish Traveller and pugilist Ash (Aaron Heffernan); relatively sensible Dylan (Damien Molony); and entrepreneurial, libidinous Tommo (Ryan Sampson), who has found his metier running the local sex dungeon. Vinnie has bipolar disorder – as Gilgun does – and lives in a shack in the woods – again, as Gilgun does – that being the best way he has found of trying to bring a bit of peace to his life and mind.
We first meet most of them stuffed into a stolen car and trying to escape the police while calming Vinnie down about his receding hairline, beneath a Trainspotting-esque monologue in voiceover (“Fuck the middle class, fuck the Guardian, fuck three holidays a year and drinking red wine … fuck moisturiser”). We end up firmly in Shameless territory (Brassic’s writer and co-creator Danny Brocklehurst was the lead writer on that show for the third series, as well as being involved in most working-class-based dramas in the past 10 years or so), as the group’s next challenge is stealing a shetland pony for Jim, a farmer who needs it in order to exact vengeance on his Polish neighbour.
Like Shameless, this double bill begins mostly as pure caper – the chaos the boys generate had me prostrate with anxiety as quickly as the Gallagher’s shenanigans ever did. And, like Shameless, by the end of the first few episodes, the thing has thickened and deepened, fleshed out its characters, started delicately mapping the relationships between them all and drawn you into their world. Occasional heavy-handed moments (“They call us Blair’s forgotten youth – kids who grew up in a town that offered nothing. No opportunities, no prospects, no hope – but what they’ll never understand is that it’s a different way of living”) give way to organic narrative that never flags or hits a false emotional note.
There are fine performances all round from the central gang, especially from Michelle Keegan as Dylan’s girlfriend, Erin, a single mother and former party girl now studying hard at college and determined to beat a path out of the town and away from her assumed destiny. There is also an excellent cameo from Dominic West, giving his native Sheffield accent another run out after Les Misérables, as Vinnie’s magnificently self-involved GP, who asks for his patient’s opinion on the options popping up on his dating app as Vinnie wonders how best to deal with his suicidal thoughts.
As a drama, Brassic asks questions about the limitations we place on ourselves and others. It is about the loyalties we owe to friends and family, and what happens when, in fact, your friends are your chosen family because your biological one isn’t up to much. What does Vinnie owe his alcoholic dad, who took him with him on burglaries when he was young and neglected him the rest of the time and has turned up again at the shack? What does Dylan owe his vulnerable best friend – and what does he owe Erin and her dream of a better life for the pair of them and her son?
These are in and among more immediate questions, such as how the undertaker is going to remove Big Sandy’s dead body from the sex dungeon when he is on his own in the shop today; how you dye a shetland brown when you have stolen the wrong one; what those clicky-wheel things surveyors use are called when you need one to measure out a route from van to safe that you can use once you are in the sewers and breaking in from beneath. Oh, and how you protect yourself from the local hard man, whom you have inadvertently stolen from twice and who is now after your blood.
It is a hilarious, warm, brutal melange that works because it has heart without sentimentality and authenticity without strain. Let’s hope Brassic gets as long as Shameless did. Let us live with and love them all – even as we want, like Erin, to batter sense into their heads and stop their slide towards oblivion.