Welcome to another edition of the infrequent and grainy Catherine Cookson Experience, in which I try to explain why, in the mid-1990s, the BBC lost its marbles and decided to film as many of these low-budget potboilers as they possibly could before some enormous sky-clock ran out (which is as good an explanation as any for why these happened).
Because there is a thin line between hilariously terrible and normal-terrible, many of these Cooksons are not as fun as others. There are those whose cheese is appealing (The Rag Nymph), and those that are genuinely enjoyable (The Wingless Bird). Then there are those that are, say, The Round Tower.
Then there is The Fifteen Streets.
This dismal, awkward screenshot pretty much sums up The Fifteen Streets, which ostensibly follows a family of dockworkers from East Tynside and their class and religious issues, but really there’s just a Protestant mystic and a fair and a bunch of iffy child actors and a posse of idle neighbors that is always crowing the frame and two leads who do an indifferent job of things except when it comes to sucking face, which they are allllll over; of all the Cooksons, most of which seal the deal with a chaste peck, this is by far the sucking-face-est. Many of the plot points that end in tragedy (which is all of them, this whole thing is a tragedy) go sour as if to spite the two of them for having wandered onto a frigid beach to neck and not supervising anything else that’s going on.
Heroine: John O’Brien, technically, though this whole thing is such a plot soup of terrible decisions that really, no one deserves to be considered heroic.
Siblings that require looking-after: Endless, confusing, nebulous siblings. Also Sean Bean.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Negative.
Asshole Father?: You know, technically yes, but that is the least of this Cookson’s problems.
Romantic interest(s): Anne of Avonlea.
Fistfights: This entire effin’ thing is one big fistfight.
Assaults: Oh gosh. One offscreen, one bizarre piece of nonsense onscreen that we will get into when we get there.
So, these are the O’Briens! Some of them. You never really get them all in one frame, and because they’re all indifferent actors, it sort of turns into John, and Sean Bean, and four or seven indeterminate young people of limited acting ability who may be siblings or just neighbors or kids who wandered on to the set from elsewhere. No telling. (One of the youngsters who swans in and out again is Nancy. This is important later.)
As evidenced by the opening scene, Daddy O’Brien and son Sean Bean get drunk a lot and beat the shit out of each other and fling symbolic artwork from the windows.
They’re Catholic, by the way, in case you didn’t catch that.
And there’s about to be another O’Brien, because Mom’s pregnant, because Catholicism.
(In this scene, Sean is super drunk and she pulls his pants off and they discuss tea for a second and then sort of frown at the floor. No one in the scene seems to know exactly what’s going on here, and neither do I. This is a trend that continues throughout.)
But there is one decent son in the O’Brien clan, John, and one smart daughter, Smart Daughter. Smart Daughter is precocious and clearly doomed, but we’re still early in this disaster, and so she has to fulfill her plot purpose first and introduce John to his love interest:
Anne of Avonlea.
Here, the first meeting of two characters who already want to suck face, and the awkward child actress stuck in the middle.
But before they can hit those bases, life will get in their way! To highlight the many conflicts at work, back in the Fifteen Streets, the Cathoic and Protestant children gather in the streets to beat the shit out of each other.
In theory, disturbing and striking. In reality, it looks like an elementary school play about the Revolutionary War where some kid is like, “AND I AM GENERAL LAFAYETTE” and then picks his nose as the kid who plays his horse sort of shuffles into the fray.
However, the West Side Story reenactment comes to a halt when they see a stranger kid and decide, as one, to beat the shit out of him instead. They chase him all the way to the docks (foreshadowing for things I can’t even!) before John rescues him and takes him home.
When the kid’s guardian shows up alongside baffled and bewigged niece Jane Horrocks, he introduces himself as that Protestant mystic everyone’s heard of, and everyone in the house is frowning just about the way you’d expect when Father Catholic stops by for no reason just so he can see them hosting a Protestant mystic for tea.
Father has Opinions about all of this. He then tells them to stop hosting Protestants or they’ll go to hell. (Life lesson: never give a priest the key to your house or he’ll just show up and judge your guests all the time.)
The stress of it all sends Mom into labor with a bairnsketball we know is doomed, but that doesn’t stop the mystic from sitting right beside the bed and mystic-assisting with the birth, apparently by pooping.
(Actual facial expression.)
As the family tries to recover from all those leitmotifs, John comes by Anne of Avonlea’s place to point out that Random Younger Sister can’t afford to stay in school long enough to become a teacher, so she should stop telling her she’s smart in class, because it just raises her hopes. (Sad and accurate.) She’s like, “Well, then we’ll work out some way to pay for it!” and he’s like, “NOPE,” and just about then, the tea shows up and they have to pretend they’re not having a fight about class.
Back at the Fifteen Streets, Sean Bean stops by Jane Horrocks’s place to assault her! Except he makes out with her for like ten seconds and then she’s like, “Quit it,” and he’s like, “GOD, WHAT is your DEAL?” and storms out, superoffended.
This whole subplot has the air of a scene exercise entrusted to two high school theatre students who just broke up and can’t even get through the staged reading without just throwing their promise rings at each other and calling it quits. The miniseries itself never acknowledges this scene again.
(Fun fact: The only thing I can think when I watch this scene is that they were in the “True Bride” episode of The Storyteller together, and how much more fun that must have been than this.)
Meanwhile, John and Anne Shirley run into each other in town and go on a date to the vaudeville show and become that couple at the movies that everyone hates because they bring their own extremely loud food and unwrap it slowly and then chew with their mouths open like they are purposely trying to drown out all the goodness in the world.
When she gets home, her parents inform her that they don’t like that she’s going on dates with a dockworker. She doesn’t care. When they push the issue, she says she’ll just take her meals in her own parlor, then, and that will show them! UPPER-MIDDLE-CLASS LEMON OUT.
Back at the Fifteen Streets, everyone is nosey and fractious and the worst, as per usual, and John gets elected to gaffer position at the docks, but no one cares except his father and Sean Bean, who drink eight gallons of beer to celebrate, and probably beat the shit out of each other offscreen for another twenty minutes.
But it’s also entirely possible that they get along fine, because this miniseries is happening in alternate realities and they’re in a pleasant one, because then the carnival comes to town, and Sean Bean and Jane Horrocks go hang out together and have a good time just like some normal non-rapist and a lady he’s never assaulted!
Giggles all around. I am so confused I look like the RCA dog.
Meanwhile, John and Anne have ditched this popsicle stand in search of any place desolate enough for them to skip all the awkward dialogue and just start sucking face already.
But just as things are looking up for John, he’s confronted by Idle Neighbors who accuse him of impregnating “Simple Nancy” (charming!), and plan to beat him senseless.
He denies it, and there’s a whole huge scene where they try to put poor Nancy in an episode of The Closer and pile into a tiny room and shout a bunch of questions like “Why did John give you that sixpence that one time outside town?” because apparently that is an effective technique when dealing with frightened young women and it is just all extremely embarrassing and I am not even going to dignify this stuff with screencaps.
Upshot: John is clearly not the dad, but everyone thinks he is and they are just waiting to beat him to death about it.
John swears he won’t stay here to be insulted. He’ll go to America, is what he’ll do! His mom hears about this and prays fervently that something will happen to prevent him from going. (This gets awkward.)
Anne believes him, though, and when she hears of his trouble, she arranges to meet him at Tonsil Bay and tell him she supports him in his hour of need.
Pictured: a brief gasp of air so he can swear innocence about the whole Nancy thing, to which she replies “I KNOW” and shoves her tongue down his throat. Get it, Anne Shirley.
He swears he’ll go to America and set up there, and then they can be together over in America, where no one ever flies off the handle about anything based only on rumor!
But as per usual when John is absent from The Fifteen Streets for more than two seconds, everything is falling to shit.
Some plot aspect occurs that is probably directly Sean Bean’s fault! Now Jane Horrocks and the adorable precocious doomed sister have been chased out to the harbor for reasons! (I sort of tuned out some of this plot. I regret nothing.)
Now they’re in the harbor! Sean Bean is following them! They’re safely aboard a little boat! Somehow they are still terrified of the calm waters in their perfectly sound boat!
John arrives and tries to help by holding a small stick several hundred feet away from them!
Shockingly, this does not work. The calm water flips their boat, and they fall in and instantly perish. (This is odd for a Cookson, since normally their boat would flip over, and then a shark would attack them, and then they would get cholera, and THEN die.)
This shot is in case you thought they lived. They didn’t, OKAY? Or, they swam the fuck out of this miniseries and started a new, hatless life somewhere else, which I am also fine with.
(Meanwhile, when Mom hears the news that her smart daughter has perished, she has a super-awkward moment with the Lord.)
And when John realizes that this happened because something something Sean Bean’s fault something, it is ON.
(The Idle Neighbors help cover up the fight choreography. That’s probably just as well.)
After Sean is a bloody pulp, some men drag John away, and a distraught Nancy drops the bomb that the baby she’s carrying is, to absolutely no one’s surprise, actually Sean’s.
Whoops! Now this fight is SUPER happening!
Except what really happens is that the guys who were happy to beat John to death for maybe being the father tell John it’s unacceptable to beat his brother to death for being essentially the world’s worst person, and so they hide Sean Bean somewhere in The Fifteen Streets, so John has to knock on every door and ask “Is Sean there so I can finish beating him to death?” like some horrific trick or treat.
As it turns out, they put bleeding unconscious Sean on a horse cart and sneak him out of town to avoid being killed, even though everyone completely hates him and he has committed crimes on at least a third of them personally. Still, if Sean Bean does not die instantly at his brother’s hand, he’s still Sean Bean, and so we know he dies eventually. Bye, Sean!
But this is no comfort to John. He’s so despondent that when Anne calls him out to Tonsil Bay, he doesn’t even have the energy to make out with her.
Instead, he calls off their understanding! “It will never work, Anne! We’re too different! You live in a house with WALLS, okay?!”
He goes home and is despondent some more, as the neighborhood goes on around him. Dr. Strangelove leaves town, kid gangs get into adorable, poorly-choreographed fights, the neighbors continue to gather in large groups and stare blankly at whatever’s in frame, and life returns to normal.
Surprise! She’s thrown away her entire financial and social future to live near him and convince him she’s serious about their relationship, and the Idle Neighbors can’t wait to see how this goes.
How this goes: He says “Nooooooo” as if he’s live-action slow mo and storms out of her house as she shouts explanations after him. (Short version: “But now we can bang!”)
Outside, he spends a moment debating whether he should try to dictate her social status, or if he dares endorse this huge drop in her comfort, but it really only takes a second, because she really does finally has a place to herself, which means only one thing: All Systems Go.
They cut to credits almost immediately, but the actors are already rounding second base and well on their way to third by then.
The Fifteen Streets does bring up some compelling points – religious friction, class stratification, the difficulty of achieving the education necessary to raise oneself through said class system. However, that’s sort of like saying that one squirrel in your yard is our landscaper; if it is, it’s by accident. Overall, this Cookson is seriously lackluster; the acting is all over the map, there are entire subplots that come up and then slink away like a Protestant mystic in the middle of the night, and the majority of the interiors were lit by a single desk lamp, which doesn’t do much to make the thing more visually compelling.
However, if nothing else, it provides a nice, stark contrast to my next Cookson, in which I am treating myself and recapping the very best one (and my first Cookson ever!), The Moth.