Starring: Patrick O’Connell, Jean Anderson, Richard Easton
From Mackenzie to Howard’s Way, dramas based around family-run businesses were a staple of British TV in the ’70s and early ’80s, but few were as popular or as powerful as The Brothers, which was a primetime Sunday evening hit from 1972 to 1976. Co-created by N.J. Crisp of Dixon of Dock Green fame, the series concerns a trio of siblings – bullish Edward (Patrick O’Connell), sensitive Brian (Richard Easton) and dilettantish David (Robin Chadwick) – who have to take over the running of their father’s haulage firm when he passes away, only to find themselves battered by various domestic and financial roadblocks.
This 13-part second season is dominated by several on-going story threads. Just as they seem to be becoming an item, Edward, the eldest brother, suddenly finds himself at odds with Jennifer (Jennifer Wilson), the only woman on the firm’s board of directors, and gravitating back to old flame Nancy. At the same time, the firm is contemplating an ambitious plan to buy out a rival, a brash Aussie self-made man, without pausing to think through the potential union difficulties. And all the while, distracted by the failure of his marriage, Brian is steering them gently but surely into mounting debt.
It’s the same sort of long-form format that would later be used with much success in shows like The Sopranos, and it works equally well here, as the characters adapt and form new alliances to cope with their various problems. Things are always changing from episode to episode, including gender roles. The show is full of women chaffing at their lot and trying to forge interesting new identities. But even more unusual and subtle is Edward’s character arc. Made in the same mould as his father (a domineering, patriarchal figure who discreetly fathered an illegitimate daughter on the side), he gradually becomes aware that that sort of gruff authoritarianism won’t wash in the modern world. In fact, taken to task for his lack of emotional honesty, he discovers that he rather like expressing his inner feelings and learns to use it to his own advantage.
All of this unfolds as much in the drawing room as in the board room (the family is surprisingly posh for a bunch of truckers), in dialogue that is beautifully turned and often dipped in acid. All of the male leads deliver thoughtful, nuanced performances, but it’s their female counterparts who grab the attention – the lovely Gabrielle Drake as David’s girlfriend, Hilary Tindall as Brian’s deliciously catty, wantonly malicious wife, and above all the wonderful Jean Anderson as the family matriarch, a disconcerting mixture of bigotry and wisdom, constantly weaving her webs with the aid of a little leatherbound address book (just think what havoc she could wreak with a Wi-Fi connection).
What really impresses, though, is the cumulative power of this second season, the way it adds up to a satisfying whole, with all the threads coming together in the final episode – not in pat, contrived manner, but suspended in a moment of uneasy equilibrium (again, eerily like The Sopranos). In its quiet, polite way, The Brothers is just as compulsively gripping now as it was back in the ’70s – in fact, it’s hard to think of another drama of that era that’s as completely involving. The DVD transfer is mostly clean and sharp, with some graininess in the filmed exteriors but clear, natural colours and plenty of detail in the sequences shot on video. 9/10