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Looking Back At BOON

Tony pays tribute to simple goodness. And the horse it rode in on.
In the 2020s, we live in a world of bold directions, so that things are either often gritty or cosy, but rarely both. Urban or pretty, but rarely both. Dramatic or comic, and at least sometimes both.

In these days, we rarely look to the mid-Eighties for subtlety of presentation, either – the Eighties is far enough in the past to be expressible as a stereotype. Politically, the age of laissez-faire economics and de-regulation, of Thatcher and Reagan on the one hand, and the devastating changes they wrought upon their nations on the other. Stylistically, we think of bright colours, electro-pop, big hair, shoulder pads, and fabrics that should never have been let loose outside the science-fiction writer’s mind.

And then, as if from nowhere, comes Boon.

Boon is an oddly, wonderfully optimistic show, without ever losing the touch of grit that anchors it to reality in the British West Midlands from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties.

Really though, it’s wrong to say it comes from nowhere. At its core, it comes from the same place as the likes of Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff (1980), and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (From 1983).

But where both of those dramas were essentially stories of change in mid-life arising from the external, political world of Thatcher’s Britain, Boon actually travels politically light, basing its story of fundamental change in the sort of thing that could happen to anyone at any time.

Ken Boon (Michael Elphick) is a middle-aged, unattached firefighter in Birmingham. He doesn’t have much of a life outside the station, but is well-liked by his friends in the profession. But Boon is a prodigious reader of relatively cheap cowboy fiction, the whole “Lone stranger riding into town to solve problems, then head off into the sunset” kind.

When his boss, Harry Crawford (David Daker) takes early retirement and flies off to start a new life in Spain, life continues as normal for Boon – but the two had often worked in partnership on the job. Without Crawford’s help or restraining hand, Boon pushes into a burning building to rescue some people trapped inside. He succeeds, but the effort costs him long-term lung damage.

Suddenly, the man whose chief purpose in life was to save people’s lives is unable to do the job. Pensioned off, he finds the world of mid-Eighties Birmingham initially has little use for a breathless firefighter made old before his time.

But Boon has dreams. He buys himself a field to turn into a market garden (and home), calling it the Ponderosa in a hat-tip to his Western obsession. His dreams are bigger than his bank account though, and when Harry returns, deserted by his wife for her “twelve-year-old” hairdresser, the two cling together as stalwarts with a similar approach to life.

Harry buys a hotel, and puts an ad in the local paper (admittedly while drunk), to get Boon some sort of job to do while he’s working on his house and market garden. “Ex-firefighter seeks interesting work. Anything legal considered.”

The central notion of the show is of a man who lives to help people, and dreams of a higher ideal like the nameless rider, setting the world to rights. With his significantly less-than-trusty steed, a vintage motorbike he works almost constantly to keep running, his ‘ranch,’ the Ponderosa, a growing and changing gang of compadres, and a heart that’s semi-pure but never na├»ve, Boon, robbed of the career that was his life, sets about making the world a better place, little by little, one job at a time.

And that right there is the start of a seven-series show that served up weekly slices of human spirit, without ever over-sweetening the pie.

One of the most unusual things about Boon over the years is that it relatively frequently changes completely what its focus is. At first, Boon is a man-for-hire, doing almost anything that pays, so he can funnel the cash into both his living expenses (he moves into Harry’s hotel once the caravan in which he was living on the Ponderosa is repossessed), and into the expenses of eventually building the Ponderosa into the place he sees in his dreams.

But along the way, he starts up a motorcycle courier business – the Texas Ranger years (which many people consider ‘Peak Boon’). That metamorphoses over time into something more akin to the long history of private investigator fiction, and rather sadly changes its name along the way, becoming first Boon-Daly Investigations, then plain Boon Investigations, and finally the deeply dull-sounding Crawford Boon Security (CBS), in which he and Harry work together – Boon on investigations, Harry on security.

Really though, the core remains that central character of a man who has a real need to do good in the world – be it as a real-life firefighter, a dreamland lone rider, or as time goes on, an investigator into problems that need solving (if not directly fixing).

The cast changed and grew over time, with Elphick and Daker the two constants from day one. A young Neil Morrissey got his first major TV role on the show as Rocky, a young rider who – and let’s make no bones about this – added to the appeal of the team to younger viewers. But it also allowed the likes of Amanda Burton, Christopher Eccleston and Elizabeth Carling early roles that helped them on their way.

At least as much as that, the staff of writers who worked on Boon would go on to make some serious names for themselves. Anthony Minghella (who eventually achieved Best Adaptation Oscar nominations for The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley) worked on the show. So did Geoff McQueen, who was already having success having created The Bill.

So the show was a multi-faceted springboard for talent, both on-screen and behind the cameras.

But front and centre, Boon was probably the role of Michael Elphick’s career. That’s saying something, because when he took the part, he was already fairly well-known after successes like Private Schulz with Ian Richardson, and having expanded into comedy with Three Up, Two Down alongside Angela Thorne and Lysette Anthony. Before signing on for Boon, he’d had quite a career, from early roles as menacing tough guys to more affable everymen, like Three Up, Two Down’s Sam Tyler.

Ken Boon was a different challenge, because the whole show was tied up in his fundamental character. That mix of firefighter grit and heroic dreamer didn’t strictly fall into any one category. Elphick though rose to the challenge, despite Boon also covering one of the most difficult periods of his personal life. Just two years into the role, he first sought help for a longstanding problem with alcohol.

There’s no point at which Michael Elphick’s Boon (or, come to that, David Daker’s Crawford) ever feel inauthentic – which when you consider the show’s frequent changes to their professions to keep the feed of adventures fresh, is astonishing.

And while Boon developed into a chronology and a story arc of its own, it was a show you could always dip into without getting overly baffled by the weight of the ongoing story. If you did that, it would give you what you were looking for on any given week – that sense of genuine goodness persevering, without ever becoming anodyne or boy scout.

Now, Boon is available on Britbox, to deliver a little of that positive spirit and humanity to a whole new generation. It will feel very vintage, because, for instance, it’s from a world of deeply unattractive cars, coin-operated phone boxes and the like. But in its central characterisation, in the teams that gravitate to Boon as he moves forward from a life-changing incident, and in the notion of simply wanting to make a positive difference, it still speaks to people in an age that invites us all too easily to be jaded.

Watch Boon today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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