Goodbye to Shameless. What does it leave behind?

As the long-running television comedy comes to a close, David Herman wonders what its legacy will be. Will David Threlfall best be remembered as the feckless, drunken Frank Gallagher?

Tonight, Shameless comes to an end, almost a decade and 139 episodes after it erupted onto our screens. Once it epitomised the sort of foul-mouthed edgy drama Channel 4 aspired to. Eleven series on, it has staggered to the finishing line. Ratings for the first two series averaged over two and a half million. By the end they were barely a million. Most of its stars and audience had long since left. 

Shameless will best be remembered for launching the careers of a group of talented young actors: Anne-Marie Duff (Fiona), James McAvoy (Steve) and Maxine Peake (Veronica). They all made their names in the first couple of series and then abandoned ship to go on to greater things. Duff has played Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen, John Lennon’s mother in Nowhere Boy and Saint Joan on stage. Peake played Myra Hindley in See No Evil, the female lead in the gripping courtroom dramas Criminal Justice and Silk, and most recently played alongside John Simm in BBC1’s The Village. Most spectacular of all, James McAvoy has just played Macbeth in the West End and has had a hugely successful film career from The Last King of Scotland and Atonement to X-Men.

They all left but there, at the end, centre stage, still standing, was Frank Gallagher, played by David Threlfall. Threlfall is a tremendous actor, outstanding as Smike in the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby, a whole number of leading roles for Manchester Royal Exchange in the 1980s and ‘90s, and, perhaps best of all, as Dr Kritzinger in the Wannsee TV drama, Conspiracy and in Skellig at the Young Vic. Now he will best be remembered as the feckless, drunken Frank Gallagher.  

There are many criteria for deciding what makes a TV series memorable. But one, surely, is the number of household names it launched. This may seem straightforward enough. After Granada’s The Jewel in the Crown, Charles Dance, Geraldine James, Art Malik and Tim Pigott-Smith went on to have successful careers on stage and screen for thirty years. Younger viewers must wonder why there are endless ITV dramas, TV ads and documentaries about everything from shire horses to Cornwall with Caroline Quentin, Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey. The answer is because of a hugely successful BBC sitcom, Men Behaving Badly, in the Nineties. Our Friends in the North is the best example of all. It launched the careers of all four of the main actors – Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig – who went on to play big parts from Doctor Who to James Bond.    

However, sometimes the story is more complicated. Anyone watching Brideshead Revisited might have expected Anthony Andrews as the captivating Sebastian Flyte to have a stellar career. And who can forget Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche, an astonishing cameo? Instead, it was Jeremy Irons as the plodding Charles Ryder, the master of the reaction-shot, who went on to become a film star. The same thing happened with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, a hugely popular 1980s ITV drama. Thirty years on, Jimmy Nail is still best remembered as “Oz”, the loudmouth Geordie. But it was Kevin Whately (shy, put-upon Neville) and Timothy Spall (the boring bumbling Barry) who are still playing big parts on our screens, Whately in Inspector Morse and Lewis, Spall in numerous Mike Leigh films and perhaps best of all in Poliakoff’s masterpieces, Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers. Who would have guessed?

Perhaps the most interesting case of all, though, is Shameless. Long-running series pose the question: do you jump and move on to bigger things like Duff, Peake and McAvoy (but strangely not the very talented Dean Lennox Kelly who played Kev)? Or do you stay on and on like Threlfall, take the money, build up the repeat fees, while everything around you goes downhill? It is a lucrative circle of hell in TV Babylon. As Anne-Marie Duff and Dean Lennox Kelly returned for the last episode, I wonder what was said off-screen. 

David Threlfall in Shameless.
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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times