Christopher Eccleston drew inspiration for his performance as the older Nicky from Writer Peter Flannery, basing aspects of his characterization on Flannery's personality, and even wearing some of his colorful shirts.
The first director approached to helm the production was Danny Boyle. Boyle was keen to direct all nine episodes, which concerned Charles Pattinson, as he believed that for one director to take charge of the entire miniseries would be too punishing a schedule for whomever was chosen. Boyle had recently completed work on Shallow Grave (1994), and wanted to see how that film was received before committing to this miniseries. When Shallow Grave (1994) proved to be a critical success, and enabled Boyle to enter pre-production on Trainspotting (1996), he withdrew from this miniseries. Peter Hall was also briefly considered, but he too had other production commitments.
Austin Donohue and John Edwards were directly based on the real-life scandals of T. Dan Smith and John Poulson, who built cheap high-rise housing projects in Newcastle, that they knew to be of low quality. Peter Flannery contacted Smith and explained that he was going to write a play based on the events of the scandal, to which Smith replied, "There is a play here of Shakespearean proportions." Smith and Poulson died before the program aired.
The episode titles "1964", "1966", "1967", "1970", "1974", "1979", "1984", "1987", and "1995" were the years in which the action took place. Many of these (1964, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1979, and 1987) were years in which General Elections took place in the UK, against which the events of the episodes were set.
The miniseries was originally written by the playwright Peter Flannery for the theatre, while he was a writer in residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The idea came to Flannery while he was watching the rehearsals for the company's production of Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1980; the scale of the plays inspired him to come up with his own historical epic.
Gina McKee related strongly to many of the characters and story elements in the scripts and was very keen to play Mary, but the production team was initially uncertain whether it would be possible to age her up convincingly enough to portray the character in her 50s. McKee was concerned that she would not be given the part after she took part in an unsuccessful make-up test, where efforts to make her appear to be in her 50s resulted in her resembling a drag queen.
For legal reasons, some references to the fictional businessman Alan Roe were removed, because of a perceived similarity to Sir John Hall, a Newcastle businessman who had several factors in common. The drama had originally shown Roe as taking advantage of tax breaks to build a large shopping center.
In 1982, Michael Wearing first approached Peter Flannery about adapting his play for television. He proposed a four-part television miniseries for BBC Two, with each episode to be fifty minutes long, and the Rhodesian strand dropped for practical reasons. A change of executives meant that the project did not reach production. However, Wearing persisted in trying to get it commissioned, and Flannery extended the miniseries to six episodes, one for each United Kingdom general election from 1964 to 1979. However, by this point in the mid 1980s, Michael Grade was Director of Programmes for BBC Television, and he had no interest in the project.
In 1989, Michael Wearing was made Head of Serials at the BBC. This new seniority eventually allowed him to further the cause of Our Friends in the North, and Peter Flannery also wrote to the BBC's then Managing Director of Television, Will Wyatt, "accusing him of cowardice for not approving it." The BBC were concerned not only with the budget and resources that would be required to produce the miniseries, but also with potential legal issues, due to the basing of so much of the background story on real-life events and people. According to The Observer newspaper, one senior BBC lawyer, Glen Del Medico, even threatened to resign if the production was made, while others tried to persuade Flannery to reset the piece "in a fictional country called Albion, rather than Britain."
Daniel Craig and Christopher Eccleston starred as the protagonists of long-running franchises that both started in the 1960s: Eccleston was the ninth actor to play The Doctor in the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who (2005), and Daniel Craig played James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015), and was the sixth actor to play the role.
Much use was made throughout the production of contemporaneous popular music to evoke the feel of the year in which each episode was set. The BBC's existing agreements with various music publishers and record labels meant that the production team were easily able to obtain the rights to use most of the songs that they desired. A particular piece of synchronicity occurred in the final episode, 1995, which James Cellan Jones had decided to close with the song "Don't Look Back in Anger" by Oasis. While the miniseries was in production, it was just another track from their (What's the Story) Morning Glory? album. However, during broadcast, it was released as a single, and to Jones' delight, it was at the top of the UK Singles Chart in the week of the final episode's broadcast.
Christopher Eccleston said that he learned more about acting from Peter Vaughan than anyone else. He recalled their first meeting at a readthrough, when the older actor said to him, "I don't like the look of you", to which he replied, "Well, I don't like the look of you". They got on very well after that.
The production could only afford Malcolm McDowell for three weeks, as he was living in the U.S. Therefore, all of his scenes were shot by Stuart Urban as part of the first block of filming, as opposed to the rest of the production, which was filmed roughly chronologically.
The original three-hour long theatre version, directed by John Caird and featuring Jim Broadbent and Roger Allam among the cast, was produced by the RSC in 1982. It initially ran for a week at The Other Place in Stratford before touring to the city in which it was set, Newcastle upon Tyne, and then playing at The Pit, a studio theatre in the Barbican Centre in London. In its original form, the story went up only to the 1979 general election, and the coming to power of the new Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. The play also contained a significant number of scenes set in Rhodesia, chronicling U.D.I., the oil embargo, and the emergence of armed resistance to white supremacy. This plot strand was dropped from the televised version, although the title "Our Friends in the North", a reference to how staff at BP in South Africa referred to the Rhodesian government of Ian Smith, remained.
After Stuart Urban had left the production, and the decision had been taken to re-shoot some of the material he had completed with Pedr James directing, Producer Charles Pattinson suggested to Peter Flannery that the first episode should not simply be remade, but also re-written. Flannery took the opportunity to completely change the opening storyline, introducing the love story element between Nicky and Mary earlier, which was introduced in later episodes of the television version, but had not been part of the original play. Other storyline and character changes were also made with the new version of the first episode, because it was the script that had most closely resembled the original stage play, and it was felt by Michael Wearing, that the story could be expanded to a greater degree for television. Production of the new version of the opening episode took place in what was to have been a three-week break for the cast between production blocks. Gina McKee was initially very concerned about having her character's early life story changed, when she had already based elements of her later performance on the previously established version. Christopher Eccleston was also unhappy about the sudden changes. However, McKee did feel that the new version of episode one did eventually make for a much stronger opening to the story. Due to budgetary constraints, the production was not able to shoot the remounted scenes of episode one in the northeast, and they instead had to be filmed in and around Watford. Beach-set scenes were shot at Folkestone, rather than Whitley Bay, which was obvious to locals on-screen, due to the presence of pebbles on the beach, which are not present at Whitley. This led to some critics mockingly referring to the production as "Our Friends in the South".
Mark Strong felt that each of the three main characters represents different sides of Peter Flannery, Nicky represents the political side, Geordie the sex, drugs and rock n' roll side, and Tosker the Newcastle side.
Because of earlier production problems, the scenes of the polling station, and most of the whole episode had to be re-shot. Originally, this was shot in the winter months, but had to be re-shot in the summer months, and made to look convincingly like it was cold.
The scale of the miniseries required BBC Two controller Michael Jackson to devote a budget of eight million pounds to the production, which was half of his channel's drama miniseries budget for the entire year.
Producer Charles Pattinson attempted to gain co-production funding from overseas broadcasters, but none were interested; Pattinson believed that this was because the story was so much about Britain, and therefore of limited appeal to other countries.
Two directors were finally chosen to helm the project, Stuart Urban was assigned the first five episodes, and Simon Cellan Jones the final four. However, after completing the first two episodes, and some of the shooting for the third, Urban left the project after disagreements with the production team. Peter Flannery was concerned that Urban's directorial style was not suited to the material that he had written. Christopher Eccleston's viewpoint is that Urban was "only interested in painting pretty pictures." Charles Pattinson agreed that a change was needed, and Michael Jackson agreed to a change of director midway through production, which was unusual for a British television drama of this type so far into proceedings. Director Pedr James was hired to shoot the remainder of what were to have been Urban's episodes.
Christopher Eccleston was particularly concerned about being able to successfully perform with the Newcastle Geordie accent, and did not even attempt the accent at his audition, concentrating instead on characterization.
Folllowing the success of the miniseries, Peter Flannery proposed a "kind of prequel" to the miniseries under the title of "Our Friends in the South". This would have told the story of the Jarrow March. Although the BBC initially took up the project, it did not progress to script stage, and was eventually abandoned.