1985 was a great year to be a teenage geek in the UK. A whole host of what are now classic geeky shows started their lives on ITV, one of Britain’s then just two commercial channels (feel free to gasp at our primitivism, oh my American geekbrothers and nerdsisters) – some imported, but most home-grown.
One of them was the televisual adaptation of the first in what would go on to be a reasonably long series of books that – like the Potter novels later – would grow up with their readers. The Adrian Mole books, by British author Sue Townsend were many things all at once – a spearing of the dreary pretensions to middle-class intellectualism of a teenaged working class would-be poet in the divided Britain of the Thatcher era, an off-kilter diarizing of the events of those years from a solidly self-deluded narrator, a chronicling of the avowedly hopeless adoration of one boy (and later one man) for his first true love – who of course is screamingly out of his league. And funny. Never perhaps laugh out loud funny, but deep funny, funny down to the bones, with a kind of affection for the people they showed, even despite the skewering of their pretensions and the failure of their dreams.
I know, I know, I’m not selling it very well as a comedy concept. Maybe you had to be there, but like some other leading comedy authors of the 80s - Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett etc – if you jumped on board early, chances are the Adrian Mole books were a part of your life right up until Townsend’s death last year.
In 1985, the phenomenon was still fresh – only two books had so far been released, and the TV version of Secret Diary was pitched to capitalize on their runaway success. It featured a surprising rosta of British acting talent, identifiable even today by their geek connections – Julie Walters (Mrs Weasley, Harry Potter) as Adrian’s mother, Stephen Moore (best known as the original Marvin, the Paranoid Android, but also now as Malachi the Silurian) as his father, Beryl Reid, who’d had a stellar career in the British film industry, but will be recognizable to geeks as Briggs from Earthshock) as his grandmother, and so on. The theme song was even written and sung by 80s legend Ian Dury. The only relative newcomers were the youngsters who played Adrian and his friends, and even they weren’t genuine newcomers, but had been chosen from Potter-style casting calls of a hundred or so to fill the roles in what was a big-news adaptation.
Just as Townsend’s books were many things at once, so getting the playing of the young Adrian Mole right is no easy matter – he’s likeable but hopeless, sympathetic but pretentious, kind but blinded by his pretensions to an intellect he doesn’t have. He’s the poor kid who wears a blazer and carries a briefcase with pride, and who describes himself as a teenage intellectual and poet. If Harry Potter is a bullied boy who has a magical destiny, Adrian Mole is what he would have been if he’d grown up in 80s provincial poverty without a magical destiny, but a fervent belief that he should have had one.
Enter Gian Sammarco (who geeks might know as Whizzkid from Doctor Who’s The Greatest Show In The Galaxy), combining it all in a performance that, if stilted and a little cardboard (Townsend was on record as saying she was never happy with the way the character came across on screen), genuinely feels like at least most of the things Adrian Mole had to be, and anchoring the series in a character you could both like and despair of. Lyndsey Stagg, who played the light of young Adrian’s life, Pandora Braithwaite the properly middle-class revolutionary (complete with pony) apparently had a bad time recording the show and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, and has since entirely fallen out of the geek spotlight, but at the time, she too delivered a performance beyond her years, and as an utterly pretentious teenaged poet myself when the show went out, it was easy to see why Adrian was ‘profoundly in love with Pandora’ – Stagg gave the role, which in the books comes across as more than a little stuck-up – a kind of vivacity, a verve that made you think of all the people in your own life who breathed life into a room by walking into it, and realise they were out of your league, as Pandora was out of Adrian’s.
Looking back at the show from 30 years on, it’s by no means perfect – the episodic format tended to play merry hell with Townsend’s narrative, and the layers she got into the book were mostly lost. But as a window on the spirit the teenagers of the times, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ is an effective time capsule – that essential combination in the Adrian Mole books of the noting of world affairs and the minutia of humdrum, poverty-stricken existence in 80s Britain made it – albeit somewhat crammed for space and expression – into the TV version, so it still fulfills the function of social commentary and personal exploration of the pitfalls of puberty when you’re young, poor, in love, and measuring your ‘thing’ with a fervor bordering on the obsessive. The Mole family’s struggles with poverty, a marriage in crisis, the grasping at the straws of feminism, social revolution, sexual experimentation and artistic expression by people whose lives were otherwise drab and desperate still rings a very mid-eighties bell, and the struggles of Adrian, the pretentious poet and geek-boy to win the breathtaking love of his life against the odds of bullies, punk, social inequality and the sometimes inarticulacy of his heart and soul is still deliciously, cruelly funny and relevant, even in a world where geek culture is mainstream culture.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk