Eighties TV Season: Some Coming of Age Dramas

Continuing a series of posts about 1980s TV series which haven't appeared here before. This post is about a number of TV shows which could be described as 'coming-of-age dramas': the other thing they have in common is that I didn't feel inclined to make a single blog post out of each one so I'm going to deal with them together, rather than not mention them at all.

My inability to blog about each of these shows individually stems from a personal distaste for the coming-of-age genre, a distaste which comes from the fact that we all know the life events which appear in this genre are very difficult. I won't hide my usual motivation of distracting myself from life's difficulties by watching TV so too much trauma doesn't tend to appeal.

On the other hand, on reading round the subject I am noticing that people who see these dramas at the right moment in their lives (teens, apparently) all speak about the significant impact they had. They also talk about the way this genre, because it deals with significant life events around growing up and transition to adulthood, carries much more significance and weight than you would expect it to. Apart from Johnny Jarvis and One Summer, which are both out of respectable dramativ stables, none of these shows makes too much pretention to be great drama, and so the impact of these shows seems to be represented by the events depicted being magnified by the life situation of the viewer at the time. For that reason, if you catch them at the right moment these shows really punch above their weight.

The other thing these shows have brought up for me, which I have so far avoided mentioning, is the situation of Britain in the 1980s and how grim everything was. This is a fact that I haven't dealt with so far, but then as now this country is a shithole and, oh look, which party the government is. Who'd'a thought it. I didn't want this series of posts to be overly dominated by unemployment and Thatcherism, but in these shows they're rather unaviodable.

I haven't seen Maggie (1981-1982) since I saw it on its original broadcast so can't speak for its impact now, but its storyline of a working class girl growing up in Glasgow who is determined to go to university rather than follow her parents' expectations makes it a true bildungsroman. Maggie's determination not to give in to her parents must have inspired a generation. I remember my own mother disapproved of it so it must be subversive.

One Summer (1983) is very much a legendary coming-of-age tale about two nice lads from Liverpool who (completely understandably) seek to reset their lives by running away to Wales. The conflict aspect of the coming-of-age story is mostly represented in their taking the mores of their city upbringing with them. Who hasn't ever fancied joyriding a tractor? It also manages to be incredibly shocking if it would strike you that way - in all sorts of ways. I think this is a drama which can actually strike different people in different ways. Part of this is (to my mind this is a criticism) that there is an apparent lack of sexuality and romantic relationships (apart from one appearance of a porn mag) - however I suspect that that might be deliberate and intended to make the viewer understand this show as they will.

Annika (1984) is very sophisticated and some quite strong stuff in comparison to some of the other shows here. For a start quite a lot of it is in Swedish without subtitles (but that is deliberate: you're supposed to feel like you're not following). It is a romance on the surface (between an 18 year old deckchair attendant on the Isle of Wight and Annike, a Swedish student who is there to learn English). That there is a lot about the difficulties of them continuing this relationship will indicate that the relationship/conflict theme is significant. There is also sex galore and full-frontal nudity, which probably puts this closer towards the adulthood bit of the transition to adulthood.

His age may seem to rule this out but much of the point of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (1985) is a play on roles in family and society so that it very much covers the same ground as every other coming-of-age tale. In fact for a long time it was my favourite book to take on interminable bus journeys with my mother and read bits aloud to embarrass her.

The one which had a lot of impact on me was Tucker's Luck (1983 to 1985), which was a spin-off from Grange Hill, about what happened to Tucker Jenkins and his friends after they left school. They go out, with few qualifications, straight into the depressed labour market of Thatcher's Britain, and this show is about their efforts to transition to adult life. It has all the nuanced emotions and life events that you would expect of a show of this genre, and isn't afraid to deal with sex and complicated relationships. Unusually for a male actor in a teen programme, and in a quite disorientating way because everyone my age remembers Todd Carty as a child actor, he is treated very much as a sex symbol. He literally can't keep his clothes on (swoon) - and not in my sense of arranging my life around wearing shorts as much as possible and a shirt as little as possible - he is perpetually working out and swimming, and it's unusual for a show apparently not to be aimed at the male gaze. Tucker's Luck has not been commercially released but is available complete in VHS quality on YouTube. If you want to enjoy it in 1980s style, there were three novelisations.

Covering very similar subject matter to Tucker's Luck is Johnny Jarvis (1983) which I have only just discovered and actually got for the purpose of this blog post. It's about two friends, Johnny and Alan, and what happens to them after they leave school, right at the end of the seventies. There are also arcs about Alan's absent father, relationships, and all the other things which are the work we do in our transition to adulthood. It is a series which is obviously going to take a couple of viewings because I'm finding it quite confusing: for a start despite being named after Johnny I was initially confused by the amount of the show devoted to Alan. Perhaps it should have been called Johhny and Alan's Unlikely Friendship? In fact it is Alan's role which makes it what it is - without that it would simply be Tucker's Luck with a different cast - by adding a whole layer of attachment and complexity about relationships. My only criticism is his criminal dad is played by Maurice Colbert, and I'm going to say it right now, I honestly don't know why he got cast in these crim roles because he's not convincing in my opinion. 

Made in Britain (1982 or 1983, I've found both dates given online) is a television film about a racist skinhead and his ongoing confrontations with all sorts of authority and 'the system'. I'm including it here because it does actually deal with the classic coming of age subjects of relationships, our place in society, conflict, and so on. I can't conceivably have seen it when it was first broadcast, being too young, but I remember being very struck as a youngster that it is about what happens if you literally ignore authority and don't care. Even though he was obviously a complete nightmare for everyone around him Trevor does elicit the viewer's sympathy. You just wouldn't want to turn your back on him.

And finally if I may just mention one coming-of-age tale which isn't 1980s and isn't TV, I am very fond of That Summer (1979). Funny how these shows often bring in the subject of summer - probably drawing on the idea that something significant always happens to everyone in terms of growing up in at least one summer holiday. This one's about a lad who's just got out of reform school and what happens when he goes to work at the seaside so that he can pursue his interest in swimming.

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