Looking back at The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4

We revisit an eighties classic, ITV's The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, adapted from Sue Townsend's terrific books...

The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ was a six-part ITV series broadcast in 1985, based on the book of the same name by Sue Townsend. It was followed by The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole, another six-part series, based on the second book of the series. Both series dramatise the experiences and misadventures of nerdy teenager Adrian. There are later books in the series and further adaptations, but it’s the 1980s series we’re looking at today. As well as being funny and moving, it’s also a time capsule of life as a 1980s teenager.

Each episode opens with a stop-motion animated title sequence that does an exceptionally good job in getting across what the show’s about. It introduces the main elements of Adrian’s personal life along with some of the background events of that time such as the royal wedding between Diana Spencer and Prince Charles. The title music, Profoundly In Love With Pandora by Ian Dury, spent some time in the British charts, and also mentions some of the events from the books and series.

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In terms of development, Adrian Mole followed a similar path to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as it started life as a BBC radio play. Then came the books, written in diary form, which were successful, and the TV series kicked off in 1985 with a double-length, 50-minute episode. It’s a comedy drama, shot on a low budget and has a style that could best be described as cheap and cheerful. The story is progressed by a series of diary extracts, lifted directly from the books and narrated by Adrian. These two factors, the limited budget and the use of diary extracts, sometimes gives the show a disjointed feel, and this adds a flavour of both a sitcom and a docu-drama. Fortunately, the setting is carried over from the books, so expect to see the sights of Leicester in the North of England, along with a healthy dose of regional accents.

The casting is mostly top-notch, beginning with lead actor Gian Sammarco. All too often, the teenage lead in a TV show is a streetwise kid with a perpetual one-liner up his sleeve, but Gian plays Adrian as a pure nerd. Adrian’s a sensitive lad, and quite clever, but he spends most of his time with his head firmly in the clouds. Many of the comedic moments spring from his obliviousness and lack of savvy. For example, there is a scene in which his mother is obviously having sex with the man from over the road, but he naively accepts her explanation that they are locked in the kitchen attempting to fix the water boiler.

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Even when he gets things wrong, however, the audience is on his side. He asks the librarian for copy of “Prejudice And Pride” by Jane Austen, remarking afterwards that he could tell that she was “dead impressed”. Bullied at school, unappreciated in his home life, who could blame Adrian for retreating into his own little world of his books and his poetry? Every now and then, he receives yet another rejection letter from the BBC for his poetry. Despite his pomposity and pretensions, Adrian’s naïveté and aspirations are endearing.

One of the most famous moments from the book comes from Adrian’s experimentation with substance abuse. Building model aeroplanes was a common nerdy activity for a youth in the 1980s. Cue Adrian indulging his curiosity about the practice of glue-sniffing. Glue-sniffing has a lower profile these days, but it was a major public health concern in the 1980s, and it often featured in teen dramas. However, this is Adrian Mole that we’re talking about, so before long, he is sat in the emergency room, next to his mother, with a plane stuck to the front of his nose. How embarrassing.

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Like most 13 ¾ year olds, Adrian has a burgeoning interest in sex. Oddly, he takes regular measurements of his private parts and records the continually varying results in a graph, that he hides in plain sight, on his wall, marked “Norwegian Leather Exports”. Now, that’s nerdy. He seems to interpret the results as a kind of barometer of how things are going in life. On one occasion he accidentally catches a view of his neighbour’s underwear, and remarks to himself that it is surprisingly sexy for a church-going, middle-aged woman. Symbolically, this represents Adrian getting a view beneath the respectable veneer of society and its treatment of sex. His attempts to hide his top shelf “girlie” mags from his mum were another touchstone of adolescence in the 1980s. Shrewd observations such as this, on the part of Sue Townsend, are part of the reason that books were so successful.

A younger generation should still be able to relate to much of what goes on – the landscape has changed a bit but the landmarks are much the same. Adrian accidentally building up a gigantic phone bill that he then has to hide from his parents must have its modern-day parallel. No doubt, the parents of a 13 ¾ year old now shake their heads at how good kids today have things compared to their own generation.

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Some of the social changes that were part of the 1980s are reflected in the storylines. For one thing, an increase in family break-up meant that a child no longer had an automatic expectation of a home with two parents. In addition, the North of England was hard hit by unemployment, particularly for low income, low skilled workers like the Mole family. Poor Adrian has to face uncertainties over his family’s ability to pay the bills along with the humiliation of not being able to afford a school uniform that fits properly. He comes from what looks like a nice home, but now that dad’s unemployed he has to hand in his homework covered in candle wax because the electricity has been cut off. It’s the acknowledgement of these social issues that pushes this series ahead of other teen dramas of the time.

There’s a general theme of Adrian’s dissatisfaction with the institutions that he comes into contact with such as family life, the school system, the welfare system and the government in general. His teachers, for example, range from a tearful, lefty mess to a Thatcher-worshipping disciplinarian, both utterly uninspiring. Speaking of school, bullying is also another problem that Adrian has to deal with, but he grimly accepts it as part of his lot in life.

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Getting back to Adrian’s family, his parents are self-absorbed. They are, basically, good people, yet they fall short as role models and supportive parents. Adrian’s parents repeatedly act upon their whims, rather than in a responsible manner. This lack of self-control continually infuriates their sensible son. His mother, for example, is caught up in the women’s lib movement of the 1980s, but her take on things is a self-centred one. Dungaree-clad and clutching a copy of The Female Eunuch, she elopes with the man from across the street, leaving Adrian and his unemployed father to cope on their own. Mr Mole struggles to make the best of the challenging hand that he has been dealt and remains permanently depressed, untidy and crass. On one occasion, Adrian overhears that his parents are now arguing over who gets stuck with him. On another, they reduce him to tears while making a long list of what their ideal son would have been like. Before long, said dad has started seeing someone new, while Adrian tries to maintain a relationship with his mum over the phone. Without giving too much away, the situation culminates in a huge mess of unplanned pregnancies and fragmented families. Society was changing, and the kids were often at the sharp end.

Stephen Moore is a character actor who constantly pops up in supporting roles in some of the best British TV programmes and films. Here, he plays Adrian’s father, and he’s great as usual. Setting up one of Moore’s best moments, Adrian attempts to eradicate the Noddy wallpaper of his childhood by painting his room entirely black, and to overcome the fumes, he burns some incense sticks. Upon this discovery, Dad throws them out of the window, angrily declaring, “I’m not having you messing around with drugs!” In another scene, panic-stricken, he leaps out of bed upon hearing that The Falkland Islands had just been invaded. He calms down somewhat when he discovers that they are not actually located off the coast of Scotland as he had originally believed. However, like most of the characters, although flawed, his heart is usually in the right place. When Adrian pontificates about his love for fellow swot Pandora, his dad is probably on the money when he opines with a wry smile, that if she were “as ugly as sin”, Adrian wouldn’t have noticed her intellect.

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It was the general feeling at the time that government was extremely out of touch with issues affecting working class people, particularly in the North. From time to time, The Mole family come into contact with another staple of 1980s British life: government schemes. These were often well-meant but only worked on paper. In one episode, Adrian’s dad is given a job that puts him at the helm of a scheme to provide employment for young people. Adrian gets to witness how futile and absurd the whole thing is by watching his dad attempt to cajole a group of belligerent youths into helping to clear rubbish out of a canal.

The social strata of Adrian’s world is also explored through characters with different backgrounds. His love interest, Pandora Braithwaite, comes from a family that is superficially quite different from Adrian’s. Polite and well-educated, The Braithwaites are middle-class and deeply involved in right-on left-wing politics. Making the coffee that fuels one of Pandora’s committee meetings, they insist that Adrian call them by their first names and lend him socialist literature. The contrast with his own family life makes Adrian shift in his seat as his sits their immaculate living room. 

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Pandora herself is played very well by Lindsey Stagg. Prim and proper she may be, but she quickly reverts to being a spoilt brat when she doesn’t get her own way on things. “Why am I going to Tunisia?” she laments before giving Adrian a goodbye hug. “It’s because your dad is rich,” the audience hears him comment. Like Gian Sammarco, Stagg left the acting profession before she could transition to adult roles.

Most of the rest of the cast is filled out with familiar faces of well-known British actors. Beryl Reid, playing Adrian’s paternal grandmother, is an old age pensioner whose values are rooted in those of pre-war Britain, offers yet another perspective on the proceedings as a character born around the start of the First World War. No wonder she refers to Adrian’s mum as “wanton”. When Adrian complains that he is feeling depressed, she replies: “Depressed? There was no such word when I was your age. We was too busy working morning, noon and night.” Adrian befriends another pensioner, Bert Baxter and gets a view of how the elderly are often discarded and undervalued. What does Adrian have to admire or believe in?

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In the first series, Adrian’s mother is played by Julie Walters, and in the second series, singer Lulu makes a rare acting appearance in the same role. Both are very good. As is the case with Adrian’s father, the mother does sometimes come across as crass and ill-informed, but she also also acts a foil to Adrian’s pomposity and overly serious attitude. Both parents feel exasperated with their sensible son and his lack of enjoyment in things, his self-obsession and constant hypochondria.

Adrian’s best friend Nigel is played by Steven Mackintosh, an actor who went on to appear in dozens of TV shows. At times, he questions his sexual orientation, and this is a source of discussion between himself and Adrian, another indication of just how much society was changing in the 1980s. That said, it’s still an example of the way that Townsend was, thirty years ago, unafraid to explore the real issues of teenage life, and this was part of the appeal to the younger part of her audience. He is another example of the use of characters to explore different perspectives Adrian’s world too, as he has wealthy parents, and his racing bike, a typical wished-for possession for a teenage boy in 1980s, was a source of envy for Adrian.

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Both series run end to end, giving us 12 episodes to get to know Adrian and his world, exploring teenage life and also the broader issues that were around at the time. Townsend herself felt that the books were intended for both an adult and a teenage audience, and these two series contain just as many laughs for both sets of viewers. Now, there’s a third group that can enjoy them – people who were children when the books and the series were conceived but who are now adults. It also serves as a great companion to the first two books because it’s faithful while still fleshing out scenes and characters. Sue Townsend was an exceptionally clever writer, and she had the knack of capturing themes that were specific to a time while, at the same time, also universal. The excellent source material provides a solid foundation for the series.