Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ adaptation of Jonathon Coe’s novel,The Rotters’ Club, charts the lives of Birmingham teenagers and their families in the 1970s. But can the small screen do justice to one of the best British novels of the last decade? Words Matt Pomroy
Nostalga’s not what it used to be – it just doesn’t stand a chance. It seems that, more than ever, TV series and films from the 70s are being plundered for material and beaten into something suitable for modern audiences. Ideally something shiny and ironic.
Charlie’s Angels, Dukes Of Hazzard, The Brady Bunch and Starsky And Hutch have all been given the Hollywood treatment, while even Kojak was reworked for a new television series. What’s rare, though, is a good series about the 70s themselves.
One that doesn’t push obvious references and comedy fashion in lieu of plot, and one that mines a seam of truth rather than the rose-tinted verisimilitude television audiences are usually spoon-fed.
The Rotters’ Club is not only the rare exception to that; it’s also a gem of a drama containing more pathos, wit and soul than any retro-rehash out there. There’s no need to get rent-a-quotes to talk about Fizz Wizz and Evel Knievel when you have a best seller from the excellent Jonathan Coe as source material. ‘I wanted to write a book which presented a version of the 1970s as I remembered them,’ he told the BBC when it was first screened in the UK. ‘Away from the comfortably nostalgic, retro, kitsch, glam-rock-and-space hoppers version that television always seemed to offer us.’
The adaptation of his novel was written by two of the finest screenwriters Britain has ever produced – Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Best known for writing the 1970s comedies Porridge and The Likely Lads, Clement and La Frenais also adapted Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments for cinema. This, however, works perfectly as a three-part drama.
It’s 1973, and 15-year-old Ben is struggling through life at a Birminghamhigh school with his friends Doug and Philip. Doug’s passion is for left-wing politics, and these are the times when the Labour Party was about labour, the unions and the working man. Ben and Philip are trying to get their prog-rock band off the ground; the trio are united by a lack of success with the girls.
Ben’s older sister Lois has just started dating a guitarist she met through a personal ad in the local paper, while his father is battling at work. He’s middle management at the strife-ridden Longbridge car factory, where Doug’s dad Bill also works, as shop steward and active union man. It’s not easy when your best friend’s father is the ideological and workplace enemy of your own. Meanwhile, Bill is conducting a clandestine affair
with pretty secretary Miriam Newman – older sister of the boys’ schoolmate, Claire. Philip’s parents don’t have it any easier as, unbeknown to his bus driver father Sam, his mother Barbara his having an affair with Philip’s art teacher, Mr Plumb – the creative, free spirit that the 70s advertised but whom rarely seemed to make it out of California and all the way to the West Midlands.
The tensions, passions and loves of the intertwined generations are played out on a set doused with the political tensions of the time. Racism and IRA terrorism are on the rise, the trade unions are under threat, and there’s even talk that the next prime minister of Britain could be a woman. Perhaps she’ll be more compassionate and understanding? But despite the maelstrom swirling around him, Ben Trotter only has eyes for the gorgeous and seemingly unattainable Cicely Boyd. Until one evening, something happens that turns his family’s world upside down forever.
The cast was largely unknown when it was filmed over two years ago, and mostly still is now. Only Mark Williams (from The Fast Show and Ron’s dad in the Harry Potter films) will be recognisable to most people, although Cicely Boyd is played by Alice Eve, who was also the key love interest in one of the best romantic comedies from last year, Starter For 10. The absence of big stars fits perfectly with the era it’s set in, as the characters’ problems may be big, and their ambitions bigger, but it’s the celebration of the minutiae and the depiction of ordinary lives that makes this a winner.
Birmingham from 73 to 79 was, like many parts of Britain, a tough place to be. The government could demand that people work a three-day week and do without electricity for hours at a time, and it was the finals days of collectivism, just before the Thatcherite ‘me-first’ belief kicked in. Class conflict, racial tension and strike action painted the broad strokes of 1970s Britain, and while the political landscape was scarred by this, the wounds were healed by the loves, ambitions and dreams of a better tomorrow. That time is played out brilliantly here. The only thing that’s disappointing about it is the bewildering decision to schedule it at midnight, rather than prime time. That said, if you only stay up late to watch three things this month, then we implore you to join the Club.
For Time Out magazine. Click here for original PDF THE ROTTERS CLUB