Adrian Mole – The Cappuccino Years

Friday, February 9, 2001 by

I too wrote a diary aged 13 and ¾. It was hardly state-of-the-nation stuff, as you might expect; mostly me calling my biology teacher a bitch and writing down who I fancied in school.

Now, of course, parts of it are hysterical – I managed to come over as both pompous and naïve, pretentious and innocent, and in all cases a pathetic individual. I’d imagine, though, that most 13-year-old boys diaries are like this, and Sue Townsend’s greatest skill was noting the comic potential of such people. The original Adrian Mole book, along with the Growing Pains follow-up were very funny, and when I was 13 I used to love them (being unaware of the irony, you note) – they seemed accurate representations of what us pre-pubescent boys thought.

I didn’t read any of the other Mole books, so I didn’t follow his passage through later teens and into working life. So now we meet again in adulthood, only to find there’s less of a kinship than there was in the past. I can look back at what I did when young, laugh at the immature, foolish opinions I had, and learn from my mistakes. Adrian, however, seems to have developed not one bit from those early days – he remains earnest, humourless and annoying, and this has helped to weaken the character from a normal 13-year-old to an abnormal 30-year-old, one that hasn’t learnt a thing from the past 17 years. If anything, he’s become a comic creation like The Fast Show‘s Colin Hunt, or Steve Coogan’s Duncan Thickett. In fact, he could well be a Fast Showcreation in his own right: Adrian The Hopeless Idealist – with the catchphrase “That’s what I was told”.

Still, as a writer who doesn’t usually work for television, Townsend has come up with a comedy series unlike any other – one which contains no likeable characters at all. Apart from William’s six-year-old son, every other character is a blend of horrible, stupid foibles. Pandora is nasty and uncaring, Adrian’s dad is hopeless, Pandora’s mother is a frumpy ogre … the list is endless. This makes most of the relationships seem pointless and irritating. Adrian’s attempts to impress Pandora strike the most nerves – with Adrian totally pathetic and Pandora a compete bitch, the chances of any actual affection are non-existent, and allowing Adrian to think so just makes him look even more moronic (shades of the equally unlikely coupling between Goody and Habib in The Thin Blue Line). That said, if Pandora wants him out of her life, why does she keep on seeing him? Her appearance at his house at the end of the episode seemed particularly unlikely – she’s supposed to be a busy new MP, why has she gone back to Leicester? The chances of an MP being at the house of a childhood friend she doesn’t even like anymore, even if her parents were there, seem ludicrously slight.

Worse still, Keith Allen appears in the cast, playing, of course, Keith Allen. And here’s another question the series poses – why Keith Allen? Exactly what hold does this man have over casting directors? What sort of talent does he have? Here, as in almost everything else he’s ever done, he’s an unpleasant, bigoted individual who continually shouts and sneers at everything and everyone. Bob Martin aside – when the writers gave him a decent script – Allen is always totally unwatchable, just winding the viewer up more and more. In scenes where he appears with Adrian and Pandora, it provides a handy, easy-to-avoid omnibus of the most annoying characters on television.

Of course, it could be argued that the characters don’t have to be totally realistic, as the series is also supposed to be a satire – Townsend’s using the characters as ciphers to make points about politics and British life. That’s fair enough, but the series is set in 1997 and we’re watching it in 2001, so much of the satire seems hopelessly out of date. Those satirical revelations in full: Margaret Thatcher looks like a man! New Labour are a bit like the Conservatives! Some MPs are not entirely clean-living! This stuff is hardly going to bring down the government, especially as Have I Got News For You and Rory Bremner have been doing similar – but better – things for the last four years. When we’re getting scenes where Pandora is doing a photoshoot and is told to show more cleavage to get her in the Sun, this is not exactly radical stuff. In the next episode – Pandora goes into Tony Blair’s office and sees a picture of Margaret Thatcher and a tabloid journalist is portrayed as a chain-smoking bigot. And Pandora is given a brown envelope with cash in. Probably.

Of course, whenever a programme is set in the recent past, we’ve got to look for anachronisms, and there are plenty of them. Pandora’s appearance on Newsnight was a nicely constructed set-up, but somebody could have noticed (perhaps Jeremy Paxman, who appeared) that the set wasn’t in use in 1997. The plot also seemed to suggest that she was appearing onNewsnight on a Saturday – she attended the “Blair babes” photoshoot on Friday 2 May, at which Adrian was told she would be on Newsnight “tomorrow”. This may be a trivial moan, but it sums up the rushed feel of the whole thing – the 30-minute format seems too short for the programme to include all it wants to, and credibility is stretched thanks to this. For example, Pandora went to Adrian’s restaurant after her appearance on Newsnight, where environmental health inspectors turned up and closed it down. For this scene to take place “after Newsnight“, it would have to be about midnight, and do environmental health really make inspections in the early hours? Or was this a way to cram the plot into the format? And couldn’t someone have looked in an old diary before starting a scene “Friday, 25th May 1997″? Surely the dates should be accurate in a programme like this?

From the awkward attempts to get a sense of time (so the Teletubbies are mentioned, as if this would send us straight back to 1997) to the clumsy attempts to tell us what’s going on (when Adrian “narrates” the camera goes blurred around him, just so we get the point that the line’s not been said out loud), the programme is a confused and irritating attempt to recapture past glories. Like deeley boppers and ra-ra skirts, Adrian’s natural habitat is the early ’80s, and seen outside this is just embarrassing.

Still, William Hague does have a silly voice, doesn’t he?


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