TV UK, 3 February
The Rotters' Club: never mind nostalgia.
The final episode of The Rotters’ Club on BBC2 (Wednesday at 9pm) opens with the observation that people were ‘more political’ in the 1970s. One central character’s father is a manager at Birmingham’s Leyland Longbridge factory, the site of great industrial disputes, and another is a shop steward. Politics more generally is a constant presence in the lives of the boys and their friends as they grow up together.
The drama, based on a novel by Jonathan Coe, was recommended to me by a bloke who bore an uncanny resemblance to Roll-up Reg, a colourful incidental character, and who had himself been a regular at the Tavern in the Town at the time. That name will have been familiar to many more viewers of a certain age, or with an interest in recent political history, who watched the opening episode. For younger and less tuned-in viewers, the massive explosion at the end of the episode will have come as a bit of a shock. The 1974 Birmingham pub bombings killed the narrator’s sister’s fiancé, and left her shell-shocked. It also violently situated the drama in its political context.
In a clever scene in last week’s episode, a boy mischievously standing for the National Front in the school’s mock elections, asked how the 1970s would be remembered, for Slade and flares and other trivia, or for great political struggle and change? Most of the time, it is the former that dominates our memory of that decade, and indeed it is possible to enjoy The Rotters’ Club as a nostalgia fest, with the music, the haircuts and the youthful sexuality, but the apparently universal quality of the coming-of-age process that drives the drama is deceptive.
The kids fall in and out of love, or at least relationships, struggle with school work and home life, and fail to start a band, all in the context of social expectations that are at once more fixed and more full of possibilities that those facing kids today. It is the fact that these expectations were changing at the time, that this was the end of an era, that gives depth to the drama’s nostalgia. It is significant that the boys are not into punk – their band is taken over by punks – but progressive rock. This emphasises the sense of twilight that characterised the 1970s, or at least, does in retrospect. As Ben, the narrator, says of his friends at the end of the final episode, for Doug the 1970s meant the end of socialism, for Philip they meant the end of Yes.
Just as Alan Bennett’s 1980s-set play The History Boys could not be set in the present day, most obviously because the education system has been so profoundly transformed since then, The Rotters’ Club too is rooted in its particular period. Because it is about people’s lives, and particularly because it is about adolescents’ lives, it reveals an aspect of that period that is missed even by social history, let alone by programmes like I Love the 1970s. And it serves as a reminder that for all the familiar rituals and seemingly age-old problems of adolescence, things really do change. Never mind nostalgia – the world isn’t what it used to be. It never is.
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