Pramface: even dopey teens can be good parents

Pramface, a comedy about young people dealing with unwanted pregnancy, is one child of BBC3 worth keeping.

David Bowden

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‘When one is in love, one is in Dachau’, claimed Roland Barthes controversially in A Lover’s Discourse, his magisterial study of the semiotics of passion. The comparison was actually made by Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the camp. Barthes overcame his initial distaste for the comparison, observing that being in Dachau and being in love ‘are, literally, panic situations’ where the self is absorbed so utterly into another that it may not happily emerge intact. It is a striking claim for the symbolic power of love and many writers have gone to extremes in their attempts to express it. Sarah Kane’s famously brutal plays, where love is tested by sickening tortures, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ recent novel The Marriage Plot are two examples.

One suspects a similar sentiment often lies behind one of the most hackneyed of screenwriter shorthands: the accidental pregnancy. It is a device so powerful that it is difficult to resist even as the dramatically necessary evasion of abortion can lead you into troubling waters, as was observed after hit comedies Knocked Up and Juno. Still, while the absence of straightforward medical interventions seems particularly striking in the context of the blunt didacticism of EastEnders (which is perfectly happy having cot-death/baby-swapping storylines) it is probably a stretch to imagine them having much of a role in comedies or light entertainment. There is no better method on screen of making two characters realise they’re meant to be together, or definitely should be apart, than that iconic shot of a pink line appearing on a test. In a week where HBO, the edgiest of broadcasters, cancelled hotly-tipped horse-racing drama Luck due to pressure from animal-rights groups, unplanned pregnancy is Barthes’ panic situation for a medium which doesn’t like to frighten the horses.

Still, if the results were as charming as BBC3’s Pramface, then we’ll live. It was difficult to know what to expect from this comedy. It shares a title with a hit fringe play (though the two are unrelated), but is also aimed at young people on the broadly pointless BBC3, and it’s a very classy affair. Focusing on the fall-out from a drunken teenage party hook-up, Pramface (a slang term for teenage single mums) has at its heart a neat inversion: an 18-year-old middle-class spoilt brat called Laura (Scarlett Alice-Johnson) and an awkwardly sensible 16-year-old called Jamie (Sean Michael Verey).

It’s clearly influenced by The Inbetweeners’ fondness for moments of embarrassment undercut by realistic sweetness. It enjoyably takes up various moral panics (the role of porn in warping teenagers’ minds) before dispatching them with suitable silliness (the boy in question ends up being caught, by his mum, masturbating to the Top Gear theme tune). While not as good as The Inbetweeners in sketching male friendships and lacking the sheer comic bite of that hit show, Pramface has more richly drawn female characters, with Yasmin Paige’s Beth a heartbreaking study in sexual longing and reactionary liberal politics.

The show has been the undoubted stand-out in what has been a very busy period for programmes on parenting. American drama Parenthood, which recently returned to female-oriented digital channel 5*, is always going to suffer for being neither as good as the 1989 Steve Martin film on which it is loosely based, nor having the originality and spark of Friday Night Lights, the lauded teen sports drama on which the show’s writer, Jason Katims, made his name. Much like the spiritually similar Brothers and Sisters, it features one of the lead cast characters, Peter Krause, of the vastly superior Six Feet Under (coincidentally, one of the few shows of recent years to tackle abortion sensitively but unapologetically) lending a bit of arty credibility and sheen where it doesn’t really belong.

Compared to the smash hit Call The Midwife, however, it’s practically a drug-fuelled orgy. Adapted from Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of working in the 1950s East End, the BBC1 series has offered the broadcaster a challenge to ITV’s Downton Abbey in gentle Sunday evening nostalgia. While acting as something of a cosy love letter to the National Health Service’s role in civilising the masses – note how any homage to the NHS tends to go back to its idealistic start rather than more recent realities – it is not hard to see the appeal of a light drama which centres on a naive young woman coming to grips with the responsibilities of pregnancy and parenthood by proxy. It’s the panic situation on constant repeat.

Yet in its occasional flashes of the self-reliance and chaotic lives of women struggling to get by without state support in postwar London, you also suspect there’s a fair amount of nostalgia for the days when responsible parenting meant giving birth to a healthy baby and staying alive for long enough to see it into adulthood. Sunday evening dramas about childbirth are not the obvious places to find flashes of radical thought, but it says something about today’s climate that there is such an obvious yearning on the part of older viewers for the slightest of escapes from today’s expert-driven parenting classes.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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