My Mad Fat Diary: actually quite good
E4’s new comedy-drama manages to avoid worthiness and give us interesting teenage characters.
Oooh. Naughty, naughty transgressive E4! My Mad Fat Diary you say? Well, that’s got everything in it, hasn’t it? Fat people! Mad people! Teenagers! Sex! Middle England will never stand for this, oh no. There will be fury in the shires. There will be Daily Mail opinion pieces about how you’ve really gone too far this time. You’ll be described as brave though. You might get called groundbreaking. You’ll surely win an award of some kind.
Everything about the new teen drama on E4, which has been heavily trailed in advance, seems so intensely right-on and box-tickingly worthy that the review almost writes itself. Come on, let’s face it, ever since Channel 4 launched back in 1982, we all knew on some level it would eventually lead to someone making a comedy-drama about a mentally ill Northern fat girl and make us applaud them for their daring. There are probably moulding copies of pre-written articles languishing in the desks of long-retired Telegraph and Spectator reviewers, so they could save themselves the bother when the time came and go down the pub instead of having to watch it. Hell, they probably called it My Mad Fat Diary as a working title, nestling in a cold-storage time capsule somewhere alongside other forthcoming hits such as Black, Lesbian and in the BNP or Transgender Tory.
With all this in mind, then, it is almost heartbreaking to report that My Mad Fat Diary actually seems quite good. Based on a memoir by Rae Earl – which drew comparisons to Sue Townsend’s similar paean to the agonies of adolescence in the Adrian Mole books – it follows the adventures of a self-proclaimed ’16 stone 16-year-old’ in Lincoln, attempting to adjust to normality following a stint in a psychiatric ward.
Depictions of mental illness in popular culture are notoriously two-tone. Mental illness is either turned into a ruinous and terrifying tragedy, or glamourised almost as a quirky lifestyle choice or countercultural statement. Nobody has historically done well out of this dichotomy, apart from idiot media types who can pat themselves on the back for once again being brave enough to tackle the apparently taboo subject of mental illness (despite the fact it seems to be tackled, if not well, then at least regularly).
My Mad Fat Diary seems, pleasantly, to have taken its inspiration from the kind of breezy comedy dramas, set to a jaunty indie soundtrack, which Channel 4 used to specialise in during the late Nineties with the likes of Teachers, No Angels, etc. In fact, it seems more of a Nineties nostalgia fest than educative experience, having updated Earl’s book from the Eighties. Which means plenty of jaunty Britpop indie on the soundtrack, and plenty of wry nods to the days when most people had to stick on a compilation CD and skip the crap songs at parties rather than get their groove on to a custom-made Spotify playlist.
It’s probably all the better for it. Rather than normalising mental illness, as it has been lauded for in reviews, its greater achievement seems to be – a bit like The Inbetweeners – normalising being a teenager. In setting itself up as tackling the serious (if somewhat trendy) subject, it seems to have freed itself in all other regards from the pressure of being profound about normality. In the world of My Mad Fat Diary, teenage girls can go down the pub to drink underage, flirt with rough-around-the-edges older boys, fantasise about having vigorous sex with the first person who’ll have you, and learn to pick yourself up off the ground when you face the daily humiliations of being a teenager.
All this, thus far, is seen as something to be celebrated. Unlike the day-glo delights and super superficialities of the increasingly tired Skins, this is teenage life which isn’t frightened to offer a view of mature detachment on proceedings. What makes Rae’s character compelling is not her psychological state but her physical one: she’s randy as hell, dripping with desire and almost crippled by her desperation for a shag. One of the unspoken rules of comedy is that male sexual desire is funny when it is thwarted, and female sexual desire is funny when it is realised. If there are any taboos being busted here, it probably lies more in this character flaw.
In truth, it is probably this joie de vivre which marks out what is otherwise a fairly run-of-the-mill comedy drama: it doesn’t pack serious laughs or a heavyweight dramatic punch. But despite the loudness of its in-yer-face presentation and apparent worthiness, it manages to pull off some very quiet but very real achievements. If it opens the door for future drama which focuses more on taking risks with the quality of its characterisation rather than congratulating itself for being taboo-busting, then My Mad Fat Diary may well have been worth the wait.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.