I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m quite a fan of the recent television series Puberty Blues. Perhaps for no other reason than because it is so good, because it stands out from the crowd, head and shoulders above the rest of the mediocrity on offer; because it is an engrossing piece of Television.
Recently seen on Channel Ten, it is an adaptation of the 1979 book by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey. Written when they were just shy of twenty, Puberty Blues is a brutal and unsanitised portrait of seventies youth culture, a window onto a despairingly misogynistic world where (young) women were something worse than second-class citizens. In an episode of Australian Story from 2002, Kathy Lette describes the boys she grew up with in Cronulla as “[disproving] the theory of evolution. They were kind of evolving into apes. It would have looked much more natural if they squatted on their haunches and groomed each other.” It shows, both in the book and the television series. As an example of the vernacular of the time, especially in the surfing fraternity, the terms for sex were “‘rooting’, ‘tooling’, ‘plugging’, ‘poking’, ‘stabbing’ and ‘meat injecting’… And the terms for women were ‘bush pigs’ or ‘swamp hogs’; if you were very good-looking you got called a ‘glamour maggot’.” But as brutal as the book is in its depiction of the times and the attitudes towards women, it almost seems to be a caricature, the briefest of sketches. Maybe I’m too old or perhaps too cynical, but there is almost a lack of depth to the book which I was surprised at, considering its status as a ‘classic’, an important part of our cultural maturation. It focuses squarely on the (mis)adventures of the kids – whose ages are described as being thirteen in the book, but in the film and television series have been raised to sixteen – and everything life throws at them, with barely a mention of their parents or the adults in their lives.
The television series however, constructs the story as a set of two parallel narratives – that of the kids, and that of their parents – mirroring and contrasting one with the other. Produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks, the pair responsible for much of the critically acclaimed television drama series’ of the early twenty-first century – The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Spirited, Tangle, Offspring – the series does not flinch away from depicting the times as they were, complete with their mannerisms, vocabulary, actions, and values systems, no matter how crude or backward they seem to us now. If anything, it perhaps works to its advantage, not to show us how far we’d like to think we have come, but to show us how far we haven’t. (Full points are also awarded for reintroducing the word ‘moll’ to the vernacular.) But the show belongs to the young cast who seem so uninhibited and natural; there’s an unadorned charm and intrinsic honesty to their performances, something that is definitely not acting so much as Being.