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.
There are many beautiful moments throughout the series and much to love about it, from the scenery to the shots, the scripts, the free-wheeling spontaneous moments between Debbie and Sue, the beautiful innocence of the scenes between Gary and Debbie, the scene-stealing tendencies of Debbie’s younger brother, David; the ache of the relationship between Debbie’s parents, the struggle of Sue’s to maintain their integrity, Gary’s relationship with his mum. But it’s also the “casual brutality”, as the producers and directors describe it, that is perhaps the most harrowing and unforgettable thing in the whole series. There are scenes which you long to jump in to, to stop them from happening, but because you can’t, you just sit there watching them in a kind of disbelieving horror, wanting them to stop but of course they don’t, not just yet. Early on in the series, a girl gets raped on the beach while the others watch; a girl is gang-raped in the back of a van; sex is just something that happens, a quick in-out-wave-it-around (as Sue says), before both parties go their own way; a car crash is initially seen as a hilarious event, like a fun-park ride, until they realise one of them never made it out, is still inside the car, his neck broken; I could go on, list every instance of it, but it would lose its punch, even though its implications and resonance probably never will because of the nonchalance and casual indifference with which the violence, misogyny and womanising is conducted, the thisishowitis way with which it is shown on screen.
It’s utterly engrossing television, the heady mix of the kids’ anticipation and ennui utterly disarming and debilitating; you long to lift them out of it and set them right but know they must do that for themselves. It’s gorgeously shot by John Brawley, and directed with flair and trust by Glendyn Ivin and Emma Freeman. It’s not so much a period piece (which of course it is) but a mirror to the now, a virtuosic rhapsody of what it is like growing up; a rhapsody on Growing Up, then-as-now. The visuals are by turns saturated and light-filled, seeming to glow, and stark and austere, almost minimalistic; the scenes become amplifiers for the kids’ intoxicating emotions and hormones. There’s an integrity and honesty to the production as a whole which is palpable, tangible, an achingly astute sense of vitality and struggle which becomes the backdrop against which the kids’ lives and passions are foregrounded.
Puberty Blues is an edgy and thoroughly contemporary drama disguised as a 70s nostalgia trip, and it’s a testament to all involved that by the end of the series, you’ll be sobbing, laughing, grinning, and your heart will be close to exploding with an exuberance and passion so pure and raw that it’s as though you’ve been through it all with Debbie and Sue and Gary and Frida and the whole lot of them. The final sequence is not only a payoff for your investment in the series as it is a vindication for the power of your beliefs and standing up for yourself. It’s a perfect, thrilling way to end the series, and with the tantalizing prospect of a second series on the horizon, it looks as though the adventure is only just beginning.