Puberty Blues expands as a cross-generational drama without losing any of its insight into teen life in the 1970s.
The first episode of Puberty Blues is a gentle introduction to the 1979 characters created by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, but it’s brimming with charm, colloquial humour and an era full of naiveté and daring.
Debbie Vickers (Ashleigh Cummings) and Sue Knight (Brenna Harding) are two girls in Sutherland Shire who long to be in with the surfer boys. But in the social hierarchy that is high school, life can be cruel. You don’t hang out with the cool chicks, you never sit up the back of the school bus, and you never seek to elevate your standing.
When they’re not enduring science class, Debbie and Sue are hanging around on Cronulla Beach, chockful of panel vans, blonde and bare-chested boys -not a riot anywhere in sight.
Their families are polar opposites. Sue’s parents Pam (Susie Porter) and Roger (Dan Wyllie) are free-loving spirits, prone to skinny-dipping, flirting at the RSL Club and having a few too many shandys before getting behind the wheel.
Debbie’s parents Judy (Claudia Karvan) and Martin (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) may maintain the image of the perfect nuclear family, but it belies deeper frustration and a failure to communicate.
Then there is Greenhills’ spunky surfer Gary (Sean Keenan), the object of affection, ill-at-ease with his peers and struggling to live up to the impossible expectations of his philandering father (Rodger Corser).
The language of the era is wonderfully recreated here. You just don’t hear phrases like “Wanna go round with me?,” “Pash me off,” “Get rooted,” “You’re dropped,” “Packing death,” “Mole!” anymore. It’s blunt, endearing, and so quintessentially Australian.
You can expect to spy a lot of 70s icons in this series: brown furniture, gaudy fashions, ‘Solo’ man moustaches, Old Spice, Red Skins, Cheezels on fingers, Splice ice-creams, Ham Steak & Pineapple, Countdown, waterbeds and more -sometimes it’s as if some of these are crowded into a scene just to make a point about nostalgia.
The soundtrack also whisks us back to a glorious era: Dragon, Skyhooks, and Marty Rhone.
But it wouldn’t be Puberty Blues without its sexual freedoms and social liberties. There are blowjobs by the bay, casual drug use and even more casual racism. You don’t get that in The Shire.
Cummings and Harding shine in their lead roles and this series will put them on the drama map. They underplay their roles to great effect, displaying vulnerablity and early hints of sensuality.
In their adult roles, watch out for Jeremy Lindsay Taylor’s suppressed Martin Vickers, and the obedient Yvonne Hennessey, played by Susan Prior, subservient to the directives of her adulterous husband. The naturalistic style from director Glendyn Ivin (Beaconsfield) allows Puberty Blues to wash over you.
This is the second time Puberty Blues has been crafted for the screen. The first was a 1981 feature by Bruce Beresford, as a contemporary teen drama. Now 31 years later it serves as a period piece under producers John Edwards and Imogen Banks, and it will be interesting to see if its themes hold fast against our current values. Sutherland Shire has been a catalyst for issues on the national agenda, frequently to its detriment, but the only complaint a local mayor will have over this one is that it should have played before that other show.
The screenplay will deviate from the novel by amplifying and adding extra characters. Not having read the book I can’t pinpoint where these occur, but I suspect there is greater weight afforded to the parents to ensure Puberty Blues has cross-generational appeal, rather than purely being a coming-of-age tale.
In any case, what is on the screen falls into place with great ease. If you’re old enough to remember the era you’ll get warm and fuzzy and then cringe with embarrassing recognition. If you’re much younger you’ll be fascinated by the way we used to talk, and the methods used for dating and socialising before texting and sexting. Either way you’re going to love Puberty Blues.
And best of all, I just know it’s only warming up….
Puberty Blues premieres 8:30pm Wednesday August 15 on TEN.