Something A Bit More Modern: Adrian Mole At Forty

Four decades after the publication of the first Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Sydeysider and lifelong fan Barnaby Smith recalls his bewilderment at giros, joss sticks and spotted dick

The portrayals of Adrian Mole on screen, across two TV adaptations sixteen years apart, always seemed to me not entirely convincing. Or more specifically, in these series Adrian simply doesn’t look like how I imagined him. In the 1985 Thames Television adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (and then again in The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole in 1987), he was played by young Gian Sammarco – tousled black hair, bespectacled, androgynous features, soft pale skin, innocence personified. This casting choice didn’t quite ring true for me. In the 2001 BBC version of The Cappuccino Years, Stephen Mangan does a fantastic job of embodying the character’s insecurities, naivety, conceits and tenderness, but he ultimately feels a little too handsome – even brawny – for adult Adrian Mole.

Reading The Secret Diary and The Growing Pains at the ages of 10 and 11, I pictured him differently: sandy-haired, slight but wiry – a little like a shorter version of Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses. And despite him sporting glasses in both adaptations, it is never made explicit in the books that he wears them; even in the wonderful section of True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989) when he painstakingly, forensically takes the reader through his physical appearance, no glasses are mentioned. Furthermore, early in The Growing Pains, his best friend Nigel says he has a likeness to Dustin Hoffman (even if his mother scoffs at the comparison). Forty years after the publication of The Secret Diary in October 1982, and eight years after the death of its brilliant, towering author Sue Townsend, Adrian would now be 55 years old. Perhaps now he’d look like Dustin Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees.

But my impression of Adrian Mole has perhaps always felt a bit different to the way the books, and the character, are generally regarded. Probably deeply unhealthily, reading and re-reading those first two books at that age felt like consulting how-to guides for being a teenager; a blueprint for a righteous adolescence. “You do know it’s supposed to be a spoof, a joke, right?” one or both of my parents said to me at various points. But everything Adrian did and said seemed something to aspire to, exotic even – despite (perhaps because of) my not understanding about 80 per cent of Townsend’s astonishingly smart wit. The literary aspirations despite a comic lack of talent or knowledge; the impassioned devotion towards a first love, Pandora; frustration with home and school life and friends; a fixation on a changing, unwieldy body – all the things that tested Adrian Mole seemed to offer a manual for one’s early teens. I took him deadly seriously – something that resulted in almost as many humiliations, and preposterous ideas about self-image, as he cultivated for himself.

Aside from reading the books when too “young and stupid” (to use a phrase of Adrian’s own), the other way my perspective on Adrian Mole was somewhat distinctive was that I was reading Townsend’s work – so deeply rooted in England, English references and a certain type of Englishness – from the other side of the world: the rural outskirts of Sydney, Australia. From there, the diaries were mysterious and compelling insights into strange procedures and rites – idiosyncratic yet vaguely poetic aspects of English society, culture and custom. The many cryptic and enigmatic terms and references that bewildered included: spotted dick, toad in the hole, getting one’s “leg over”, what a “giro” was, what a “joss stick” was, school dinners, the speaking clock, “the bomb”, BUPA, Blue Peter, Pebble Mill, who people like Malcolm Muggeridge, Alma Cogan and Selina Scott were. Bafflement at these things gave me something in common with Hamish Mancini, Adrian’s New York-based pen pal, who in True Confessions writes to Adrian asking for translations or explanations of many of these oddities, after Adrian had made the strange decision to send him his earlier diaries to read. So both Hamish and I were illuminated by Adrian about the Rastafarian faith (“Members are usually black”), Skegness (“a proletarian seaside resort”) and spotted dick (“I find your sexual innuendos about my favourite pudding offensive in the extreme”), alongside 46 other things, meticulously listed. Moving to Britain in the mid-90s, I was able to understand further what all the entries in this glossary represented – and indeed several of them, such as school dinners and balaclavas, were as grim as Townsend made them seem.

Flicking through the first two Adrian Mole books today is to be struck by a few things in particular. Chief among these is, for all his blundering and ignorance, the admirable, abiding moral core that Adrian displays throughout (and that Townsend holds him to). For example, there is the entry in The Growing Pains where Adrian, having fallen in with the gang of the local bully Barry Kent (his former tormenter), is involved with the gang’s upturning of a public bin which results in smashed glass being strewn across the pavement. Adrian returns later that night to tidy it up because he “wouldn’t like a little kid to fall on it”. Then there is his sincere concern for his nemesis Kent’s brother Clive, a soldier involved in the Falklands War; the time he spends all night on the phone asking people for donations for the funeral of Queenie Baxter (wife of Bert, the pensioner he cares for through his school’s Good Samaritans program); and the occasion of the birth of his sister, Rosie, when Adrian is the only person at his mother’s bedside at hospital.

Another aspect that stands out today is the layers of Townsend’s humour. Every time the Adrian Mole books are celebrated in the media, the familiar jokes are quoted, such as, “I read a bit of Pride and Prejudice, but it was very old-fashioned. I think Jane Austen should write something a bit more modern.” Or “I am reading Scoop by a woman called Evelyn Waugh.” The examples are endless – the jokes being not only at Adrian’s expense like these, but also lampooning the pervasive hypocrisy of all the adults in his life. But Townsend also constructed more subtle, skilful jokes such as this one when Adrian meets Nigel just after Christmas in The Growing Pains, which of course I did not pick up on reading as a child:

Saw Nigel in his new leather trousers posing at the traffic lights. He suggested we go to his house to ‘talk’. I agreed. On the way he told me that he was trying to decide which sort of sexuality to opt for: homo, BI or hetero. I asked him which he felt more comfortable with. He said ‘All three, Moley.’ Nigel could never make up his mind.

He showed me his presents. He had: a multi gym, Adidas football boots, a Mary Quant make-up hamper, and a unisex jogging suit.

A further theme that ripples through each Adrian Mole book, and seems particularly pertinent in 2022, is the treatment of Britain’s political climate of the time. In the early books at least, Townsend, a committed socialist, is not overly polemical and does not use Adrian’s life as platform (a book like 2004’s Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction is, as the title suggests, a different proposition). However, we do get a fascinating insight into the impact of Thatcherism on one lower-middle-class family and its extended social milieu.

There is George Mole, Adrian’s father, a staunch conservative who remains a loyal Tory even as his life appears to fall apart, through redundancy and lack of work opportunities, due to Thatcher’s measures. Adrian’s mother, Pauline, is a life-long Labour voter repelled by Thatcher, who tries to apply the ethos of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch to her provincial, suburban existence in Leicestershire, while faced with the bureaucracy and indifference of the benefits system (the aforementioned giro). Adrian himself is largely clueless, but Pandora is politically aware, and lambasts the royal family even when it gets her in trouble at school. Her rich parents, who might be described as champagne socialists, are another political presence in Adrian’s circle, as is Baxter, a fervent communist and war veteran, and his school principal Reginald “Popeye” Scruton, a royalist and Thatcherite, and perhaps The Secret Diary and The Growing Pains’ most reactionary character (though Adrian’s paternal grandmother, Edna May, comes close). With these characters Townsend presented a spectrum of how Thatcher’s presence infused the day-to-day life of “ordinary” people – in a way that, importantly upon reading today, didn’t seem to destroy relationships and split households. It should be said, also, that Townsend takes aim at political correctness through the character of Rick Lemon, the leader of Adrian’s youth group, who at one point questions his decision to buy rhubarb in the supermarket because “the shape was phallic, possibly sexist.”

To mark 40 years since the publication of The Secret Diary, Penguin Michael Joseph is publishing a new edition with a foreword by Caitlin Moran. And Netflix has reportedly secured the rights for another screen adaptation. Whatever the casting choices, one hopes that Adrian’s idiocy, sensitivity, ridiculousness and immense heart are retained – all things, perhaps, that can be found in this extract from his creative English essay in The Secret Diary, which in many ways delivers the essence of the character (“Pandora thinks this is the best thing I have ever written,” he notes):

A lonely boy, his loins afire, sits and watches his calm reflection in the torrential brook. His heart is indeed heavy. His eyes fall on to the ground and rest on a wondrous majestic many-hued butterfly. The winged insect takes flight and the boy’s eyes are carried far away until they are but a speck on the red-hued sunset. He senses on the zephyr a hope for mankind.

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