Puberty Blues retains the casual brutality of the book
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #147 (June-July 2011). Puberty Blues will premiere on Network Ten later this month.
When a collection of producers and writers read the 1979 book Puberty Blues with a view to turning it into a television series, even those who had read it years before were struck by how the teenagers at the heart of the story acted without self-reflection.
“As the father of a teenage girl I was shocked and most of us were,” says head writer Tony McNamara of the behaviour depicted in the book. “It is funny, entertaining but also shocking because of the casual brutality of the world… Now people are self-obsessed and analytical. Then they accepted the circumstances of life and threw themselves into it.”
The strength of the protagonists in this 30-year-old portrait of youth, sex and surf is also very evident, he adds. “Now we think people aren’t resilient, that they can be destroyed by experiences. In the book they’re having adventures that turn quite dark but they are not crushed by it.”
McNamara, the producers Imogen Banks and John Edwards, and the writers Fiona Seres and Alice Bell, made up the group that first applied itself to the development of Puberty Blues. The series is now being filmed and will be shown on Ten later this year.
“We all agreed that the spine of the series should be the girls,” says Banks, referring to the book’s two key characters, Debbie and Sue. Both she and McNamara depict their close friendship as a kind of love story that helps them to weather the consequences of their determination to move up the social hierarchy.
“You sit around and talk a lot, swap stories, start to put a structure in place, start to plot each episode,” says Banks about the early script meetings. "The big thing for us was expanding out the families,” says McNamara. His comment goes to the heart of how eight hours of broadcast television – each episode is 42 minutes – is being created from quite a short book.
The series has ended up with 12 main characters: Debbie and Sue and their parents; Debbie’s little brother; the leader of the pack Cheryl and her single mum; and the lead boy Garry and his parents. Honing in on Garry was seen as important in order to provide a boys’ perspective. There are a lot of storylines to keep in play, especially as the adults aren’t just reacting to their wayward children but are having their own dramas.
Ashleigh Cummings and Brenna Harding play Debbie and Sue, respectively, and Claudia Karvan, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Susie Porter, Dan Wyllie, Susan Prior and Rodger Corser are also in the cast.
All five producers and writers plotted all the episodes together, except Bell, who was busy having a baby when this was happening on the first two episodes. Each writer then tackled an episode, with McNamara himself doing the challenging set-up episode.
“Then we pulled the three scripts apart, examined the different versions of the characters, the tone,” says McNamara. For the record, he describes the tone as “dark and slightly funny”.
“Good television is when five people become one brain,” he says, a little later in the conversation.
Seres lives in London but McNamara says this caused no difficulties: she returned to Australia at key times and communicated often via Skype. “After you have worked in TV for a while you realise that the actors become the character and everything is filtered through them,” he says in answer to a question about maintaining consistency of behaviour. All the writers also need to be across all the detail.
The final four scripts were being worked on as directors Emma Freeman and Glendyn Ivin were filming the first four. Filming continued until late-June in and around Cronulla, in Sydney’s south, where the book is set.
Edwards and Banks were consciously assessing classic Australian literature for its adaptation potential when they thought of Puberty Blues. “We saw the book as both part of Australia culture and also our own lives, and it is still so potent and shocking and tells of such universal experiences.” says Banks. The rights were licensed directly from the authors, one-time best friends Gabrielle Carey Kathy Lette, who have been consultants on the series.
“They have been our cultural safety net with language and things like that, and it’s been nice to be able to go back to their experiences and flesh out little stories. It has helped us open up possibilities for our newly invented characters.”
Banks and Edwards are working under the Southern Star John Edwards banner and couldn’t have had an easier time finding a broadcaster. According to Banks, Ten’s executive producer of drama and entertainment, Rick Maier, heard that they were considering making the series and rang them.
When the producers knew they wanted to go ahead they met with head of network programming Beverley McGarvey, chief programming officer David Mott and Maier, who has an executive producer credit along with Southern Star’s Rory Callaghan.
There have been references in the media to the series being “nostalgic”. The series involves “time travel” so perhaps the word is appropriate, but it is certainly not sentimental, says Banks. While they have embraced contemporary storytelling techniques, the stories themselves are true to the era, and that includes telling them without moral judgement, says McNamara.
Soon after Puberty Blues was published, it was adapted into a feature film, directed by Bruce Beresford. Margaret Kelly wrote that script.