The Rotters’ Club, BBC2

by | Feb 9, 2005 | All, Reviews

A three-part adaptation by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais of Jonathan Coe’s coming-of-age novel set in Birmingham in the 1970s (the era of Blue Nun, prog-rock and black forest gateau).

The tale centres on three teenage boys, Ben, Doug and Philip, who attend the middle-class King William’s School . The novel, published in 2002, tackles political issues including class conflict, racial tension and strikes, alongside the growing pains of the three lads. The series was made on the Isle of Man by Company Pictures.

Producer Chrissy Skinns says: “Dick and Ian have turned Jonathan Coe’s novel into a script that maintains the spirit of the book, whilst still bearing the hallmarks of their own excellent writing.”

The cast

Geoff Breton as aspiring writer Ben Trotter

Nicholas Shaw as good-looking, confident socialist Doug Anderton

Rasmus Hardiker as prog rock fan Philip Chase, who has formed a band with Ben

Kevin Doyle as Colin Trotter, Ben’s father who is in middle management at British Leyland’s Longbridge works

Sarah Lancashire as Philip’s housewife mother Barbara

Mark Williams as Philip’s bus driver father Sam

Hugo Speer as Doug’s shop steward father Bill Anderton

Alice O’Connell as Lois, Ben’s older sister

Alice Eve as Cicely Boyd (love interest for Ben)

Cara Horgan as the sarcastic Claire Newman (Doug’s love interest).

Henry Lloyd-Hughes as the school’s big-head sports star Culpepper

Peter Bankolé as Steve Richards, the only black boy in the school, who is hated by Culpepper

Rafe Spall as the school’s anarchic joker Sean Harding

Christine Tremarco as Miriam Newman, Claire’s older sister who is a secretary at the car plant and is having an affair with Bill Anderton

Julian Rhind-Tutt as the school’s art teacher Nigel Plumb

James Daffern as Malcolm (Hairy Guy)

Elizabeth Berrington as Irene Anderton

Hugh Bonneville as the voice of adult Ben

Episode guide

The Chick & The Hairy Guy Ben is desperate to win the unattainable Cicely and get his prog rock band off the ground with Philip. Meanwhile, Ben’s older sister Lois goes out with hairy guitarist Malcolm and Doug’s father Bill is busy at the car factory, leading a strike and conducting an affair with secretary Miriam.

Featured music: Tiger Feet by Mud, You Ain’t Heard Nothin Yet by Bachman Turner Overdrive, Tales From The Topographic Ocean by Yes, Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, I Get A Kick Out Of You by Gary Shearston

The Maws Of Doom As the tale reaches 1975, Malcolm is dead after the IRA bombing and Lois has a breakdown. Ben is still lusting after Cicely and his futile yearnings are manifested in a scathing review of her performance in Hamlet, which attracts her attentions. But his and Phillip’s prog rock band is so bad, the rhythm section leave to go punk. Meanwhile, Doug gets a job writing for the NME, and Bill is spotted with Miriam at a hotel by a colleague attending a racist meeting.

Featured music: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake, Love Is The Drug by Roxy Music, I’m Not In Love and Art For Art’s Sake by 10cc, He’s Mistra Knowitall by Stevie Wonder, Jesus Is Just Alright With Me by the Doobie Brothers

Look Over Your Shoulder It’s 1977 with the Queen’s Jubilee looming. Ben has been made a prefect and is spending most of his time with Cicely, but then he gets dumped in favour of the punk singer from his old band. Nigel dumps Barbara. Claire goes to interview Bill for the school newspaper about the carplant’s industrial relations, but uses the opportunity to confront him about her missing sister, Miriam.

Featured music: That’s The Way I Like It by KC & The Sunshine Band, I Wanna Stay With You and Heart On My Sleeve by Gallagher & Lyle, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Bryan Ferry, In The City by The Jam, Peaches and Something Better Change by the Stranglers, Daytrip to Bangor by Fiddler’s Dram, Do Anything You Wanna Do by Eddie & The Hotrods, The Boys Are Back In Town by Thin Lizzy, Look Over Your Shoulder by Alan Price

The Rotters’ Club, BBC2, Wednesday

What to say of you liked it

An accurate and frequently hilarious portrait of life in 70s Birmingham.

What to say of you didn’t like it

An aberration of drama in which the inhabitants of Birmingham have been usurped almost in their entirety with posh knobs from Surrey and Berkshire.

What was good about it?

• The cast, most notably newcomers Geoff Breton (Ben Rotter), Nicholas Shaw (Doug), Rasmus Hardiker (Philip) and Cara Horgan (Claire) are excellent and are well-supported by the reliable Mark Williams, Rebecca Front, Hugo Speer and Sarah Lancashire.

• The social concerns of the era are skilfully woven into the script, so we learn about the IRA mainland bombing campaign, the conflict between the government and the fast-growing unions and the awful music and fashions of the era without it being clumsily inserted.

• The subtle touches that help define the 70s setting such as the tacky Yorkie advert (“Chunky milk chocolate”), the Hawaii Five-0 theme tune, Claire eating marmite with everything and the abrupt power cuts caused by the three day week.

• Ben Trotter’s dream sequences which included the humiliation of having to be naked during the swimming lesson after he forgot his trunks (hasn’t he heard of the fabled lost property basket?), and seducing the alluring Cicely during a church service.

• The economical, juvenile aphorisms in the dialogue. Doug: “Music always makes sense.” Ben: “And the world doesn’t.” This captures perfectly a classical delusion of teenagers.

• The pathetic, evocative excuses the teenagers concoct when caught doing something they are embarrassed by. When Ben’s little brother sees him praying, Ben claims he was “looking for his slippers”; while Claire claims she “was looking for a magazine” when her dad bursts in on her reading her sister’s salacious diary.

• It’s also very funny. At the parent teacher evening, Ben’s mum Sheila bemoans her eldest son’s shyness, “Ben’s never joined a school society.” “He was in that play, the Alchemist,” replies her husband. “He played a mute, Colin!” she exclaims.

And when Ben and Doug stare goggle-eyed at an excruciating French art movie on BBC2 in the forlorn hope of “bare breasts”, only to be thwarted by a power cut.

• Julian Rhind-Tutt as the foppish, verbose art teacher Nigel Plumb, who has designs on Doug’s mother.

• The appalling prog rock group Ben watches with his sister’s boyfriend Malcolm acutely exposes the appalling, meandering, inane indulgence of that whole baleful genre.

• The convoluted, arbitrarily infuriating tentacles of teenage attraction that is manifested in Doug’s attraction to Claire, who in turn fancies Ben, but he has eyes only for Cicely.

• The horrific reality of the Birmingham pub bombings that could have claimed the lives of Ben’s sister Lois and Malcolm.

What was bad about it?

• Aspiring journalist Doug’s review of the latest Yes album contained the phrase: “Yes, the most musically talented group in Britain today if not the world.” Those words should be treated with the same preventative caution as a radioactive isotope; for however ironic it is intended to be, merely the utterance of those poisonous sentiments can threaten the very fabric of modern society.

• Despite the Birmingham setting, very few of the characters actually had Brummie accents. Rasmus Hardiker, Mark Williams and Rebecca Front exhibited the only genuine accents, while most the working class children who went to a posh school spoke like they were from Eton on an exchange trip. While it was explained how they all managed to get a place at a good school without paying fees, they would still have picked up Brummie accents at primary school or from their parents.

Top 10 highlights of The Rotters’ Club episode two, BBC2, Wednesday

1 – The mayhem at the rehearsals for the boys’ band The Maws Of Doom (the name came from an Enoch Powell speech) when Phil’s Apotheosis Of The Necromancy song cycle was abandoned in favour of some early punk rock.

2 – Julian Rhind-Tutt’s rakish art teacher Nigel Plumb in his pink jacket, impressing working class Barbara because he’d holidayed in Corfu. Nigel then takes her to see an Ingmar Bergman film, and offers many pretentious opinions. Barbara’s verdict is simpler: “It was three hours!”

3 – Dan (the one with big sideburns and the remnants of a teddy boy haircut) having to use a dictionary to understand the love letter Nigel wrote to his wife.

4 – Dan talks about Barbara’s friendship with Nigel: “She says it’s platonic. I had to look it up. It means they haven’t done it yet.”

5 – Doug getting off with Horse & Hounds dogsbody Ffion and losing his virginity in a standing position.

6 – The cosy scene of son watching Wish You Were Here, mum reading Woman and dad struggling with the quick’n’easy crossword in the evening paper

7 – Everyone watching Morecambe & Wise on Christmas Day. And the wrestling on a Saturday afternoon (sadly lacking the commentary of Kent ‘hello grapple fans’ Walton).

8 – Doug is upset that best friend Ben won’t come to London with him. “Are you sorting out your record collection? Making sure your Soft Machine comes before your Spooky Tooth?”

9 – The ugly tracksuits, curtains and hairstyles. The lovely revolving blackboard.

10 – The awkwardness of the working class couple at a posh hotel, opting for a mixed grill and chicken in the basket.

Top 10 highlights of The Rotters’ Club episode three, BBC2

1– Mark Williams’ Sam preparing to take arty farty philanderer Nigel Plumb down a peg or two with a speech full of words he’d picked up from 25 Ways To Improve Your Word Power. But he lost his nerve at the last minute and just screamed “Pillock” instead.

2 – Barbara walking out on Nigel with her dignity in tact, while he sat with cappuccino froth on his nose

3 – Reminders of some landmark 1970s events including the drought, picket lines, caravan holidays, pompous headmasters, the forced jollity of Silver Jubilee street parties, British Leyland always on the news, curved collars

4 – Doug’s championing of punk rock. “They don’t spend six months in a studio like Steely bloody Dan.” His review of the first Sex Pistols gig began: “There’s a new kid on the block and his name is punk.”

5 – Cicely also jumping on the punk bandwagon. But while Doug remained in his school uniform, she went the whole hog with fishnet stockings, tartan skirt, black hair and a big safety pin (that she inadvertently stabbed Ben with). In a satirical stab at posh punks, Cicely’s new look was shown immediately after a scene in which she was playing tennis on a country manor lawn.

6 – Ben suggesting to girlfriend Jennifer that they go to a presentation of French surrealist shorts. “We haven’t seen Rocky yet!” she complained.

7 – Ben almost losing his virginity in a cupboard

8 – Ben picking up litter from the playground because, even though he’s a prefect, the fourth formers disobey him

9 – Ben’s All-Because-A-Lady-Loves-Milk Tray style journey through the wild Welsh countryside to get to Cicely

10 – Ben and Doug whispering during the school assembly rendition of Jerusalem. “Have you knobbed her yet?”

11 – The concluding narration that summed up the true significance of the 1970s: “The death of socialism and the death of Yes.”

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

09/02/2005

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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