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“Mr Blair, You have nice hair”: the mighty pen of Adrian Mole, poet

Adrian Mole remains a beloved part of British life but, without Sue Townsend to write him, he ran out of future some years ago – a fate he perhaps shares with the Labour Party. 

It is the fate of great poets to be unappreciated in their lifetime. If Adrian Mole is not exactly dead, nor is he exactly a great poet. In any case, there are no more volumes of his life to be written. Sue Townsend, the author of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and its sequels, sadly died in 2014. The last Mole missive appeared in 2011 in the Observer – a short piece to commemorate the royal wedding. Typically for Adrian, whose biography has always closely paralleled the fate of the Labour Party, the diary records him having an anxiety dream about Ed Miliband.

Now, to mark the character’s 50th birthday, the new Penguin imprint Mole Press has published a slim volume of his collected poems. The point of Adrian’s poems, of course, is that they are very bad. The more seriously he takes them, the funnier they are – and, as an adolescent left-wing polemicist, he takes them very seriously indeed.

So we have the joy of his accusatory 1980s poem “Mrs Thatcher”, with the irresistibly bathetic couplet: “Do you weep like a sad willow?/On your Marks and Spencer’s pillow?” Then there is “The Future”, which resolves in the immortal rhyme: “They give us Job Creation Schemes./When what we want are hopes and dreams.”

The Collected Poems is filled out with “the John Tydeman Letters”, in which an increasingly exasperated head of BBC Radio 4 drama attempts to get Adrian to accept rejection: “You must remember that before you can break the rules of rhyme and rhythm you do have to know what those rules are about.” But what Adrian doesn’t know, Townsend does. The poems are bad in the same way as Tommy Cooper’s magic or Les Dawson’s piano-playing was bad.

Some of the poems, extracted from the diaries and separated from their punchlines, are even rather good. Take “Waiting for the Giro”, in which a house and all within it are held in dingy suspense by the imminent arrival of a benefits cheque. The pay-off in the original entry comes when Adrian tells us he has been reading Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings”, which his poem clumsily pastiches. But though he might not be able to pull off a rhyme scheme like Larkin’s, a line such as “The freezer echoes with mournful electrical whirrings” is stealthily evocative of a specifically working-class, hand-to-mouth anxiety.

Townsend used Adrian to produce acute observations on parliamentary politics, as well as social satire. When a Labour candidate canvassed the house during the 1983 election in The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, his mother “harangued him about nuclear disarmament and criticised the Labour Party’s record on housing, education and trade union co-operation”, until the candidate accused her of being a Tory. “Certainly not, I have voted Labour all my life!” she snapped, capturing the peculiarly antagonistic relationship that Labour enjoys with its base.

By The Cappuccino Years (1999), Adrian is an exemplar of social mobility and easy credit, working in a Soho restaurant and watching his beloved Pandora enter parliament as one of “Blair’s babes”. He retains his Labour faith into Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004), writing a breathless encomium to the prime minister during the run-up to the Iraq War:

 

Mr Blair,

You have nice hair.

You blink a lot

To show you care.

 

But come The Prostrate Years (2009), disillusion has taken hold and political torpor is matched by Adrian’s literal impotence. “Oh staunchèd rod of old,/Why art thou now so limp and cold?” he asks in the poem “To My Organ”.

Had Townsend written the planned tenth book of Mole diaries, it would have surely shown Adrian grappling with “austerity angst”, but we’ll never know what he makes of Jeremy Corbyn. A left-winger who ultimately feels betrayed by New Labour, he could have been caught up in the Corbyn moment, at least initially. Perhaps he would have recaptured the political ardour of juvenilia such as “Ode to Engels: or, Hymn to the Modern Poor”:

 

Oh Engels that you were still amongst us pen in hand

Your indignation a-quiver

Your fine nose tuned to the bad smells of 1983.

 

Maybe Adrian, as the son of a Greenham Common protester, would be sympathetic to Corbyn’s anti-nuclear position; but as the proud father of a soldier (Glenn Bott, the issue of a fling, “Half of Sharon, half of me./Fully himself”), he might be repulsed by Corbyn’s hesitancy on military matters. And by 2007, in the radio play Adrian Mole and the Blair-Mole Project, Adrian has been selected to give a lecture on Blair as a “representative voice of Middle England”, suggesting he is closer to the voter Labour needs to win back than the ones still clinging to the flag.

For Tom Watson, writing after Townsend’s death, Adrian is “the embodiment of working-class pragmatism. In the end, his story is one of hope and optimism. No matter what the setback, you can find contentment.” But Labour’s setbacks might be too much for even the resilient Adrian, who in any case finds himself, in The Prostrate Years, “turning into one of those middle-aged men who think the whole country has gone to the dogs and that there has been no decent music since Abba”.

Adrian remains a beloved part of British life but, without Townsend to write him, he ran out of future some years ago. The fear is that this state of limbo is one last tragic thing he shares with the Labour Party. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge