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A female theatre dresser creates a stir and sparks a revolution in seventeenth century London theatre by playing Desdemona in Othello. But what will become of the male actor she once worked for and eventually replaced?
Jonathon Coe's novel 'The Rotters' Club' occupies some ambitious terrain, attempting as it does to capture the spirit of an age (in this case, 1970s Britain) through a collection of personal stories. It's a similar (though smaller scale) idea to that which motivated 'Our Friends in the North', one of the outstanding television dramas of the 1990s; but in this adaptation, 'The Rotters' Club' doesn't quite manage to keep such exulted company. The biggest problem with this sort of thing is the risk that you end up with weak individual stories stretched around the obvious, clichéd landmarks of a time, when what you want is a strong, character-driven narrative shaped by its setting, but not a slave to it. This is important not just because we all like a good story, but because there's always more to an era than what subsequently becomes recognised as its defining landmarks. Too often old films are criticised as being dated, when what is really meant is that the portrait of their own times is not the way we now routinely judge them; truth rejected because it doesn't fit the history. A really good drama about a recent era would explore how our current prejudices fail to reflect what it was really like to live then, rather than selling itself by directly featuring what we think we know before we start to watch. 'The Rotter's Club' is not awful, but the personal drama is never quite strong enough, and the political reference points are rather too obviously signposted. A small example can be seen in the series' depiction of racism, which it correctly shows as being more prevalent (or at least, less disguised) then than now. But the portrait of "good" anti-racists and "bad" racists on display seems rather simplistic. At my school probably 90% of children used racist epithets with some frequency, but this was more a reflection of the general culture, and their own immaturity, than a sign of their individual characters or beliefs. Which is not to excuse their utterances, simply to observe that they were pre-political in nature, a universal (and hateful) banality rather than a Nazi manifesto. Likewise, people's awareness of other social trends (the growth of punk, clashes between the unions and management) was, I would suggest, less conscious than presented here: but the writers don't quite have the skill to let the bigger picture form quietly in the background.
Sadly, in spite of it's obviousness, 'The Rotters' Club' still doesn't seem to have much to say about the 1970s, except to gawp at their supposed strangeness. There are some funny lines, but at heart, this is a rather bland tale of kids growing up in the recent past. And I can't help feeling that you might get a truer picture of that if you abandoned the need to gaze through hindsight's glasses, and simply watched some old episodes of 'Grange Hill' instead.
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