This comedy-drama series based on the book My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary by Rae Earl, which in turn was based on her real life diaries, has been the best new show of 2013 so far.
The TV series is set in Lincolnshire in 1996, and is about 16 year old 16 and a half stone Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney), who when the series starts has just spent a few months in a psychiatric ward and is attempting to get back into normal teenage life. She tries to keep these problems a secret, and the series then is about Rae trying to juggle her psychological issues, of which she is still receiving treatment for by having sessions with a therapist, Kester (Ian Hart), her friendships and burgeoning romantic interests, and her family life with her mother (Claire Rushbrook).
Rae is a very relatable character. Even if you have never experienced mental health or body image issues, anyone who has been a teenager will know the insecurities that go with it. The series does a good job in getting that right even for fairly trivial things. Much like the other Midlands teen diarist Adrian Mole, who famously wanted to paint all his Noddy wallpaper black in his bedroom, Rae’s room shows that transition between being a child and becoming a teenager, with her faded Postman Pat lunchbox and Care Bears duvet as leftovers from childhood and becoming a teenager by putting Oasis posters on the wall. For me it was Thomas the Tank Engine wallpaper being covered by Idlewild posters. Rae mentions fancying Damon Albarn, I remember fancying him when I was a teenager too. A part of the appeal of this series is ’90s nostalgia, and while I was quite a bit younger than Rae at the time the series is set I remember the music, and I get a couple of nostalgic “I remember those!” moments, such as seeing an old fashioned Smarties tube among Rae’s stash of sweets and Chloe having a multicoloured slinky.
Rae tries to fit into a group of teenagers she sees as cool and popular, and she has a way in through her friend since childhood Chloe (Jodie Comer). The friendship between Rae and Chloe is strained much of the time. They are quite different, Chloe being more the stereotypical pretty, popular trendy girl. It sometimes is difficult to see what they have in common apart from the fact they’ve known each other most of their life. But that’s not the only reason. “Is Chloe a bitch?” was a question many viewers wondered throughout the series, and Chloe even asks this herself in the last episode. She spends a lot of time trying to put Rae down to make herself feel better. In the first episode Big Wide World there is a scene where Chloe lights a cigarette in a changing room which causes the fire alarm to go off and Rae has to leave the shop wearing a bikini, which causes some people to laugh at her, and there is an implication Chloe may have done it on purpose.
Rae notes the rivalry they have saying it’s typical of Chloe to upstage her. “I have my first kiss, she loses her virginity, I get my period back, she gets pregnant.” But the latter incident, Chloe’s pregnancy, also shows that the two girls do care for each other on some level. Chloe confides in Rae that she is pregnant, and not only that but the father is their P.E teacher from school who Chloe had been going out with in secret. Rae gives up a chance to see Oasis perform in Knebworth so Chloe has someone to go to the hospital with when she has an abortion. Rae keeps these secrets, and when she tells Chloe about being in a psychiatric ward Chloe also keeps this a secret. On forums a few fans said they had a friend like Chloe or even confessed to acting a little like her themselves in the “putting down others to make yourself feel better” way, or when Rae actually gets one over on Chloe when she asks her whether she prefers Morrissey or the lead singer of The Smiths. Chloe, trying to be cool, gives an answer that shows she has no idea that Morrissey is the lead singer of The Smiths. In answer to Chloe’s question in the final episode, Rae tells her that no, she doesn’t think she’s a bitch. I think with Chloe we are meant to see her as someone with flaws and baggage of her own, and that teenage friendships are sometimes ‘complicated’.
Rae has crushes on two of the boys in the gang over the series. The first is Archie (Dan Cohen) who she describes as “half geek, half rock god”. She doesn’t think she has much of a chance with him, at one moment saying she has only three scenarios where he will go out with her. 1) If he goes for big women “like Lenny Henry for Dawn French”, 2) an apocalyptic catastrophe that leaves Rae as the only woman left, or 3) if she “feeds him biscuits until he’s fat too”. As it happens she does go out with him, but after they’ve kissed he stands her up on a date they had arranged and gets a mate to give a message that he isn’t coming. (You can tell this is set in the ’90s, as nowadays that would have been done via text message. In fact generally there are a lot of times when having no way to contact someone to tell them where you are is a plot point). Anyway, it turns out that Archie has a bit of excuse for messing Rae about. He is confused about his sexuality, but ultimately realises he is gay and is trying to come to terms with it. When finding out Rae at first wonders if she put him off women for life, but afterwards they become much closer friends than before with Rae keeping Archie’s sexuality a secret and becoming a confidant for him, and he becomes a confidant for her. Archie is my second favourite character after Rae, he is adorable.
The second boy Rae has a crush on is her main love interest for the series, Finn played by Newt from Hollyoaks (Nico Mirralegro). Coincidently he also had a music loving girlfriend named Rae in Hollyoaks, although she was a figment of his imagination… but then it turned out she existed after all. Yeah, well, that’s Hollyoaks for you. Anyway, Finn and Rae have a similarity early on as both are musos. This causes them to clash initially, but throughout the series they get together, with Finn being the one that Archie passes on the message to Rae in the cafe and Finn also being able to share the Morrissey/lead singer of The Smiths joke on Chloe. He also stands up for Rae by hitting one of a group of boys who bully her. However Chloe fancies Finn too, and the last few episodes show them both trying to win him. Chloe and Finn kiss at a rave and start going out, but eventually it seems that Finn likes Rae more, with Chloe by the end letting Rae know this after she and Rae make up. We get a scene with Rae and Finn at the end which makes great use of ‘Champagne Supernova’ by Oasis.
We do not find out as much about the other two in the group though, they both remain close to their brief descriptions in episode one. Chop is a lairy party animal lad and all we learn about him by the end of the series is that his real name is Arnold. Izzy is seen so little that when you see her hanging around with the group you sometimes forget who she is, but we know she’s a ditzy princess type. The two falling in love with each other is their storyline, but intentionally or not it does come off a bit as pairing them up as they are the spare characters.
For all that Rae lacks confidence in herself, she is sure of one thing, that she knows her music. “Music is my thing”. She uses this as a way to get into the group of friends by choosing a track on the pub jukebox. What is interesting throughout the series is that even though she never seems aware of it, she is seen as quite a strong person by a few people. She acts as an older sister figure to some of the other kids in the psychiatric hospital, Tix and Danny Two Hats. Chop thinks Rae is the “daddy” of their group, Finn considers Rae the most normal, not knowing about the issues she is keeping secret, and she turns out to be a very supportive friend to both Archie and Chloe with the issues they are keeping secret. Rae also helps out her own therapist, Kester, who has personal problems of his own, and when Rae finds out about these far from thinking less of him she tells him it makes him more human.
As Rae is the narrator of the series, it helps that she has a great sense of humour. While thinking about how she expects a date with Archie to go she compares Archie and later herself to the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. She also when talking about a red dress both she and Chloe want compares both of them to looking like Wonder Woman in it. Saying she feels like “twice boiled shit” after a hangover and commenting that someone looked at her “like I’d farted in an empty bag of Monster Munch and squashed it in her face”.
Then there’s this exchange between her and her mother;
Rae’s mum: “You need to start behaving like an adult instead of behaving like a child”
Rae: “Well maybe you need to start behaving like my mum instead of behaving like a twat!”
One of my favourite bits of comedy is, as odd as it might sound, what they manage to get out of Rae’s suicide attempt. After she walks into the road to get run over she is hit and while unconscious she has a dream about Tix taking her to see what the world would be like without Rae. The local chip shop closes as people stopped coming there as it reminded them of Rae. “A chip shop reminded people of me?!” she says. “Maybe this wasn’t the best place to start” Tix replies. Chloe and Archie are married but Archie wants to put off actually having sex, Izzy is going out with a drug dealer named Kendo and is visiting him in prison, Chop is very posh and Finn sits at Rae’s gravestone saying he always wanted them to do a radio show together. Then Tix tells her to wake up as she will be in hospital with balloons and music and her mother and Finn holding her hand . When she wakes up she’s still lying in the road with a head injury. “Oh no, everything’s still shit!” It’s one of the funniest moments in the series, but also contains one of more moving lines when Tix tells her “Did you think you could just slip out of the world and have nothing happen because of it? Do you think anyone can do that?”
The series has plenty of poignant moments. In Touched Rae thinks she will never have a chance with many men because of her size. There is a surreal dream sequence where Rae steps out of a fat suit to reveal a slim model’s body and burns the fat suit in the garden. It sounds strange, and it is, but it is very affecting in context. The final episode It’s A Wonderful Rae Part 2 has many tearjerkers. Rae finally comes to terms with what probably triggered her emotional problems, the fact that her father abandoned her at an early age and she hasn’t seen him since. Then at her mother’s wedding Rae tells the whole reception that she has been in a psychiatric ward but is moving forward from it now and is trying to work through all her issues.
Sharon Rooney as Rae is a great find. It is a very good cast generally, but special mention for me goes to Claire Rushbrook. The role of the mother in a programme about teenagers can sometimes be a thankless one, but she does wonderful things with the part. I found the way she played the mother’s character very believable and fully rounded even in scenes when she didn’t have much screen time. Rae’s mother can be a little flighty and daft, she is occasionally misguided (she had been writing fake postcards to Rae pretending they were from her father for years until she was found out). But she comes across as genuinely wanting what is the best for Rae.
It’s not perfect. Nothing in it is particularly new. It has echoes of other E4 teen dramas such as Sugar Rush and Skins, and slightly of The Inbetweeners and CITVs Girls In Love. Sometimes it gets a little too crude, but it is still a very good series and I am pleased it has been recommissioned. There are still loose ends to be resolved. Tix ends up in hospital and we don’t know if she will get better or not, and while Rae has progressed she still has therapy to go to. Archie almost comes out, but decides against it at the last minute, and I’d like to see a bit more development for Chop and Izzy.
I have to mention the ace songs used in the series. I don’t know if they are going to release a soundtrack CD, but I think they should. The series has some ’90s classics and a few older songs including:
The Charlatans – ‘One To Another’ (the opening title theme song)
Manic Street Preachers – ‘A Design For Life’
The Stone Roses – ‘Love Spreads’
Ocean Colour Scene – ‘The Riverboat Song’
Fun Lovin’ Criminals – ‘Scooby Snacks’
Cardigans – ‘Lovefool’
Bjork – ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’
The Cure – ‘Friday I’m In Love’
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name Of’
Space – ‘The Female Of The Species’
Ash – ‘Oh Yeah’
The Chemical Brothers – ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’
Supergrass – ‘Alright’
Everything But The Girl – ‘Missing’
Mazzy Star – ‘Fade Into You’
The Bluetones – ‘Slight Return’
Underworld – ‘Born Slippy’
The Smiths – ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’
Radiohead – ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’
Faithless – ‘Insomnia’
Wink – ‘Higher State Of Consciousness’
Robert Miles – ‘Children’
Lou Reed – ‘Perfect Day’
Oasis – ‘Champagne Supernova’
4 Non Blondes – ‘What’s Up?’