❉ A valuable social document capturing the mood of post-punk England.
Here at We Are Cult, we like to pride ourselves on being au fait with those lost and forgotten gems and curios of pop culture that never quite permeated the popular consciousness to a mainstream level – it is, after all, part of our mission statement, to celebrate the leftfield and wayward – but every now and then something comes along that had hitherto escaped even our attention. So it is with Network Distributing’s DVD release of Johnny Jarvis.
Johnny who? ‘zackly. A six-part BBC drama series originally broadcast 34 years ago, Johnny Jarvis landed on this reviewer’s doormat with nary a preconception, and certainly no foreknowledge – and this from a reviewer with total recall of the largely forgotten Seaview, Running Scared, Break In The Sun, Chimera and The One Game, not to mention more second-hand knowledge than is healthy pertaining to the long-wiped likes of The Tinagree Affair, Zokko! and Man-Dog. Oh, I’ve tried counselling and other forms of professional therapy, believe me…
So it’s a genuine delight to encounter something that, in many years in the trenches as a passionate devotee of cult and classic British television, passed me by entirely. Broadcast over six weeks at 9.25 (the young adult drama slot) on BBC1 in November and December 1983, Johnny Jarvis follows the fortunes of two classmates from their last term in school in 1977, the year the Pistols gatecrashed the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and when the Ford Cortina was the UK’s best-selling car, to 1983, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won a landslide re-election.
Essentially it charts the lives of cocky, confident Jarvis (Mark Farmer, aka Grange Hill’s Gary Hargreaves) and his nerdy, insecure pal Alan Lipton (Ian Sears – yes, Brendan from that televisual masterpiece K9 And Company) trying to find their way through youth and young adulthood against the backdrop of late ‘70s and early ‘80s England, a world of council estate flats, Job Centres, smoke-filled pubs, clapped out Ford and Leyland bangers, CSEs, and a multicultural urban makeup of black and white communities, not quite living together in the perfect harmony that Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang about – embodied by the two other main characters, skinhead and ne’er do-well Manning (A shockingly youthful Jamie Foreman) and Turner (Spooks’ Alrick Riley).
Bracketed into ‘1977-1979’ and ‘1980-1983’, the journey of our two young protagonists is told in voiceover by Lipton, all greasy hair, wiry anxiety and oversized specs in contrast to Jarvis’ blond football casual ‘do and Jack the Lad demeanour. The early episodes lead the viewer to assume that this will be Johnny’s tale, as he attempts to make the best of his lot in true proto-Thatcherite style by bettering himself with an apprenticeship and springing from one job-related setback to another with Candide-like good fortune and optimism, but over time, the titular hero becomes a bit-part player in his own story as the harsh reality of post-punk England kicks in, while – surprisingly – the weedy Lipton rises against his singular lack of abilities and qualifications to become the songwriter for a rising pub rock protest band, the New Wastrels, fronted by Billy Idol lookalike Gary, played with camp insouciant charm by musician Gary (Quadrophenia) Shail, who also composed Johnny Jarvis’ wistful theme music.
Johnny, like so many able, optimistic and bright young sparks fresh from comprehensive school, with its religious belief that an apprenticeship will open the doors to a world of opportunity, is eventually ground down by the harsh vagaries of the system at a time when Thatcher declared, “There is no such thing as society” and Norman Tebbit urged the jobless to “Get on your bike” (Which Johnny literally does, cycling fifteen miles to work every day).
Johnny Jarvis is also a sobering tale about how one can never escape one’s ties – to one’s friends, to one’s social class, to one’s loyalties. Throughout the journey of Jarvis and Lipton’s ever changing fortunes, both main protagonists – and indeed, the luckless Turner – are frequently held back by their obligations to family, the strict demarcations of class boundaries, the random chance of school and family affiliations – Afro-English Turner finds his fate irrevocably interlinked with the racist skinhead Manning, Jarvis struggles to sever the umbilical tie of his mother’s apron strings, and in a dark subplot, Lipton finds himself dragged into the fringes of the criminal underworld when he reconnects with his estranged father – the always excellent Maurice Colbourne, here playing a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Colbourne (Gangsters, Doctor Who, Howards’ Way, Day of the Triffids) was never less than watchable in any of many performances from this period and this is no exception, where he proves why he was so in-demand as a TV actor, oozing suave menace.
Through it all, Jarvis and Lipton are also bound together by the indomitable Stella, the strongest and most self-assured character in the series, played brilliantly by Johanna Hargreaves. She recognises that both Jarvis and Lipton admire in the other what they feel they lack in themselves, a tightrope walk she has to negotiate over the years while also trying to preserve her own sense of self. As with all the young actors here, Hargreaves is never less than excellent. Indeed, one of the joys of watching Johnny Jarvis in 2017, is playing “Where else have I seen…?” and “Whatever happened to…” – once you’ve got over the novelty of K9 & Company’s Brendon as Lipton (Sears now lives and works in L.A as an editor, and is said to be justly proud of Johnny Jarvis) and a twenty-five year old Jamie Foreman, you can also chalk up early roles for Kathy Burke, Chris Jury and Joe McGann. On the other side of the generation gap, there’s also John Bardon (Latterly EastEnders’ Jim Branning, and a familiar face in Crown Court, Rumpole of the Bailey and The Sweeney) doing great work as Johnny’s dad, Neil Cunningham (a favourite of Stephen Frears and Peter Greenaway) as the ‘right-on’ openly gay Reverend Sales), and the ubiqitious Nick Stringer (Only Fools & Horses, The Bill, Press Gang) as Colbourne’s sometime partner in crime, the corrupt ‘Colonel’, a thoroughly unpleasant character.
The quality of the performances and characterisations across the board in Johnny Jarvis has a lot to do with the fact that, while Johnny Jarvis has to cover six years in as many episodes, the 45-minute episode duration allows all of the main characters to grow and deepen before our eyes, from initial shorthand “yoof” types to relateable, complex and sympathetic (but not always likeable) individuals. The effect must have been even moreso when watched episodically, week by week; had the story been condensed into a Screen Two or Play For Today single drama, it’s dubious whether or not one would find Johnny, Alan, Turner and Manning’s journeys so compelling and engaging.
A word or two here about the timeline of Johnny Jarvis. This particular setting – late ‘70s to early ‘80s – has been told many times in retrospective fashion, through TV dramas such as This Is England (which is Johnny Jarvis’ most obvious heir), Ashes To Ashes, The Kennedys and stateside in Stranger Things, and when treated as a “period piece” the temptation is to go full-on by sledgehammering the viewer with 80SLOLZ pop culture signifiers. Johnny Jarvis was a piece of contemporary television reflecting on years just gone past, and evokes the ’77-‘83 timescale far more subtly, and realistically. No Judith Hann skateboarding while swigging a can of Quattro and solving a Rubik’s Cube here, thank you. Musical trends to demarcate the years are acknowledged fleetingly through diegetic sound – a snatch of Queen’s News of the World album (1977) in Johnny’s teenage bedroom, M’s Popmuzik (1979) blaring from a Hackney pub, through to Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight (1981).
The two most egregious uses of contemporary pop, however, provide two of the series’ most memorable scenes, although for very different reasons: Turner and Manning’s chase through the bustling Portobello Road market in its heyday is soundtracked by Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ What A Waste to great, indefinable effect, whilst in a later episode, as Lipton struggles to compose the New Wastrels’ socially relevant hit single, the banality of The Birdie Song blares from a transistor radio.
There’s much more to explore and dissect about Johnny Jarvis, but I’m loath to deny any new viewer the same enjoyment I derived from discovering this forgotten gem of ‘80s British drama sight-unseen. There’s a school of thought in broadsheets and websites that modern American drama is “peak TV” but I’m old school: Home-grown British TV drama of the ‘70s and ‘80s was one of the richest runs of television, with a commitment to social commentary and truthfulness that is second to none, and Johnny Jarvis deserves to be belatedly admitted into that pantheon of bold, brave, riveting programming with this DVD release – it’s equal to anything put out by Alan Clarke or Ken Loach. But don’t view it merely as a period piece – Johnny Jarvis portrays the beginnings of the dissembling of the safety net of the social contract created by the Welfare State and the Beveridge Report, and with the effects of austerity measures and Brexit already keenly felt across the nation, we are seeing the fatal, last stages of that dissembling under the auspices of Maggie’s children – the Rees-Moggs and IDSes of UK 2017 – a new generation of Johnny Jarvises are out there, and their stories deserve to be told, too.
❉ ‘Johnny Jarvis: The Complete Series’ was released on DVD by Network Distributing, 6 November 2017, RRP £19.99.