In my former life as an editor, one of the books that I was proudest of publishing was the wonderful My Mad, Fat Teenage Diary by Rae Earl. When I heard that it was being made into a TV series I was thrilled but also nervous: would it do the book justice? If you’ve seen the E4 series you will know that the answer is definitely YES.
It is a fantastic show: it captures the beating heart and humour of the book while creating a new and brilliant thing in its own right. There are several differences between the TV series and the book – from the title to the way it deals with issues like the main character’s experience of mental illness. I was lucky enough to chat to Tom Bidwell, the brilliant writer of the TV script (and currently working on the second series!) to ask him more about the process of bringing the book to screen.
1 First of all congratulations on My Mad Fat Diary, which is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in ages. How did you get involved in the show?
TB: I got involved in the show quite a while back now. About two years ago in fact. Jude Liknaitzky and Roanna Benn at Tiger Aspect brought me in for a meeting and mentioned they had optioned the book. I liked the sound of it and read it. It seemed to me to be the perfect book for adaptation – tonally brilliant, great characters and only a little narrative (which lent me the space to tell my own stories (hopefully) without betraying the source material.)
2 I was really intrigued that while the book skims over the darker aspects of Rae’s story – the spell in the psychiatric hospital, and the background to it – the drama absolutely foregrounds them. It’s the opposite to what often happens in TV adaptations. Can you explain why this was? Did it make the show harder to pitch or easier?
TB: Again, as above, it was a blessing to have almost a blank page to work off as it meant I didn’t have to retell very personal aspects of the real Rae’s story. We were all very eager to explore the dark/real aspects of teenage life and I really think that’s what drew everyone at the channel towards the project too. We felt like we were looking at something very important, not just for teenagers, but for everyone who ever felt lost. The invention of her therapist, Kester, allowed me to not just try and get inside the head of a teenage girl, but to also psychoanalyse her. Not just what she’s thinking and feeling, but what that could mean. I live with a doctor of clinical psychology so he gave me an insight into how I could go about it.
3 What lay behind the decision to change the setting of the TV from the 1980s to the 1990s – was it because it felt more current, or is everyone sick of 80s stuff, or does it reflect your own background?
TB: I think I pitched it in the 1990s for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the music I listened to when I was 16 and an incredibly rich time for tunes. I know every generation says this but I think it was the last great era. You listen to the soundtrack and realise how lucky we were. Secondly, no-one had done the 90s yet. It felt right from a commercial and marketing point of view (felt like we could stretch our target audience by ten years!) and when marketing and creative agree you know you’re onto something good. Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne have their brilliant series This Is England, which is set in the 80s, so I guess that was another reason we chose to move it.
4 One of the things I love about your script is Rae’s voice including her sex thoughts – one of my favourite lines is ‘I’d shag him till there was nothing left, just a pair of glasses and a wet patch’!! It’s so similar to Rae’s voice in the book – did you consciously ‘mimic’ it or did you tap into your own inner teenager, or both?
TB: Hah! Well, yes she’s kind of lusty in the book so there is certainly an element of getting inside Rae’s head and just letting her speak. But I see the way she speaks in this sense as a kind of game of invention. There’s play in it, a love of words and life. So I don’t think it comes from a place of being overtly sex mad so much as a place of trying to create a vivid, imaginative picture of the strong feelings she has. She is being creative with her words (in her diary) and I’m trying to do a similar thing as I write her. It’s an overlap that makes your head spin if you think about it too much.
5 Sometimes, aspiring writers think quite rigidly in terms of writing A Novel, but from the start of your career you’ve done very well in the sphere of film and drama. Did you make a conscious choice to focus on script writing or was it just what seemed natural at the time?
TB: I think there’s a big discrepancy between what I thought a writer was when I first started out and what I’ve experienced it to be. Aspiring writers should really be looking at all disciplines because you learn so much about the form of prose through poetry and about drama through keeping a diary etc. The first few years of any writer’s career are an undergoing of such great development. Without knowing it, the more you write the more you learn and the stronger your writing gets. I wish that when I’d started out I’d have relaxed about not getting the breaks in the knowledge that if I kept on working hard on my writing they’d come when I was ready. It’s an exciting moment when you realise you’ll always be learning, always be surprised by something. I fell into script writing because I’ve always had an interest in television, theatre and film. I felt more confident in that world than in the world of The Novel.
6 Lastly I’m intrigued that the TV series dropped ‘Teenage’ from the title – why?
TB: Good question. The Channel moves in mysterious ways. I guess they thought that a show for teenagers with “teenage” in the title was slightly patronising. I agree in some respects. It seems to shrink the show a little, makes it seem more limited.
The final episode of My Mad Fat Diary is on E4 tonight at 10pm. You can catch previous episodes on 4oD.