Picture credit: Ludovic Roberts/Netflix
Artillery Row

When youth becomes period drama

The stakes feel very high when our younger years become the stuff of popular entertainment

How can Four Weddings and a Funeral possibly be thirty years old? That so much time has passed since — equivalent to the interlude between the jazz age and the rock-and-roll era — seems hard to compute. 1994 was the year I graduated from university. Everything seemed possible. Nothing (bar the intention to carry on studying) was planned. Lifelong friendships had been made. Hearts had been broken — or were about to be. We all loved Four Weddings, the funny, clever hit of the season, which whetted our appetites for the exciting adventures and rites of passage to come. It feels like only yesterday. It feels like ancient history.

Somewhat alarmingly, being young in the 1990s is now material for period drama, in the form of Netflix’s adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day. (If you haven’t yet read it — and beware spoilers below — I order you to do so immediately.) 

it’s a book that has taken on a sort of a totemic status, vividly capturing what it was like to reach adulthood at that particular historical moment

The novel focuses upon Emma Morley, a lower-middle-class Yorkshire girl, and Dexter Mayhew, a posh boy from Oxfordshire, who first meet on the night of their graduation from Edinburgh University in 1988. We catch up with them on the same day every year for almost two decades, as their lives take different courses but repeatedly intersect. For many people of Em and Dex’s age, or a few years either side, it’s a book that has taken on a sort of a totemic status, vividly capturing what it was like to reach adulthood at that particular historical moment.

It’s a book I return to at intervals, and the last time was at the beginning of this year. With the novel fresh in my mind, I regarded the very idea of an adaptation with trepidation. If they didn’t get it absolutely right, would the book be tainted, the characters as I imagined them forever eclipsed by the versions on screen? Could actors who are young today take on the weighty responsibility of recreating how we were then? Perhaps it was simply better not to watch. 

But the reviews were excellent, both from critics and from people commenting online, although many admitted they hadn’t read the book, so couldn’t entirely be trusted. Nicholls himself, however, declared himself delighted, so finally I relented, while remaining highly sceptical, and giving a friend a running commentary about everything that was “wrong”. Tilly is only thinly sketched in the book, but with a name like that, in the Eighties, I’d taken her for a Sloane. Why had they cast an outgoing redhead as Sylvie when the character is described as an ethereal Renaissance blonde? Dexter was obviously meant to be dark-haired, as per in my head. And why had they cast anyone as Emma who wasn’t, well, me, a Yorkshire girl who had gone north to study, and then moved south, notwithstanding the fact that I’m fifty and my TV acting experience is limited to squeamishly holding a piglet at arms’ length while saying “’Ello, Mr ’Erriot!”? 

Having got over all this, I reluctantly allowed myself to start enjoying it, greedily gulping down its bite-sized episodes one after the next. The unfolding of the story is, of course, highly seductive — Nicholls’ plotting and characterisation, his keen understanding of how we find our way tentatively into fully formed adulthood, is so accomplished that it could never really be otherwise. And for the most part, bar some minor nips and tucks, the screenwriters follow the novel closely. The scenes where Dexter visits his dying mother and where he acts like a Class-A prat while high on goodness knows what in an overpriced, overhyped West-End restaurant are just as described in the book. The wince-inducing scenes with Emma’s sleazy headmaster colleague and with Sylvie’s ghastly relatives play out just as Nicholls intended.

Of course it is all highly aestheticised, with characters in their early thirties living in large, beautiful north-London properties. (I was amused that my local Oxfordshire station — two windswept platforms overlooking a bleak field — had sprouted a handsome Victorian building and moved somewhere altogether leafier.) If the two leads, Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod, didn’t quite persuade me in the rather slow first episode, their company was most certainly worth keeping as they matured into the roles; their performances thoughtful, subtle and ultimately a thing of beauty, even if they didn’t seem to get any older between their early twenties and their mid-thirties. Perhaps one doesn’t. As for the ending, One Day is like a Puccini opera: tears are inevitable, and you can call that manipulative if you like, but I prefer the word brilliant.

We are all shaped by the decade in which we come of age

I remain in two minds, however, about whether this adaptation really captures the “feel” of the time. Music usually does a lot of work in this regard and there is an era-appropriate soundtrack, though strangely I recognised relatively few of the songs (perhaps I just wasn’t cool enough back then). Interior décor colours are more 2024 than 2004. The clothes make a nod here and there to the 1990s and early 2000s but the designers have toned down the most embarrassing trends, with the result that the characters look little different from how young people look today. Most of the time, Emma wears the same large, round, gold-framed glasses that are currently everywhere. As for young men sporting full beards at the turn of the millennium, I don’t think so. How the characters speak, their bearing, their knowingness, just seem slightly too “now”. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about it feels like Gen X seen through a Gen Z lens. 

We are all shaped by the decade in which we come of age. We, forever the gilded young in our own imaginations, feel that we know and understand “our era” better than anyone else, and the impressions of that time linger on long into the decades that follow, guiding our attitudes and even “fixing” our look. We constantly seek a nostalgia rush for that age long past, but when TV starts treating your own lifetime and your own life experiences as the stuff of history, the stakes feel incredibly high.

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