A Bunch of Fives Review
Looking at these two series from 1977 and 1978 about a bunch of 17-year-old schoolkids it’s astonishing just how much simpler life was for your average teenager in the UK 33 years ago. There were no mobile phones, home computers, internet or mp3 downloads. If you wanted to listen to the latest music you bought vinyl singles from your local record shop or tuned into Tony Blackburn on Radio 1 (or listened to Emperor Rosko on Radio Luxembourg if you wanted to be really edgy – or was that the early-70s?). If you wanted to watch a film you went to your local decaying 1930s picture palace with sticky carpets and dodgy generic ads for Indian restaurants 'just around the corner from this cinema'.
I know this because I was roughly the same age in 1977 as the kids in this serial – although my own memories of life in Britain of that time are a little different from what I saw on the screen. Anyway A Bunch of Fives first aired on ITV just a year before the juggernaut known as Grange Hill roared on to the BBC. It takes place in the fictional Oxford Lane comprehensive school situated in a town 'just outside Oxford' and focuses on a small group of fifth-form pupils who decide to create a new socially-conscious school magazine called, you've guessed it, A Bunch of Fives. The main instigator is Chris Taylor (Jamie Foreman) a Tucker Jenkins type (but who conspicuously and sadly lacks Todd Carty's cheeky charm). The main plot thrust of the first series is the search for stories to fill the first edition. The leading story concerns Helen (Lesley Manville) a classmate of his and potential girlfriend who is passed over for a job at a local hairdressers’ (which she had been promised) in favour of another of the girls at the school. This turns out to be due to some mutual back-scratching between local businessmen. Her friends, led by Chris, decide to expose this corporate corruption, as well as a protection racket at the local fast food outlet.
Apart from the general theme of social injustice that links the magazine articles, the other main plot motor is school politics in every variety – teacher/pupil, teacher/teacher, teacher/head, pupil/head, boy/girl etc etc. In fact this series is really just a generic workplace drama with generic dialogue and generic performances. While watching it I kept thinking that I'd seen everything that was onscreen and heard all the dialogue before in any number of TV dramas of the time. But, largely due to those very factors, it is also a solid well-made drama which engages the attention and is worth revisiting. Although the release notes credit the series as the brainchild of John Sichel and Colin Rodgers, a large part of the credit should also go to Paula Milne who wrote most of the episodes in both series. At the time she was a new talent but has since gone on to become one of the UK's most distinguished screenwriters.
And that's about it. Everyone in the first series seems to live in some strange version of 1977 Britain in which major events of the time are never referenced. In particular the Queen's Silver Jubilee which had saturation media coverage that year and was forcibly ingrained into the national consciousness. Similarly the rise of Punk isn't mentioned. A young local band who are to be reviewed for the magazine play good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll with not a safety pin in sight. The characters appear to have no home life at all and are there simply to service the plot. Which makes sense when you consider the first series was made as a standalone seven-part serial. Grange Hill, on the other hand sprang to life as a longer-term prospect with much longer runs and a 'soapier' approach with the children's home lives and families playing as large a part as their in-school interaction. The first series of A Bunch of Fives by comparison could almost have been written by Enid Blyton with its emphasis on a small band of plucky teens who strive to bring a group of adult villains to justice and learn a life-lesson along the way. All we're missing is Timmy the Dog. Seriously though, this serial comes at a point where children's drama was on the verge of being redefined by Grange Hill and its ilk with their grittier, rougher approach.
Similarly the actors involved are all clearly stage-school types who deliver generic performances, young and old alike. But having said that three of the young principals went on to have successful careers – Jamie Foreman went on to headline roles as an adult actor and Richard Willis featured prominently in several serials over the next few years (including playing Adric's doomed brother in Doctor Who). But, most impressively of the lot, Lesley Manville became a distinguished actress as well as a Mike Leigh regular over the years and only last month appeared on the Croisette in Cannes to promote his latest film of which she is the 'star'. And, to be fair, she is very talented.
Special mention also has to go to Julia Carey as Miss Walsh, the class's young form mistress and English teacher for both series who manages to combine perfectly the withering disdain and underlying genuine concern for her class that marked out the best teachers of that time. While maintaining perfectly flicked-out hair at all times. I remember several teachers exactly like that and in that respect she is easily the most realistic of all the school staff in the series.
By series 2 things had improved a bit for everyone. Although shown a year after series 1, it picks up the action only a few weeks later as everyone returns to school after the holidays. Richard Willis's character Dave Jenner is now foregrounded as the middle-class-boy-with-potential stifled by the yoke of parental expectations. He even has an on-screen home life with a family to boot. And his father is played by none other than his real-life dad, Jerome Willis, who was a regular face on telly in the 70s and 80s. He also becomes a potential rival for Helen's affections which puts Chris's nose out of joint. When Chris is not trying to be a Bad Boy hanging around with a gang of the cleanest 'punks' I've ever seen, finally introducing a topical note to the proceedings. Other topical elements include Helen's discovery of Women's Lib, the magazine's push to satirism and the presence of a TV documentary crew in the first couple of episodes who want to depict school life in the 70s 'as it is'. A non-starter with this bunch, if you ask me.
This is a two-disc set with each of the two series accommodated on a single disc with seven episodes, each approx 25 minutes long. They are split into chapters which are not menu-accessible.
Transfer and Sound
Both series were filmed entirely on video with most interiors in the studio and exteriors on location. The picture quality is noticeably poorer than most other archive releases of the time with a softer grainier image than usual and smearing occurring when the camera or anyone in the frame moves. Given the generally excellent nature of Network’s transfers this must be due to the state of the original archive recordings rather than the transfers themselves. However, once the eye adjusts the picture is quite watchable. The picture in series 2 is slightly better than that of series 1.
I do make a point of watching all this stuff on my increasingly-battered old CRT telly but I did load this briefly in my flatmate's new blu-ray player to check it out on his new 40'' LCD screen and I have to say it looked much much better than I expected considering its age and condition.
The sound is fairly clean and clear but, in the location interiors, the voices tend to be swamped by background sound. As always, just listen a bit harder.
As usual for Network, there are no subtitles. There is a brief gallery of production stills on disc one.
If you are expecting a searing exposé of underage boozing, drug-taking, promiscuity etc (a 70s version of Skins, if you will) you will be sadly disappointed. This is just a bog-standard generic children's drama about life in some idealised British high school that conforms to the standards of TV drama of the time. In as much as issues are considered then each series does have a social conscience. Series 1 looks at social injustice in various forms and series 2 deals more with parental expectations and the effects that social class have on one's prospects. There is an element of boy/girl stuff which you would expect to be foregrounded in this type of piece but, in fact, although present it takes a back seat to the wider social picture. It would take an edgier show such as Grange Hill in the 80s to start tackling 'issues' per se including the now-infamous 'Just Say No' anti-drugs campaign led by various teen cast members, some of whom later admitted to being completely off their faces most of the time they were promoting the campaign.
What is sobering is to compare A Bunch of Fives or even Grange Hill to a contemporary series such as Skins which features an almost identical peer group of a similar age. The difference in presentation of the group though is staggering. But that is probably more to do with the image that the relevant makers wish to present to their target audiences of such a group of youngsters. A Bunch of Fives stays in the very restrained, conservative world of 1970s ITV children's drama where romance is hinted at but heaven forbid any of the kids should actually do it. On the other hand, Skins with its roster of drug-addled, duracell-powered shag-bunnies veers hysterically toward the other extreme. But underneath they are pretty much the same teens with the same pressures and problems and, really, not very much has changed at all.
A Bunch of Fives is a web-exclusive and only available to buy direct from Network DVD.