Tuesday 23 April 2019

Missed Classic 66: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ (1985)

By Ilmari
"I have decided to be a poet. My father said that there isn’t a suitable career structure for poets and no pensions and other boring things, but I am quite decided. He tried to interest me in becoming a computer operator, but I said, ‘I need to put my soul into my work and it is well known that computers haven’t got a soul’. My father said,’ The Americans are working on it’. But I can’t wait that long."
"My mother has found a job. She collects money from Space Invader machines. She started today in response to an urgent phone call from the job agency that she is registered with. She said that the fullest machines are those in unrespectable cafes and university common rooms. I think my mother is betraying her principles. She is pandering to an obsession of weak minds."
- Adrian Mole, would-be-intellectual -

It sucked to be the smallest person in a family with only one TV to share. While it would have been essential to increase my popculture stats by spending evening with an episode of Star Trek, McGyver or Batman, my parents and bigger brother would have the veto power on the decision. And more often than not, they would turn the channel to some lame and drab show, fit only for people who had lost their final spark of imagination. One of their favourites followed a spectacled bore, who was constantly speaking to his mirror, panicking over his growing nipples and gluing miniature aeroplanes on his nose.

OK, I admit I laughed to this even when I was child

My mother and brother were also constantly praising the book on which the series was based. I never took their advice seriously - what growing child would trust the literary taste of their elders? Thus, it was only in preparation for this blog that I for the first time introduced myself to the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 ¾, written by Sue Townsend. This was only the first book in a series of Adrian Mole stories. Last Adrian Mole book appeared 2009, shortly before Sue Townsend died in 2014.

The Secret Diary, as the name suggests, consists of diary excerpts, written by a teenage boy, recounting a year in his life. There is not any great unifying plot - the closest to that is the estrangement, separation and eventual reconciliation of Adrian’s parents, but this is not just very central theme in the diary. Instead, the book consists of a string of loosely related events, such as Adrian’s infatuation with Pandora, his eventual girlfriend, and his friendship with Bert Baxter, a lovable old curmudgeon, who becomes a sort of mentor for Adrian.

Sadly, I must tell you that the thirtysomething years I waited before reading the book have done no favours to it. Partly, it’s due to my own growth - I can’t help but find pretentious teenage drama too shallow for my taste and Adrian’s obsessive monthly measurement of his private parts seems, well, a tad too obsessive.

Partly, it’s the fault of Adrian himself, who is just insufferable. Oh, I can see that his antics are meant to be comical - it is so like a teenager to just decide that one is an intellectual and a poet, look down on everyone else because of one’s supposed intellectual superiority, read fancy books and understand nothing of them, paint one’s room completely black, because it suits the role of a melancholy poet, and be smug about rejection letters from BBC. But Adrian just takes it all too far. He has too many double standards (“Intellectuals like me are allowed to be interested in sex. It is ordinary people like Mr. Lucas who should be ashamed of themselves”), his attitudes are far too conservative to my liking (“My mother has got an interview for a job. She is practising her typing and not doing any cooking. So what will it be like if she gets the job? My father should put his foot down before we are a broken home”) and he generally acts like a self-centred bastard. I mean, for the first third of the book, Adrian is insensitive about his parents going through a rough patch in their marriage and just complains about them not understanding him. Adrian’s egoism makes him also completely oblivious about the affair his mother is having with their neighbour, Mr. Lucas, even though the signs are obvious.

Adrian’s interest in Pandora is especially discomforting. Adrian just one day decides that he should love the new girl, because he is old enough for romance. Adrian has strange feelings, while he sees Pandora’s chest wobble during a netball match, which makes him conclude that he must be in love. After this, Adrian’s obsession with Pandora just grows day by day. Despite having no signs of Pandora liking him back, Adrian is possessive and jealous of her. And to make it even worse, he becomes a stalker:
“I hid behind her father’s Volvo and then followed her to a field next to the disused railway line. I hid behind a scrap car in the corner of the field and watched her. She looked dead good in her riding stuff, her chest was wobbling like mad. She will need to wear a bra soon.” 
You tell him, grandma Mole!

Adrian and Pandora do end up together, due to the funniest part of the book, involving red socks, silly British rules about proper school attire and a small student uprising.

It's difficult to explain, but here are the basics

Thankfully, the relationship with Pandora mellows Adrian, thus preventing him of becoming world’s first incel. Instead, by the end of the book Adrian becomes a two timing Don Juan, when he commits (non-sexual) adultery with yet another girl.

Compared to the book, the TV series, which I also watched now properly for the first time, was a pleasant surprise. Adrian’s actor was a good choice for the part, making Adrian not an obnoxious kid with an overgrown ego, but a Harry Potterish nerd, whom you might actually sympathise with. Furthermore, the series fleshed out many of the minor characters, who frankly seem far more interesting than Adrian himself. Finally, the series managed to cut all the unnecessary fluff and leave only the most essential parts of the diary, which made the plot of the series tighter than the plot of the book. Indeed, I’d recommend watching the series over reading the book.

If you are in a real hurry, you can just listen to Profoundly in Love with Pandora, 
the intro music of the series, which tells you all you need to know about the story

Brainbox Henderson has a bit dated information

Secret Diary of Adrian Mole was also made into a computer game. Behind this feat were, just like with Eric the Viking, Mosaic Publishing, which bought the licence and distributed the game, and Level 9, which did all the programming. While Eric the Viking was already meant to be an easy game by Level 9 standards, with Adrian Mole the producers went overboard with simplification - the game follows a Choose Your Own Adventure style. In practice this means that the player can do things differently from the book. For instance, Adrian might hear someone ringing the doorbell and the player could choose to open the door, which might lead to a completely new event that wasn’t in the book.

Like this meeting of missionaries

What would you do in Adrian’s shoes?

Still, player choices are rather limited, and no matter what you choose, certain events just happen, no matter what you do.

Deus ex machina…

...but I have to agree with her that Burt Baxter is the best character in the book

The goal of the game, as stated by the manual, is to make Adrian more popular. The game assigns Adrian a popularity score (between 0 and 100), which changes in accordance with player choices. It’s a bit unclear with whom Adrian should be popular - Parents? Friends? Teachers? - but the idea is simple to get intuitively. I played the game twice, as much as I could, and by choosing what I considered silly options I lowered my score all the way to 13. The second time I tried to make more reasonable choices and my score rose to around 60.

The game consists of four parts, but the copy I used was somehow faulty and the fourth part never loaded. Considering that the plot of the game consists just of a string of loosely, if at all, related events, I don’t think I missed much. I did watch the ending of a Let’s Play someone had made of the game, and well, just like the book, the game just stops after a year. Considering this, I don’t have high hopes for the PISSED score.

Puzzles and Solvability

The problem with CYOAs is that the outcomes of your choice are often just as unpredictable as a toss of coin. Secret Diary is no exception. Let’s take as an example a sequence where Adrian is preparing for a roller skate date and choosing a gift.

My first thought was that Adrian’s date would probably be sporty and not appreciate chocolate - and grapes just seemed too cheap. Circle of flowers seemed like a neutral choice. After few more choices, involving Adrian’s attire and his attempt to learn roller skating, the time had come to test my choice of gift.

How should I have known it was a funeral wreath, when nothing indicated it? Oh well, I guess I should have picked the grapes. This is a good example of a puzzle, where knowledge of future events is required to even make sense of the puzzle. Admittedly, it’s often quite simple to say what is the optimal choice. Still, these puzzles involve too much pure guesswork for my taste.

Score: 1

Interface and Inventory

I rarely feel that a game has too simple an interface - usually it’s the other way around - but this game is an exception. I mean, although pressing 1, 2 or 3 is as simple as it gets, I don’t feel that the interface really gives me an opportunity to affect anything. Add to this the fact that the game has no inventory, and this category can really have only one rating.

Score: 1

Story and Setting

I’ve already said that the book hasn’t that much of story, and the game loses even that by jumbling all the individual events to different places. You know something is wrong when things happen before they should have happened.

The new plot points are also problematic. An enthused reviewer was thrilled by Pete Austin’s capacity to stand in for Sue Townsend and called him even a genius, while Digital Antiquarian spoke of episodes from the book being glued together by “unsightly globs” of Pete Austin’s text. I tend to lean more toward Antiquarian’s opinion. Although Austin did manage to copy some of the phraseology Adrian Mole uses in the book, the new events steer away from comedy to a crude farce.

For instance, when Adrian considers joining the brotherhood
of Purple People, led by Brother Ludovico, and shaves all his hair

Score: 2

Sound and Graphics

In a CYOA you don’t really have rooms to illustrate. Instead, Level 9 has decided to make pictures describing the mood of Adrian Mole. This makes the graphics seem a bit more creative than in an average Level 9 game.

Score: 4.

Environment and Atmosphere

The most distinct feature of Secret Diary - the book is that it serves as a window to Britain in early 1980s. For instance, you will read a lot about the wedding of Lady Diana and Charles, Prince of Wales, which apparently was cause for much spontaneous celebration. The game, on the other hand, has no sense of historical context.

Just look at this. Since we are following the book, the year should be 1981. Even the idea of selling personal computers to home was relatively new, and laser printer (which we later found out was made by Canon) was definitely such a luxury item that seeing it on a high school kid’s table seems ridiculous. I guess it is possible that Brainbox Henderson’s family was ahead of its time, but I sincerely doubt it.

Score 2:

Dialogue and Acting

Considering that lot of the game’s text has been taken directly from Sue Townsend, it cannot be that awful. Then again, I cannot give very high credit for copying someone else’s witticism, especially as the text provided by Level 9 doesn’t compare well with the text from book.

Score 4.

1 + 1 + 2 + 4 + 2 + 4 = 14/0.6 = 23.

It is no wonder that this game scores pretty much same as Erik the Viking, the so far worst Level 9 game. Level 9 made a second Adrian Mole game after this one, I hope they managed to improve upon the formula, or I will have dull times ahead of me, whenever I get to that game.


  1. I had never heard of this series before! It seems interesting, although I am most amazed that a "kids" series of books has the main character eventually grows into his thirties and deals with things like infidelity and cancer.

    1. I haven't checked out the later books, where Adrian is an adult, but there was a significant gap between the publication of first teenage stories and of the later stories. One might suppose the later books were made primarily to cash on the nostalgia of people who read the originals back in the day.

  2. Adrian’s interest in Pandora is especially discomforting. Adrian just one day decides that he should love the new girl, because he is old enough for romance. Adrian has strange feelings, while he sees Pandora’s chest wobble during a netball match, which makes him conclude that he must be in love.

    As disconcerting as you may find this, that pretty much describes every crush I had between the ages of 11-13. Pre-teen boys don't need logical, well-thought out reasons for such behavior...

    1. I guess I wouldn't be so disconcerted, if Adrian would just admit it's all about his sex drive. With the story as it is, Adrian's feelings toward Pandora seem sometimes quite insincere. For instance, when Adrian hears Pandora's father is "just" a milkman, his "love" is instantly diminished - next day, when Adrian hears this wasn't true, he "loves" Pandora again. And as he says at some point, he would choose a racing bike over Pandora. It's like Adrian is playing some role and needs girlfriend just because it's part of the script.

  3. The link to the entusiastic review doesn't work for me, but I assume it was the same as http://www.everygamegoing.com/plain_html/mags/zzap/reviews/c64/mosaic/The-Secret-Diary-Of-Adrian-Mole-000.html

  4. The addition of some graphics are welcome, though it doesn't look like they are very applicable to the screen. I see they promise 200kB of text though, which should be a lot, did that show in the game or was it not as much as promised?

    1. The pictures are not completely random, for instance, in the screenshot where text speaks of purple towel, the graphics show a purple towel, and when Adrian is admiring Brainbox Henderson's new computer, we see both the computer and Brainbox (I think he's meant to be the figure over the pencil).

      I am not sure, but I think the game has more text than other Level 9 games of the time (or at least the text is a bit more varied and fuller than their usual ”You are in a forest. You see a tree.”). Then again, most of it is copied or slightly adapted from the book – and it still feels a long way from a proper novel.

  5. If you wanted to have a desktop laser printer in 1981, then Canon was the right and only choice. The Canon BLP-10 was the world's first desktop laser (introduced 1979) and was a very affordable £12 000 in the UK. (For previous machines you could add another zero to the price tag.)

    1. Thanks for the info! But was it LBP-10? And I am curious, do you know how big the thing was? The only picture of the the printer I've seen didn't really have anything to compare it with, but it seemed a bit cumbersome.

      Checking some inflation calculators, £ 12 000 in 1981 would be something like £ 40-45 000 today. Seems like Brainbox Henderson's parents are really generous with their birthday gifts.

      Just to give some more details, after couple of screens we learn that the new printer came with no manual. In one gaming session I refused to help Henderson with the problem, in other I tried phoning the shop where the printer had been bought (alternative was phoning Canon), and although they promised to send the manual, it never arrived.

      I didn't remember to mention it in the post, but the quotes with which I began were the only times anything computer-related was mentioned in the book. I suspect that's a more accurate picture what an average British in 1981 knew about computers - you could earn big bucks with it, but playing video games was for weak minds.