So the story (of Puberty) goes...


Frances Baldwin is a Television Curator at the NFSA.

In this National Year of Reading, Australian stories continue to be interpreted and produced as film and television productions, becoming part of our iconic screen heritage. One such production is Puberty Blues, Southern Star Entertainment’s eight-part TV series, which recently finished screening on the Ten Network. The timing of this latest series is not lost on me, as I reflect on my career and recall with fondness the story of the Puberty Blues that I knew three decades earlier.

Based on the bestselling book by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, the film version was released in December 1981. The story of Puberty Blues is the adoption of an image in order to be accepted; in other words, peer pressure, the proverbial teenage plot-line. In 1986, as a fresh-faced archivist, I was working in the NFSA’s documentation section when we received a well-loved suitcase from director Bruce Beresford. Amongst other papers there was an abundance of documentation material about the making of the film.

This included correspondence between Beresford and producers Joan Long and Margaret Kelly, polaroid snaps of the cast and crew, copies of last-minute changes to the script, drawings, comical sketches, call sheets, production notes, details on classification, weather reports and legal contracts. There was a set of papers called Puberty Blues: Short Stories, written by Kathy and Gabrielle, with titles like ‘The Deflowering’, ‘The Headmaster’, ‘The Gate Crash’, ‘The Gangbangs’, ‘A Day at the Beach’ and ‘The Eternal Grope’, as well as lyric suggestions for the title song ‘Puberty Blues’ by Tim Finn.

Another interesting document was a letter from the Chief Censor, Janet Duckmanton, dated 30 September 1980. After reading the script she offers comments to the producers to help keep the film from earning a restricted classification:

"To steer clear of ‘child porn’ legislation, the ages of the girls involved in sexual activity will have to be raised to at least 16 … All sex scenes will have to be visually discreet, head and shoulders only … The cumulative impact of the crude sexual orientation dialogue needs careful attention".

Cast and Director of Puberty Blues sitting in the back of a blue van with the bootlid raised up.

Director Glendyn Ivin (centre) with some of the young cast of Puberty Blues (2012)

Production manager Greg Ricketson stated in a report:

"Week 1 of shooting Puberty Blues was, to put it simply, a difficult and frustrating week. Every day the weather went through marked changes from clear sky to dark cloud to rain which has obviously played havoc with the schedule … Throughout [week 2] we were able to average 2 ½ minutes per day. A further 2 days shoot should be added to the schedule which covers time lost to date through weather problems"

A letter from the producers to parents of students at James Cook High School seeks permission for children to be extras on the shoot: ‘This participation has been approved on the basis that watching a feature film crew at work, especially a film directed by Bruce Beresford, will be an excellent educational experience for students.’ Finally, the suitcase included a crew T-shirt (see photo gallery above) and, if my memory is correct, even a little sand!

All notes were either handwritten or produced on typewriters, a stark difference from today’s communication via email, SMS and Twitter. In reviewing this material recently I was struck by the power of those handmade mementos and the labour of love and pioneering spirit of Australian filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s.

Claudia Karvan and Ashleigh Cummings sitting in the car

Actors Claudia Karvan (Judy Vickers) and Ashleigh Cummings (Debbie Vickers) in 'Puberty Blues' (2012)

Back to 2012 where we revisit Puberty Blues, this time on the small screen where the story still resonates. Southern Star Entertainment premiered the first episode on Facebook, a brilliant move aimed to build anticipation and encourage interaction among the target audience.

As the mother of two teenage girls, I have engaged with the new TV series very differently to the film but just as fondly. It has allowed me to connect with my daughter about sex and drugs as we laugh at the language, the fashion, the music and the ‘rules’ of that time. It offers a retrospective look at how a different generation of teenagers lived (sans mobile devices and over-processed hair).

The NFSA holds materials for both the film and television series in its collection. You can revisit the Puberty Blues film and watch clips on australianscreen.