Originally written as a novel by Nigel Williams –- rare copies of the tie-in edition can still be found –- Johnny Jarvis was aired as a TV series by the BBC in 1983, with a screenplay penned by Williams, and promptly sank without trace upon completion of its sixth and final episode, never to be seen again. It’s been said that the archives were wiped, which could easily be true: this practice was once considered good housekeeping at the BBC.
To this viewer (at thirteen slightly young to be counted among the target audience), Johnny was an easily identifiable character, one of what my friends and I would have called, in our northern ex-mining town parlance of the day, the ‘big lads’—a boy at school-leaving age. The gap between myself and Johnny felt generational, certainly not as close as I now know it to be, which is perhaps the reason why I was enthralled rather than terrified. (Looking now at the battered footage that remains accessible, I ought to have been the latter.) While my future stretched away within the institutional confines of England’s struggling Comprehensive school system, Johnny (Mark Farmer) and his friend Lipton (Ian Sears) were finding themselves cast out into a place oft-mentioned by teachers, usually in fateful tones: The Real World.
The Real World in 1983 was a country of over three million unemployed, a nation well down the road of Margaret Thatcher’s governance. The year was sandwiched between the uneasy victory of the Falklands War and a toxic country-wide miners’ strike. It is against this backdrop that Williams sets about presenting a succession of rather bleak truths about aspects of England at the time, and the pressure that its environment could exert on friendships and adult life. The series was set in Hackney (still a go-to borough for inner-city realism, where grand, renovated terraces of post-gentrification East London rub uncomfortable shoulders with sink estates). Johnny Jarvis, like a lot of contemporary TV drama, was shot on location. Domestic scenes appear to be situated in someone’s real home, and probably were.
Nigel Williams had already written a play, Class Enemy, starring a pre-Quadrophenia Phil Daniels. Although criticised by Williams himself for being “preachy,” it focused on what can be termed with validity, given the era, as the plight of the young working class, in particular late-teens facing unemployment while trying to make sense of the enforced transitions in their lives. It was a subject that Williams wanted to take further and refine, and years later, with Johnny Jarvis, he did.
“That was the last time I saw Johnny Jarvis,” says a tousle-haired Lipton. The words are dispassionate, the action suspended in freeze-frame on the grey, concrete steps of a council flat. It’s the first piece of dialogue in Episode One, a poignant opening to Lipton’s narration of their story. Jarvis, moody and bright blond, is with his girlfriend, their baby beside them in a push-chair. Lipton’s suggestion of a sociable drink is awkwardly rebuffed.
How different it was a few years ago, we learn, when Johnny was the class joker, able to draw on a bottomless well of antics designed to garner approval and popularity. We all remember kids like Jarvis -- some us will have been Jarvis -- with his performances enacted daily for an audience of peers. Williams shows us that underneath there is insecurity, for whatever reason, and fear, maybe of the sort that can accompany the end times of an unremarkable school career. After home-time Johnny appears to be isolated and essentially friendless, which leads to unwise flirtations with a sorry gang of the wrong kind of skinheads.
Teenage friendship, a difficult area in drama, mainly because it’s written by people who have not been that age for some time, is authentically nuanced here. Johnny, whether he wants it or not, is subject to the attentions of the bespectacled, anxious Lipton, in what is superficially a routine example of the nerd latching onto the popular kid in the hope of kudos by association. However, when school life recedes into the past, it is Lipton who becomes the stronger. He forms a post-punk band called The New Wastrels, while Jarvis, meanwhile, is placed on the treadmill. He gets an apprenticeship, shifting from job to job due to constant redundancy –- a political observation from Williams. Damage of the kind that is never repaired is incurred when the two of them fall for Stella, a free spirit with purple hair. Being free spirited means having an affair with both boys and becoming the mother to Johnny’s child, which, one senses, is an unfortunate thing to happen: Stella has far more affection for Lipton. This is another in the accumulation of harsh lessons which seems to plague both Jarvis and Lipton.
Prominent in the series is Williams’s handling of racism, a feature of society rather more mainstream in 1983 compared –- one would fervently hope –- to life in England now. We see it through the eyes of a character named Paul Turner, a target for Jarvis’s erstwhile skinhead acquaintances, who are now older, thicker, and more sinister. When Turner is framed for assaulting a police officer and sent to a borstal, we see the points that are being made. The sad reality of historical, institutional racism in the police service has since, by means of well-documented official inquiry, become known to all. Back then it was braver of Williams to tackle this topic than it would be today. In the series’ depiction of corruption there are foreshadowings of Peter Flannery’s extraordinary Our Friends in the North, which would come to our screens just over a decade later. Windrush references regarding Turner’s family background ring true, like his love of Rastafarian sound systems culture: as with all of the important characters in Johnny Jarvis, care is taken.
Lipton enjoys a fairly lucrative career in music, chiefly by writing songs that are thinly-veiled accounts of the life and struggles of Jarvis. (Incidentally, the music performed by The New Wastrels is original, with lyrics by Nigel Williams and music by Gary Shail from Quadrophenia.) He buys a smart flat, although it fails to make him happy. Ostensibly Lipton, as an increasingly bored yet relatively successful musician, turns to cliched rock-n’-roll behaviour when the bottle becomes prominent in his life. But, as ever, there is further depth: as is all too often the pattern, Lipton’s mother is an alcoholic, living with only cigarettes and drink as solace. It transpires that she has been hiding letters from Lipton’s absent father, whom he sets out to find. Johnny Jarvis only stumbles, in fact, when Williams heads down standard drama avenues like these. Conspicuous injections of intrigue –- a cardboard villain named The Colonel springs to mind –- do not really add value. The real story is that of Jarvis and Lipton, whose success as a musician after leaving school underlines Johnny’s loss of confidence, and his descent into frustration and then depression. Ultimately both are somewhat sad figures. In Johnny’s case especially, the slow dissolution of potential and spirit is a hard thing to watch.
In 1983 nearly all young people in England would have been familiar with Mark Farmer from his role as Gary Hargreaves in the ongoing young-adult school drama Grange Hill. I certainly remember him, too, as Arthur Daley’s errant yet likeable nephew in mid-period Minder. Very sadly, he died at the age of 53.
Most things transmitted on the BBC in the 1980s have acquired an agreeable patina of nostalgia which, however, sometimes serves to mask the flaws in certain programmes. Johnny Jarvis is not one of the latter. This forgotten drama is an outstanding work, regardless of its time, and leaves us with a touching if frustratingly obscure showcase for the talents of its star. --Neil Jackson