Emma Kennedy: why I wrote a sitcom about my eccentric 1970s childhood

"I realised that...being useless in the 70s was suddenly funny," says the writer and actress, whose autobiographical BBC1 series stars Katherine Parkinson and Dan Skinner

imagenotavailable1

You wait for ages for a series set on a council estate in the 70s and then three come at once. TVs across the land are awash with eye-boggling wallpaper, dodgy morals and shoes that made us question our very existence. Lenny Henry’s Danny and the Human Zoo, Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave and now my effort, The Kennedys, are all based on childhood experiences growing up in the 70s. So what’s going on?

Advertisement

Nostalgia used to be considered a medical condition, a bit like homesickness, where a melancholy for the familiar left the sufferer racked with emotional pangs – proper grown-up misery: hand on forehead, slumped on a chaise longue and with nothing to offer anyone other than a sense of overwhelming ennui.

That’s how bad nostalgia used to be. But over the years, our understanding of it has changed so that now, looking back is no more devastating than a happy glance over the shoulder as an old friend passes. It’s a celebration of our past, a positive affirmation of shared experiences and a rollicking recollection of what we believed to be the “good old days”.

The 70s were a time of great hope: social housing was aspirational, feminism promised a new equality for women, and everyone knew someone who claimed to have seen an avocado. When I first wrote The Tent the Bucket and Me, the book The Kennedys is adapted from, I was sitting at Sunday lunch with my parents. We were recalling our first family holiday. My father had decided to take us on a camping trip to the Gower peninsula and took my grandmother, a diabetic with a heart condition.

When we arrived at the campsite, there was nobody there. Strange, we thought, but there was good reason: the worst storm to hit the Gower peninsula in 50 years was on its way. The campsite had been evacuated. Not that we knew that, of course. My father stoically raised the tent. We then sat, staring out into the darkening abyss with nothing to eat except a jar of pickled onions. As we sat crying with laughter at our hopelessness, I realised that our year-on-year ineptitudes were something to write about. Being useless in the 70s was suddenly funny.

Writing The Tent the Bucket and Me proved to be a cathartic experience. It was like exorcising all my childhood demons: the time I fell off a cliff, plunged into a French toilet, cracked my head open and had to walk round with a sanitary towel bandaged to my forehead. Or when I got sunburn and suffered the humiliation of a Dutch holidaymaker pulling down my bikini bottoms and shoving a thermometer up my lady’s excuse me in front of a crowd. Someone at the back clapped.

I have nothing but fondness for all of these memories. I don’t know whether it’s a peculiarly British trait, but I like to think we embrace minor disasters and treat them, in time, like long-lost friends. I’ve had countless lovely holidays. Can I remember a single thing about them? No. But I can give you blow-by-blow accounts of every single dreadful or embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me. The further back the calamity, the more rose-tinted it becomes.

The 70s feel a lifetime away: no internet, no emails, no mobile phones. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to walk to the nearest phone box, 2p in hand, and make arrangements to meet someone in a week at a certain time and on a certain corner – and it always worked. But then again, there were only three TV channels (two if you weren’t allowed to watch ITV), clothes had to be washed by hand, hair was dried sitting in front of the fire, breakfast slices (mysterious reconstituted meat) were de rigeur and the only technology in sight was one digital watch owned by the son of a doctor who lived in the next town. So do I miss it? Hell, yes. 

Advertisement

The Kennedys begins on Friday 2nd October at 9.30pm on BBC1