Thursday 10pm – 11pm, BBC4
If you were a teenage girl through the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s then you may have been one for going straight to the Agony Aunt problem pages in ‘Jackie’ or ‘Teen’ or maybe you were a ‘J17’ fan (fans of Jackie will be disgusted to learn that Cathy and Claire weren’t actually real..). Whatever your favourite read, they all had the pages dedicated to helping desperate and confused teens. Of course, the Agony Aunt wasn’t just at the beckon and call of 13-18 year olds, the newspapers picked up on the advice columns and many offered a route for all sorts of problems, some of the mature readers will also remember TV’s Claire Rayner adorning the screens. Although sometimes reading or watching these you’d question whether the queries were real or not (recalling the problem a woman faced about if she could’ve been made pregnant during an alien abduction).
Agony Aunt advice columns aren’t a new thing though, and this documentary demonstrates that there are three centuries of the genre. In fact, John Dunton is credited with the creation of the idea in the 17th Century when he introduced the problem column in the Athenian Mercury.
Philippa Perry, herself an Agony Aunt and psychotherapist takes an informative and comedic look the history of the problem pages. Immersing herself in the research she even throws herself into the role of a ‘worried Mum’ who has queries about her lesbian daughter in a ‘Dear Deidre’ casebook. She interviews some of the most well known Agony Aunts, including Deidre Saunders (Dear Deidre), Virginia Ironside and Agony Uncle Graham Norton, as well as spending some time with the son of Claire Rayner who recalls spending hours as a young boy opening letters from distressed, anguished and panicked members of the public for his mother.
This is more than a comedy and light hearted discovery of a British culture, it reveals and unpicks the social ‘norms’ and acceptable behaviours shown over 300 years, revealing that in all honesty, not that much has changed when people come to seek anonymity in asking awkward and sensitive questions. Yes indeed, your ancestors and their peers were asking questions about infidelity, body problems, relationship advice and life.
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