Pay-phones, mix-tapes and The Word on Channel 4: One Day has thrown me back to my 20s

On the left, me with my friend Justine in Greece, 1991. On the right, Ambika Mod (Emma) and Leo Woodall (Dexter) in the new adaptation of 'One Day'
On the left, me with my friend Justine in Greece, 1991. On the right, Ambika Mod (Emma) and Leo Woodall (Dexter) in the new adaptation of 'One Day'
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There is a moment in the new Netflix series One Day where the heroine sits down on a beach with a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that takes me straight back to 1989.

Like the character Emma, I was 21-years-old in 1989. Like her, I was pretentious and clueless. I too spent my summers hopping around Greek islands, reading Milan Kundera, itching for post-university life to start.

One Day is the new adaptation of David Nicholls’ 1990s moving romantic comedy novel of the same name: a kind of Normal People for Generation X. I binged the whole lot – all 14 episodes of it – on Sunday, pausing only to roast a chicken. I simply couldn’t stop. For seven hours, I watched my 20s reenacted before my eyes (eyes which, admittedly, were somewhat swimming by the end of the day).

Miranda Levy in Greece
Miranda Levy on the Greek island of Santorini in 1989 - Miranda Levy

Many of my 50-something friends tell me they have been doing the same – though my dad, who’s 81, also motored through seven episodes at the weekend and loved it.

“I watched 12 episodes then banished my family upstairs,” says my friend Sarah. “I reluctantly made dinner then was back in my PJs while the dog sat inches away from my face, licking away my tears.”

In 2011, the book was made into a film starring Anne Hathaway. The spectacle of an American actress trying to affect a Leeds accent was widely acknowledged to be a disaster. In contrast, this new series is beautifully acted by This Is Going to Hurt’s Ambika Mod, and Leo Woodall, who played a cheeky Essex chappy in the last series of White Lotus.

The story begins on July 15 1988 at a graduation ball at Edinburgh University, after which Dexter and Emma spend a mostly platonic night together. Each episode catches up with the characters on the same date each year, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. At every turn, I saw similarities with my own career.

Miranda Levy at UCL
Miranda Levy with her father on the day of her graduation at the Royal Albert Hall - Miranda Levy

The protagonists went to Edinburgh University; I was a student at Manchester, before switching courses and graduating with a degree in English from University College London (UCL). Like Emma – who’s played in the series by an actress of Indian heritage – I was also from a minority background: a Jewish girl from suburban Essex, as opposed to a “half Hindu” from Leeds. Despite being something of an outsider, I also got to know quite a few posh, confident Dexters during my time at UCL.

Emma is into lefty politics: she has CND posters and “Reclaim the Night” stickers on her student pin-board and later appears in a right-on theatre troupe. I too had my moments, which included protesting against student loans in the 1988 march through the London streets. At one point, I had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Lenin in my bedroom, purloined from my student job at Dillon’s book store on Gower Street.

Miranda Levy on the Student Loans march in 1988
Miranda protesting against student loans in 1988 - Miranda Levy

But even if you don’t identify with Emma or Dexter, you probably knew people like them.

The series captures the joy and sense of possibility of the late 1980s and early 1990s, evoked by a wonderful soundtrack of the music of that period: Portishead, Blur and Manic Street Preachers. There’s a particularly fine version of the Manic’s Design for Life played on a piano at a wedding reception. I also adored the nostalgia within nostalgia – Emma makes Dexter a travel mix-tape featuring The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, which also made its way to mix-tapes of my own.

Mix-tapes! There are so many moments that make midlifers like me squeal and point at the screen. Late night, post-pub youth television, where Dexter has a high-profile and short-lived career. Vic and Bob. Acid House. Clubbing. The advent of the £1.30 pack of Kettle Chips. Apple Macs the size of a small house. Baby-blue Smeg fridges and Terence Conran’s revamped Quaglino’s, in London’s St James’s, in the days when they used to have cigarette girls. (Does anyone else still have a Q-shaped Quaglino’s ashtray?) Pay-phones that go beep-beep and demand the clang of a 10p piece.

Indeed, one of the most interesting elements of the drama is its out-dated technology. Hand-written letters and unanswered landlines are involved in key plot points: One Day is a love story that could not happen in the era of mobiles and social media. Possibly the most affecting scenes in the whole series depict a string of devastated messages Dexter leaves on Emma’s answerphone after a trip to see his dying mother.

Ambika Mod (Emma) and Leo Woodall (Dexter) in a scene from 'One Day'
Ambika Mod (Emma) and Leo Woodall (Dexter) in a scene from 'One Day' - Ludovic Robert/Netflix

In the end, of course, the mobile phone makes its appearance. “I give you six months before you cave,” Dexter tells Emma, an unenthusiastic adopter. “What’s the point of calling a building on the off-chance that I would be in it or not?”

But, as fun as the props and the music are, the series also hits on a deeper level. Like the characters, we have all lost (and gained) loved ones over the course of those decades.

For me, there was a double emotional whammy. I was a similar age to the protagonists in a made-up story set 30-odd years ago, but in real life I’m now the age of those characters’ parents. My children, aged 19 and 21, are both at university, going through similar experiences and making the same choices as Dexter and Emma. My son even looks a bit like Woodall and has the same relaxed charm.

“You are not a serious person,” Dexter’s father tells his son at one point, exasperated at the way Dexter is living his life. This fictional situation led me to do some similar soul-searching. Are my children making the right choices? Have I given them the right direction? On the evidence in front of me right now, it’s a resounding ‘yes’. My kids are getting great grades at university and have ambitious plans for the future.

Ultimately, One Day is a warm-hearted, hilarious nostalgia trip. “We were gorgeous in our 20s, even though we didn’t appreciate it at the time,” Emma tells Dexter in the final episode. But would we honestly want to go back there again – to the uncertainty and the pressure and the lack of self-awareness of youth? The answer is: probably not.

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