Taking refuge in a mythologised 1980s

Packed with clichés and simplistic politics, the BBC’s Eighties season revealed why liberals love that decade.

David Bowden

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It’s rare that you feel sorry for television executives, but spare a thought for BBC2’s this week. Scheduling a season of programmes on ‘The Eighties’ right after a General Election possibly seemed a nifty idea back in the autumn, back when the Conservatives were assumed to be the landslide government and ‘progressive’ middle-class types could go back to patting themselves on the back for being against those nasty Thatcherites and the unspeakable ‘Loadsamoney’ working-class types.

Unfortunately, in the light of the Lib-Con coalition and the much-vaunted ‘new politics’, BBC2’s Eighties season has only served to outline how detached the media class has become from the mainstream mood. As Charlie Brooker moaned this week, the new political landscape is marked by the absence of any proper villains (ie. real Tories) for liberals to get upset about. Poor smug liberals: they had braced themselves for Darth Vader, and instead got the Cleggeron love-bomb.

Fortunately, none of the programmes on offer has been particularly heavy on political analysis anyway, so it was easy not to notice. Such is contemporary culture’s obsession with celebrating itself that we’ve already dealt with most of the big stuff very recently: so last year we had the anniversary of the Miners’ Strike; the year before two documentaries on Thatcher’s rise and fall; the year before that we had the Falklands, and so on. For those with no sense of political vision or purpose beyond merely being anti-Tory, it’s difficult to know where else to go. All we’re left with is ephemera: the clothes, the music and the shared national experiences.

So we had the documentaries on pop acts (Boy George and Heaven 17) with all the self-important socio-political hyperbole those kind of documentaries involve (was ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ really the protest song of the Eighties?). As Emily Hill has already covered on spiked, we have the adaptation of a popular book (Martin Amis’s Money). And in The Royal Wedding we had the flagship drama which sought to tick all of the nostalgia boxes, from Spandau Ballet to Charles & Di.

Given this rather unpromising set-up, The Royal Wedding actually did a surprisingly decent job. The script – penned by BAFTA-winning dramatist Abi Morgan – deftly told the story of several inhabitants of a Welsh village on the edge of significant upheavals, love affairs, fumbled sexual awakenings and the like, while also retaining a sweet humanity. It had strong performances, not least from rising star Jodie Whittaker as a young mum trapped in a loveless marriage in a nowhere town, and Gwyneth Keyworth as her gawky teenage daughter. Its tone – it was shot as a hazy, almost sepia-tinted half-memory – marked it out as more sophisticated than the regular mode of British drama, which can only seem to do drab angst or bucolic whimsy. Moreover, it dodged some of the clichés of the consumerist Eighties. ‘Makes you happy does it, all this stuff?’ asked one character as he gazed at the upmarket house of socially aspirant Sherry. ‘Yeah’, came her unapologetic reply, ‘I like looking at these things… using these things.’

But sadly, for all its charm, it rang hollow. Morgan – as Dolan Cummings noted when reviewing her breakthrough success Sex Traffic – is sharper than your average dramatist, but the cosy nostalgia blunted her political instincts and meant that she also tended lazily to reflect some very contemporary prejudices. Part of the plot hinged on the revelation that the local factory was shutting down, therefore ripping the heart out of the warm village community: which ticked the anti-Thatcher box, but which Morgan didn’t seem interested in exploring further. Deindustrialisation may have had some terrible and long-lasting consequences, but that it may have forced people to raise their horizons beyond a rural backwater was apparently not one of them. Morgan nodded at this with the entrepreneurial Sherry, but it was really only a nod. It was also telling that we were being asked to feel sorry for nondescript factory workers in a small village rather than, say, rough-around-the-edges workers in a dirty industry like coal-mining.

Similarly, the presence of closet lesbian Bev and black Goth Wesley was a perfectly valid attempt at capturing the changing social attitudes of the time – but when placed alongside this celebration of local community values and healthy, inclusive patriotism (where they worship the People’s Princess rather than the Union Jack) made you feel that this was modern Britain giving itself a pat on the back for being so tolerant. Indeed, as the closing credits showed Bev and Linda running away to join the CND protests, we saw politics being approvingly remoulded as identity-driven self-actualisation rather than a meaningful act. Beneath the crazy, crazy fashions and familiar songs, there was more than a hint of a New Labourite wet dream lurking.

That, ultimately, was the frustrating feeling you were left with. A Royal Wedding offered a flicker of the power of television that sets out to tell a simple, well-made story without needing a mega-budget. Yet it was precisely that: a memory of the kind of programme which used to be the stock-in-trade of British TV… in the Eighties. More than ever, it reminded you of the urgent need for serious programming willing to look at the difficult and complex challenges which we face in the present; rather than celebrating living in a mythical past.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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