Looking back in desperation – 80s revival in the 90s

Saturday, March 25, 1995

?Nostalgia isn?t what it used to be. Like a crew of rowers, artists have always looked backwards to earlier times in an attempt to move forwards. At the moment, however, they?re not looking back very far: there?s a 1980s revival going on.

Last year, there was a 1970s revival, and we were awash with flares and platforms, disco and Starsky and Hutch. This year, however, it?s The Human League and the Rubik?s cube. We?re running out of decades to be nostalgic about.

We have classic Eastenders and Grange Hill episodes on the BBC, and a Tube retrospective series on Channel 4. Radio stations play the classic hits of the ‘60s 70s and 80s’, and students have started having 80s parties, where dressing up as Adam Ant or a kid from Fame is compulsory.

Abba have scarcely been so popular, and the ?Strictly Handbag? night at The Kitchen specialises in kitsch tunes from the period. Record companies are releasing 80s compilations hand over fist, and even Kajagoogoo must be preparing for a comeback.

The ultimate 1980s experience, however, is the satellite tv channel UK Gold. All day every day, it allows you to relive the past by watching reruns of Blake?s Seven, Miami Vice, Every Second Counts, and Juliet Bravo.

Of course, the way earlier art and attitudes look different in a different light is constantly fascinating. Victorian mock-gothic architecture, for example, tells us at least as much about the grand ideas of the 1860s as it does about the medieval traditions on which it draws. Even the 1980s passion for Laura Ashley and Brideshead Revisited can be illuminating, when seen as an attempt to hark back to (and commodify) safe tradition in a fast-changing world.

With earlier examples of this form of cultural oarsmanship, the gap between the original and the revival allowed space for reflection and new creativity.  This time round, however, the revival is so recent that it’s beginning to seem slightly desperate. It also seems slightly misinformed, since one of the points about 80s culture is that it was itself deliberately nostalgic. What does this leave us with ? new New Romantics?

One explanation for all this is economic. It?s cheaper for tv stations to pump out re-runs than it is for them to commission new work. Another factor must be that people who grew up during the early 80s are reaching positions of responsibility in the media, and can now indulge themselves.  Chris Evans is a good example of this. Guests on recent editions of his show Don?t Forget Your Toothbrush included Suggs from the band Madness (who?s made a second career from this retro fashion), and the woman who danced seductively in the opening titles of Tales of the Unexpected.

One of the ironies of reviving so recent a period is that many of the original creators of this work are still around to reinterpret themselves for us ? at least saving us the mournful question, ?Where are they now??.

Suggs might be content just being Suggs a second time round, and The Human League are back, sounding very much like they did ten years ago.  Sting, in contrast, is constantly changing his back-catalogue. His danced-influenced cover of the 1981 Police song ?Demolition Man? was one of the highlights of his recent greatest hits collection.

However, aside from a few examples of innovation, this return to the culture of the previous decade shows a profound lack of confidence. It?s easier to listen to and watch things that you already know about. People are comfortable with Minder so why go to the trouble either of watching new tv shows, or discovering enough about a more distant time to borrow from then instead?

However, as with all nostalgia, we don?t recall what the time was really like, we reconstruct it how we want to. You remember watching Rockliffe?s Babies, so seeing it again takes you happily back to an earlier time.  It?s a shame you?ve forgotten that it wasn?t very good ten years ago.

If bad programmes taken on a new value, then good programmes suffer by being stripped of their context. Channel 4 is currently showing Auf Wiedersehen, Pet again, but watching it as a piece of personal history makes us forget the wider social and political atmosphere from which the show emerged.

This is perhaps the most worrying element of the return to the 1980s.  In reviving all this stuff, we are being presented with a very selective picture of a time so recent that its effects are still being felt. Those involved in the Celtic Revival at the turn of the century had the space to reinterpret the period they studied, to the extent of making up large chunks of ‘history’ to suit them. We can’t afford to this with the events of 10 years ago.

During the 1980s the Conservative government in the UK was criticised for reworking ?Victorian values?, but reworking that government itself less than ten years on is even more risky. Last week, for example, the London Independent on Sunday reported the increasing interest in Mrs Thatcher memorabilia. A Thatcher teapot bought for ?25 five years ago recently fetched ?207 at auction.

In all this nostalgia, there is very little reference to the recession of the early 1980s, or to the Falklands War, or to the rioting in English cities. Talking about teapots, or Tucker Jenkins from Grange Hill is much more appealing.

So far, this trend seems to be mainly a British phenomenon, and it would be tempting to say that culturally things are exciting enough in Ireland for young people here to keep their eyes on the future. However, it can only be a matter of time before we too start immersing ourselves in our recent past, so maybe it?s time for another papal visit. Then again, . . .

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday March 23rd, 1995)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesTelevisionMusicFilm

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Have you seen the film of the ad? – movies and commercials

Tuesday, February 21, 1995

You know the tv commercial where two men in an office washroom are discussing the imminent sacking of a colleague, when the doomed workmate emerges from a cubicle and starts singing? What?s it all about?

It?s hard enough to remember what it?s for (Allied Dunbar pensions and life assurance), without trying to work out why it says anything about the product aside from the most basic, ?he?s not fussed, he?s got a pension?. However, the advert is a fine example of a recent trend in commercials to stop talking about the product.

Instead, the desire is to make 90 seconds of entertainment for an intelligent tv-literate audience. Make us like the ad as a piece of art first, and then maybe we?ll think about a pension.

The way many advertisers are doing this is by borrowing creatively from movies, to the extent that commercials are now often much more inventive and visually stimulating than the ?real? programmes they interrupt.

The Allied Dunbar advert is, for example, an unlikely combination of two elements. The setting in the washroom with the unseen listener is modelled on a scene in Robocop, Paul Verhoeven?s satirical and violent science fiction film. However, when the man starts singing ?Let?s Face the Music and Dance?, we?re suddenly watching a Dennis Potter tv play.

It?s long been recognised that TV commercials follow the same genres as other types of television. So we have the soap opera-style ad, such as the Nescafe Gold Blend campaign, the daytime tv-style ad, with glowing first-person endorsements for baby products from real mums, and even the costume drama-style ad.

The most famous example of this style is the Hovis campaign from the early 1980s. Here the production values and artistry were so impressive that the ad with the little boy pushing his bike up a hill looked as beautiful as the other quality period-piece of that time, Brideshead Revisited.

However, now it is not just genre-types that are being borrowed from film and tv, but specific plots, settings and scenes in a post-modern frenzy of quotation and pastiche. We’ve got used to seeing the film of the book, but now we’re seeing the advert of the film.

Two examples show the two ways this can be used. In the current Nescafe commercial, a young vet helps out a dour Yorkshire farmer, and ends up leaving his jar of coffee behind. It is obviously based on All Creatures Great and Small, and this creates a recognisable atmosphere very quickly.  The insertion of the brand into this familiar framework associates instant coffee with the relaxed and comforting world of James Herriot.

However, aside from updating the setting ? to avoid the anachronism of the young vet swapping his modern instant coffee for ration book vouchers ? few changes are made. The original material is invoked but not investigated.

The current ad for the Peugeot 106, however, is much more rewarding since it takes its model, the Ridley Scott film Thelma and Louise, and makes something new from it. Two young women are driving through Hollywood lamenting the fact that ?everyone wants to be in the movies?. Never a truer word, since even this advert wants to be in the movies, as our heroines find themselves being filmed while appearing to drive off a cliff.

By now, those viewers that have seen Thelma and Loiuse are expecting the pair to plummet triumphantly to their deaths. However, the advert surprises us by showing the car merely driving through a cloth backdrop.  The layers of irony are piled deep: to begin with, the advert is quoting a film made by a former ad-man (Ridley Scott directed some of the Hovis commercials before starting in films).

Secondly, it makes us reconsider the original film by showing us directly what we try to suppress when watching a movie ? the fact that?s it make-believe. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davies no more drove off an actual cliff than the couple in the advert do, and so curiously, the copy reminds us that the original isn?t real either.

Of course, if you haven?t seen the film, you watch the ad in a different way, but the question of which is the original is still raised. One day, you?ll settle down to watch Thelma and Louise, and find yourself saying ?the end?s a bit like that car ad?.

The current VW Polo advert appeals to its own brand?s advertising history while also making clever use of a Coen brothers film. Volkswagen have dropped cars in their commercials for years, but this time in dropping the new Polo from the top of a skyscraper they use the same tumbling point-of-view shots and fast-cutting as The Hudsucker Proxy.

It is easy to criticise the advertisers for cashing on other people?s creativity, but if it?s valid for Joel and Ethan Coen to use some of Frank Capra?s ideas in The Hudsucker Proxy, is it not just as valid for advertisers in turn to use the Coen brothers? work? Once these images, ideas and settings are abroad in the culture in whatever form, then they?re creative fair game for someone to make something new from them.

On this note, advertiser?s storyboards must be groaning under the weight of forthcoming commercials based on the films of Quentin Tarentino.  Seeing Reservoir Dogs reworked to advertise a bank, or Pulp Fiction flogging a car valeting service is almost too trendy to contemplate.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday Feb 21st, 1995)

Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour

Saturday, January 14, 1995

‘Not bad for a table and two bits of wall’

In the beginning was The Word, and the word was loud; next was Fantasy Football, and loud became lad; and now comes The End, and the word turns languid.

Making weekend tv programmes for people watching after 11pm is more difficult than it sounds. Half your audience have just returned from the pub and intellectual stimulation is the last thing on their minds. Mildly diverting entertainment to get them ready for bed is more appropriate, and several stations have risen to the challenge of post-pub programming with differing results.

To begin at the beginning. In the opening titles of The Word a beautiful couple arrive back after (we imagine) a few Mexican beers at a cool club.  On goes the tv as an accompaniment to some dalliance on the sofa. However, so exciting are the opening credits to The Word that they stop taking each other?s clothes off, and settle down to watch the show. The message here is: cool people watch the show because it?s even cooler than they are. Unfortunately, anyone as cool as The Word wants its audience to be would be doing something much more impressive on a Friday night than watching the telly.

Fantasy Football?s credits start with a slow pan around a dingy living room strewn with beer cans and chip bags. Our heroes (Frank Skinner and David Baddiel) are shown slumped in front of the TV, male-bonding in their desire to be Terry Venables. There are no women in sight, and the blokes have definitely been in all evening. The message is: lads like this watch the programme.

Both British programmes try far too hard to have a hope of success. In contrast, one of the reasons The End works is because it doesn?t try; it?s relaxed, it?s laid back, it?s languid ?  and at 11.30 at night languid is what you need.

Fantasy Football is a 26 year-old trying to act like a kid, while The Word is a teenager trying desperately to shock ? remember it was the first programme to dare show a close-up of a penis live on tv (although I am told that Mark Lamarr is much better on radio).

?The End?, however, is a favourite uncle who is hip enough to do stupid things just because he wants to. Alan Robinson, Series Producer, enjoys the freedom he?s given to experiment on The End: ?We sit down on Tuesday and look back at the weekend?s shows, and ask ?Are we really getting away with this???.

This flexibility is seen in the emphasis given to viewers? letters.  These vary from the gently amusing to the downright weird, accurately catching the spirit of the show itself. Such a close bond with the viewers contrasts with The Word and Fantasy Football, which both have studio audiences acting as buffers between the real world and tv land.

?The letters show that people understand what we?re about, which is gratifying,? says Robinson. ?The viewers are starting to write the script for us now.?

While The Word shows off its name and its own importance in 30-foot high capital letters at the back of the heaving studio, The End calmly and languidly suggests deeper meaning behind its simple set and modest lower-case typography. Ironic where the other two are moronic, it doesn?t have to win me over with footie-lads? male bonding, or pseudo-trendy ?be in my gang? cool. The End says, if you?re not doing anything tonight after a few pints, have a look at me.

Robinson says the show is doing respectably in the ratings: ?There?s an available audience out there, and we?ve got a reasonable share of it. Not bad for a table and two bits of wall.?

(first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, Jan 14th, 1995)