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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)

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