I Love 1984

Saturday, February 17, 2001 by

What’s a TV producer to do? They put together a fairly harmless package of easy-going nostalgia for a Saturday night, and suddenly they’re accused of being part of a conspiracy, hellbent on undermining this country’s shared heritage.

Or, at least, The Sun’s awful Garry Bushell – fresh from accusing Channel 4′s Top Ten series of being a left-wing sneer at all forms of popular music – now devotes part of his column every week to criticising the choices for items on I Love the Eighties and complaining that they didn’t include items that “made” each particular year.

The question remains, of course, has this man realised what this series is supposed to be doing? Clearly not, given that he slagged off I Love 1983 for not featuring “the kidnapping of Shergar, the £1 coin, or the introduction of wheel-clamps”. Er … sorry Garry, but this series isn’t The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years, it’s a programme about pop culture nostalgia. So complaining, as he did, that the programme did a piece on nuclear paranoia, but not the Falklands War, is ludicrous – the former was mostly created by TV and film and, in hindsight, looks slightly comic; whereas the latter was a war, which doesn’t.

But this series has been accompanied by calls from all quarters (though not on this site, you note) that each programme fails to live up to their expectations. I suspect that we’ll see a lot more of this as we get nearer the present day, given that we’re entering an era of which much of the audience have strong memories. If, say, a viewer had been born in 1969, most of their memories of the ’70s are probably less year-specific; they were very young, it was a long time ago. Whereas in the ’80s, there’s more chance that specific years have a certain resonance – 1983, my first relationship, 1985, the year I left school, 1988, the year I started work. The viewer almost “owns” these years, and knows what they were doing. Not that you’ll get any of that from me just yet – I was five years old in 1984. Here are all my memories of this year – 1) Watching the film Animalympics on telly; 2) My dad building a dividing wall upstairs to make one bedroom into two; 3) Watching Battle of the Planets on telly; 4) Going on holiday to a caravan in Conwy; 5) Being woken up one morning during said holiday by an earthquake; 6) Oversleeping til 11am one morning during the summer holidays and moaning I’d missedTarzan. As suspected, none of these memories were considered for the programme (a shame, ‘cos I really loved Animalympics), so I was able to see what was going on in the real world instead.

And what’s great about this series is the selection of some non-obvious phenomena from each year. I’m not ashamed to say that I let out a whoop of delight when a clip of the Care Bears surfaced in the opening montage – now this really brought back some memories. I could remember watching the series on TV-am every Sunday morning, queuing up outside the Vogue cinema in Wrexham to see the film – please note I went with my sister – and nicking her Care Bears comics when I’d finished reading the Topper. A feature on Duran Duran could take you back not just to 1984, but that night a couple of years ago when you got out all your ’80s compilations, or the time a few months back you went to an irony-filled birthday party. But a feature on the Care Bears, or Transformers, takes you back to the mid-’80s and nowhere else. So do the names of Fighting Fantasy authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, which is like hearing from old friends again.

So it was nice to see the programme didn’t fall into the obvious traps when covering Frankie Goes to Hollywood and regurgitate the story of Relax – excluding Holly Johnson’s functional narration, the item must have lasted all of four minutes, and most of that was devoted to the “Frankie Say …” T-shirts, plus a marvelous anecdote from Paul Morley about how he’d let the Frankie management have the copyright on the design for £300, and then saw them shift thousands. And when they mentioned the banning of Relax, they wangled comments from people in the know – Radio 1 producer Dave Atkey and Mike Read himself (stating that he didn’t ban it himself, as he couldn’t make BBC policy), thus making this brief feature much more satisfying than Smash!‘s longer, but stunningly dull, item.

Mention of Paul Morley does, of course, bring me to the absolute highlight of the programme, the series, and perhaps even the whole genre of nostalgia television. I never thought that I’d be in hysterics over an item on Sade and the ’80s jazz-funk scene, but that was before I was aware of a superb slanging match between Morley and Robert Elms. So Elms used to share a squat with Sade, and according to him, most of that band’s influences (along with other exponents of the genre like Working Week and the Style Council) “came from my record collection”. Paul Morley summarised this brilliantly as “it was a great moment when the cover of The Face featured Robert Elms saying: ‘Have you heard of this new music called jazz?’”, and then told of when Elms dragged him to see Sade “because he’d singlehandedly discovered jazz”. Elms tried to get his own back later on by describing Morley-faves The Smiths as being “boring”, but Paul had won this battle fair and square. What was especially great was how snide references to Robert Elms had become real jokes, not just dull in-fighting. A comic triumph by the man Morley.

The other interesting thing about this series has been the odd “celebrities at play” factor. An analogy: much of the fun of Celebrity Stars in their Eyes (bear with me) comes from the way the celebrities are put in a situation where they have to react in a genuine way, and you get to see a side of them that doesn’t come out when they’re just reading an autocue or snappily edited. The same sort of thing applies here – alright, so maybe the views of Arabella Weir and Lisa Rogers are less relevant than those of Johnny Marr or the A-Team‘s Dwight Schulz, but most go about their job with real enthusiasm. Who’d have thought, for example, that Claudia Winkleman was a big Care Bears fan? Or Victoria Coren was an authority on video nasties? This isn’t a side of their personalities they get to show off on the midweek lottery, or in the Observer. Ditto Jayne Middlemiss getting all wistful over Tucker’s Luck - “Alan, he was a nice lad …”

And, of course, the regular nostalgia experts were on top form as well – Peter Kay scoring points with his memories of early video recorders (“My dad used to put a cushion over the clock when we went out, ‘cos burglars could see it flashing”), and Johnny Vegas and Stuart Maconie supplying memorable asides. Louis Theroux was also spot-on when he pointed out, regarding Relax, that “kids are very conservative, and they’d go ‘Oh, I don’t think they should be playing that on the radio’” – and he’s right. In school, I thought Lynne Faulkner was a bit of a rebel when she sung “Pick your nose and don’t chew it” over it. And for those who feel that the pundits overdo the cynicism, I ask – would you prefer Kay and Vegas’ look at the Care Bears, or “fan” Jenna Brewer humourlessly running through each bear and their totally unique characteristics? And the most cynical lookback at Nik Kershaw’s career came from, of all people, Nik Kershaw, who claimed that during his heyday he had no sense of humour, wrote meaningless songs and wore awful clothes. Spoilsport.

The series is still not perfect – proving again that it’s impossible to do a retrospective on Madonna without sounding like media studies A-level coursework (“Her look was unique”, and so endlessly on), and God only knows why the Torvill and Dean segment included the wretched Comic Relief “Torvill and Bean” sketch from over a decade later. But on the whole this remains effortless, amusing viewing, and still the best thing on Saturday nights.

But I’m still sick they didn’t mention Animalympics. I tell you, it was massive down our road…


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