I Love 1989

Saturday, March 24, 2001 by

Nothing really special happened in 1989 until after it finished.

A couple of days into the new decade, two young writers whose names I’d seen mentioned increasingly often in the NME penned a spectacular 12 page tribute to the 1980s in that week’s edition. Besides paying homage to the era just ended – “In years to come, historians of pop culture will look up from their futuristic Gary Numan-style computer terminals and say, ‘The Eighties, they were living in The Eighties’” – this enthusiastic pair of hacks wrote up 1989 with such unashamed passion (“Halle-bloody-luyah indeed! … New heroes left, right and centre … Yes!”) that I instantly realised how fundamentally important and significant the previous 12 months were. How could I have missed this? How could I not have realised? Sure, I’d noted what was going on around me, the way the world was changing, the sounds, the looks, the TV … but hadn’t been bothered, or able, to sew it all together into an appropriate tapestry, or at least a passable shawl, so it all really made sense and stood for something. Hillsborough, the end of Blackadder, Band Aid II, News 39Batman, Black Box, 20 years of Monty Python, Jive Bunny and The Stone Roses: of course! This was 1989! OK, what a seminal year. 11 years on, BBC Manchester say: oh no it wasn’t, though we’ll give you the Stone Roses, and how about those body suits, eh?

Let’s not be coy. I Love the Eighties has been great fun and one of the best TV series screened on a Saturday night for years. It could easily have become nightmare material: too browbeating, or fussy, or just dull. No, it had its facts straight (for the most part), superbly chosen clips, and research that – whether carefully planned, hastily executed or both – fetched in some well chosen guests and obscure or forgotten personnel responsible for this crowded catalogue of memorabilia.

It’s been entertaining, frequently funny and annoying but never inaccessible, bland or incapable of prompting some kind of response and reaction. One of its commanding successes was keeping the door bolted to fusty academics, uptight sociologists and the pop critique élite: no Jon Savage, thankfully, and – definitely a relief – no Simon Frith. The closest we came to pseudism was in the presence of Master Robert Elms, though Paul Morley the People’s Hero saw him off. Swapping half a dozen yelping alternative comedians for a Stuart Cosgrove or a Neil Tennant wouldn’t have hurt either.

Over-theorising programmes such as these ends up exposing little in the way of value concerning the subject but much in the character of the critic. Both I Love the Seventies andThe Eighties didn’t presume to be anything other than advertised; using them as collateral to pursue some holy war of revisionism (cheers Gareth McLean) seemed to miss the point. Earnest post-post-modernist re-re-readings of New Romanticism and the like just helps popular culture slip further into the hands of the few and the isolated dilettantes in their cuckolded towers. If these programmes have done nothing else than expose such a process then to an extent that is enough; the rest of us are all, hopefully, a bit older and wiser.

Sometimes though it became difficult not to end up in Wonder Years territory: where a piece of your own memory becomes so entangled with a retrospective re-telling of some tangential subject that the past ends up a sequence of cultural flashpoints each representing “a moment that I knew my life had changed – utterly!” In fact, those incidents only had resonance at all because you once recorded the theme music to Blockbusters on a portable cassette machine you held up against your parents’ telly.

With both series built around collections of vox pops, the balance between the useful and the pointless became more distracting as the weeks went by, compounded by the undesired helpings of random remarks shouted by jabbering pundits. The sheer number of contributors eventually seemed like an overload, a “throwing everything at the viewer in the hope something sticks” approach. This jamboree of personnel felt like it became more pronounced the later we moved through the series – but was this true, or imagined?

A quick consultation of the OTT Pundit-o-meter reveals some intriguing statistics. A select band of just 29 talking heads featured in I Love 1970; an average of one new pundit every two minutes. Here onwards the number of contributors rose to a peak of 52 in I Love 1975, before dipping again to 36 for I Love 1977 and back to 49 for I Love 1979. Despite this variation it quickly became evident at the time that a core group of people had been quizzed in advance on topics scheduled to appear right through the series. Each I Love the Seventies was also directed by a different person, albeit co-ordinated by series producer Alan Brown; but for I Love the Eighties Brown assumed an executive producer role, leaving Rebecca Papworth as series producer. Whether this made for a confusion over responsibilities or eased the completion of a series comprising episodes half as long again, the 1980s collection didn’t hang together or feel as unified as their forerunners (despite boasting the re-appearance of two 1970s directors, Marina Warsama and Liz Molyneux).

Also, I Love the Seventies featured the same archive producer (Will Bryant) and researcher (Ernest Stoddart) throughout. I Love the Eighties found Bryant present but Stoddart only occasionally involved, sometimes replaced with a variety of figures, sometimes no-one at all. The manner in which some of the 1980s items seemed randomly dropped into the mix, especially those not really tied to any particular year, implied less creative control.

Another glance at the Pundit-o-meter, meanwhile, shows the tally for I Love the Eighties leap up compared to its predecessor. I Love 1980 weighed in with 75 participants, less than one new pundit every 90 seconds. The total fell back slightly to 66 for 1983, but ballooned to a heaving 92 for both I Love 1985 and 1986, 96 for I Love 1987, 93 for 1988 and 90 for 1989 - all meaning roughly a new talking head every 60 seconds. Yikes!

This obsessive number-crunching has a striking relevance when related to the way these programmes were not merely created or developed but how we set about remembering them. Each separate episode was memorable, in the sense that it impressed upon the memory, for a seriously limited period – obviously while it was on air, but then only for maybe a couple of days afterwards. If you did remember aspects of the series in the long term then those recollections inevitably resolved into memories of people talking about the subjects rather than the subjects themselves: Stuart Maconie’s tribute to Gregory’s Girl or Bjorn Borg, Julie Burchill on yoghurts or Just Seventeen, Peter Kay on Rubik’s cubes or No Limits. Often the memory was simply of the pundits themselves: Stuart wincing, Peter singing, Ice T nodding.

In addition, those pundits who formed that core team, the First Eleven of the Vox Pop, invariably wielded more clout and authority than the rest; they’d been there from the start, so even if they turned up for only five seconds one week, those five seconds stuck in the brain far more than the 80 odd other soundbites from the pundit subs stuck on the bench.

In turn, perhaps just one or two longer contributions could have sustained the mood or a momentum, allowed an argument or observation to unfold and consequently stay in the memory a bit longer than 48 hours. But then would keeping to the low turnouts of I Love the Seventies led to maybe more testing, rambling, dreary monologues for the late 1980s? Would a culling of contributors still sustained interest, fitted the mood, or maybe killed the pace?

I Love the Seventies seemed to be party to some long term planning and well-executed over-arching grand plan which its sequel felt in need of. I Love the Eighties boasted features poorly sequenced, either on grounds of duration (too many short items early on, or lengthy ones later, and vice versa) or subject matter, and this was annoying because the topics themselves were usually worthwhile but ended up not getting the treatment you felt they should.

At times there was just so much cultural junk clattering around, the noise could be horrendous. Again, I Love the Seventies just felt more cohesive, whole, a tidy package; I Love the Eightieswas more magpie television, a bit of this, a bit of that, the 90 minute format never really completely mastered. There was always some weak link, a misjudged change of pace, an unexplained reference, a plain annoying pundit, even if you watched in as relaxed and uncritical manner as possible. Still, the programme never assumed or claimed a mission-to-explain status; neither did it bring us the likes of Melvyn Bragg brooding or Mark Lawson pouting, whose types would’ve killed the project stone dead.

So, we’ve watched Wayne Hemingway gradually lose his hair, leafed through the Peter Kay songbook, lobbed abuse at the mere glimpse of Jamie Theakston and revelled in the company of Mr Maconie. We’ve gained our own TV family of trendy fathers, snippy mothers, smartarse older brothers and preachy younger sisters, with a few wise old owls to boot.

Thanks to Channel 4′s sulky scheduling of their Top Tens against I Love the Eighties it’s felt of late like there’s been all too much reprocessed popular culture to go round. Maybe this series could have matured and rested until a post-Easter transmission? I Love the Nineties, due this summer, will nonetheless be just as interesting, exciting and controversial I’m sure; it’s going to be fascinating to see how the now-really-recent past comes out of the Alan Brown critical dishwasher. After all, access to footage won’t be a problem, Theakston might even remember something, and you know that Stuart and Peter will be well up for the Gulf War, Eldorado and The Mike Flowers Pops.

The authors of that 1980s NME special ended their admirable tribute with a keen, telling observation on what they and most people had spent the last few months doing: “The end of the year became one long over-the-shoulder look at the 10 years that had just passed – a repeat performance of Band Aid, featuring Bros, Lisa Stansfield and other such ‘now’ folk, lent the home straight something of a timeless air. Round and round or what?” Andrew, Stuart, you were dead right.


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