I Love 1985

Saturday, February 24, 2001 by

1985 – the year my voice broke. Well, not quite, but definitely the year I started to feel the first pangs of pre-pubescent lust, indulging in clandestine kisses with Louise Meadows under the oak tree in the village cricket green.

For me, 1985 was the year where playground politics began to transform into teenage tribalism and I sat struggling to reconcile these new-found feelings whilst pouring over my Panini sticker album collection and voraciously reading DC Comics and Choose Your Own Adventure books. It was also the year when the schoolchildren of my Buckinghamshire village took to the streets to Save Our School – the local secondary school, St. Tippings, from demolition as the ghastly fate of commuting to High Wycombe Grammar beckoned. It seemed a time to campaign for causes and for standing up to be counted, but more of that later.

I Love 1985 sees our Saturday evening nostalgia fest following its linear course, lending a sense of structure and cohesiveness to what would otherwise be unfocused stream of consciousness reminiscence, and it is indeed becoming possible to chart developing trends and stylistic preoccupations as the years have gone by. Whereas I Love 1984‘s piece on the rise and rise of Madonna Ciccione hinted at the growing emergence of “the marketing of the self”, initially I Love 1985 takes this to its logical extreme, seeming to be a roll call of emblems of ’80s chic and popularity, from Schwarzenegger to Springsteen. The section on the Artist Formerly Known As Prince ultimately did little to “unravel the puzzle” (as Mica Paris put it) of one of the most idiosyncratic figures in recent pop history, yet the segment on the evening’s hostess (a blend of archive footage and insights from the lady herself) established the maverick persona of Grace Jones with masterly economy. The combination of the air of sexual ambivalence and underlying menace and the exuberance of Grace’s vocals to some extent even overshadowed the songs themselves, though Slave to the Rhythm still sounds great. And as clips of her performances as a Zulu warrior woman in Conan the Destroyer and as murderous malcontent May Day in A View to a Kill (which despite a decrepit Roger Moore, was one of the better ’80s Bond films, but I digress) showed, it is better to remember Grace as an icon, not an actress.

The vision of Conan took us straight into the following section charting the humble beginnings of an iron-pumping Austrian and his ascendance to the status of cinematic icon. One can see now that despite the series’ reluctance to give such smash hits as Raiders of the Lost Ark andGhostbusters the nostalgia treatment, there is possibly some method present in this apparent madness. One of the most worthwhile aspects of I Love the Eighties has been its (unintentional?) documentation of the decline of the narrative-based Hollywood film (Greg Proops’ excellent dissection of Flashdance has been commented on elsewhere) where cohesive plotting and rounded characterisation was steadily displaced by a sequence of set pieces and an obsession with form over content. The action movie, as exemplified by the likes of Terminator and Commando, prioritised visceral thrills and capitalised on the photogenic potential of high-tech lethality, making Arnie the acceptable face of adolescent rabid kill-frenzy hardware and signalling the unfortunate descent of mainstream cinema into blockbuster infantilism. The popularity of Schwarzenegger (and Stallone) owed much to a period in cinema that embraced the hawkish, anti-Communist rhetoric of Reagan with a spate of aggressively nationalistic movies. A trend which reached its nadir with films such as Red Dawn, a queasy fusion of Cold War thriller and Brat Pack aesthetics as the Russian invasion of America is thwarted by a plucky band of teenage guerrillas and perhaps more controversially, Aliens, where the ruthless, single-minded predator of the original film is part of a race of gormless gooks to be systemically picked off by a bunch of wisecracking, reactionary bigots who contemplate nuking the entire planet from orbit: “It’s the only way to be sure.” Fortunately, features on Paul Hardcastle’s Nineteen and the Boss’ much-misinterpreted anthem Born in the USA were on hand to demonstrate that individuals were aware of this unsound ideology, and actively worked to critique this gung-ho mentality (“Spotty yoofs … oxycute ‘em!”)

Whilst I Love 1985 admirably evoked a time when the effects of globalisation were really starting, rightly or wrongly, to bite at British culture, it was gratifying to see the programme deviate from its mainly American-centric content and tackle some genuine British cultural artefacts. Like Miami ViceSpitting Image was a programme I was not allowed to watch in its early years but I did so nonetheless. Viewed again nearly 16 years later, its propensity for political point-scoring now seems somewhat forcibly directed and more than a little naïve – if anything, the quietly savage depiction of the Windsor family as gambling, bone idle, common as muck ineffectual buffoons was rather more controversial and much funnier. Peter Kay made the excellent point that many viewers in fact cared little for the show’s politicised, polemical bite – a fact duly highlighted when the awesome Chicken Song, a satirical swipe at Black Lace, reached number one in the charts. It is intriguing to note that whereas the various examples of American film (FameFirst Blood) covered by I Love the Eighties have all adopted an overtly celebratory stance towards various aspects of its respective culture, the British film featured in I Love 1985 is, in stark contrast, a much more reactive, introspective work. My Beautiful Launderette is a wonderful movie, concise, cutting and compassionate in all the right places. Not content with taking the audience into the heart of London’s Asian community, the film takes in racism, the market economy and a gay love story. The launderette of the title becomes the symbol of the two lovers’ relationship and of their vulnerability when it is trashed by thugs, whilst the Asian businessmen of the film eagerly play Thatcher’s acquisitive, entrepreneurial game and are bewildered and angered by the prejudice still meted out towards them. East is East may be good for a few laughs, but it pales beside its brave and brilliant prototype.

So do you remember where you were on the 13 July 1985? I remember the thronging masses at Wembley Stadium – but I wasn’t there. It was late in 1984 that I first recall being struck by haunting images of emaciated Africans on my television screen as I glanced down guiltily at my toasted sandwich and the footage brings a lump to the throat even now. Months later, as the whole street tuned in for Live Aid, someone had the bright idea of organising a barbecue. An eminently impressive vignette, the section on Live Aid endearingly focused on the improvised feeling of the whole venture, the chaotic ineptitude of the broadcast links only adding to the exuberance of it all. When Katie Puckrik commented “When I was watching Live Aid, I felt like I was watching history in the making,” it was no hollow hyperbole. This was epic, epochal stuff – for the possibly the first time since 1981′s section on nuclear paranoia, I Love the Eighties had tackled something of genuine import and pulled it off with some considerable aplomb.

After a slightly wobbly variance in quality that has characterised the previous few programmes, the series may still be being edited just hours prior to transmission, yet I Love 1985 provides some reassurance that the producers are in charge of their material. In fact, the programme is easily the best instalment in the series since I Love 1981 (Adam Ant doesn’t possess half of Grace Jones’ dynamism and presence, so ’85 has the edge here – although not having Max Headroom as its presenter seemed a huge missed opportunity). As has been pointed out by other reviewers, the primary function of I Love the Eighties is to be evocative, not genuinely reflective or definitive.

And I Love 1985, more than any other edition in the series brought it all back to me – a fusion of fantasy and reality, where the flamboyant decadence of Prince contrasted with the horrors taking place in Ethiopia, where high concept pretensions mingled almost seamlessly with the down-to-earth basics of everyday life – MacDonalds, the megabucks corporation out to take over the world finally colonising our high street, men endeavouring to emulate Crockett and Tubbs’ tragic dress sense and pop stars uniting to save the world.

It was also the year that my father announced that we would have to relocate to Cheshire or he would be out of a job so I left behind my friends, my village and the lovely Louise – getting on the bus to High Wycombe wasn’t going to be a worry after all (but the SOS campaign failed and St. Tippings was demolished shortly after I moved away). In many ways, 1985 was the end of an era, the end of that authentic ’80s experience I recall with genuine fondness – the raised stakes, the heinous yuppie philosophy, the anodyne artificiality and close-minded false cheeriness of Neighbours and Stock, Aitken and Waterman was just around the corner. It wasn’t the end of my childhood of course, however 1986 would tell a completely different story. But perhaps that’s best left for someone else to tell…


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