June 1, 2009

WHY CAN'T WE HAVE GENE HUNT, THE CLASH, AND GROWTH?

LIFE ON MARS: a review of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies By Andy Beckett (Francis Wheen, May 2009, Literary Review)

Want it or not, that seems to be where we're heading - back to recession and unemployment, terrorism and environmental apocalypse. Cinemas offer The Baader Meinhof Complex, Milk, Frost/Nixon and singalong screenings of Mamma Mia! The BBC is making a new series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Gordon Brown has entered into the retro spirit by nationalising banks and printing money. Can power cuts, loon pants and Watneys Red Barrel be far behind? As George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, said at the time of the Northern Rock crisis: 'Brown's Britain is like an episode of Life on Mars.'

Each episode of Life on Mars began with a voice-over from the time-travelling cop Sam Tyler: 'I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet.' But the most striking thing about this rough-hewn planet, which George Osborne apparently missed, was how attractive it seemed to much of the audience. Given a choice between the harsh reality of 1973 and virtual reality today, most viewers and critics sided with Tyler's neanderthal sparring partner, DCI Gene Hunt, and his kipper-tied colleagues. Oh man, look at those cavemen go...

Perhaps the Seventies weren't so bad after all? Beckett isn't the first revisionist popular historian to make this case. The subtitle of Howard Sounes's Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade (Simon & Schuster, 2006) speaks for itself: the book was a breathless celebration of the decade's greatest songs, sitcoms and films. Very enjoyable it was, too. As long as you keep the spotlight on David Bowie and The Clash, Reginald Perrin and Basil Fawlty, while leaving much of the backdrop in shadow, you can almost persuade readers to murmur 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive'.

But hang on a moment. Bowie's cocaine-fuelled Nietzschean ramblings in 1976 prompted the formation of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. ('As I see it, I am the only alternative for the premier in England,' he drawled. 'I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader.' Suddenly that line in one of his songs about making way for a homo superior acquired a creepy new resonance.) Two years later I watched The Clash performing at a huge Rock Against Racism carnival in east London, and urging British youths not to heed Bowie's siren call: the band's angry fervour, like their name, was a direct reaction to the godawfulness of Britain in the 1970s. Even The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Fawlty Towers, two of the most perfectly conceived and enduringly hilarious TV comedies, are hardly innocent fun. Most of the laughs come from watching a man, driven beyond exasperation, who teeters constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2009 6:48 AM
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