Friday, 11 January 2013

A 1980s Childhood: From He-Man to Shell Suits: A Review

I've just been reading "A 1980s Childhood: From He-Man to Shell Suits by Michael A Johnson". There are an increasing number of these semi-autobiographical books coming on the market, some good, some bad. This is certainly one of the better ones, and I even saw copies of it on the shelf at St Peter's Garden Centre before Christmas. It makes for a pleasant excursion into the past, and also (as it does if you are my age) jogs a few memories of my own of that decade.

How do you arrange material? Because this is less of a life story, and more of an excursion into 1980s culture, Michael Johnson has wisely decided to arrange the material thematically, because he is telling the story of 1980s popular culture as much as his own story, which takes the form of amusing asides and anecdotes rather than a complete autobiography. It's still fun to hear that, as it brings the 1980s home in a very personal way; after all, most of us experience history that we have lived through in this way, rather than the more detached view of academic historians.

The contents displays this thematic arrangement very clearly:

Introduction, Fashion, Music, TV and Movies, Toys and Games, Technology, Famous People, World Events, Street Life, Skool Daze.

It is amazing how much one forgets of the world of the 1980s, in which Channel 4 was born, initially, as I recall, without any advertising, in 1983. It still had advertising breaks, but with just had a logo for the station, and music! Eventually the new controller, Jeremy Isaacs managed to sort that. Remember the Channel Four logo that split up and came together again?

Breakfast television was also new, with ITV leading the way with Nick Owen and Anne Diamond, and a chap who resembled a walrus doing sports news (what was his name? Mike Morris - sadly he died last year). I rather fancied Anne Diamond, which was my reason for watching it, rather than BBC.

The BBC following up with Frank Bough of Grandstand and Nationwide fame, who sat on a sofa.  For such a staid looking presenter, it came as a shock to learnt that, around 1988, he took cocaine and visited brothels, after which his television career went off the rails permanently. Only Channel 4 brought in a very new style of Breakfast TV - news with a "Mission to Explain", with Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, Michael Parkinson, David Frost and Robert Kee. It sank rapidly, to be replaced by the "Big Breakfast" fronted by Chris Evans and Gaby Logan, whose manic style improved ratings dramatically.

But one other feature of Breakfast TV that was common was the keep fit craze, captured so well by Michael Johnson in his book:

For some reason, the world went aerobics crazy in the mid-1980s with vast  numbers of women (and men) buying Jane Fonda workout videos. In the UK we were treated to daily doses of the Green Goddess, who was clearly made of rubber, stretching and prancing about on BBC1's Breakfast Time almost every day between 1983 and 1987.

If you were a child in the eighties there's a pretty good chance you will remember the shameful sight of your mum standing in front of the telly, probably still in her nightie and without her make-up on, trying in vain to keep up with the Green Goddess as she danced effortlessly around the studio shouting words of encouragement to the viewers at home.

Actually, I watched "Mad Lizzie" and "Mr Motivator" from time to time on ITV, but it didn't really motivate me at all, any more than an earlier effort, Terry Wogan on Radio 2 with "Fight the Flab" did. Wogan was better, invisible, he told viewers to strip naked, jump up and down, and see the wobbly bits wobble, giving the surreal impression that he was doing the same. I'd mention in passing that I never found women in leotards doing keep fit remotely sexy, with the possible exception of Olivia Newton-John, in the rather raunchy pop-video "Get Physical".

And it is here that shell suits came in, although today they really have only one last legacy, the final wearer of such a strange outfit, Jimmy Saville (who apparently made use of the ease with which he could strip off and sexualy abuse children). When this book was written in 2012, it was before the Saville scandal had erupted, and he was still thought of as a noble charity raising, if slightly odd, individual:

Shell suits really hit it off in the mid-1980s and it was around that time that fluorescent materials were at the peak of their popularity. This meant that all manner of garish colours and fluorescent strips were thrown together and it didn't even matter if they clashed; in fact, if they did clash that was all the better! It's an odd fact to get your head around, but the most iconic figure to sport a shell suit in the eighties was probably Jimmy Saville, enjoying a spot in the limelight for a respectable amount of time due to the popularity of Jim'll Fix It. It was very rare to spot Jim without his beloved shell suit and infamous gold chains. In fact, to his dying day he still loved the swishing.

The other fashion motif was power dressing. Shoulder pads became the way for women to show they were stylish and powerful. Margaret Thatcher, of course, wore them as part of her image, easily managing to stand out as dominant among the grey suits of her cabinet. As The Independent noted: "Big shoulders were part of the first female PM's armoury for being taken seriously in a traditionally masculine world. She deepened her voice, she bouffed up her hair for extra height and she piled on the pads." And TV shows had them in abundance:

At the same time that some people were dressed as Madonna and others were dressed as aerobics instructors, another group of people were dressed like characters from Dallas or Dynasty in a new fashion dubbed 'power dressing'. Power dressing was characterised by women wearing shoulder pads in their dresses, showing off their ostentatious jewellery and styling their hair to make it as large as possible without it collapsing under its own weight.

The bigger the shoulder pad, the more money you had, and the eighties was definitely a time for shouting about how much money you had (remember the Harry Enfield character 'Loadsamoney'?). Dresses were available with Velcro shoulder pads that could be removed or replaced with different-sized pads. I wonder whether women carried a range of shoulder pads in their handbag for different social occasions.

The 1990s saw the demise of the shoulder pads; nothing dates quite so much as the fashionable. And the last flowering of the extravagant pop culture which began with Glam Rock, and also saw its inversion with Punk, had the 1980s version:

I can't discuss eighties fashion without mentioning the New Romantic movement, which led to the famous, over-the-top make-up and clothing demonstrated by people like Adam Ant and Boy George.

I had a girlfriend at the time who was a Boy George fan. I remember watching Top of the Pops with her, seeing Culture Club (his group) with Karma Chameleon; I never really did find out what the song was really about, but were songs really "about" anything? Or were they just a verbal form of psychedelia? I quite liked them anyway.

On TV shows, this was the glory days of Jim'll Fix It, The Moomins, Fraggle Rock and Treasure Hunt. The latter was the new Channel 4 program, and I caught the odd glimpse of it; I never really understood the attraction, mostly of cameras tracking onto Anneka Rice's posterior as she ran around:

Treasure Hunt was the TV show that launched jumpsuit-clad Anneka Rice into the public consciousness. The bubbly blonde would fly from location to location in a helicopter, making small talk with the camera while the studio team used maps and reference books to solve cryptic clues that would lead to the location of the treasure. In the studio, presenter Kenneth Kendal and weathergirl Wincey Willis tried to support the guest treasure hunters as best they could and kept the show on track and on time.

I did used to enjoy "The Krypton Factor" from time to time, the ITV's challenge to Mastermind, seeking a much more all round excellence than mere memory. The name, of course, comes from the Superman comics, and is used to indicate Superman's amazing abilities, none of which were actually exhibited or tested by the show, but it was an interestingly varied show, rather than the bog standard quiz show which had the same kind of format for the whole of its duration:

Gordon Burns famously hosted this mental and physical challenge show which involved putting contestants through a series of gruelling logic tests and assault courses.

Other TV shows mentioned by Mr Johnson included Blockbusters, Open All Hours, The A-Team, John Craven's Newsround, the Two Ronnies, The Paul Daniels Magic Show ("straightforward tricks performed by a middle-aged man in a wig, telling bad jokes between illusions"), Lovejoy and Spitting Image:

Much of the show focused on Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the British royal family, with Mrs T portrayed as a bullying macho tyrant who dressed as a man and used the male urinals. John Major's puppet was always dressed in different shades of grey, skin included; Douglas Hurd had a Dalek-style voice with a Mr Whippy haircut; and the Queen Mum was usually shown holding a bottle of gin, a copy of the Racing Post and talking with a Beryl Reid voice.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no mention of Dr Who, although it reached some heights in the early 1980s, it was to see a decline in fortunes and cancelation before the end of the decade.

There's a good section on films of the 1980s such as Back to the Future ,Ghostbusters, Dirty Dancing, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, The Never Ending Story, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Apart from the first and last, most of these were really not memorable, and have largely vanished apart from repeat showings buried in the graveyard of satellite channels.

Of all the toys and gadgets, the 1980s one that I found most frustrating was the Rubik Cube, which Terry Wogan managed to solve in 20 seconds - on BBC Radio 2. Cue sound of click, click, click, and Wogan says "See how easy that was"!  I worked out a simple way to solve it which involved a spoon handle, inserted at the right point, with a little pressure, to break the cube apart. Then it could be reassembled complete in the right order. Other people developed procedures which also led to a solution by turning the squares in a particular order, but as the problem was to find a solution, and there was nothing against using physical methods, I don't see what was wrong with mine.

The Rubik's Cube was irritatingly difficult to solve, wasted huge amounts of precious playtime and encouraged smug smart alecs to watch your feeble attempts and then tell you how they could complete the puzzle in under three minutes.

The original Rubik's cube was invented in 1974 and was called the 'Magic Cube', but it wasn't until the puzzle was licensed to the Ideal Toy Corp in 1980 that it really rose to fame and quickly became the world's top-selling puzzle game.

Other games and gadgets mentioned are View-Master (the cheap early 3D experience), Trivial Pursuit, Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja) Turtles, Top Trumps, and CD players:

Despite its debut on Tomorrow's World in 1981, it wasn't until 1982 that the first CD player was commercially available for well over £1,000 in today's money, and it was some years later still before most people had fully embraced the technology.

And of course, the Sony Walkman changed everything, although I always found the tapes tended to play unevenly if I was walking fast, or over bumpy terrain:

While the CD was changing the way we listened to music at home, the arrival of the personal stereo in 1980 liberated us from sitting in front of our hi-fis and allowed us to listen to all our favourite music on the move wherever we were: at home, on the bus, walking home from school or secretly listening under the covers in bed when we were supposed to be sleeping.

Walkman as it became ubiquitously known, the closest most of us got to al-fresco music was the sound of an ice-cream van driving past. Now we could listen to our music wherever we liked, and not only that, we could listen to whatever we liked and as loud as we liked without our parents shouting at us to 'turn off that terrible racket'.

I remember my dad reading me an article in the Daily Express in the 1980s about how some day we would no longer go into music shops like Our Price and buy cassette tapes with music albums on them. Instead, we would take our Walkman into the shop, plug it into a machine on the wall and 'download' the individual songs we wanted directly onto our own blank cassettes. Well, they got the downloading bit right I suppose, but back then we just couldn't see how anything could surpass the cassette tape.

I bought my first video recorder in 1983 for around £300, having saved up over the course of the year. The difficult decision was to decide which format to go for, and fortunately I went for VHS. It is strange to think that the video cassette in whatever format is now virtually obsolete:

The famous format war between Sony's Betamax system and JVC's VHS system meant that there were two competing video cassette formats for a number of years; Sony fought a brave battle but ultimately conceded defeat in 1988 when they finally gave in and began producing VHS recording equipment.

Sony released the first consumer camcorder in 1983 which allowed people to record video footage that could be played back on their televisions. Prior to the invention of camcorders, the only way most people had been able to record moving pictures was by using old-fashioned and expensive cine cameras, which then had to be played back on a reel-to-reel projector. With a camcorder you could record your family holidays and watch them back on the television.

And that led to Jeremy Beadle starting a show which is still around today, "You've Been Framed", which back in the 1980s seemed fresh and exciting. I used one of the earlier camcorders which I had been given around 1989 to record my first son, Martin. It had an incredibly heavy battery pack which you had to lug around, and which lasted at most for around thirty minutes, but usually for around ten.

Portable phones, the forerunner of the mobile, began to make a mark. I like having one at home, but I do wish there was some easy way of finding it, perhaps a persistent beep if it has been left off its receiver for more than an hour.

Back in 1980 my parents still had one of those telephones with an old-fashioned circular dial on the front that you wound round to dial the numbers, and this was fairly typical of many households at that time. A few 'trendy' people had replaced their old phones with fancy schmancy Trimphones that had a digital warble for a ringer instead of a mechanical bell, and some show-offs had bought expensive answering machines, but that was about as advanced as it got.

Early in the 1980s, though, Sony and a number of other manufacturers began to shake things up when they introduced the very first cordless telephones for the consumer market. Awkward teenagers everywhere could now slope off to their bedrooms, taking the telephone with them, to have their grunted conversations in private rather than next to the telephone within earshot of their parents. What many teenagers didn't realise, however, was that the early analogue cordless phones could easily be listened in to by any radio amateur and their supposedly secret conversations

And then - even making its way into the plot of Coronation Street, was CB radio. I remember Hilda Ogden getting hold of Eddie Yeats CB radio and struggling with the jargon:

For some, the cheapest communication solution wasn't pagers or mobile phones but Citizen Band (CB) radios which cost nothing to use except the licence fee. Although CB radio had been widely used in America since 1945, the British government strangely refused to legalise CB radio on 27MHz until November 1981, after a series of high-profile public demonstrations. CB radio instantly became popular with truckers, farmers and taxi drivers, among others, who used the service for professional purposes; and a huge number of hobbyists took to the airwaves... To the uninitiated, an exchange of dialogue between two breakers (CB users) sounded like gibberish, but truckers in particular understood each other perfectly and knew that eyeballing a spliced seat cover could get them in trouble.

Other gadgets include Fax machines, the BBC Micro, and the Sinclair C5. It is an interest romp though the high-tech world of the 1980s, which also saw, of course, the advent of the first IBM PC, which was to begin a revolution that totally transformed our world.

At work, we had a big chunky DEC PDP-11/03, with a black and white monitor, and central system the size of a filing cabinet, into which you loaded two discs - programs and data, which were about 6 inches high, and as wide as a large seafood platter. Then it would whirr into motion, as it sucked out air before the magnetic heads began to move. The new "Winchester Drive", which was the forerunner of today's hard drives, was only just coming into play.

Famous people of the 1980s which merit a mention in this book include Noel Edmunds, Torvill and Dean, Barbara Woodhouse, Rod Hull and Emu, Margaret Thatcher, Kenny Everett Ronald Reagan, Cannon and Ball. I particular like some of the comments on Barbara Woodhouse and Cannon and Ball (with which I totally agree - they were never funny):

I seem to remember Barbara Woodhouse spending more time training the dog's owners than she did training the dogs themselves, and she always explained that there were no such things as bad dogs, only inexperienced owners.

Cannon and Ball Back in the 1980s, when Cannon and Ball had their own TV show, I remember thinking that they weren't particularly funny, but I was so young then I probably didn't get their jokes. It wasn't until many years later, when I looked back at their shows, that I discovered I was right all along - they're not particularly funny.
There's also a piece on the Great Storm of 1987, the Olympics of 1984 (including a man who landed wearing a jet-pack), and the cars of the 1980s.

Regarding food, the 1980s were the days for Prawn Cocktail, Black Forest Gateaux, and of course, German wine to accompany those:

What would be the perfect drink to accompany this 1980s convenience meal? Why, Blue Nun of course! Blue Nun was famously marketed as the wine that would accompany every meal perfectly, reducing the need for complicated wine pairings between courses and shaving vital seconds off mealtime preparation.

I remember Liebfraumilch, the other wine of sophistication when one went out for meals. Like Blue Nun, it was a sickly sweet concoction, sold only outside of Germany; the Germans being too smart to consume such a disgusting product themselves.

There is much more in this book than I've had time to cover. It brings all kinds of interesting background detail, and is well written in a very engaging style with a good deal of humour. It is available as a paperback or a cheaper kindle version, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wanted to take a trip down memory lane.

It's not the history of the 1980s in terms of the breaking news, the politics, the stuff that you would find in Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain, for example, but it does a very good job of exploring the popular culture of that decade.


Anonymous said...

Hey, don't knock Liebfraumilch, that along with Hock are still my favourite wines diluted with a large dash of soda water!! And as for my shell suits!!!! Thanks for the memories. Carrie

TonyTheProf said...

I didn't realise you could still buy it!But I came across this - the Wine Rambler - he tests them, and here is his verdict:

The trio of "Liebfraumilch", "Piesporter" and "Blue Nun" represent the cheapest German wines available in the export market. They are infamous for giving German wine the image of sweet, headache-inducing plonk. But what do British consumers do? They still buy them. En mass. The power of the cheap side is too strong in these wines. Clearly, all the Wine Rambler's preaching has been in vain. And so one day I found myself in desperation considering a range of unthinkable options, ranging from jumping off a bridge to pouring Liebfraumilch over myself and then setting myself alight in front of Tesco. That will teach 'em!

And the overall winner, ladies and gentleman, the wine I found most, erm, quaffable, is B - the dreaded Liebfraumilch. This came as a surprise to me because not only was it the cheapest of the three, it is also the German wine that had annoyed me most in the past. I was pleased that my gut feeling with regards to C being the Blue Nun was right, but also confused that the most expensive wine irritated me most. While the Piesporter Michelsberg is neither here nor there, Liebfraumilch wins as the least annoying wine.

TonyTheProf said...

A lovely final comment by the Wine Rambler:

To sum up, if you want cheap, go for cheap. And then drink it cold - the light, floral Liebfraumilch may go down so quickly you don't notice it very much. Even so, I did not regret using a spittoon for this tasting - a first for drinking wine at home. Still, surviving the experiment unharmed rekindled my life spirit, and so instead of trying to electrocute myself in a bathtub full of Liebfraumilch I turned to the wine rack and a nice Riesling.

James said...

I think you will find that C4 went on air in November 1982, and I remember that their first - and for some time only - advert was for canned salmon.

TonyTheProf said...

You are quite right James; it shows the dangers of relying on memory when writing!