HE’S BACK!!! Dominic Sandbrook presents the BBC2 series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, part of a season of programmes examining what the Beeb calls the “superpower stand-off” that began after World War II. “Red Dawn”, the first instalment in this three-part series, was packed with more incident, big personalities and creeping paranoia than your average 13-part blockbuster drama. There was no way this story could be anything less than enthralling. So why then did I find myself fixating on the shortcomings of the production and its presenter?
I had watched Dominic’s earlier series The 70s, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that he’s still busy overemphasising for Britain. His hammy delivery is the TV equivalent of peppering your sentences with italics and capitals and then ending them with a screamer (that’s an exclamation mark!). After a sobering reminder that Britain has been at war for “five of the last eight decades”, Dominic announced “It was a war that FRAMED all our lives!”. Just in case you didn’t get the point, there was the accompanying frame-shaped hand gesture to ram home his point.
You should also know that Dominic’s documentaries are best watched with a mobile device close by, so that you can Shazam the multitude of musical selections and add them to your playlist. Beginning with the silky smooth tones of Julie London singing “Our Day Will Come”, Strange Days kept throwing new tunes into the mix at the rate of about one every two minutes. Presumably, the programme-makers think that viewers have such a short attention span these days that all factual TV must be edited in the style of a YouTube greatest hits packages. That is sad.
From Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri about the growing threat of the Iron Curtain (“Don’t Fence Me In”), to the Soviet invasion of Hungary a decade later, Strange Days wove together a multitude of storylines. Dowdy postwar Britain was both in thrall to the “special relationship” with glamorous America and living in fear of what Churchill dubbed “the poison peril from the East”.
Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Hewlett Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s.
Then, as now, the British press were quick to turn on foreign visitors who abused the hospitality of our great nation. In November 1945, a tour by the all-conquering Moscow Dynamo football club began with cheers, flowers and record crowds turning up to watch the nimble Russian visitors play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But before long the newspapers rounded on these “secretive, surly and suspicious” Soviets, whose rough-house antics on the field were as troubling as their connections to the secret police. The visitors responded by accusing the home teams of being “stuck in the past” tactically. Well some things never change.
While the names of Cambridge spies like Burgess and Maclean are written in infamy, I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with another of the Soviet Union’s biggest fans, Hewlett Johnson. Nicknamed the Red Dean of Canterbury, the white-haired Johnson looked like one of those dotty vicar characters you see in Ealing comedies. Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s. He was convinced that the tyrannical Stalin was a benign figure, whose policies promised both economic and spiritual salvation. Johnson’s unwavering support was rewarded with the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1951 and perhaps a one-way ticket to Purgatory.
As a red-nosed Dominic Sandbrook stomps across a snowy Red Square, contemplating the unholy alliance between Johnson and Stalin, “Mad about the Boy” plays on the soundtrack. But to borrow a phrase from another Noel Coward song, I think “Mad dogs and Englishmen” would be a better description of this “strange romance between the Soviet tyrant and the Anglican priest”.
The Schadenfreude factor is a lot more fun than The X Factor – and it’s a Simon Cowell-free zone.
“The 70s are remembered as a golden age of pop music”, announced presenter Dominic Sandbrook in the final part of his BBC Two series, The 70s. But it was the immaculately coiffed figure of Margaret Thatcher and not the tonsorially challenging Phil Lynott who loomed largest over the final instalment, cunningly entitled “The Winner Takes It All 77-79″. This whistle-stop tour of our “offshore industrial slum” took in everything from utopian architecture, to Scotland’s 1978 World Cup debacle and the Winter of Discontent. There was also a lot of music.
Yes, please note my use of italics in the previous sentence, just in case you didn’t get the point. This tendency to over-emphasise certain words was an aspect of Dominic’s presenting style that became more irritating as the series (and the decade) wore on. My fellow blogger, Older than Elvis, has already voiced severe misgivings about this show’s dumbed-down and politically biased slant on recent history, which has provoked the usual mindless outpourings from the Twittersphere. I started out with a few reservations and by the end I had to agree with her conclusion that this series has been little more than “I love the 70s with a vaguely intellectual gloss”.
But The 70s hasn’t been all bad news. Last night’s references to widespread industrial action, 26 per cent interest rates and an 83 per cent top rate of tax are — to paraphrase Ian Dury — just three very good reasons to be cheerful about living in 2012. (It turns out that the Schadenfreude factor is a lot more fun than The X Factor and it’s a Simon Cowell-free zone.)
But it was the heavy-handed and over-literal use of music in this series that really made me smile. I was laughing out loud by the end of last night’s episode, and that’s not something I can say about BBC2 Two’s lame-duck Transatlantic sitcom, Episodes, which has returned for an undeserved and unnecessary second series.
There’s been so much music in The 70s, that you wonder why anyone bothered to schedule a further half hour of hits in Sounds of the 70s, the show that follows it. From episode one, Sandbrook’s thesis about the underlying malaise of the decade has been underscored at every point by some blindingly obvious selections from pop’s back catalogue.
Last night, as cuddly Dominic lamented the high-rise follies that blighted our inner cities you could hear the sound of Nick Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” playing in the background. Archive footage of Frank Bough at Nottingham’s notorious Hyson Green flats was scored to Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”. Best of all, Terry Jacks’s maudlin 1974 hit “Seasons in the Sun” brought a tear to the eye as those unloved tower blocks finally got on the “wrong side of wrecking ball”.
The Jacks sob-fest aside, some of the music in this series has been great. Last night The Specials got a look in as Dominic explained the links between music and multiculturalism in our melting pot nation. A burst of Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory” made episode two’s section on Anne and Mark’s wedding almost watchable and sent me rushing to find my Buckley compilation CD.
But the songs weren’t supposed to be the main event in The 70s. You may have disagreed with Sandbrook’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of trade unions and the failure — apart from brief archive clips — to offer any alternative political viewpoint. But shouldn’t his argument have been allowed some breathing space? It’s very hard to focus on the content when someone keeps changing the record every three minutes.
The 70s was a big let-down and perhaps contributed to my decision not to attend a school reunion last weekend. I left North London Collegiate School in 1982 with three A Levels but not much in the way of self-confidence. Unwilling to commit to a mountain of reading and essay-writing I made a bad decision to give up studying history after just two weeks and took A Level Spanish instead. It probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time — like Britain voting in a Thatcher-led government on 3 May 1979.
My diary records that I, too, voted Conservative in our special school “poll” that day. If anyone can think of a suitable tune to illustrate my folly, please let me know!
Recently I wrote that the BBC appears to be run by a bunch of 70s obsessives with dubious taste in music. Little did I suspect that BBC2 was about to join the party and — in the words of TV Choice magazine — whisk us back to the “decade of strikes, spacehoppers and Star Wars.”
Historian Dominic Sandbrook’s new series, The 70s, starts on BBC2 on Monday, and I for one will be tuning in to hear his take on what I call The Brown Decade. Perhaps I’m guilty of the kind of muddled thinking that afflicts BBC programme-makers, but my memories of that decade will forever be swathed in brown dralon, baggy oatmeal jumpers and mustard-coloured wallpaper.
It’s not simply that I’ve wasted too many hours watching repeats of The Good Life — surely one of the brownest sitcoms ever to grace our screens. Between 1975-82 I was a pupil at North London Collegiate School, located in Edgware, a drab north London suburb. Our school uniform, which was compulsory up until the Sixth Form, was mainly brown and came from a shop called Pullens in nearby Stanmore. I think it’s fair to say that those annual trips to Pullens with my Mum were only marginally less painful than visits to my (inconveniently located) orthodontist in south London.
The NLCS garb wasn’t the ugliest or worst-designed school uniform I’ve ever seen, but it has left me with mixed feelings about the merits of brown clothing. Does anyone really look good in it? Novak Djokovic sported a ghastly brown Tacchini ensemble in 2011, which did nothing to offset the effect of his “loo-brush” hairstyle. (I guess that’s what people mean by “winning ugly”.) I do own some brown cord trousers, but if you ever see me teaming them with a matching jumper, it probably signals the onset of a serious depression or a catastrophic lapse in taste.
It wasn’t all bad: we NLCS girls may have been desperate to get into stripes, polka dots or flaming red, but at least we all had one genuine cool accessory in the shape of the NLCS sling purse. It was brown, with gold lettering (see above) and was handy for storing wads of tissues, “emergency” money, keys and sweets. This design classic is still available from the John Lewis website, price £9.00. Sadly, these days it comes in 100 per cent “sponge clean” polyester and features the school logo — a rather naff-looking ship.
It will be hard to sell the 70s as a period of technological innovation to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade in a Tibetan monastery.
The zip on my own recently unearthed NLCS sling purse is stuck, which rules it out of contention as my next iPhone case. (It is the perfect size, though.) When I posted a picture of it on Facebook yesterday, several former classmates from the class of ’82 were moved to share their memories of school days in the low-tech 70s.
In today’s Telegraph, Dominic Sandbrook explains that his new show will re-evaluate the 70s as a period that was “much more exciting” than we remember. He reminds us that consumers were “rushing to get their first colour televisions” so that they could watch horsey Princess Anne marry dim bulb Captain Mark Phillips in 1973. But it will be hard to sell the 70s as a period of technological innovation to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade in a Tibetan monastery.
I also question Sandbrook’s reference to our ongoing “love affair with credit”, given that we’re now living in a (nearly) Bankrupt Britain, still afflicted by toxic levels of personal and national debt. Sorry, but I don’t think I’m ready to get teary-eyed over the thought of wallets stuffed with Access, Visa and Diner’s Club cards.
So when I watch The 70s on Monday I’ll probably resist being crushed under the wheels of the BBC nostalgia train. Instead, I’ll clutch my NLCS purse and think of my former classmates, now scattered far and wide but brought together again through the auspices of Facebook.