Saturday, 19 July 2008

Here we go again . . . my, my, how can we resist the lure of the 70s?

From Babycham and Abba to economic crisis and Doctor Who, today’s cultural climate gives our correspondent that eerie feeling of familiarity

Impossible platforms

The decade gave us impossible platforms

Ben Macintyre

I lived though the 1970s once already. Do I really have to go through it all again?

Suddenly, almost overnight, we have slipped back three decades: a plunging economy, a tottering Labour government, flares, Leonard Cohen singing miserably, football teams failing to qualify for international tournaments, Doctor Who. . .

It is like being stuck in some extended version ofLife on Mars. Everyone is humming Abba again and talking about belt-tightening. What next? Angel Delight and fondue sets and shag-pile carpets? Chirpy Chirpy, Cheep Cheep? Mateus bloody Rosé?

Our collective rush back to the 1970s is partly due to the economy, stupid. (A cliché that would not be born for another two decades.) It is easy to exaggerate the economic parallels but impossible to ignore them. In the 1970s, a global boom was brought to a halt by soaring oil prices, amid rising unemployment and swelling inflation. House prices collapsed. Economic growth all but shuddered to a stop. Strikers demanded higher wages.

Times Archive: 10 reasons why the Seventies are back

Strikes, inflation, Abba, maxi-skirts ... the past is coming back to get us

The rubbish is not piling up in the streets as it did in the Winter of Discontent but the whiff of industrial and social unrest is in the air again today.

The political echoes are deafening. Harold Wilson was the preeminent politician of his day, but then stood down to hand over to a former Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, who did not have the same touch. A centre-left coalition began to go pear-shaped. A young Tory opposition flexed its muscles. It is déjà vu all over again.

We even seem to be locked into a new Cold War, engaged in a war of words with Moscow that has slipped, all too easily, into familiar battle lines and rhetoric.

But beyond the economic and political memories of 30 years ago, an extraordinary cultural revival seems to be under way. It is not quite nostalgia, for that implies a cosy revelling in shared memory, but something rather grimmer: an acceptance that the austerity, bad temper and poor fashion choices epitomised by the 1970s are somehow natural partners. When the going gets tough, it seems, the Brits buy bell-bottoms and dig out the old David Essex LPs.

The 1970s are the decade everyone loves to hate, a dismal and beige decade, the Austin Allegro decade, a bad hair day that lasted ten long years. Yet it is all coming back, as if through some cruel time warp.

Thank you for the music, for giving it to me, again. The film of Mamma Mia!has shot to the top of the UK box office, taking £5.2 million in its first week and, impossibly, making four ageing Swedish pop stars cool again. Demis Roussos, 62 years young, is touring once more. It is no accident that Life on Mars, the cop series set in the 1970s, was cult viewing. Here is Bruce Forsyth at 80, posing with Miss Puerto Rico: age will wither her, eventually, but not him. The Generation Game is part of the regeneration game. Turn on the TV at random and you will, more likely than not, end up withPorridge or Fawlty Towers. Here are Basil Brush and Doctor Who as perfectly preserved as, well, Helen Mirren.

The fashion crimes of the 1970s have, it seems, been forgiven, or forgotten. Unbelievably, the maxi-dress and flared trousers are making a come-back. Last week I spotted someone in Bond Street wearing a tie-dyed poncho, without matching irony. In February there was the relaunch of Halston, the iconic 1970s label, at New York Fashion Week. And no one even sniggered.

Babycham, the sparkling pear cider, reached its heyday in the 1970s. The Jam sang about it in Saturday’s Kids in 1979. In Blackpool, famously, it was mixed with brandy to create a cocktail known as a “legover”. But by the 1980s it had become impossibly, undrinkably naff. Now perry is back in vogue. Ed Balls has admitted being partial to a Babycham. The Duchess of Cornwall is said to drink perry. Pete Doherty named his band Babyshambles.

Even sport, usually unforgiving to past heroes, seems to be undergoing some strange time-glitch. On the leader board at the Open Championship you find Greg Norman, the great white shark that no one can kill off, who won his first PGA Tour of Australia in 1978. His new wife is Chris Evert, world No 1 female tennis player for most of the late 1970s.

Superstars was the ultimate 1970s television sporting challenge (with the possible exception of It’s a Knockout). Brian Jacks, the Olympic judo champion, always seemed to win. The sight of the flat-footed racing driver James Hunt panting down the running track was one of those TV spectacles that brought an entire nation together.

Hunt died in 1993. Jacks, who put his success down to massive consumption of oranges, founded a bouncy castle hire company. But Superstars has miraculously found a second wind. The programme has returned on Five, for eight one-hour shows, with Kelly Holmes, Steve Redgrave, Roger Black and Mike Catt as team captains.

In literature, bright young things such as Hanif Kureishi and Louis de Bernières are now bright middle-aged things, looking back on the 1970s, not in anger or disdain, but with an inquisitive eye.

P erhaps one reason why we cling so naturally to the 1970s is that this was the decade when pop culture became truly popular. The 1960s were divisive; the 1980s diffuse. But in the 1970s popular culture was shared in an unprecedented way. Everyone watched The Magic Roundabout and Mastermind. Abba were simply inescapable. Many of us gained our first understanding of industrial relations from John Craven’s Newsround.

The 1970s marked the worst decade of Western and American economic performance since the Great Depression. By 1980 the so-called misery index, calculated by combining the unemployment rate and the inflation rate, had reached an all-time high.

We have not sunk to that level of economic gloom. Oil prices have doubled in the past year and are higher in real terms than 30 years ago. But the world is not in recession, yet. Inflation is unlikely to reach 27 per cent, as it did in 1975. Stagflation has not yet returned, although the word, and the fear, most certainly have. But if the economic news is mostly bad, the cultural forecast may not be so terrible after all. The 1970s gave us some indescribably bad music. Grandad, the wincingly saccharine ballad by Clive Dunn, spent three weeks at No 1 in 1971. That alone should be a source of enduring national shame.

But the decade also produced some great cultural achievements: David Hockney, Sydney Opera House, David Bowie,Taxi Driver, Roxy Music, Monty Python and much more. In the end, the 1970s created punk, a sound, a look and an idea in which Britain is still world leader. The Chopper was a fine bicycle. I even quite liked Black Forest gâteau.

The writer Tom Wolfe called the 1970s “The Me Decade”, but it was also, in some way, The We Decade, a time when a new sense of human community took root. Many of the social revolutions begun in the 1960s achieved reality in the 1970s, most notably in the areas of sexual equality, racial equality and gay rights. It was an intensely serious but also a joyful decade, fruitful, and very odd.

There is some evidence to suggest that we are at our most creative when times are hard. The successive crises of the 1970s, over natural resources, strikes, terrorism, nationalism, came accompanied by a raucous gaiety: this was the era of glitter and glam rock.

In his novelThe Rotters’ Club, Jonathan Coe looks back on the 1970s and describes “the ungodly strangeness of it, the weird things that were happening all the time”. So as the economy falters, the Government wobbles, the strikers gear up, and Britain joins in a rousing chorus of Abba’s S.O.S. before settling down to Doctor Who, we can reflect that we have seen, and heard, and worn it all before. Crisis? What crisis?

But there are limits. If the Bay City Rollers reunite then we are in serious trouble.

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