THE DESCENT OF WOMAN

taraAlthough the common theory tends to go that the kind of vapid, all-surface-no substance role model directly uploaded to the DNA of the western world’s young women didn’t exist until the age of Instagram and other online mediums, it’s worth recognising each development has its roots somewhere further back in time. In the case of the female evolutionary scale that has led us all the way down to a ghastly Bride of Frankenstein such as Kim Kardashian, we need to rewind a couple of decades and remember that this is a phenomenon that existed before widespread digital democracy created the lemon-sucking Facebook profile picture.

The death of one-time international socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson at the age of 45 from an apparent brain tumour, whilst sad in someone so young, served to remind most (I would imagine) of her existence. If one is old enough, her death could provoke the memory of how it was once impossible to open a paper or switch on the TV without seeing her face. Twenty years ago, she was one of the so-called ‘It Girls’ that kept the paparazzi occupied when their sojourns in Paris tunnels had backfired somewhat. Nocturnal creatures who only came to life at midnight – like Cinderella in reverse – the It Girls were party animals whose sole role seemed to be to live out their lives across tabloid pages, their coked-up hedonism occasionally interrupted via their season-tickets at the Priory before resuming the high life and then eventually being snapped-up by flabby-faced old rockers old enough to be their fathers and turned into breeding machines. And that was the 90s.

Cometh the new century, cometh the new breed; whilst the 90s It Girls largely emanated from wealthy dynasties, their post-millennium successors were of humbler stock, working-class girls made good. Their influence filtered down to the masses in a way Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s posh blueprint never could. Once the 90s party was over, Tara and her contemporaries Tamara Beckwith and the Hervey sisters (Lady Victoria and Lady Isabella) found the only way to maintain a high-profile was to join TV’s burgeoning celebrity circuit, making up the numbers on renowned turd-polishing exercises such as ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, ‘Come Dine with Me’, ‘Celebrity Masterchef’, ‘The Farm’, ‘The Jump’, ‘Love Island’, ‘Dancing on Ice’ et al. Trading on their past notoriety and their chronic lack of evident talent, it seemed an obvious progression.

Their celebrated equivalents in the 60s already had careers before receiving a similar level of attention and labelled as exotic appendages to male movers and shakers – Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy were models, Marianne Faithful was a singer, Jane Asher was an actress – but the 90s It Girls had more in common with their immediate predecessors, the late 80s Wild Children such as Mandy Smith and Amanda de Cadenet. Looks and attitude that chimed with the mores of the moment sealed their success rather than an ability to do anything more challenging than could be achieved by your average shop-girl in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night. Daddy’s credit card simply opened doors that were then out-of-bounds to those whose moment would come with the advent of reality television.

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s shambolic appearance on comedian Frank Skinner’s chat show in 1999, in which she seemed to be on another planet to the host, is one of those TV car-crashes that routinely feature alongside Sam Fox at the Brit Awards or endless Oliver Reed piss-ups on cheap and shoddy ‘100 Greatest/Worst’ compilation shows; but it acted as a reminder of how even rich 24-hour party people have a breaking point. I recall seeing it when it aired and feeling unexpectedly sorry for a young woman whose willingness to play the performing seal for the media would have unpleasant consequences both for her and for the young women to come.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, appallingly exploitative programmes such as ‘Geordie Shore’ were already highlighting the pernicious effect the likes of Katie Price and Jodie Marsh were having on the mindset of young women who would never enjoy the material benefits of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Encouraged by manipulative middle-class television producers to out-gross each other in terms of profanity and promiscuity (puppet-masters who viewed them as a separate species in a manner that echoes the way David Attenborough analyses the animal kingdom), the gullible pawns in the freak show game that reality TV morphed into were the 90s It Girls reborn as council estate slappers.

Once the internet superseded television as the prime medium for youth interaction, the resurrected ethos of everything a young woman has to offer revolving around how she looks had become so entrenched that it gave birth to the synthetic images that continue to clog-up online discourse. Trading on the traditional insecurities teenage girls under a permanent spotlight that judges their merits solely on appearance are afflicted by, the rise of Facebook in particular requires a standard look in which a heavy dose of cosmetics and easily-available photographic trickery manufacture a strange, alien-like impression of the opposite sex that bears little relation to the reality. The emaciated bodies and what a girlfriend of mine refers to as ‘oversized lollipop heads’ have transformed the desired female frame into a unrealisable ideal that even Barbie would regard as impossible to achieve.

WAGs, Paris Hilton, Sheryl Cole, and the hideous Kardashian clan have taken what was once the province of a frivolous elite to which Tara Palmer-Tomkinson belonged and have remodelled it as a regressive role model that elevates appearance over intellect, reversing half-a-century of feminist advancement and returning the aspirations of our sisters, daughters and nieces to that of ensnaring a male partner by exaggerating physical feminine traits to a cartoonish level that any man with a semblance of taste would ironically run a mile from.

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and her ilk were having a good time when they were young because they could afford it and they knew they had nothing else in their armoury; that this good time happened to coincide with a post-Diana craving for Bright Young Things with nothing to say was pure serendipity. They weren’t to know that their excesses receiving out-of-proportion national coverage would lead to the next generation taking their lead as a dispiriting design for life.

© The Editor

CEEFAX ANORAKS

vlcsnap-2016-08-13-15h54m13s246I make no apologies for this post being aimed at a certain age-group demographic. Of course, one cannot but betray one’s birth certificate in writing about contemporary cultural, political or social events; the tendency to reference the past with personal experience gives the game away somewhat, though I’d like to think I’m not strictly preaching to the converted. That said, today I unashamedly focus on the pre-internet age and will hopefully spark recognition in those who worked, rested and played in that age. I am talking technology, albeit the kind of technology that would probably leave The Kids baffled. I’m talking Ceefax.

Yes, we all remember Ceefax. Whether in its incarnation as the alternative test card to fill television downtime in the 80s with the same ‘pages’ on a loop accompanied by soporific saxophones and limp funk, or the analogue equivalent of the super-information highway, Ceefax was the nearest thing we had to the internet for sourcing information at speed before the twenty-first century. By the 1990s, I doubt any TV sets were manufactured that didn’t have Teletext facilities attached. Ceefax was the BBC brand name for their version, though it rapidly became the generic label for the whole system, despite the fact that ITV (and Channel 4) originally called theirs Oracle.

The idea of incorporating on-screen text into the television service was hatched at the BBC in the late 60s, though the limitations of technology at the time proved an obstacle to success. The concept was initially a TV answer to the newspaper ‘stop press’, whereby the latest news headlines could be quickly accessed by the viewer at a point long before 24-hour rolling news channels had been devised. Developments in electronics revived the notion in 1972, in tandem with a wish to provide the deaf with subtitles for popular BBC programmes, and Ceefax officially came into being in September 1974, promoted as a great leap forward by the likes of ‘Tomorrow’s World’, even though special TV sets would be required to receive it. As most of the nation was still getting to grips with the novelty of colour television, TV Teletext took time to catch the public’s imagination and when the IBA launched their own Teletext service not long after, the need to collaborate on an industry standard was eventually achieved in 1976, becoming known as World System Teletext.

As when the BBC Television Service came into being from Alexandra Palace in 1936, the audience for this new innovation was limited to the wealthy and industry insiders. Ceefax expanded slowly as a consequence, but by the turn of the 80s the information – on ‘pages’ – had developed beyond the original news headlines to include weather forecasts, business updates, TV and radio listings, sport, travel, recipes, quizzes, music, film and television reviews etc. Everybody of a certain age probably experienced that great moment of envy when popping round to a mate’s house and being given a guided tour around Ceefax courtesy of the flash new telly his parents had purchased. When BBC2 began to devote endless afternoon hours traditionally reserved for the test card to showcasing Ceefax, the system and its unique design-classic graphics seemed a must-have for every 1980s household. Indeed, I’m surprised Dominic Sandbrook hasn’t honed in on this fact during his current pop culture dissection of ‘Delia’s Decade’.

If for you, like me, watching a programme on a commercial channel was soured by the constant interruption of the ad breaks, Ceefax was a Godsend. The minute the ‘End of Part One’ caption appeared I would immediately reach for the Teletext button on the newfangled remote and see what was happening in the world for the duration of the advertising interlude, able to overlay the info on the picture that was being transmitted or to fill the screen with the full Ceefax experience. Then again, I’d often switch on the set solely to check Ceefax, especially on a Saturday afternoon, when it was the best way to receive updates on football scores. Before the World Wide Web, Ceefax was invaluable in accessing information at the flick of a switch.

On the other side, Oracle’s Channel 4 division (4-Tel) had a memorable music page (originally called ‘Four O’Clock Rock’) that was akin to an online music paper, featuring reviews, interviews and entertaining readers’ comments. I remember I once even had a demo tape reviewed favourably on it. Being able to see what the top 40 singles or albums were merely by pressing a button is such a given now that it’s hard to emphasise how brilliantly innovative Teletext was for this. There was an ongoing children’s serial involving a badger and his animal pals called ‘Barney’s Bunch’ as well as a cult quiz called ‘Bamboozle’, one that often revived the battered brain cells of stoned clubbers returning from raves in the wee small hours of the early 90s. By the middle of that decade, it appeared that every interest under the sun was catered for by Ceefax and its ITV equivalent. Technology couldn’t get more interactive. And then came the internet.

The writing was on the wall for Teletext, and the system was slowly wound down as the 2010s and the nationwide digital switchover approached. Indeed, it was the end of analogue TV as much as growing reliance on the internet that phased out one era of technology in favour of another. The ITV system ended in 2010, whereas Ceefax hung on for another couple of years. Sentimental insomniacs tuned in to the final ‘Pages from’ schedule in the early hours of 22 October 2012 to see the service one last time, and the apt closing tune was ‘Bart’, one that a generation of schoolchildren associated with its use as schools and colleges interval music in the 70s and 80s. It was a fitting farewell.

The news that a bunch of enthusiastic fanatics who probably should get out more (but aren’t doing any harm) have launched a nostalgic homage to Ceefax called Teefax has been compared by its spokesman to ‘restoring steam engines’; and while anyone born after 1999 will no doubt be bemused by the fuss and fascination with this archaic service, it’s always important to remember that every up-to-the-minute innovation has its roots in a predecessor, however primitive it may appear to a modern eye that never gazed upon it with awe in the absence of anything else.

© The Editor

THE NAUGHTY 90s

EvansWhat is going on? Cameron, Hodgson, Farage; and now Evans; yes, it’s true – Chris Evans has followed those other esteemed public figures through the exit door by quitting as host of ‘Top Gear’. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure how I’ll ever get over it. Okay, sarcasm aside, has so much money ever been spent on so few for the entertainment of so many few? The ridiculous hype surrounding the re-launch of what was once the BBC’s most bankable show seemed destined to condemn it to failure; to imagine the factors that had made it so bankable – all three of them – could somehow be replaced in one fell swoop was a rather overambitious aim; but the Beeb had no real option as it desperately sought to prove the series could survive without the three-way dynamic that had turned it from a motoring magazine programme into a slapstick sitcom based around a trio of overgrown schoolboys and their expensive toys.

Recruiting another overgrown schoolboy with a penchant for expensive toys of the four-wheeled variety could be viewed both as an attempt to maintain the established traditions of the show and an effort to reduce the average age of the audience. If Clarkson and May appealed to survivors of the 70s, Chris Evans and Matt le Blanc are very much 90s men, at one time sharing the prime-time Friday night schedule on Channel 4 – with ‘TFI Friday’ and ‘Friends’ respectively. The choice of an untested double act plucked from the laddish zeitgeist of 20 years ago appeared to be a desperate gamble that has evidently crashed and burned.

That zeitgeist would seem to be coming back to haunt Chris Evans in the least desirable way at the moment, with police interest in the legacy of hedonistic years on the piss with Baker and Gazza piqued by stories of the ginger magician’s most unappetising magic trick – that of pulling a snake from his trousers. Back in ‘the day’, as they say, this would have been regarded as a hallmark of his cutting edge credentials; when David Baddiel and Frank Skinner presented ‘Fantasy Football League’ around the same time as ‘TFI Friday’, the former once confessed a photo shoot with the World Cup ended with the latter ‘wiping his knob’ on the trophy. This was the era of ‘Loaded’ and Liam Gallagher, don’t forget; and Evans is man defined by his times as much as Dave Lee Travis is defined by his; that both times are not especially compatible with the mores of the present day isn’t necessarily their fault.

Evans has never gone out of his way to make friends; surrounding himself with stooges paid to respond to his every utterance with side-splitting hysteria, his ego is the stuff of legend, and it is true that he’s a man it is very hard to like. Despite being well aware of the risks, former Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister turned to Evans as the saviour of the station in the middle of the 1990s, a time when the Smashie and Nicey image of Radio 1 DJs had turned a radio station allegedly aimed at a teenage audience into a laughing-stock peppered with has-beens and leftovers from another era, playing MOR Pop for listeners in their early 30s. Evans was signed-up along with several other younger recruits, although the rebranding of Radio 1 was initially a disaster, one that saw listening figures plummet and the man who had been led to believe he was ‘the guv’nor’ quickly making unreasonable demands of a kind Bannister had dreaded.

The love affair between Chris Evans and Radio 1 was short-lived, but as pop culture moved on and TV work dried up in the new century, Evans eventually returned to the national airwaves via Radio 1’s cardigan–clad uncle, Radio 2, as that station underwent one of its own periodical age-shedding exercises. Enough distance between now and the 90s had instilled the requisite nostalgia in forty-somethings to provoke an ill-advised revival of ‘TFI Friday’, putting Evans back on the small screen and persuading a distraught BBC he might be the man to step into the gargantuan shoes vacated by Jeremy Clarkson. If one colossal ego could take what had originally been a programme about as entertaining as ‘Gardeners’ World’ on wheels and transform it into a global money-spinner by making the motors secondary to the comedy routine of the presenters, maybe another colossal ego could maintain the momentum and ease the corporation through the trauma of losing one of its most popular (if divisive) stars.

For all his faults, however, Clarkson is a journalist who had spent years on ‘Top Gear’ in its previous incarnation, injecting some much-needed wit into a straitlaced show by bringing a sardonic eye to the reviewing of cars of all shapes and sizes. However far the series moved away from its original remit when he, May and ‘The Hamster’ rebranded it, Clarkson’s trainspotter-like knowledge of the internal combustion engine at least rooted it in a degree of anal know-how. Chris Evans has no such background to boast of; he was able to continue the adolescent fantasy of speeding around deserted airfields in sports cars because he’s essentially been doing that ever since he made his first million. A celebrity collector of such vehicles, Evans was selected by the Beeb for this reason alone; and it would seem the CV of a motoring dilettante hasn’t been enough to save the show from ratings oblivion.

Announcing his resignation from the programme, Evans has done so in a week when his off-air activities have attracted some unseemly headlines; and it’s hard not to join the dots between the two. The bonfire of the seventies has all-but burnt itself out now, and it was inevitable Inspector Knacker, having acquired an appetite for time-travelling, would turn his attention to more recent decades – if only to avoid the less exciting job of investigating genuine crime in the here and now. The many enemies Evans has made over the years are hardly bound to express much in the way of sympathy for the man; but he’s an easy target to aim at, and those eager to cut him down a peg or two know it.

© The Editor

SARTORIAL EFFLUENCE

SlobIt’s an old saying, but it rings true – clothes maketh the man. I believe they maketh the woman as well. Whether we like it or not, first impressions are often made by the way in which an individual is ‘turned-out’, and sartorial choices can speak volumes as to what kind of individual we are encountering. These first impressions can also stretch to those we don’t even encounter in person.

I was recently watching one of the extras on the DVD of a cult movie, featuring footage from a BFI-type event wherein the director of the film in question attended a special screening of it and answered questions from the audience. I’m sure you’re familiar with the set-up. As per usual, there was a guy with a microphone doing a little interview prior to hands being raised in the auditorium, and as the segment progressed I found myself becoming more irritated by him – not so much the evident absence of interviewing skills that is customary for the amateurs chosen for such a duty, but by the contrast between the dress sense of him and his counterpart on stage. The old director, well into his seventies, was a dapper gent who had clearly made the effort, whereas the interviewer looked like he was attending a gig by a Death Metal band – unshaven, clad in black baggy T-shirt and well-worn jeans. He may as well have travelled to the event straight from the sofa after dozing off with a half-scoffed pizza settled on his beer-gut the night before. No attempt at entering into the spirit of things, just the standard slob chic that now appears to be the default setting for so many men under fifty.

The history books tell us the hippies are to blame, that their emphasis on ‘letting it all hang out’ and dispensing with the straitjacket of the suit has led us to where we are now. This theory tends to overlook the fact that the initial hippies (at least on this side of the pond) morphed out of the Carnaby Street Dandy; photographs from the late 60s prove these were no scruffy hobos. Victorian velvet frock-coats and Regency ruffles were compulsory; only in the early 70s did a more tramp-like variation on the theme appear, most obviously in the likes of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. At the same time, however, mainstream fashion retained its peacock aspects and presented the male of the species with a dazzling dressing-up box that even those too old to have participated in the Swinging 60s (i.e. Jon Pertwee and Peter Wyngarde) took full advantage of.

For me, it stems more from the Rave/Madchester era of the late 80s/early 90s, a deliberately slovenly style that was in part a reaction to the suited and booted Yuppie and the most public pop culture promoters of the look such as Rick Astley. Britpop may have boasted a certain debonair eccentricity via Jarvis Cocker and (on occasion) Damon Albarn, but its core audience members were largely disciples of the Stone Roses ‘jeans, T-shirt and sneakers’ ensemble, an unimaginative uniform that has subsequently become the standard acceptable male wardrobe.

There is also the ‘sportswear’ look, which is equally responsible for the decline in dress. This grew out of football fans following English clubs during their all-conquering European sojourns in the early 80s, picking up Italian designer products en route and developing the ‘casual’ look as a consequence. They always looked like thuggish versions of Val Doonican to me, but this style gradually bled into the mainstream and eventually resulted in clothes originally designed for sports arenas evolving into accepted street gear. The most odious of this to me is the tracksuit bottom, the ultimate slob statement, usually worn by people who are the least athletic types one could ever imagine. Sod banning the burqa; ban the bottoms!

Teenagers, I believe, can be cut a little slack. I myself had a proto-Grunge look in the middle of the 80; photos of Kurt Cobain from the same period – and he was born the same year as me – show I wasn’t alone, despite my parents’ best attempts to convince me I was a one-off freak. Teenage studied scruffiness is nothing more than a traditional reaction geared to get up the noses of mater and pater and they do (or should) grow out of it. Any female adolescent is also contending with the narrow role models she’s bombarded with on a constant loop, all those designer dolls endorsing girlie stereotypes that any woman with anything about her would instinctively rebel against. This, however, is no excuse for the most recent female street style that is simply unforgivable. I’m talking, of course, about wearing bedroom outfits outdoors – dressing gowns and pyjama bottoms. I applaud schools and supermarkets that have barred such monstrosities from their premises. What does it say about someone if they can’t even be bothered changing the sweaty rags they’ve slept in when they venture beyond the doorstep? Unless you’re an old dear stricken with dementia, a slipper is not designed for the pavement.

There has been much talk of the Metrosexual male of late – the well-groomed semi-Dandy who actually takes the time to present himself to the world at his best. Metrosexual males may exist, but they tend to be small in number as well as mocked in that predictable knee-jerk manner so characteristic of the man who regards any aesthetic effort to look good as a sign of effeminacy. I do my bit, usually in financially-deprived circumstances; but not having the ready cash to buy the clothes I’d like means I improvise and have developed my own personal look that requires the kind of preparation before facing the world akin to an actor taking to the stage in full costume. Penury is no excuse for the slovenly. Everyone can look good if they want to. It’s just that society is now telling them they don’t need to.

© The Editor