NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI5, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

© The Editor

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SONIC POLAROIDS

Japan 2Whenever I put a CD compilation together, they tend to be themed affairs, and today I stumbled upon an old one I figured might provide a defiantly untopical diversion; it intrigued me because I realised its title, ‘Early ‘82’, meant its nineteen snapshots of a moment in time were the soundtrack to exactly 40 years ago (yes, 40 f***ing years ago), when the nation was in the deep-freeze of a notoriously severe winter. The opening track is one whose title I recently modified for a post, ‘Party Fears Two’ by The Associates. Not the first act on this compilation whose initial credentials were unquestionably left-field, Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine had emerged from the DIY Indie scene spawned by post-punk and highlighted how grafting earworm melodies onto all kinds of strange dissonant sounds could result in the easy infiltration of a singles chart receptive to an ‘anything goes’ approach, turning the least likely contenders into bona fide pop stars. The band’s biggest hit (#9) remains a uniquely addictive experience, dominated by Mackenzie’s soaring, beyond-Bowie vocals and Rankine’s irresistible keyboard hook that separates the verses. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear it my imagination always summons some obscure 60s movie featuring the jet-set on an Alpine ski slope.

Tracks two and three come from two survivors of 1977’s contentious bridge between Punk and New Wave, ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers (#2) and The Jam’s third chart-topper, ‘Town Called Malice’. Both in possession of a flexibility that enabled them to prosper in a pop landscape in a constant state of change, the two acts first hit the charts within months of each other five years before and underlined their shared strength-in-depth by scaling even greater commercial heights in 1982. The Stranglers’ cleverly-disguised ode to heroin was soaked in the seductive textures of the harpsichord whereas The Jam’s celebration of lost working-class lives was a tribute to old-school Motown and pointed the way to Paul Weller’s absorption in Soul that came with The Style Council. Track four is the biggest hit (#10) for a band who’d appeared in the shadow of Punk/New Wave and had carved an idiosyncratic career by ploughing their own stubborn furrow, XTC. ‘Senses Working Overtime’ has a catchy, barnstorming chorus but its verses are undoubtedly rooted in a pastoral English tradition emphasised by the crack-of-dawn crows cackling at the song’s conclusion.

Next up is one of the most Ray Davies-like social documents in the Madness canon, ‘Cardiac Arrest’; this ditty of a City worker suffering a heart attack during a commute to the office was accompanied by one of the band’s pioneering promo videos and, like many of their hits, is hard to hear without seeing the visuals they provided. Curiously, its subject matter hit a nerve at Radio 1; a top DJ’s father had recently died of a cardiac arrest and the song was temporarily left off a playlist that the Madness hit CV ordinarily entitled them to an instant place on. The brief ‘ban’ affected sales and broke the band’s run of top tenners, only peaking at #14. By 1982, Madness had long since shed their associations with the 2 Tone movement of 1979/’80, as had most who’d been pivotal to it, none more so than The Specials, splitting in the wake of the seminal summer ’81 anthem, ‘Ghost Town’. The Fun Boy Three were the most successful Specials spin-off, and with their take on the old Jazz standard, ‘It Ain’t What You Do’ (#4), they introduced Bananarama to the world. Fresh from their brush with Malcolm McLaren, the all-girl trio still had a delightfully shambolic Slits vibe to them at this stage, yet to morph into ‘proper’ pop stars.

Although Bananarama had wisely avoided committing themselves to the curly Svengali’s latest scheme for world domination, McLaren’s influence is evident in the seventh track, ‘Go Wild in the Country’ by Bow Wow Wow, on account of him writing the raucous song’s lyrics. He’d assembled the backing band for teenage singer Annabella Lwin by nicking the original line-up of Adam and the Ants, sans Adam. It was probably a blessing in disguise for Adam, however; the loss of his Ants to Bow Wow Wow forced him to forge a new and far more successful sound, though track eight is one of his earlier obscurities, ‘Deutscher Girls’; lifted from the soundtrack of the 1978 Derek Jarman movie, ‘Jubilee’, the #13 chart placing for a four-year-old record that bore little resemblance to Adam’s current oeuvre showed how great the appetite for any Ant output remained in 1982. Next up is ‘I Could Be Happy’ by Altered Images; another example of a left-field act with a highly individual take on mainstream pop, this #7 follow-up to ‘Happy Birthday’ expands the joyously infantile sentiments of that unexpected smash as Clare Grogan reels off a list of charmingly naive things she’d like to do given half the chance. As with the Bananarama of this period, Altered Images still sound fresh because their rough edges haven’t been ironed out in the way they would be today.

A far slicker offering comes via the light college-boy funk of Haircut 100 and their biggest hit (#3), ‘Love Plus One’; yet even then, Nick Heyward’s men were not manufactured in a boy band lab by a jaded middle-aged cynic, and it shows. There was a knowing archness to even the most seemingly ‘safe’ early 80s chart regulars, a factor present in the romantically grandiose hits of ABC. The Sheffield band enjoyed the first in a trio of top tenners lifted from their landmark ‘Lexicon of Love’ album in 1982, ‘Poison Arrow’ (#6), though this was a song boasting a far sharper edge than anything Haircut 100 could manage. There’s a brief concession to the early 80s US hits that crossed the Atlantic courtesy of Jonathan King’s fortnightly profile of the Billboard Hot 100 on ‘Top of the Pops’ with track twelve, ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ by Hall and Oates. However, the presence of synthesizers and a drum machine on the song give it a contemporary 1982 feel, even though the next track sounds even more 1982, belying the fact it was originally released in 1978.

Godfathers of ‘Synth Pop’ (amongst many other claims to fame), Kraftwerk scored the sole #1 hit of their lengthy career with a timely reissue of ‘The Model’, and the remaining half-dozen tracks on the CD reflect the increasing popularity of synth-based sounds in 1982. ‘Damned Don’t Cry’ (#11) sees Steve Strange’s Visage doing Berlin Bowie; ‘See You’ (#6) finds Depeche Mode struggling to shake off the upbeat poppiness of their Vince Clarke period, though the chilly backing has an underlying uneasiness to it that suggests a darker direction to come; ‘Maid of Orleans’ (#4) by OMD opens with a jarring burst of avant-garde electronica before eventually settling into a more accessible sing-along. As with the exhumation of Adam Ant’s back catalogue, the huge success of The Human League is shown with the band’s former record company re-releasing their first single, 1978’s ‘Being Boiled’; characteristic of the original line-up’s bleaker tendencies, it has little in common with the classy Synth Pop of ‘Dare’, but nevertheless peaked as high as #6.

One final example of how the unconventional and experimental could produce a top ten hit in 1982 comes with the penultimate track, ‘Ghosts’ by Japan. Remarkably, this eerie and unnerving electronic ballad was the band’s biggest hit (#5) and still sounds unlike anything before or since, let alone anything to make the top five. David Sylvian and his similarly exotic sidemen scored endless hits that year, mainly thanks to a string of re-releases from an ex-label competing with their current output. The CD concludes with Soft Cell’s melodramatic albeit undeniably effective ballad, ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ (#3), a song that demonstrates just how well the self-made pop stars of the early 80s simultaneously wore their hearts on the sleeves and their tongues in their cheeks. At the time, they were often accused of prioritising style over substance, yet my ears hear an awful lot of substance in these brilliantly-crafted mini-masterpieces by young men and women motivated by more than merely a desire to be famous. And even if they were only allocated fifteen minutes, they didn’t squander one second.

© The Editor

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GB OR NOT GB

Roland RatThe British television landscape today may well be something of an overcrowded shantytown, but barely 40 years ago it was still a wide open space with just a smattering of broadcasters sprinkled liberally enough not to spoil the view; when new people moved into the neighbourhood it was therefore front page news, and Channel 4’s arrival in 1982 was like a group of left-wing squatters setting up camp in a rural Tory parish, frightening the old ladies with their effing and blinding at all hours and shouting ‘Power to the people!’ at the vicar. However, within just a couple of months of the uproar and disruption the arrival of Channel 4 provoked, attention shifted to another new broadcasting venture destined to be beset with problems – breakfast television. After a handful of regional ITV experiments in the late 70s, the Beeb were first to go nationwide with a concept utterly alien to a British viewing public accustomed to being awoken by the humble wireless, with the ‘Today’ programme and the Radio 1 breakfast show traditionally attracting the largest audiences. Novelty value alone might temporarily persuade the masses to try the telly as a side-order with their Rice Krispies, but could it become as ubiquitous a feature of the schedules as in the States?

The BBC recruited one of their heavyweight anchors in the dependable shape of Frank Bough to head the team of ‘Breakfast Time’; future coke-snorting escapades in lingerie notwithstanding, Bough was a consummate broadcaster, a veteran of both ‘Grandstand’ and ‘Nationwide’ as well as a go-to man to present great sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Bough’s seniority was balanced by poaching the glamorous newsreader Selina Scott from ITN as well as promoting Nick Ross from BBC2’s ‘Man Alive’; oh, and David Icke was there as well. Anyway, ‘Breakfast Time’ was launched in January 1983 to generally favourable reviews, though many anticipated the cosy sofas and pullovers being usurped by ITV’s rival service, ‘Good Morning Britain’, produced by new company TV-am. If the Beeb had opted for a broadcasting bastion by electing Frank Bough team captain, TV-am went one better by assembling some of the most recognisable faces on British television at that time.

The so-called ‘Famous Five’ were Michael Parkinson, David Frost, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and Robert Kee; and with a line-up like that, what could go wrong? Well, it didn’t help that the intended launch date of June 1983 was hurriedly brought forward to prevent the BBC getting too settled in the time slot. The same failure to negotiate royalties and rates for advertising with Equity that had left the ad breaks during the first couple of months of Channel 4 crammed with public information films also affected TV-am, severely reducing advertising revenue at the time of the station’s re-jigged and rushed launch date of February. TV-am were also thrown by the BBC’s unexpectedly casual approach to presentation on ‘Breakfast Time’ and didn’t have time to develop a similar style. ‘Good Morning Britain’ seemed stiff and starchy, there was little or no on-screen chemistry between any of the Famous Five, and ratings rapidly went into freefall.

TV-am off-camera quickly became a compelling soap opera far more interesting than any of its televised output, with high-profile sackings and a dramatic boardroom coup at the company making those first few traumatic months of the station a gift for Fleet Street. Although TV-am’s unlikely saviours turned out to be Anne Diamond, Nick Owen, Greg Dyke and – above all others – Roland Rat, the chaotic beginnings of breakfast television on ITV served as a lesson to any future broadcasting endeavours which imagine simply throwing together a bunch of household names assumes their very presence will ensure quality TV when that ain’t necessarily so. Am I alone in seeing the ghosts of TV-am currently haunting the latest television station to have been launched with familiar hyperbole, only to undergo similar problems both on and off-screen? I’m talking GB News.

The much-heralded ‘Anti-Woke’ alternative to the mainstream news output of the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, GB News was as dependent pre-launch on Andrew Neil and his impeccable broadcasting credentials as TV-am was on David Frost in 1983. Like Frost before him, Andrew Neil is perhaps the premier political interviewer of his generation and one of the few people in British television with the kind of clout and CV to ensure the prospect of GB News would generate interest in anticipation of a serious, valid and much-needed fresh voice on the overwhelmingly left-leaning landscape of television news in this country. Hopes were high that this could be not so much the ‘alt-right’ UK equivalent of Fox News that its somewhat hysterical pre-launch detractors on social media predicted, but a non-partisan option for people happy to hear all sides of a debate rather than the same old hymn-sheet everyone else was singing from. The ratings on the opening night seemed to vindicate the hype but then, as with TV-am, things began to go wrong.

In its early days, TV-am suffered several on-screen cock-ups that made it appear amateurish and cheap, none more so than in its infamous coverage of the 1984 Brighton Bomb at the Conservative Party Conference. Whilst the BBC had camera crews on hand to transmit the drama to the nation, TV-am had to make do with the voice of John Stapleton on the telephone, giving the station the look and feel of an insignificant regional ITV company rather than a national broadcaster. Meanwhile, GB News has undergone its own persistent ‘technical issues’ that have made the station something of a laughing stock in terms of is ramshackle presentation; like TV-am before it, GB News was launched prematurely and, just as TV-am struggled to receive revenue from advertising at the time of its launch, GB News has had its own problems with advertising, experiencing a withdrawal of numerous Woke-friendly companies unwilling to advertise their wares on the station. And, just as the Famous Five quickly vanished from ‘Good Morning Britain’ when viewer numbers plummeted, Andrew Neil has gone AWOL from GB News, fleeing across the Channel barely a fortnight after the station’s launch as ratings often fell below zero.

Stories of backstage tensions between Neil (also chairman of the station) and the GB News chief executive (and ex-boss of Sky News Australia) Angelos Frangopoulos have abounded ever since Neil’s extended holiday; the resignations of senior executive producer Gill Penlington and director of programming John McAndrew – allies of Neil and boasting enough of a serious news pedigree to give the station credibility – have also strengthened the hand of Frangopoulos in his alleged ambition to push the station further to the right. Sliding ratings seem to have been arrested by recruiting Nigel Farage to host his own show; and whilst it could be said that Farage might turn out to be GB News’s very own Roland Rat figure, sources continue to insist Andrew Neil will be back in September.

By the back end of the 80s TV-am’s style proved successful enough for the BBC to abandon its sofas and re-launch ‘Breakfast Time’ as a televisual equivalent of ‘Today’, going down the hard news road. However, despite winning the favour of Mrs Thatcher during a notorious industrial dispute in 1987 and turning its fortunes around, TV-am still lost the ITV breakfast franchise in 1992. It’s very much early days for GB News – even now it’s only at the same point in terms of time on-air as TV-am was at in April 1983 – so rumours of its death could be said to be greatly exaggerated. At the same time, for many the presence of Andrew Neil was a signal that this station could well be worth investing in. Without him, is it merely a TV version of Talk Radio? Perhaps as long as the anchor is away, the jury will remain out.

© The Editor

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LIVING HISTORY

MinersAnyone familiar with social media will be aware that one’s Facebook newsfeed can be a little like the virtual equivalent of passing a long, long sequence of billboards on the street. Some of the products being plugged have been memorised by the algorithms as items one has previously favoured whilst others appear out of nowhere; these appear because FB thinks they’ll appeal to the demographic it calculates the user belongs to – a calculation generally based on age, noted preferences, sex and so on. They’re routinely way off the mark for me personally and I tend to feel quite satisfied that this smart arse technology doesn’t know me as well as it reckons it does. Imagine your other half buying you an album for your birthday by a band that you’ve made it clear for years you absolutely hate. Well, it’s kind-of like that, but funnier. Mind you, videos, ads, links and promo material for charities or websites I sometimes don’t even remember ever giving the thumbs-up to regularly materialise in my newsfeed.

For example, over the last four or five years I’ve been receiving daily videos from a dog-walker in there – usually very charming and inoffensive shorts featuring the lady’s pooches having fun and that’s all, nothing more dramatic than that. I’ve no idea how these videos turned up in the first place, but I could think of a dozen others that I must have once clicked ‘like’ on and they’ve never forgotten. A similar tactic is used in an older cyber medium, that of the email. I’m not averse to signing e-petitions if I feel a particular cause is worthy of attention, but I often receive emails from groups I’m pretty sure I’ve never given any indication I support. I remember during the lead-up to the 2016 EU Referendum I was constantly receiving emails from the Remain lobby and yet I’d never once declared what my preferences were via any online platform, not even on the Winegum. To be honest, I hadn’t made my mind up for the majority of that campaign, anyway; I guess they were just chancing their arm in the hope I’d nail my colours to the mast.

In a similar vein, throughout Comrade Corbyn’s fun-packed tenure at the helm of the Labour Party I received emails from ‘Team Labour’, most of which I deleted without even opening. To be honest, emails of this ilk aren’t much different from Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking at the door and not being able to take a hint when you don’t answer it. In fact, even though Jezza has gone, I’m still receiving occasional emails from Team Labour and received one today. This time I opened it solely on the basis of the headline, feeling I could refer to its contents in this very post. It came as no great surprise to see the message was related to a casual and characteristically clumsy remark made by Boris Johnson on the subject of the pit closures programme undertaken by the Thatcher Government way back in the 1980s. Boris spent a couple of days north of the border, and singing Maggie’s praises on Scottish soil perhaps wasn’t a great idea to soften the hostility of the Scots towards the Prime Minister; that was gaffe No.1. Gaffe No.2 was to imply the pit closures were inadvertently responsible for pointing the way towards a cleaner, ‘greener’ future. One can imagine how that went down in old mining villages, many of which languish beneath the broken bricks that once formed part of the ‘Red Wall’.

The post-war decline in heavy industry was a painful, protracted process for a country that had established itself as the workshop of the world via heavy industry. In many ways, that decline characterised the second half of the twentieth century for Britain, and though the inevitability of it was something that successive governments tried and largely failed to manage with a degree of delicacy, perhaps in the end it would take a less sentimental and ruthless approach to finally put the beast out of its misery. That ruthlessness was maybe at its most nakedly brutal in the mining industry, a drama that played out over a period of around 15 years, reaching a peak (or nadir) with the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85. I’m not going to paint a black-and-white picture of heroes and villains here, but I will say that it wasn’t so much the loss of the industry as everything that had been built up around it that drove the deepest stake into the heart of those communities, communities that in many cases have never recovered and were effectively abandoned when the local pit closed.

Because nothing of any equivalent meaning and substance superseded the industry that had served as the glue holding such communities together for generations, the incredibly potent legend of the elite working-class heroes that were the miners has continued to exert a powerful grip on those parts of the country most affected by the loss of the pits. It’s not unlike the memory of an ex-girlfriend lingering as the gold standard of girlfriends when those who came after her failed to live up to her lasting impact. For many people of a certain age in the north of England, mining remains ‘the one’ and shiny bland business parks and call centres occupying cleaned-up land once blackened by the pit just isn’t the same. Not only do such ‘replacements’ fail to provide their employees with the same sense of having earned every penny of a good job well done that heavy industry tended to give its workers, but none come with the extended social network that surrounded an industry like mining – all of which vanished when the industry did.

Of course, the majority of these mining heartlands were also Labour heartlands, and the Left loves its legends; indeed, everything the Left has to shout about usually happened 40 or 50 years ago. The Miners’ Strike was the defining battle of the class struggle for the Left in the 80s – and the fact the Left lost the battle somehow makes it all the more perfect because it means the struggle didn’t end there; even if Identity Politics have now replaced class, it’s important the struggle is perpetual. Just listen to how the 2017 General Election remains referenced by Labour MPs as though it was a great victory on a par with 1945; if Corbyn had actually won that would’ve ruined everything; he’d have been on level pegging with Tony Blair, FFS!

Anyway, for those who were actually on the picket lines during the Miners’ Strike, the passage of time hasn’t really happened. I heard an ex-miner and veteran of Orgreave speaking on the ‘Today’ programme in response to what Boris had apparently said and his response was littered with references to Ted Heath, Thatcher and Arthur Scargill; but he evoked those ghosts as though they were all still contemporary political figures, as though they and the battle for that industry remained present tense. At one time, the likes of ‘the Germans’ were spoken of in a similar way by the generation that had fought the Second World War, decades after Peace in Europe had been declared.

The day after the last General Election and the complete collapse of the Red Wall, I saw a left-leaning friend who couldn’t comprehend the fact an acquaintance of hers had voted Tory. ‘And his father was a bloody miner,’ she said. The fact that, at that time, the Miners’ Strike had been 35 years before was irrelevant; this was clearly something each successive generation had to carry with them, even if the Tory turncoat in question had been born after 1984. Lest we forget, though, the Strike itself had exposed fault-lines in the social structure of pit villages as demonstrated by the divisions it opened up in families, divisions that have often never healed since then. Leave/Remain, Pro-vax/Anti-vax, Striker/Scab – perhaps the legacy of the Miners’ Strike is more relevant to modern Britain as a whole than just inherited bitter memories of betrayal and defeat in specific corners of Yorkshire. All of which means public servants of a certain colour still need to tread carefully when evoking it, even if treading carefully is beyond such an ungainly individual as Boris Johnson.

© The Editor

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DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY

WilliamsAs has become evident in recent years re what can no longer be said in polite company, once words drift out of the colloquial lexicon, it’s rare for them to be welcomed back. Like ex-lovers or disgraced celebrities, all evidence of them is wilfully erased to the point whereby they only continue to exist within the context of whatever caused them to be blackballed in the first place. Many words which disappear are never seen again in the present tense; and if they happen to unavoidably feature in a work of drama produced before their social exclusion, contemporary witnesses are warned of their presence as a kind of trigger disclaimer. A few words that don’t fall into the ‘rebranded offensive’ category simply fall out of common parlance because they sound so old-fashioned or are too associated with a past no longer relevant. Random words heard routinely during my own childhood such as courting, demob suit, shop steward and goolies spring to mind. Added to that could be housewife – once a valid job title, yet nowadays usually uttered by actual housewives in a rather embarrassed tone of voice that implies it’s a poor substitute for a real career.

I’m sure ‘housewife’ is regarded in some circles as a demeaning insult, though it used to describe an entire – and considerable – demographic; famously, of course, it even inspired a hugely popular radio request show that ran on the BBC Light Programme for 20 years, ‘Housewives’ Choice’. If ‘Woman’s Hour’ was intended to act as an afternoon instruction manual for those whose workplace was the domestic environment, ‘Housewives’ Choice’ soundtracked the morning following the exodus of hubby and the kids; the presenter spun discs chosen by the listeners and established an intimate relationship with the audience, providing something that was as near to an interactive experience as was possible in the pre-internet age. The best illustration of this comes in the wonderful opening sequence of the 1963 movie, ‘Billy Liar’; it brilliantly evokes a vanished Britain with a montage of all houses great and small across the country, accompanied by a burst of ‘Housewives’ Choice’ as a million women hanging out their washing wait to see if their request will be read out on air.

Despite the radical revival of feminist rhetoric during the 1970s, being a housewife remained the majority option for half the population – indeed, ‘The Housewife’ was a much-coveted figure for advertisers and politicians alike. This is particularly notable in party political broadcasts of the period; whenever one of the small number of well-known female MPs appears they tend to address ‘women’s issues’ as ‘housewives’ issues’. When Shirley Williams was, along with Barbara Castle, the most prominent female member of Harold Wilson’s team, she appeared in a February 1974 Election broadcast brandishing a shopping basket, pointing out how various items of foodstuffs had increased in price under Ted Heath’s Government. It was impossible to imagine Tony Benn or Jim Callaghan doing likewise, but Williams became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when Labour returned to power, so I guess her supermarket sweep made a kind of sense.

Prior to the General Election victory of February ’74, Shirley Williams had served two years as Shadow Home Secretary, which was an unprecedented promotion for a female MP at the time. It’s a shame her stint took place during the era before the broadcasting of Parliament, for it would be fascinating to see how Williams squared up against an old-school Tory Alpha Male like Reginald Maudling. In office, however, Shirley Williams’ Cabinet position reflected the ‘home economics’ role most female members of the electorate were still familiar with; she’d been Minister for Education and Science in Wilson’s second administration in the late 60s, a period when few Westminster women could expect to ascend the heights later reached by the likes of Priti Patel, Theresa May, Jacqui Smith, Margaret Beckett or – naturally – Margaret Thatcher. So, in her own way, Shirley Williams – or, as she was eventually known, Dame Shirley, the Baroness Williams of Crosby – was something of a trailblazer. Her death at the age of 90 means this here blog is in danger of reverting to an ongoing obituary again, but as a break from Covid-19 or Woke-21, marking the recently-departed can actually come as rather welcome breather for yours truly. Besides, I find any politician from the era Shirley Williams made her mark in interesting, because they were genuinely interesting times.

Shirley Williams’ status as one of the Labour Party’s original glass ceiling-smashers is somewhat overlooked now. If she’s recalled at all in Labour circles, it’s more likely to be with a regretful sigh following the part she played in abandoning the Party to the Left in 1981, alongside Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. As one quarter of ‘the Gang of Four’, Williams didn’t so much cross the floor of the House as move into a new conservatory christened the Social Democratic Party, better known by its acronym of SDP. She’d been elected to Parliament at the 1964 General Election as Member for Hitchin after three previous failed attempts, though – as with many MPs of her generation – she was far from being a career politician, even if her eventual destiny almost seems preordained when one considers her background. She came from classic academic, upper middle-class liberal stock.

The product of a highly intellectual household – her father was the philosopher Sir George Catlin and her mother ‘Testament of Youth’ author Vera Brittain – the woman born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin was schooled in old-school Socialism from a young age, though it’s curious that she was initially drawn towards acting. As an evacuee in the USA during WWII, she even screen-tested for the leading role in ‘National Velvet’, losing out to Liz Taylor; she carried on treading the boards as a student, playing Cordelia in a touring production of ‘King Lear’ by the Oxford University Dramatic Society. After graduating from Oxford as a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics, Williams studied further at New York’s Columbia University before following in the Michael Foot-steps by beginning a career as a journalist upon returning home. Barely had she begun, however, before her eagerness to enter politics was evident as she stood at the 1954 Harwich by-election.

Europhile Williams was a key figure on the right of the Labour Party at a time when simmering tensions between both wings of it were masterfully kept in check by Harold Wilson’s expert man (and woman) management. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Jim Callaghan just about held things together, but defeat at the 1979 General Election – when Williams lost her seat – proved to be the writing on the wall for the post-war political consensus, not merely within British politics itself but within the Labour Party. Williams was the first SDP MP elected to Parliament when she won the 1981 Crosby by-election, though she lost the seat at the 1983 General Election and never returned to the Commons thereafter. The breakaway formation of the SDP may have been a short-lived experiment, but it certainly contributed towards Labour’s 18-year exile from government; that said, the SDP’s brand of democratic socialism also undoubtedly proved to be a major influence on New Labour. By the time of the Labour landslide of 1997, Shirley Williams was already a Lib Dem Peer, though she was officially based in the USA as a Harvard professor.

Whether or not Shirley Williams can be spoken of in the same breath as some of her political contemporaries is something open to debate; she lacked the ruthlessness required to be a contender for the first female PM, though her impact on Blair’s generation was indisputable, and I’ve no doubt her high profile at a time when politics was very much a boy’s club helped pave the way for an increase in women entering Parliament. But she’s one more player from an era of giants gone to that great debating chamber in the sky, and her departure yet again shines an unflattering light on the dwarves struggling to stand on those shoulders today.

© The Editor

A DAY IN THE (AFTER) LIFE

You’re probably going to hear the expression ‘I can’t believe it’s forty years since…’ a lot today, though only from those who were actually around forty years ago; for those who weren’t, forty years ago occupies the same time-stream as D-Day or Waterloo; events before our time exist outside of time, whereas events of which we have a memory are firmly rooted in our own personal tree of life. I myself rarely say that any pivotal event to have occurred within my lifetime feels like yesterday; it never does. Sure, I can remember exactly where I was, who I was with and what I was doing when I heard the planes had flown into the twin towers or when I was told Princess Di had died in a car crash; but they all feel like a very long time ago – and felt like a very long time ago almost straight away. Often, it seems any major news story of magnitude serves as a full-stop on how life was lived the second before it happened, acting as an instant dividing line between two different worlds. I could apply the same principle to personal events in my life; they always feel like decades ago once they’re gone.

No, eating my Ricicles at the breakfast table on 9 December 1980, maybe half-an-hour before having to set off for school, certainly doesn’t feel like forty years ago; it feels more like 400. I had no notion that John Lennon had been murdered in New York around four hours earlier (which was still the 8th Stateside on account of the UK/US time difference); I was going through the usual weekday motions that morning. I wondered why ‘Love Me Do’ was playing on the radio instead of a contemporary hit, but it was only when a news update followed the track that I was made aware of what had happened; and I don’t think I thought about anything else for the rest of the day. Once reluctantly shoved in the direction of school, I rightly guessed the subject would be on the lips of friends, for they all knew I was a Beatles fan. It was even referenced in the school assembly; I couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening before. Yes, Elvis’s death three years earlier had been a big story, but I think it was the brutal manner of Lennon’s death that seemed so shocking – even to a generation raised on the routine violence of US TV cop shows. They no longer seemed so far-fetched.

I came home for dinner and recorded Radio 1’s extended ‘Newsbeat’ onto an audio cassette (featuring an early outing for Paul Gambaccini as the unofficial executor of every pop icon’s last will and testament), and as soon as I was back home for good there was no shortage of further coverage on TV, which was abundant in ‘programme changes’ that evening. ‘Help!’ was shown, as was the Bob Harris ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ interview with Lennon from five years earlier. As by this stage the obligatory B&W portable set had made household viewing choices a tad more democratic, I had free rein to change channels and seek out as much on the subject as I could catch. That night was the first time in my life I actively sought out news programmes to watch instead of greeting them with the archetypal childish cry of ‘boring!’; in fact, childish things suddenly seemed very childish indeed. If ever a day could be singled out as the day my childhood was officially given notice, it was 9 December 1980.

Although I’d had a ‘Yellow Submarine’ colouring book as an infant and was familiar with the sleeves of the Beatles LPs my parents owned, I hadn’t properly ‘discovered’ the Fab Four for myself until the previous Christmas, when BBC2 screened all their movies. A few months later I acquired the famous ‘blue’ compilation – ‘1967-’70’ – which is as good an introduction as it’s possible for a novice to receive. Music now mattered more than what had traditionally captured my attention. I was fortunate the music scene in 1980 was pretty bloody good as well; with 99p singles at Woolies beginning to edge out comics when it came to the spending of pocket money, I was spoilt for choice, with the likes of Blondie, The Police, The Jam and others. But the advantage of The Beatles was that their entire career from start to finish was ready and waiting to be devoured, a task I spent a good deal of 1980 engaged in. Paul McCartney was the most visible ex-Beatle to anyone growing up in the 70s, for Wings were always in the charts and on TOTP; Ringo would surface periodically, whilst George was relatively anonymous. Instinctively drawn to Lennon from the moment I fell in love with the back catalogue, I couldn’t understand why he was absent and acting all ‘Howard Hughes’ when he was the one I wanted to hear from out of all four; then, in the autumn of 1980, it was announced he was back.

Rock stars reaching the age of 40 was uncharted territory at the time; 30 had been seen as the ultimate cut-off point when Lennon’s generation was in its prime, yet when they all got to 30 they didn’t abruptly slip into slippers; they kept going – and this despite the peasants’ revolt of Punk and all its numerous offshoots that were making waves at the dawn of the decade. Therefore, John Lennon re-entering the arena with a new album was still big news and he played the PR game, giving several major interviews; one of them was with Radio 1’s Andy Peebles, segments of which had been aired in the hours before Lennon’s murder; I remember my dad informing me of this, which I’d naturally missed, what with bloody school and all that. Lennon’s new music disappointingly didn’t appear to be along the lines of ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Cold Turkey’ or ‘Working Class Hero’; but I was too green to realise that wasn’t going to happen. I wished the kids at school who ribbed me for being a fan were more familiar with that stuff than ‘Woman’.

At least I knew I wasn’t alone when the charts over the Christmas period were swamped in Lennon material. By the second chart of 1981, Lennon had three singles in the top five, holding both the No.1 and No.2 spot as well as No.5. He’d even managed to swap places with himself at No.1 by the beginning of February. It was a strange couple of months, but the renewed interest in his music, along with the deluge of tribute magazines and books that flowed off the presses in the wake of the events of 8 December, suggested death was something of an inspired career move. Not that this was entirely new, of course; everyone from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis and Sid Vicious had experienced an upsurge of sales following their demises, and Bob Marley would shortly receive a similar boost. But the way in which a media that had regularly ridiculed and mocked Lennon suddenly venerated his memory did stick in the throat a little. George Harrison picked up on this when he emerged from his own hibernation with a Lennon tribute in the spring of 1981: ‘You were the one that they said was so weird/all those years ago.’

Mind you, Lennon’s posthumous life was only just beginning. Yoko Ono honed in on one element of her late husband’s oeuvre and repackaged him as Gandhi with a guitar; a fascinatingly complex individual was reduced to the official, somewhat trite slogan of the Lennon brand, AKA ‘All he was saying/was give peace a chance’. He also said ‘Boy, you been a naughty girl/you let your knickers down’ and ‘Curse Sir Walter Raleigh/he was such a stupid get’; but they rarely make the merchandise. Perhaps the grotesque drama of being shot dead by a twisted stalker – a possibility every star was made aware of thereafter – inevitably triggered the path to faux-sainthood that followed; but at the same time, an unconventional character like Lennon was probably never going to quietly conk-out at 80, the age he would now be had Mark Chapman been committed to the institution he evidently belonged in far earlier than he was. So, to echo the previous post on the subject of endings, something definitely ended forty years ago today. For my parents’ generation, it was their youth; for me, it was my childhood. And that does feel like 400 years ago.

© The Editor

THE BLUE TOUCH PAPER

The spectre of the Poll Tax Riots tends to shadow any civil disobedience that spills onto the streets of London to this day, but anyone old enough to have a good memory of events that took place in the capital 30 years ago will know few since have matched them in terms of anarchic ferocity. As ever, context counts for a great deal, and the riots that took place on 31 March 1990 were another chapter in a lengthy sequence that stretched back to the Grosvenor Square shindig of 1968. The ugly collision between police and protestors in the aftermath of an anti-Vietnam War march as demonstrators massed outside the US Embassy came as a shock to the general public at the time; although London in particular has quite a history when it comes to ‘the mob’ – encompassing everything from the Gordon Riots of 1780 to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – the immediate post-war period had been relatively quiet when it came to outbreaks of public disorder with a political or ideological bent.

Even though the phrase ‘reading the Riot Act’ refuses to go away, the actual Riot Act itself had been repealed in the UK just the year before the Grosvenor Square incident of 1968, presumably because it was felt society as a whole was less prone to erupt into spontaneous public violence than it had been at the time of the Act’s introduction in 1714. By and large, it was. Yes, there had been serious racial trouble in Notting Hill in 1958 as well as clashes between police and ‘ban the bomb’ demonstrators in Trafalgar Square in 1961, but the kind of widespread anarchy that led to troops shooting dead around 285 members of the public during the Gordon Riots was seen very much as past tense. The Riot Act hadn’t been literally read in England since 1919, and the need to issue a vocal warning to twelve or more who were ‘unlawfully assembled’ was deemed irrelevant to the modern age. Ironically, it was only after the repeal of the Riot Act in 1967 that the kind of civil disorder familiar to 18th century Britain resurfaced.

The upsurge in industrial disputes that came to characterise the 1970s often led to volatile picket-line incidents – with the worst being at the height of the Grunwick Strike in 1977; but there was also football hooliganism, National Front marches, the 1976 ‘race riot’ during the Notting Hill Carnival, and not forgetting the virtually daily battles between the British Army and the citizens of Belfast and Londonderry. Within a decade, the sight of battalions of Bobbies wading in with truncheons and then progressing onto full riot gear with shields became a commonplace image on news broadcasts; the 1980s merely continued the trend, with the inner-city riots of 1981 and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 being amongst the most memorably incendiary. Therefore, the Poll Tax Riots appear perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the times. As most of the more serious examples during this period were sparked by grievances centring on social, racial and financial inequality, it was no surprise that rioters spilling out of Trafalgar Square in 1990 smashed the windows of and set ablaze various symbols of the great divide such as car showrooms, wine bars and night-clubs. After all, the Poll Tax itself was seen as the legislative manifestation of this divide.

Even before she became Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher appeared in a party political broadcast during the October 1974 General Election and announced it was her intention to get rid of the rates. As a system of taxation for funding local government, the rates were a levy on property rather than people and were one of those obsessive subjects devoted Tory voters tend to fixate on with an almost autistic intensity. Mrs T took her time, though; the rates weren’t eventually superseded by the Community Charge until she’d been in power for a decade, and the new tax – which was no respecter of social circumstances, with the same fixed rate for everyone, regardless of income – proved to be the first nail in her coffin. Scotland was used as a guinea pig for what became colloquially known as ‘the Poll Tax’ the year before its introduction in England and Wales, further cementing the Tories as the enemies north of the border. There were widespread refusals to pay and by the time the Poll Tax was UK-wide in 1990, an opinion poll revealed 78% were opposed to it. Although the likes of the Miners’ Strike had been an early example of Government and media colluding to generate polarisation that would aid the desired outcome, there was a substantial consensus on the Poll Tax that placed its supporters very much in the minority. When most of a Prime Minister’s Cabinet are amongst the opposition to an unpopular policy, chances are it ain’t gonna work.

Mrs Thatcher was deposed by her own party within eight months of the Poll Tax Riots and her successor as PM John Major announced his intention to scrap the tax in his inaugural speech. Even if the riots of 31 March hadn’t happened, the tax was so universally reviled that it was destined to be put out of its misery, anyway. However, it was telling that, although many who took part in the riots were those that always turn up at a demo with aggro in mind (and continue to do so), the anger directed towards the police that day seemed fairly general amongst all present. The notorious Special Patrol Group had opened eyes at Grunwick in 1977, but when Thatcher had cynically bussed in Met reinforcements to bolster the local constabularies struggling on the picket-lines at Orgreave, it was a disastrous PR exercise for the police that considerably altered the way in which the wider public saw their law enforcers. The view of the police long held by the country’s immigrant communities – that of them being a de facto government private army, which was precisely the concern of Brits that delayed the introduction of a police force for centuries – now became the default setting for many; events this year appear to have solidified such a view of the boys in blue.

There were shades of the Poll Tax Riots back in the summer, which was ironic considering the humiliating and nauseating deference shown by the police towards the BLM protestors, creating an atmosphere that laid bare officers’ political leanings and gave the green light to Antifa to deface and desecrate their surroundings in a famously ‘peaceful protest’. But even if the BLM event couldn’t quite match the Poll Tax Riots in scale (as neither could Saturday’s anti-lockdown protest in the same location), the potential for something comparable is certainly in the air – and the police aren’t helping matters. Their blatant favouritism, taking the knee on one cause and putting the boot in on the other, is something they don’t even try and hide anymore. Along with the petty, Jobsworth elements that the pandemic has brought to the fore, and the ‘check your thinking’ cyber division, the image of the police as a Gestapo Woke militia actively avoiding fighting actual crime is stoking as much resentment as the Government’s latest hapless measures to combat Covid-19.

What distinguishes this year’s incidents from 1990 is the polarisation of opinion that owes more to the unholy marriage of media and Government characteristic of the Miners’ Strike than it does to the orthodoxy of opinion on the Poll Tax. Government can play on fears they deliberately engineered to ensure compliance, using crass and immoral threats of overwhelmed hospitals or dying grannies dropping like blue-rinsed bluebottles after a five-second hug from a grandchild; this divide-and-rule tactic is working along Remainer/Leaver lines in that the population is split, but the diminishing trust in our leaders to get us out of this almighty mess is undoubtedly on the rise, and another six months like the last will probably break the patience of even the most law-abiding saints. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy devotee of Piers Corbyn or David Icke to regard the brutal removal of civil liberties as an outrage that cannot be indefinitely tolerated; and when the people feel powerless, they will grab any semblance of power they can; history has shown us if that means rioting, they’ll do it. It’s probably safe to say we ain’t seen nothing yet.

© The Editor

A SITE FOR SORE EYES

An incumbent US President loses office and goes down in history as a one-termer. No, I don’t mean Donald Trump; I mean Jimmy Carter. The same fate that has just befallen the Donald befell the Georgian peanut farmer exactly 40 years ago; and though, on the surface, the two Presidents have little in common, both swept to power as populist outsiders challenging a Washington orthodoxy in which the American electorate had lost faith – Carter in the wake of Watergate and Ford’s pardoning of Nixon, Trump appealing to the ‘deplorables’ left behind by the metropolitan political class and its queen regnant, Hillary Clinton. November 1980 came too soon for the personable Carter; the botched, aborted rescue of the US hostages in Tehran had damaged his popularity and reputation just a few months before and Ronald Reagan exploited it on a wave of patriotic, God-fearing fervour. Had Carter received an additional year’s breathing space, he may well have recovered; but unpredictable events can unsettle a political career right at the very moment when sailing appears plain; just ask Boris Johnson.

In November 1980, Americans and the rest of the West may have found the contest between the man in the White House and his born-again, movie star opponent intriguing, but many were more fixated on what was happening in the US city of Dallas rather than Washington. Wealthy oil magnate JR Ewing had just been gunned down by an unknown wannabe assassin and the world asked the question ‘Who Shot JR?’ Weirdly enough, the shots turned out to have been fired by Bing Crosby’s daughter, and that’s the point when we remember we’re talking about an entirely fictitious crime that nevertheless proved to be an early example of global water-cooler television. Less than 20 years earlier, a far more successful assassin had changed the course of American history in Dallas, but the imaginary shots fired in the city that November ricocheted around the world with a speed that suggested an appetite for violence was fine as long as nobody got hurt.

Just a matter of weeks later, a pop cultural giant who had emerged from self-imposed exile was on the receiving end of real gun crime; but there was precious little hint of the tragedy around the corner for John Lennon in November 1980 as he released and began to promote his first new recordings in five years. A decade less than twelve months old was still at that fascinating stage new decades stand at when their character has yet to form and there remain several optional routes to choose from; if the world of 1980 belonged anywhere, it was the late 1970s, with a hangover of stories from that era retaining their relevance. A murderous spree that had served to cast the North of England in a chillingly dark light, one which undoubtedly feels characteristically ‘1970s’, had spilled over into the 80s as the odious spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper continued to haunt women of that sprawling county – and 1980 saw a barbaric last hurrah for this hideous reign of terror.

The man behind the insidious myth seemed to taunt the police in the same way his Victorian namesake had a century earlier simply by evading capture and carrying on killing. His twelfth known victim, 47-year-old Marguerite Walls, was killed on 20 August; he then tried – and failed – to kill three other women: Uphadya Bandara in Leeds on 24 September, Maureen Lea in Leeds on 25 October, and Theresa Sykes in Huddersfield on 5 November. Peter Sutcliffe’s final grisly addition to a roll-call of 13 known murders came on 17 November when he killed Leeds University student Jacqueline Hill, leaving her body on waste ground behind a shopping parade in Headingley. The initial narrative perpetuated by West Yorkshire Police that this grotesque urban bogeyman primarily targeted prostitutes had already been contradicted by the 1977 murder of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in Chapeltown, Leeds – a girl who was a shop-worker rather than a sex-worker; the fact that what turned out to be his final victim was the second student he had attacked within the space of a month confirmed every woman in the region was a potential victim – though every woman in the region already knew it.

It took just over a month after the murder of Jacqueline Hill before Sutcliffe was finally caught. Arrested in January 1981 when the car he was driving was found to be bearing false number plates, he was taken to Dewsbury Police Station and was questioned – not for the first time, it turned out – about the Ripper murders simply because he fitted the profile. The discovery of murder weapons discarded at the scene of the arrest when Sutcliffe had been allowed to go for a pee by the arresting officers implied this was more than just another cruising punter; two days later, he confessed he was indeed the Yorkshire Ripper and he was charged within 24 hours. An appalling catalogue of killings spanning five years had been extended into the new decade not only by the blinkered ineptitude and prejudice of the police, but by the inadequate systems for storing and collating information as well as the undeniably damaging red herring of the ‘Wearside Jack’ tape.

It seems hard to believe now that Sutcliffe could have killed as many as he did and got away with it for so long; but one could say the same of Harold Shipman, Fred West or Dennis Nilsen, his contemporaneous serial killers. Along with their equally awful predecessors Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, all are now deceased, with Peter Sutcliffe joining them in that rather hot location reserved for the worst mankind has to offer as of – perhaps fittingly – Friday 13th. We have Covid-19 to thank for the killer blow, by all accounts. His death also comes just four days short of the 40th anniversary of Jacqueline Hill’s murder. Sutcliffe lived the 40 years he robbed her of, 40 years in which she could have enjoyed a dozen wonderful life experiences whilst he was shuttled from prison to prison and a gory industry sprouted around him. To be fair, though, the media generated that industry when he was busy killing by giving him such a salacious nickname; it was no great surprise it thrived during his lengthy incarceration, but the region he terrorised for five years didn’t buy into it. His name remains one spat out rather than spoken and he is just as loathed there now as he was when finally nicked for his crimes. The sense of disgust and hatred towards him there is no less vociferous than in January 1981. Time doesn’t heal everything.

I pass the site of Jacqueline Hill’s grim resting place most days; without knowledge of what happened there, few would give this undistinguished plot of land a second glance. Up until around a decade ago, it still looked the same as it did on the day Jacqueline Hill’s body was discovered, no different from the film footage that turns up in the endless documentaries, the overgrown and untendered spot packed with police furtively looking for clues. Then it was eventually converted into a private car-park for employees of the various businesses lining the shopping parade it stands behind; as befits lockdown, there are no vehicles parked on it today, and I fully expect someone to anonymously leave a bouquet of flowers at the gates next Tuesday; they often do periodically, though next Tuesday has a particular poignancy. That Peter Sutcliffe should exit a mere four days beforehand perhaps gives it an additional emotional punch. But if doesn’t really need one. The accompanying photograph I took this morning on the surface says nothing, but knowing a gruesome chapter in the history of the region drew to a bloody close there says something. After all, the fields where some of the nation’s most brutal battles took place centuries ago are similarly placid places today, giving no hint of the terrible tales they could tell. But there remains something in the air there, for sure.

© The Editor

SPITTING HEIRS

I guess if your idea of satire is ‘The Mash Report’ or BBC ‘comedy’ panel shows, you’re never going to get what the remit behind ‘Spitting Image’ was/is. Satire? That means laughing at everyone with the wrong opinions, yeah? – y’know, the other side AKA the dark side, the ones who think differently from us and are therefore evil, thick and racist, yeah? In satire, you reserve all your venom for them and you don’t so much ring-fence your own side – the morally superior side beyond reproach and above criticism – as exempt it to the point whereby to even contemplate a dig in the shape of a gag is tantamount to heresy. Because genuine satire has been absent from our mainstream screens for so long, allowing the gap to be filled by humourless partisan tribalism via a very different medium, it’s no wonder a revival of the most acerbic satirical TV show of the 1980s has provoked instant outrage from a generation that has grown up ignorant of the fact no prisoners are taken in satire.

Anyone old enough to remember the fuss first time round will recall what fuss there was emanated largely from the right, as was the norm back then. When ‘Spitting Image’ originally aired in 1984, veteran clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse was still active and still the go-to voice of moral outrage whenever something ‘controversial’ was broadcast on television. A programme screened in ITV’s post-watershed Sunday night slot then reserved for ‘edgy’ comedy – the exceedingly black and bleak ‘Whoops, Apocalypse’ had preceded it – was bound to attract attention. What made ‘Spitting Image’ something of an ingenious Trojan Horse was the puppets themselves, a factor that perhaps enabled the show to get away with more than it would’ve managed had the cast consisted of actors and comedians as in ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’. Still, making fun of the Royal Family and assorted National Treasures in 1984 was guaranteed to stir the ire of those easily offended.

The novelty of using puppets as a vehicle for digs at the great and the good of the day probably helped ‘Spitting Image’ maintain its position as the most razor-sharp of satirical rapiers until the early 90s. There was quite simply nothing else like it on TV, and the show’s heyday was at a time when the viewing options were still pretty limited, guaranteeing it a huge audience. Being immortalised in foam and latex soon became recognised as the litmus test of whether or not a public figure had made it, the 80s equivalent of being ‘done’ by Mike Yarwood in the 70s. Politicians apparently not paying attention to the lines being spoken by their puppets professed to be big fans of the way they were portrayed; Norman Tebbit as a sinister, leather-jacketed cockney hard-man was one thing, however – little David Steel sat on the shoulder of David Owen was another. The latter claimed this damaging caricature of the two men leading the SDP-Liberal Alliance played a part in the party’s failure to breakthrough at the 1987 General Election.

I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed when I heard the series was being revived; I’m not into high-school reunions and this to me felt like an admission that there were no new ideas anymore – as though it was comedy’s own version of ‘Heritage Rock’, whereby musicians with a 50-year + vintage fill the more cavernous music venues because no musicians young enough to be their grandchildren are good enough to do likewise. After all, nobody would’ve considered resurrecting ‘That Was The Week That Was’ in the 1990s and passing it off as cutting-edge satire, not in the age of Chris Morris & co. However, it can probably be viewed as a sign of today’s times that, rather than commission a completely fresh satirical series, ‘Spitting Image’ is regarded as a safe option. The motivators behind the revival maybe figured the nature of what passes for satire in 2020 would mean none of the over-sensitive Woke mafia would fall within the firing line, surely not with the likes of Boris and Trump to target, eh?

How refreshing, then, that one of the prospective puppets unveiled as a character in the resurrected series is of Greta Thunberg. As a product of satire as it used to be, the co-creator of ‘Spitting Image’, Roger Law denied the new version would avoid taking the piss out of anyone on the left; after all, as much as Margaret Thatcher was the prime target of the original series, Neil Kinnock was hardly spared a regular evisceration. If a new ‘Spitting Image’ is to be true to the spirit of the old, it has to have a go at all sides; otherwise, it’ll be no more effective than ‘Mock the Week’. The idea of the team behind the programme being issued with a check-list of public figures beyond parody is anathema and would have rendered a revival a non-starter from the off.

Let’s face it – we’re not short of public figures in 2020 who are asking for the kind of kicking ‘Spitting Image’ would dish out to anyone and everyone back in the 1980s. In a world with a pair of patronising, privileged preachers as far up their own arses as the Duke and Duchess of Neverland routinely lecturing the proles from a mansion or a private jet with such a staggering lack of self-awareness, for ‘Spitting Image’ to leave them be would be a complete abdication of the programme’s raison d’être. If people are prepared to push themselves forward and put themselves in the public eye, fair enough; but if they then start to express a sense of superiority born of their fame and fortune by starting to tell us all how to live our lives with a permanently wagging finger, they deserve everything ‘Spitting Image’ can throw at them.

As one of the deities of the Woke world, Saint Greta has been elevated to such a rarefied stratosphere that she should be utterly impervious to criticism, yet as was once the case with having a go at the Pope, it would appear that daring to take a dig at her is no better than aiming at the favourite target of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ – and we all know what happened there. But today’s teenage and twenty-something heirs to the Whitehouse mantle are not amused. ‘The fact Spitting Image have decided it’s acceptable to mock a 17 year-old with autism is disgusting in itself,’ cried one ‘disgusted of Islington’ on social media. Another wailed ‘Greta Thunberg is 17 years-old and has autism. You think attacking an autistic kid is satire? You’ve lost the plot, Spitting Image!’ Funny, but you can almost read those comments in one of those exasperated voices they used to employ on ‘Points of View’.

If Greta Thunberg was an unknown adolescent who had featured in a documentary on autism and that was the sole reason she had any kind of public profile, it would then of course be utterly unforgivable for anyone posing as a satirist to ridicule her for having an unpleasant medical condition, just as it would be for them to mock someone dying of cancer. But autism is not the reason why Greta Thunberg is included amongst the grotesques comprising the cast of a new ‘Spitting Image’; and surely if her autism is such a crucial factor in her rise to prominence, perhaps there should be a tad more attention given to her parents, who have allowed her to hog the spotlight with very little apparent restraint or thought for her mental wellbeing. No, let’s not beat about the bush; her presence in latex and foam – or whatever form today’s puppets take – has no more to do with autism than autism has to do with her fame. Not that I’d expect the outraged to acknowledge this. Their concept of satire is so removed from the real thing that they don’t realise no cows should be sacred. And if they are, it ain’t satire.

© The Editor

TRANSFORMER

Adolescence may well be a transitional phase for both body and mind, but there’s also a uniquely sartorial chameleon element to this odd interlude between childhood and adulthood that is crucial to finding who you are; it’s as though you need to sample a series of brands on the shelves of the cultural supermarket before you eventually find the one that fits, the one you’ll most probably stick with for the rest of your life (most usually pick their favourite at some point of their 20s). Of course, some remain admirably restless and resist ‘settling down’ with the same pair of trousers, whereas others – from the geriatric biker to the retired stockbroker – located their comfort zone forty or fifty years ago and have stayed there.

As a teenager, the swift shift from one social group to another – gravitating towards those with shared interests and passions – is marked by the taking-on of each new clique’s appearance with unconscious ease. It’s very much a natural adolescent habit for teenagers to instinctively tailor their look to match the crowd they’re with; and for all the adolescent claims of ‘individuality’, the pack mentality inculcated in the playground creates a craving for like-minds and the desire for a tribe to belong to outside of the school gates. It also helps if the new hair colour or item of clothing that earns membership of said crowd meets with parental disapproval; all part of the necessary severance of the apron strings, even if the economic climate of this particular century means the ever-changing wardrobe is usually funded by the Bank of Mum & Dad.

Looking back, I think I wore around half-a-dozen completely contrasting hairstyles (of various lengths and colour) between the ages of 13 and 23, all of them usually prompted by falling in love with a band or youth subculture; unfortunately, my own personal experience was of a constant failure to find anyone else who shared a love of whatever prompted the annual visual regeneration, but most are lucky and locate a ‘set’. Even so, I do recall certain acquaintances I had in the 80s who I’d bump into maybe once or twice a year, and every time I saw them they’d changed radically from our previous encounter just a few months before. That doesn’t really happen at any other time of life.

It goes without saying that the longer you live, the lengthier can become the gaps between bumping into acquaintances; and if there has been a radical change in their appearance when your paths cross again, it’s usually not one they’ve chosen (unlike during adolescence). Once you reach your 40s – or 50s – the main differences you notice when reuniting with people you knew 20 or 30 years before are the wrinkles, the waistline and the grey hairs (if there’s any hair left). Perhaps one reason why some recall their teenage years with fondness is that it was the one time of their lives when they felt in control of their destinies, a time when they had yet to succumb to hopeless defeatism via the demands of the workplace, they hadn’t been worn-out and wearied by children, and they remained a long way from being at the mercy of the aches and pains that accumulate with the passing decades.

Nonetheless, such chameleon traits are not the exclusive province of adolescents. Some continue to utilise this ability to blend into their constantly changing surroundings when it comes to relationships, so that each new partner has a different version of the same person that their predecessor had. Sensing the kind of man, woman or non-binary individual one’s latest other half is subconsciously searching for can result in a subtle alteration from what the previous partner required. We often notice it in the recently-divorced when arm-in-arm with their post-‘decree absolute’ lover, looking distinctly different from the way they dressed when alongside their ex. A change of image can therefore result in both partners visually complementing one another for the duration of their relationship, settling into items of clothing they’d never before worn or expressed a preference for. Not necessarily ‘they look just like two gurus in drag’, but John & Yoko understood – as indeed did the first wife in the Lennon marital bed; Cynthia admitted adopting a ‘peroxide Parisian’ look in the early days of her relationship with John mainly because she was aware of his lustful yearnings for Brigitte Bardot.

This strange way in which lovers or spouses can suppress their own identities in order to keep their other half happy was brought home to me when I was researching my book about a dear departed friend name of Alison (veteran readers may recall the story). Her son told me of a point in the 1990s when she’d hooked-up with a bit of a flash twat who lived somewhere in the Little Venice neighbourhood of London; he noticed his mother seemed to be adopting this guy’s taste for material goods in a way that had never been a hallmark of her personality before. He recalled her sudden interest in ‘designer gear’ with both bemusement and amusement, for it appeared so out of character with the woman he knew.

Alison’s experience makes me aware that – if they’re not careful – some risk being solely defined by their other half, as if they were unwittingly conditioned into sacrificing personal development in favour of constant companionship from too young an age, forever refashioning themselves to suit whoever they happened to be with. Should their voluntary role as an appendage come to an end, perhaps the fear of trying to survive without that clear definition – and being suddenly confronted by the unnerving absence of a personal identity outside of a relationship – propels them straight into ill-advised dalliances with unsuitable successors. Alison was a parent too, another factor by which women in particular can be exclusively defined in denial of who they might actually be. The Alison I knew seemed to be very much her own person, but she had lived alone for a number of years by this stage, so that might have helped her become the unique and original individual I remember. Anyway, I digress once again.

As I was saying, the cliché of time moving at a slower speed when younger could probably account for the breathless pace of the constant changes of image and tastes that can characterise adolescence; so much is crammed into a relatively short space that the memory tends to recall months as years and years as decades. I know from my own experience how the period from around 1983 up to roundabout 1993 (which retrospectively feels like a quarter-of-a-century) saw so many alterations in appearance that it’s just as well I never had a passport. Chances are I’d have confused more than one customs official when switching his gaze from photo to person.

At about 40, I felt as if I’d found the character I’d been putting together for 25 years, albeit one who remains a work-in-progress; there’s always room for improvement, though I have my sartorial side sorted now. If Fenella Fielding had managed to persuade Peter Wyngarde to have a crack at batting for the other side just for one night of passion, I’d probably have been the product of that fantastically louche liaison. Who says dreams die when you turn 21?

© The Editor