Scarred For Life
The Waiting Room, Eaglescliffe, September 30 2018
Let’s be frank here: the 70s was a weird time to watch TV. Actually, let’s back that up a bit: the 70s was just a weird time entitely. If you grew up during the 70s and 80s, you’ll know exactly what this means. For a start, there was the patina of grime and decay that hovered over so much of your everyday life, particularly if you lived in the industrial north. Your built environent was mostly either crumbling old buildings that had survived the war (to varying degrees), or the brutalist concrete that had initially promised to be so white and shiny, but had quickly turned grey, looming and sullen.
Then there was the constant air of menace, a simmering undertow of everyday violence and atavism, and a vague, unsettling feeling that underneath the quotidian routine of everyday life there was a world that “they” weren’t telling you about. And “they” were your parents, your teachers, the adults who surrounded you. It was a pretty paranoid time, but then for most of it we did (not unreasonably, as it happens) think we were about to be obiliterated in a nuclear exchange that would wipe around 90% of the human race off the face of the earth.
Clearly there are a lot of us of a certain age who remember it in Eaglescliffe, because the venue was heaving. We’ve made the journey to see Steve Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence talk about their book, Scarred For Life, which is a collection of essays about that strangeness. The evening is hosted by BBC Tees resident arty ponce, and writer around related subjects, Bob Fischer, who does a sterling job, despite (or possibly because) looking like an arechtpical trendy English teacher, complete with authentic period tie and jacket. And beard.
There are several things that distinguish the TV of the era, perhaps. The first is that World War II was not some distant memory(1). It was still etched deep in people’s minds as a vividly live memory. Our parents had grown up during the time, and their parents had fought. It was still living history in a way it isn’t quite any longer. And many of those people had come home and were trying to work through those experiences. Many of them wrote, or made films, or television. And some of it was for children.
In some ways, the “child” part sometimes felt incidental. In series like The Changes, based on Peter Dickinson’s trilogy, the main female protagonist just happaens to be a young girl. She could easily have been older (an adult even), and it would have mattered little. But this was a show that turned up at teatime in 1975; a show that talked about fear of technological change, the undercurrents of race, and the first painful steps that a newer, more diverse society was taking. It’s hard to believe a simialar kind of series could be made today. The same goes for serials like The Owl Service, or Children of the Stones, which quite apart from anything else had undercurrents of simmering adolescent sexuality that some would find quite uncomfortable now.
There was certainly a more pronounced interest in matters of the occult, so it wasn’t uncommon for shows like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysetrious World, or Uri Geller’s appearances on mainstream TV to keep such things in the public consciousness. And that seeped pretty much everywhere, which is probably another reason why things sometimes had a much more liminal air. Doctor Who, of course, one one of the great sources of this, deliberately placing otherworldly and sinister elements into everyday situations. All of this clashed with the onrushing pace of science and technology. Perhaps the culture was just in spasm as a result of the fear that the world was changing too quickly for many people to cope with it comfortably.
Quite apart from anything else, adults were not frightened of scaring children, though perhaps this was no bad thing. The confines of TV gave children a ready supply of “safe” frighteners, and was perhaps preferable to the sometimes rather more brutish world that existed outside their own front doors. Most 70s nostalgia has problems grappling with the all-too-easy descent into glam and Spangles. It was a complicated time. Society was in frequent paroxysms, but many more people were in full employment, and as kids we had an expectation that our lives would be better than those of oyur parents and grandparents. Our televison experience was different from now, a smaller number of channels, providing a wider range of fare than now, when despite having more choice than ever before, we are alogrithmically channeled into ever narrower vitas. Children’s TV was a specialism, and schedules (especially on the BBC) were designed to provide children’s equivalents of programmes in the adult schedule, from news to drama to comedy, to give a full breadth of coverage. As a kid, I had only three channels to watch, but those channels included, Monty Python, Spike Milligan, James Burke, Play For Today, Stanley Baxter, and then all the kids stuff too. I was positively encouraged to watch a variety of TV, and it probably explains a lot about who I am, what I know about the world, and how I see it.
All of this and more was discussed during the evening, including talking about the defining role of the Public Information Film, to the way comics like Action repurosed movie culture that many of its readers had no other access to because they were simply too young.
It was a fascinating, thought-provoking and frequently funny evening. The authors have promised another journey up this way next year when volume 2, covering the 80s, is published. I very much hope to be there.
(1) If you think for just a couple of seconds, you realise we are now further from 1980 than 1980 was from the start of the war.