Huggy bares all

The decade that taste forgot has come back to haunt us. We are again being submerged in the 1970s. Stage shows such as Saturday Night Fever and films like Boogie Nights and The Ice Storm have transported us back to the era of flares and flapping collars. It's like dress sense never happened.

The club scene - always several steps ahead of the rest of us - has been reviving the 70s virtually since the decade ended. One London club pays regular homage to those benighted years. Its name? Starsky and Hutch.

More than anything else, the US series about two cops who are "rough and tough but likeable and friendly" sums up the 1970s. Which is no doubt why Channel 4 has invited Antonio Fargas, who played Starsky and Hutch's streetwise contact, Huggy Bear, to don his trademark leather trenchcoat and host "Disco Inferno", the Channel's celebration of 1970s culture tonight.

You are advised to dust down your glittery gold jumpsuit for an evening which will contain a Disco Top 10. The programme runs through seminal acts from the period 1975 to 1981 and features footage of the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, Odyssey and KC and the Sunshine Band. Viewers will be asked to vote for their all- time favourite disco number.

"Disco Inferno" also showcases the Rise and Fall of Studio 54, a profile of the hugely influential New York night-club that for 33 brief months in the late 1970s became for its sins the world headquarters of disco. Notorious for orgies that would have made Caligula blush, it came to represent all that was most hedonistic about the decade. Studio 54 is also the subject of a new hit US movie called simply 54. Starring Neve Campbell and Mike Myers, it's performed well enough at the box office to indicate you didn't have to be there first time round to enjoy the current 1970s revival.

But what is it - apart from this talent for excess - that still draws us to the 1970s? Who better to ask than Fargas who has the 1970s running through his veins.

"It was one of the most vital periods," he told me on a recent visit to London. "In terms of politics, music, culture and clothes. Particularly clothes.

Starsky's black-and-white wrap-around cardigan for instance, will linger long in the memory - and not necessarily for the right reasons."

In Fargas' estimation, "Starsky and Hutch captured the music and the feel of the 1970s. We were groundbreaking in style and format. Even the car was radical. Two men who cared about each other was not something that had been done before in that type of show."

The character of Huggy Bear was always popular because, according to Fargas, "people identified with his fun and humanity and the fact that he tried to lighten things." Huggy Bear nevertheless came in for some criticism at the time. "Social groups gave us grief about violence and asked why black actors only got to play pimps or informers. But we found empowerment in being portrayed on screen at all. So it didn't matter that Huggy Bear was dodgy. You've gotta get on the screen before you can fix things. Now we're represented much better, due to the people who laid it down before. These days people like Samuel L Jackson and Morgan Freeman can play any role."

All the same, hasn't such a memorable character as Huggy Bear created a typecasting problem for Fargas? "Hindsight is 20-20 vision," he admits. "But the fact that I'm still viable after 38 years in the business is testament to my survival techniques - which are like Huggy Bear's! No one asked Clint Eastwood or Humphrey Bogart, who played one type of character all the time, if they were typecast. Huggy Bear hasn't stopped me working; in fact, he's enhanced me because I never wanted to be a star, just a jobbing, lunchpail actor. A lot of the hip-hop generation - people such as Snoop Doggy Dogg, the Backstreet Boys, the Wayans Brothers, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith - have a great identification with Huggy Bear and have cast me in cameos on their shows."

Benefits from being Huggy Bear continue to flow. Fargas' recent trip to London was to do some rapping on a new remix of the Starsky and Hutch theme tune, which is probably already big in the clubs. "Being in a show that was so popular has endeared me to audiences for a lot of years. The fact that the show is syndicated means that people around the world have grown up watching it. If I stick around long enough, their grandchildren will watch it, too. Starsky and Hutch hasn't just had the cynical Hollywood thing of being flavour of the month. I'm always walking down the street and meeting someone who likes the show."

And not just because of that trenchcoat.

James Rampton

`Disco Inferno' is on tonight from 9pm on C4

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