review Jim White

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The Independent Culture
"Listen to the portrait of the dance of perfection: the Spandau Ballet." You can bet Robert Elms didn't enjoy seeing that clip of himself introducing an early performance by the New Romantics' house band. But then Elms, now a seasoned novelist and broadcaster, wouldn't have been the only one to be squirming at some of the footage aired during the first part of Peter York's Eighties (Sat BBC2). Martin Kemp's hair, Steve Strange's trousers, the awful lemon-coloured bow Teresa Gorman insisted on wearing back then with her chocolate-and-lime tartan two-piece; looking at them again, you wonder why we didn't spend the entire decade laughing.

There were not any shots of Peter York committing sartorial solipsisms, however. The man who first suggested that popular culture might be worthy of academic consideration (and thus inadvertantly legitimised the career of a thousand shallow style- journalists) is far too canny and manipulative for that sort of thing. Indeed, rarely can there have been a television documentary as canny and manipulative as this; it was as arch as one of York's quizzically raised eye-brows. Every link, every filler shot, every interview had been planned and thought through with forensic detail: the one in Madame Tussaud's amid the dry ice; or the one of him walking down a corridor in the Houses of Parliament, opening doors to hear various sound-bites; or the four images of York, striking elegant poses around the Palm Court of the Waldorf hotel. Spending a fortune on glamming up the bits in between, how very Eighties.

This is not to suggest that there was no pleasure in York's foray through the decade that made his name and fortune (a decade which, from the evidence presented so far, took place entirely in London). Far from it, this looks set on being one of the most enjoyable series of the year. York's eye for humorous detail is as sharp as ever, and his preposterous central thesis - that the plotters in right-wing think-tanks and the poseurs in new romantic night-clubs were set on the same iconoclastic course to change Britain irrevocably - was logically worked through. And since this was the generation schooled in giving good sound-bite, the interviews were never less than entertaining. The remnants of what was once Steve Strange mumbled something about being one of the chosen few; Teresa Gorman had a line on MPs' misogynism ("they regard us solely as grannies, nannies and fannies"); and Robert Elms paraphrased Wordsworth to describe club- life back then ("to be on the guest-list was very heaven.")

But York's favourite prop was Marilyn, the talent-free transvestite star of the early Eighties scene. Conducted by a simple sneer, York's ruthless dismissal of the deluded chump (he claimed to be 30, that's how out of it Marilyn was) made Jeremy Paxman look like an old softie.

Boasting a somewhat more elevated cast list, BBC1's history of The Gulf War (Sun) began with contributions from King Hussein, President Mubarak, Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf and several former high-ups in Saddam's inner-circle, presently living in rather nervous exile. Also Margaret Thatcher, on Portillo-esque goggle-eyed form, barking on about how aggressors must be punished, and how it was she who told President Bush to stop prevaricating when Saddam invaded Kuwait and to get his weapons out.

The most intriguing aspect of those early days of the war, though, was the ease with which the Iraqis took over Kuwait. For fear of provoking Saddam in the days before the invasion, the Emir stood down most of his army, sending his officers abroad on holiday. Saddam, it seems, was less neighbourly. According to an aide, the plan was that the Emir would be poisoned while under house-arrest by a particularly unpleasant brew. For a moment, the viewer was overcome by an unexpected sensation: the realisation that Margaret Thatcher may have had a point.