Television: Old Romantics

A new drama, starring and directed by Martin Clunes, looks back with affection on the era of A Flock of Seagulls
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The Independent Culture
Simon Delancey sniffs his favourite cocktail from the Eighties - an "Enola Gay" - and says: "That takes me back. The sweet smell of success. Essence of Margaret Thatcher and fuel-injected Ford Capri. Blond highlights, white puffball sleeves - and that was just the boys."

Delancey, a character played by Martin Clunes in Hunting Venus, a new ITV film, is a former bassist in a New Romantic group. He is forced by two Misery-style fans (Jane Horrocks and Esther Coles) to reform The Venus Hunters, his one-hit-wonder band, for one last gig. The members include Charlie (Neil Morrissey) who has, since the early Eighties, become Charlotte. Much of the film, which Clunes also directs, is intoxicated by the heady whiff of nostalgia for those carefree times. It was the era of Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls and Ultravox, when a kilt'n'kaftan combination was not laughed at but absolutely de rigueur.

In the film, one member of The Venus Hunters reminisces indulgently: "Everything changed in 1979, didn't it? The whole lot. Sharp suits, hectoring tones, searing patriotism, bouffant blond hair." "Margaret Thatcher?" a colleague asks. "Not Margaret Thatcher. Gary Numan."

With early-Eighties bands such as The Human League, ABC and Culture Club now touring again to huge acclaim, it's almost like the Nineties never happened. But why do we look back so fondly on this period that dress- sense forget?

Ben Miller, who plays Gavin, The Venus Hunters' disturbed drummer, reckons that "it takes society a little while to choose the image we're going to use to sum up a decade. For the Seventies, we all selected bell-bottoms and long hair. For the Eighties, we might have gone for a yuppie with a flash car or a power-dressed woman. But in the end, we opted for the New Romantics. We chose what we think we lack. Now that laddishness is flying the flag, that seems like an extraordinary period where it was all right for men to wear eyeliner and lace cuffs and where everybody pretended to be gay even if they weren't. That's how we want to be remembered from the Eighties. Not as money-grabbing, champagne-guzzling consumers, but as dreamy New Romantics."

Miller particularly enjoyed working under Clunes's direction. "I found him really inventive. He did one tracking shot around Neil Morrissey, which is incredibly difficult because, as the camera moves, so does the entire crew. Seeing 50 blokes with pot bellies doing this ballet round the room was a fantastic moment."

Miller has made his name as part of a sketch-show double-act with Alexander Armstrong on Channel 4 (called, appropriately, Armstrong and Miller). The pair specialise in well-observed spoofs, such as the naked vets in "Nude Practice" and Strijka (pronounced "Streaker"), Norway's third most popular rock group. Miller obviously has an affinity for joke bands.

But now he is moving into straight acting. He plays the lead in another forthcoming ITV drama, Passion Killers, about an agency which sets up "honey traps" for unfaithful spouses. "Acting in sketches is more about rhythm than the development of character. In comedy drama, you don't have to play to a definite rhythm. Sketches are like pop singles, whereas comedy drama is more like a concept album," he jokes.

Miller envisages no end to our cannibalisation of the recent past. "What you're seeing with the resurgence of these Eighties bands is the pendulum- swing of popular culture. On television recently, I saw a league table of New Romantic bands. We need to find a pecking order for Spandau Ballet and A Flock of Seagulls. It's extraordinary how we can intellectualise any low-brow entity. Expect lots of high-brow analysis of The Human League soon."

I can see the post-graduate thesis already: "The Human League - Chroniclers of Sheffield's Post-Industrial Decline, or a Load of Posers with Bad Haircuts?"

`Hunting Venus' is on ITV on Wed at 9pm. `Passion Killers' will be shown on ITV in April, and a new series of `Armstrong and Miller' is on C4 in May