The old power generation

EXHIBITIONS I: There were red braces, there were wine bars - and there was the power glower. Peter York visits the new show at the NPG, to size up some of the faces of the Eighties
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IF YOU want an Eighties face, you need an Eighties expression, Eighties props and an Eighties photographer with a clear brief on what we all now call the iconography.

The gene pool doesn't change conveniently with the Zeitgeist, so to be totally now in any decade you need hard work and iron discipline: the kind displayed by Empress Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, in her commissioned 1988 portrait, The Editors.

There she is, smouldering away with self-belief, with big hair, big, round newsreader earrings and two rows of pearls, with a totally fantastical background of Manhattan towers seen from above, in the most lurid Cibachrome colours imaginable. The iconography couldn't be clearer if this was one of Elizabeth I's propaganda portraits. This is the Queen of 1980s New York and beyond; the world of Tom Wolfe's Masters of the Universe and their Social X-Rays is hers. Barbara Walters's earrings are hers, a Brit- Brat gone grand, out of that little London pool. And she has a marvellous accessory (one that Elizabeth I had to manage without): a husband. Yes, Harold Evans, former editor of the Times, wearing a bow-tie, is in the picture too.

The Girls do rather have it in the National Portrait Gallery's "Faces of the Eighties" exhibition, in that they're more likely actually to be making Eighties faces: the triumphant cat-that-got-the-cream look. In Paul Brason's huge Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982 (the year of the Falklands War) Margaret Thatcher is seen as the resolute centre of a damp patch - Geoffrey Howe, Cecil Parkinson and Francis Pym, to be specific. You can almost hear her thinking: "How do I energise this lot?"

Joan Collins, who, as Alexis Colby-Carrington, was a role model for aspirant businesswomen everywhere, appears in pure iconic mode in Andy Warhol's silkscreen power-portrait of 1985. This is the Joan of Joan's jewellery, Joan's scent, Joan's designer eyewear - with a signature sneer which found a response in every girl who wanted to be on top. The power glower is also on display in Jillian Edelstein's wonderfully understated photograph of Julie Burchill, who seems to be saying "So?" just by the set of her head.

At a dinner party with Greek-born Yuppies in Sydney in 1985, I realised that there was a sophisticated soundtrack for such Eighties events world- wide. It was Sade, of course - Sade Adu of "Smooth Operator", "Your Love is King" and all that. Johnny Rosza's 1985 photograph is characteristically tasteful, simple, elegant - the key words for The Taste People. There she is in The Big White Shirt (probably Comme) and no jewellery, with those lips and those slanted eyes, in control. Of course you impose your knowledge of her biography on the portrait, but doesn't this look like a girl who knows when and why to go away?

Sophie Mirman, Little Miss Sock Shop, on the other hand, looks like the dutiful daughter who passed out top from the Retail Management College, and made it by being organised and likeable and never letting the steel show. If the other girls were inspirational, Mirman you might identify with: the Marks & Spencer secretary who opened a little shop, which grew into a high-street chain - something a Next manageress could see herself doing. So Mirman doesn't pout or smoulder one bit. Rather she's saying: "How can we work together to get that Gold Star rate of commission?"

Though the men seem generally more pensive, Robert Maxwell looks as mad a monster as they come. Michael Frith's large 1987 watercolour suggests a Dr No-like combination of enormous bulk, booming voice and massive confidence. Although he'd been famous since the Sixties, it was only in the Eighties - as a "media tycoon" - that Maxwell seemed to operate on a world stage.

Terence Conran, in a highly formalised Man of Destiny photograph by Stephen Hyde in 1987, looks Eighties to the max. He's still in his multiple-retailer/City- celebrity mode, in double-breasted stripes with a spotty tie, looking towards a Big Window. (Now, of course, he's cooled out the look for his new incarnation as a Nineties restaurant impresario.)

Also in Man of Destiny mode from Stephen Hyde (1986) - but most unconvincingly - is Jeffrey Archer, Baron Archer of Weston-Super-Mare. He's photographed from below, against the Embankment's important Victorian lamps. But his chipmunky face and dull clothes can't carry the Westminster-belongs-to- me message.

British Airways' Lord King, with all the potential for a full-tilt Supreme Plutocrat portrait, actually appears very restrained and statesmanlike in Chris Hay's rather Karsh-of-Ottawa 1987 photograph. He's clearly thinking of all the Government committees he has to deal with as chairman of the national carrier. George Davies, Conran's Eighties retailing rival, looks equally careful (Sue Adler, 1986). This isn't the Davies of the Next Blenheim Palace sales conferences, with their helicopter arrivals; rather this is his sensible face for the Scottish shareholders.

Among the entertainers, Jonathon Ross (Trevor Leighton, 1989) registers as particularly Eighties, with his neat hair, big jacket and big tie; a chancer estate agent in Saturday kit. Rupert Everett, in Gered Mankowitz's mannered portrait of 1984, lies on a bed wearing a school tie, very much in his Another Country persona. A little less petulant and more user-friendly for the girls, and he could've been Hugh Grant.

Most striking of the music portaits, Bob Geldof is shot in a determinedly Christ-like style - shoulder-length hair, downcast eyes, three days growth - in John Swannell's 1989 portrait. The long-hair revival and the stubble are completely Eighties, the expression rather too intense and private for the decade.

Boy duos were a crucial Eighties invention. Wham, the New Commonwealth suburban boys, have the Mark One Golden Glow on (John Swannell, 1985). Close together, with George Michael's hairy arm over Andrew Ridgeley's shoulder, they've both got major hair, brown skins and infinite cheek. But George is trying harder.

The Pet Shop Boys have Chris Lowe standing behind a seated Neil Tennant - so that his head is precisely above Tennant's, but blanked off by the characteristic dark glasses, while Tennant looks like an ironic Mount Rushmore. It makes you ask what the power balance in their relationship is - and that, of course, is a very Pet Shop Boys kind of question.

"Real" writers, not surprisingly, don't look so characteristically Eighties. Martin Amis in tight jeans and v-neck is set against an early (pre-computer) amusement-arcade machine by Mark Gerson (1984). Amis clearly wanted it to show beat-of-the-street suss, but it's about seven years too late for the aspirational decade.

Equally, Hanif Kureshi (Jillian Edelstein 1989), who caught that movement from the Seventies to the Eighties so precisely in The Buddha of Suburbia, none the less emerges looking like another boy who wanted to be Jim Morrison, in long waves and leather jacket.

I didn't realise they had one of me; when I saw it I couldn't remember the session. Miriam Reik has me in a most fanciful Beatonish pose, more 1927 than 1987, following the curve of a Pugin chair. It must have been terribly uncomfortable.

! 'Faces of the Eighties': National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055), to 28 Apr. 'Peter York's Eighties' continues on Sat (9.30pm, BBC2).