And we thought it was all over. Well it isn't now
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 10 May 1998
When the music began and the actor playing the Travolta role appeared in the famous outstretched-arm pose, the audience leapt to its feet, waving and screaming. Some of it did anyway, notably a man in his twenties who obviously relished the opportunity to impress his friends with his Travolta impersonation. Fortunately the eruption was shortlived, possibly because the arrival on stage of the entire cast in gruesome 1970s' costumes was enough to send shivers down anyone's spine. I imagined teenagers turning to their parents in horror, facing the awful possibility that their mothers had once worn hot pants. That their fathers might have ventured out in crotch-hugging flared trousers, performing pelvic thrusts and trying to persuade girls in platform soles to "make out".
I was a student in the 1970s and one of my proudest possessions was a wide suede belt with flying fringes which lacerated anyone who got near me on the dance floor. I had a boyfriend who ran a disco and we stayed out all night, dancing over and over again to the same record - Free's All Right Now (long version) - which played havoc with my 9am Greek seminars. I felt vaguely cross about missing the 1960s, which was a much more exciting decade, especially if you had been forced to observe it from the confines of a girls' high school in Basingstoke.
When I wasn't dancing or translating Virgil, I did manage to go on occasional demonstrations - I once pursued Mrs Thatcher across Reading town centre, clutching a banner bearing her then soubriquet "milk snatcher" - but it wasn't the same. I had completely missed les evenements in Paris, the big anti-Vietnam-war demos in London, the Summer of Love in San Francisco. By the time Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977, they all seemed like a distant memory. The movie, with its conventional boy-girl relationships and anxieties about unwanted pregnancies, seemed like a throwback to the 1950s - an era celebrated in Travolta's next vehicle, Grease, which is now being re-released, confusingly, as part of the great 1970s revival.
The Bee Gees were hardly inventive lyricists, and even in the 1970s most men could come up with a more convincing compliment than telling their girlfriends they were almost as good as a bloke ("More than a woman, more than a woman to me- e-e"). So the explosive impact of punk, not long after the film was released, was a welcome signal that this blandest of decades was on its way out. As the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers knocked the stuffing out of the Bee Gees, the 1970s ended with the appearance of one of the century's great blonde icons - not Mrs Thatcher, but Debbie Harry of Blondie.
As I climbed into three-inch heels and borrowed my boyfriend's shirts to wear over bare legs to parties, hoping I looked like a passable imitation of Ms Harry on her way to a nightclub in New York, I remember thinking "Thank God we've got that out of our system". No more men in white suits, throwing girls over their shoulders and singing silly lyrics in high voices. And now it's come back.
The only consolation is that the stage show of Saturday Night Fever is so faithful to the film, and so tightly choreographed, that it has surprisingly little energy until the final moments, when the cast take their bows and suddenly look as though they're enjoying themselves. This, I think, is the classic 1970's effect for those of us old enough to remember it: the aching sense of relief when it was all over.
ONE of the things I dislike most about this country is its periodic indulgence in fits of nostalgia, which is very different from having a healthy respect for history. (The United States is even worse, as someone once pointed out. What are we to make of a nation where the phrase "you're history" is regarded as a serious insult?) Sentimental notions about the past are a serious obstacle to any attempt to transform Britain into a forward-looking, 21st- century democracy, as we can see from the Prime Minister's reluctance to explain what he intends to do about the House of Lords, other than the minor reform of removing voting rights from peers.
Our attachment to the past was underlined again last week when a very mild suggestion from one of the Queen's chaplains - that the monarch should be elected - was promptly denounced as "inflammatory". Canon Eric James's observation that it is wrong to expect "mere birthright" to produce a suitable candidate for the throne is so obviously sensible that the ensuing fuss - terse statements from Buckingham Palace, condemnation from the usual suspects like Hugo Vickers and Lord St John of Fawsley - was as ludicrous as it was predictable. I'd be happy to see members of the Royal Family stand for election, as long as the list of candidates was not restricted to the present Queen and her relatives. A President Windsor would be preferable to the existing set-up, although it might be more fun to have Barbara than Elizabeth.
THE GOVERNMENT has a problem with too much democracy, how- ever, and probably isn't as pleased as it pretends with last week's vote in favour of a mayor for London. This is all right in theory, but the populace has stubbornly demonstrated, in opinion polls, a preference for someone other than the lack- lustre New Labour clones on offer. We can now expect a long period of manoeuvres designed to block unsuitable candidates, which is bad news for people like me who - I'm being frank here - have always adored Ken Livingstone.
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