Reporter: When Grease was the word

Pubescent in 1978? Let Eleanor Bailey take you back to the time when a hickie from Kenickie sounded like it might be a biscuit and a makeover from Frenchie was all it took to be cool

I WAS EIGHT years old and the whole class was in the school changing room after swimming. One girl thought she was really cool. "I've seen it three times," she smiled. Cool? Pah! Within moments you didn't even open your mouth if you'd seen Grease anything less than eight times. Then it was double figures. The end came when Susie, who owned three horses, spoke.

"I've been 30 times and I'm going again on Saturday." There was a silence. No one could compete with that. She had asserted herself as the leader. She was gonna rule the school. I don't suppose it was true but nobody challenged her. For in 1978 that was the ultimate social distinction. Those who'd multi-seen it, those who hadn't. Those who understood the rude jokes, those who didn't. That summer, Grease was not the word, it was the life.

Twenty years later, Grease is back. The film is to be re-released in July. Pedal pushers, stillettoes and pink lipstick are eminently wearable again. Yesterday was designated John Travolta day and a new biography of Travolta is about to be published. The box office ratings in the States for Grease second time around (it reached No 2 at the box office and $20 million of business in one week) suggest that we are as devoted as ever to the kitsch Fifties. Whatever spot Grease hit, it hits still.

Why was it so consuming? "I saw it three times like everybody else. It was a rite of passage," explains Murphy Williams, arts editor of Esquire. "That moment when Olivia Newton John has been transformed and takes the cigarette out of her mouth and squashes it under her high heels was saying that innocence should become wanton. It was something we all aspired to. Grease was like Live Aid in that it reached across the world and was kind of a happy love-in. No matter your traumas, in Grease the sun kept shining."

The waves kept rolling, unwanted pregnancies were a false alarm, we would be together forever and if everything else went wrong there was always fast food. Grease was glamorous - a far cry from Grange Hill, the British take on the high school experience which started the same year. With Grange Hill we waited at least five years for the first snog, in Grease it happened in the opening sequence. The number of British slumber parties rose exponentially. We all started wafting our letters with perfume and we listened to that double album over and over again. Was there a girl in the country who didn't have a dance routine to "You're the One that I Want"?

It had everything that the teen audience wanted: tears, laughter and sex. "There isn't a subtext," admits Lesley Felperin, deputy editor of Sight and Sound, who recently returned to Grease in the course of book research. "The film isn't subtle enough to have a subtext; it's all there on the surface. The songs are catchy and there was a huge tie-in marketing campaign at the time to catch the teenage imagination." Felperin fancied Kenickie rather than Travolta, which was rather sophisticated of her. Who you fancied or admired in the film said a lot about you. Liking Rizzo was evidence of toughness; Sandra fans were way behind.

It was so important to "get it". And there were so many things in Grease not to get. A hickie from Kenickie - I thought might be some kind of biscuit. And if you were eight in 1978, Frenchie's nickname went entirely over your head. Remember the sleepover scene in which Frenchie demonstrates her ultra-cool cigarette trick, wafting smoke up her nose "the French way" and claiming "and that's how I got my nickname Frenchie"? "Sure it is," cracks Rizzo with a knowing wiggle of her tongue. It was only when teenage siblings made you admit you didn't understand that you joined the conspiracy not to tell your parents. It was an excellent learning opportunity. One friend admitted to writing down all the rude words of the film on a bit of paper to learn off by heart.

Even if the credibility gap between the sinewy 24-year-old John Travolta and the average skinny 17-year-old British male was rather challenging, Grease got the temperature rising. "When you went to the cinema, the sexual tension was so strong," remembers fan Sharon Walker. "It was such a hot heady atmosphere, with hormones flying around the cinema. Everyone was absolutely mad about it. People were going to Grease dancing classes so they could do it right. People had Grease parties." Sharon remembers the exact outfit she wore to see the film (grey flared cords and a pink smock top). "I identified myself with the Olivia Newton-John character, who wanted to be cool and have a boyfriend and be one of the ring leaders of the class but just never was."

There are those that say that compared with the other themes around at the time - punk and political activism - the message of Grease was a bit fluffy. Nigel Andrews, Financial Times film critic and author of the new biography John Travolta: A Life, explains why Grease was just what everybody needed. "It was the beginning of a weird intermission. America had gone through a period of tearing at its conscience with Vietnam and Watergate and this was a weird primal escapism. People were sick of worry. They wanted to have a good time. John Travolta was this iconic symbol that was only into his own self-fulfilment. It was all made in great seriousness [the original stage play was a hard story for tough kids] but it became more and more camp."

But of course, fans will know that Grease is not a shallow fry, it's deep. It's just that themes are expressed more succinctly than in your average politico-feminist tract. Take, for example, "Men are rats. Worse than that, they're fleas on rats, worse than that, they're amoeba on fleas on rats." The struggle between men and women is a powerful theme in Grease and for all the fashionable feminism that has come since, has anyone ever summed up the problem between the male and female so completely as Frenchie consoling Sandy at the cheerleader try-outs?

And look at, "Does he have a car?" This line, sung by the cynical Marty in "Summer Loving", heralded the Eighties and the "me" generation in a mere five words. Lesley Felperin concedes that one could attempt a Marxist analysis of Grease. "It is all about the commodification of society," she theorises. "It says you can buy your way to popularity with the car, the hamburger joint, the clothes."

Then there is the anthem to postmodern nihilism which is, "The rules are, there ain't no rules," a line which comes from the spotty mouth of evil rival Craterface before the car race with the acne-free Travolta.The phallic shining sports cars penetrate the female form of the dried-up Los Angeles river while the girls jump up and down. Sandy, dresssed in girly pink, sits at the edge of this concrete bowl/female genitalia, alone, and decides to cross the adolescent threshold from child to slapper. "Aren't you happy?" says Frenchie. "Not really," Sandy replies, "but I think I know a way I could be." This is the central message: happiness is dressing up in leather, putting on lots of make-up, smoking 'cos it's hard and submitting to sex with your hunk (or at any rate saying, "Tell me about it, stu-urd.") Which pretty much sums up contemporary existence I say. Was it any coincidence that after their summer of loving and our peek at the sunny, good lookin' world of Fifties America came our winter of discontent? I think not. After seeing John Travolta wolf an American fast food feast we went to the Wimpy bar and ate soggy chips. We looked at our own lives and something was missing.

Jon Savage, author of punk tome England's Dreaming and most recently Time Travel, a collection of his writing from the last 20 years, says that Grease was reactionary and boring (but then he was 25 at the time). "I remember 'Summer Nights' being number one for what seemed like forever. I wasn't interested in it - there were so many more things to be interested in. It was mediocre but unfortunately a huge industry is based on those values." This in itself is a salient point. So Grease was flimsy. That's how we like it. The rules are there ain't no rules and the meaning is there ain't no meaning.

'Travolta: the Life', by Nigel Andrews, is published by Bloomsbury. Travolta Weekend is at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, 29-31 May

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