The Cool Year: 1997 reviewed

They called it Cool Britannia and it seemed triumphantly summed up by Stella's trouncing of the Parisian couturiers. But was it all a load of BritHype, and if so, asks Oliver Bennett, who was really the coolest person of 1997?
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Cool Britannia: not just an ice-cream by Ben & Jerry's, but a slightly icky soubriquet that gave form and focus to the year of 1997. We hadn't seen so much red, white and blue since the "I'm Backing Britain" campaign in the Sixties. Vanity Fair, Newsweek and their ilk had done their best to puff "cool London" late the previous year and Brits were already riding high. All that was needed for this bright new dawn was a bunch of BritProduct to prove that we really could cut the mustard.

Therefore, on top of the original, if dated, construction BritPop, along came BritArt, BritFilm, BritLit... Brit almost anything, really. Perhaps it was all a load of BritHype, but it nevertheless attracted much attention and tourists flocked to Britain to experience it for themselves. It did not go unnoticed by the marketing folk and by the time the British Tourist Authority "rebranded" Britain with a new trad-yet-mod logo in September, the mainstream had truly hijacked Cool Britannia. Even our optimistic new political scenario seemed to manifest Cool Brit: out went John Major's OldBrit visions of cricket and warm beer; in came NewBrit modernity: music, multiculturalism, creativity and style. It was summed up in that picture of Noel and Tony Blair gurning away at each other at the Number 10 party.

NewBrit was also available for export. Those BritFrock successes of 1996, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, were joined in Paris (it seemed particularly imperative to impress France with Cool Britannia) by Stella McCartney, who was taken up by fashion house Chloe. A friend of Kate Moss and daughter of Sir Paul, some thought she was being acquired for her cachet, so there was much sniping at the appointment. But, come October, she was vindicated by good reviews, while Macca Senior disrupted his normal saintliness with his revelations that Oasis might be "derivative". Less cool was batty Vivienne Westwood's use of a 14-year-old model in a show, which proved too much for some of our moral overseers.

Cool Britain also proved itself a place worthy of earth-moving world- savers. Swampy became quite the star, as his Puckish, grinning mug hit the news after the various protests against road and runway. Indeed, he soon became groomed for stardom with a newspaper column and an amusing but ambiguous public persona: was it his joke, or our joke? Alas, it all went pear-shaped when a businessman patented his name and a projected book failed to emerge amid alleged acrimony that "Daniel Hooper" was becoming too much of a celeb for the movement to bear. Uncool, as well as slightly niffy. And whither Animal, the crusty sixth former, who similarly seems to have gone to ground? The only colourful troglodytes we see now are the Tellytubbies - a programme best watched after a bongful of skunk.

From the submerged, then, to the ridiculous. It was in January that new BritTotty Melinda Messenger was introduced to an unworthy public. She soon had to admit to breast implants, but this did not seem to hinder her career at all. Indeed, heaved into a Union Jack dress and boots she looked like Ginger Spice's thicker sister: a surefire recipe for BritLad and his FHM-reading cohorts to indulge in a bit of patriotic lechery: Drool Britannia, perhaps. At least it indicated that the British flag had finally been rescued from a dismal fate as a humdrum accessory for lesser spotty skinheads and had risen to new heights as a stretchy fabric pattern for saucy apparel.

There were also, of course, Blair's Babes, including the out lesbian MP Angela Eagle: a parliamentary first. The key New Labour mascot was journalist Lauren Booth, Cherie's buff half-sister who has already - unfortunately - been described as the "new Terry Major-Ball". Another thinking man's muffin was Martin Bell's kid Melissa, the anti-sleaze angel about whom many, alas, had sleazy thoughts. And true erotic fascination - for all sexes - lay with the cast of This Life, particularly Anna.

But come back with me, if you will, to Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell. For much of this year threatened to drown under the weight of paraphernalia from the Spice Girls, whose Girl Power creed tottered under the weight of sponsor's logos. Clearly, they were trying to eke as much cash as possible before going belly up, but on they soldiered, even through the catcalls of the Mercury prize. The Spices even started to affect a stateswomanly role, pressing the flesh with the royal family and Prince Charles - Geri told him he was "sexy in the flesh" - and improbably, perhaps inappropriately, with Nelson Mandela. The political prisoner turned statesman- saint showed much grace, claiming he was "honoured" as he dealt with Ginger's fulsome appreciation. Still, all in all she was probably a less harmful companion than his ex, the charismatic but allegedly dodgy Winnie.

Geri managed to avoid meeting Hillary and Bill Clinton, though the first couple dined with the Blairs at Sir Terence Conran's Pont de la Tour, in London's fashionable Bermondsey. In July, Conran was himself ordered to pay off his third wife, Lady Caroline Conran, to the tune of pounds 10,000,000 - an even worse deal than that cut by Champagne Charlie Althorp during his public flogging later in the year - and he complained ruefully to the judge that it was "just because she cooked a few meals". He could talk, for his various "gastrodomes" became so ubiquitous in London that one feared someone might alert the Monopolies Commission. The empire-building Sir Tel is currently looking abroad, particularly to France: rich, since that nation's peasants taught him everything he knows.

Further south in that hidebound old nation, it was BritGirl Kathy Burke who took the "best actress" gong at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in Nil By Mouth, Gary Oldman's take on his south-east London stew of origin. All very NewGrit it was, too. But better business at the box office was done by the nominally British movie The English Patient, and The Full Monty: a massive bittersweet hit that spurred, inter alia, a Hot Chocolate revival.

Talking of revivals, Gary Glitter became the latest victim of that new breed, Territorial Special Branch (Shop Assistant Section). But while his show went on, his name had irrevocably become rhyming slang. Not as spooky as Elvis Presley, though, who on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his death found that he was a religious figure. Now Presleytarians are coming out of the woodwork into the post-Di spiritual hurly-burly - BritGrief, indeed.

When would Oasis's legendary hubris finally switch to nemesis? Not quite, not yet; though their album was a competent slab of predictable turgidity, and at least the brothers got married: Liam to Patsy and Noel to Meg, who proved herself expert in the art of shopping. More exciting than Oasis were the Verve, whose Suede-style comeback offered a new flavour: orchestrated rock melodrama. They supported the Gallaghers and lead singer Richard Ashcroft was indie coolster supreme, especially alongside his squeeze Kate Radlet of the equally significant Spiritualized.

The Verve's song, "The Drugs Don't Work", also managed to sow a little doubt into the septums, synapses and cerebella of Britain's substance users - the highest proportion of drugged youth in Europe, it was recently surveyed. The BritDrug menu did not change radically, with the cocaine budget still running high, and drugs such as the psychedelic DMT and ketamine coming to greater prominence. We had a laugh as novelist Will Self got narked up on the election aeroplane. But as drug culture continued to consolidate on the high street, there was a murmur, a feeling, a notion: could it be that for the first time in 40 years of pop culture, drugs were no longer hip? After all, if the mass-market says yes, just say no.

It is not known whether it was new amphetamine supplies or a momentary trend vacuum that caused the blip of the Northern Soul revival. Perhaps it was always there, unnoticed. Anyhow, backflips and obscure records were again cool, perhaps in reaction to the formless dancing and lack of good "choons" in the rave scenario. Another "next small thing" was speed garage, which threatened to take dance music genre infighting to a new level of tedium. The Prodigy, and to a lesser extent the Chemical Brothers, conquered the mall market in the US with their rockish dance acts. And back here, it wasn't all about drugs, as mountaineering and martial arts, such as kung fu and the Brazilian capoeira, became cool with self-improving hipsters.

Glastonbury '97 hit the front pages, but only because it was so wet that the poor saps were swilling around in a mud-fest that made Woodstock look like a puddle. Whereas at that 1969 festival people worried about LSD in the mud, at Glasto the fears were of an outbreak of E-Coli - one of this year's favourite medical panics - spread by wallowing in festy ordure. Inconclusive; but what was certain was a mass outbreak of schadenfreude among the home-bodies. How we laughed.

BritLit threw up several new names and it became a scramble to find a new voice of the pill-popping zeitgeist: who would be the next Irvine Welsh, for example? Single girls were massive (figuratively speaking) in the wake of Bridget Jones's Diary (vg), with a mass of new titles by the likes of Arabella Weir and Jane Green. Poetry was not the new rock 'n' roll, to use last year's cliche, but it now came with a rock 'n' roll price-tag in the shape of Murray Lachlan Young, whose performing poetry was hated by fellow poets but loved by late-night programmers.

As for BritArt, Blimey!, to quote the title of Matthew Collings' book on the phenomenon. Did the "Young Brit Artist" peak (now, in truth, a gaggle of "Middle-Youth Brit Artists", or MYBAs, to use the new marketing term) finally ripen and splodge to the ground? Almost. Michael Craig-Martin, of YBA forcing house Goldsmith's, pointed towards what he AbFab-ishly called a "Saffy" generation of new, earnest artists poised to cut through the flip high-jinks of the Sensation! crowd. Not so much a round-up of the great-and-good as the low-and-bad, this latter exhibition was as much an advertisement for Charles Saatchi's patronage skills as it was a demonstration of talent. And, predictable though it was, many applauded the men who splattered Marcus Harvey's hand-print portrait of Myra Hindley with eggs.

Tracey Emin was among the usual suspects in the show, with her famous tent that noted all the people she'd ever slept with. But her greatest triumph was televisual: pissed-up and righteously stomping out of a show on that time-worn theme: Is Painting Dead? No, but Cool Britannia may well be. Let us move on in the knowledge that the coolest person of the year was French: Jeanne Calment, who died at 122 years of age. Smoked and drank to the last, saw most of two fins de siecles, met Van Gogh, thought he was a prat. Cheers to her.

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