Last Sunday I watched hours of retro TV drama. They were assiduous reconstructions of the recent past, heavy on art direction, hair and make-up, movement (how to smoke, how to swagger) and crucial music. There was Jake Arnott's 'He Kills Coppers' ('60s Soho gangland/bent coppers), 'Mad Men' ('60s Madison Avenue adland/upstate/ making the American Dream), and 'Hancock and Joan' ('50s and '60s Brit showbiz tragedy-behind-the-clowns series).
I'll bet the larger part of the audience for all three won't have been alive when the original '60s action took place. (Viewers who were, of course, are forever looking for anachronisms, checking the release date of the songs on the music tracks, or the car models.) So why are we quite so keen to re-work and re-examine the world that made us? Partly because it's dying – all the structures and people from the post-war popular culture revolution. Watch old comedy from 'Yes Minister' to 'Dad's Army' and nearly everyone's dead, but soldiering on forever in endless rotation on the digital classic channels.
And because technology makes it so retrievable, you can watch it all back and forth, focus on a wobbly set or a bad wig. And because attitudes have changed so unimaginably, we can compare stilted, censored, contemporary stories with the real dirt that emerged in memoirs. We've never known so much, so accurately – had such a toolkit to deconstruct earlier dreams.
But then there's media studies; those dissertations on, say, 'Blitz club culture 1979-81' or 'Purple Haze, the impact of drugs on American movie directors in the early 70s' (of course I made them up but what's the betting they exist too?) The point about media/cult/ gender studies, is that they give a timeless kidult backstage pass to increasingly mature people. And equally one of the problems for the now completely antique music industry is that kids are accessing their dad's music so cheaply and comfortably.
There's always been a re-model urge in the sampling culture – right from Run DMC and Aerosmith walking that way, with its coarsely ironic mock-the-rocker sub-text. But increasingly there's the urge to get it right too, to catch the shimmering moment and recreate the mindset. Before destroying it. In 'Madmen', everything looks lovely and everyone behaves appallingly, they're snobbish, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, the works.
But the closer anything gets to your own dreamscape or the reconstruction of worlds where you've had a ringside seat, the more deeply worrying. In Jonathan Coe's 'The Rotters' Club', adapted for television in 2005, there's an episode where a couple of the characters go on a pilgrimage to London to meet their heroes. It's 1977, Jubilee year, and that means Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, in their barbed wire topped Kinderbunker – built to keep the hippies out – in Carnaby Street (by then a Swinging London 1966 tourist theme park).
They were going to the NME, the 'New Musical Express', the most important cultural organ in the universe because it caught a crucial British moment. The punk moment. Now they're selling three CDs of NME classics in a new commercial. Up they come, from Iggy Pop off his head, via The Jam and The Cure, to Blur doing that Woo-Hoo thing. For a lot of sentimental middle-aged men, this will be the authorised anthology, the tracks that matter. And they're almost certainly right, because the NME sensibility really is the making of the modern world and the British mind.Reuse content