Of Boom, Bust, Betamax And...

...the birth of 'The Independent'. We look back to the first week of October 1986, and the world that greeted this newspaper
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CULTURE

By David Lister

What is striking about the arts in October 1986 are the peculiar parallels with the arts today. Two days after The Independent launched, Andrew Lloyd Webber opened a new West End show. The Phantom of the Opera, which, like us, is still running, turned out to be a massive success, with replica productions around the world. In 2006, Lloyd Webber is again about to open a show. He has completed a TV series to pick the leading lady for his production of The Sound of Music. There was no need for a competition for Phantom: he cast his then wife, Sarah Brightman (below).

Also about to open a new play now is David Hare. In October 1986 he wrote and directed The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs, for the National Theatre. Alas, his new play this October will be premiered in New York, Hare and the National having become estranged.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company proudly unveiled a new venue, the Swan Theatre, modelled on an Elizabethan playhouse. It was a triumph, but there followed years of controversy over whether to rebuild their main Stratford theatre. Only now is a revamp going ahead.

World music was a term barely used in 1986. But one of the best international collaborations was Paul Simon's Graceland, riding high in the charts in October '86. His use of South African musicians provoked protests from the anti-apartheid lobby.

Top of the singles charts was "Don't Leave Me This Way" by The Communards with Sarah Jane Morris. One racks one's brains to recall Sarah Jane Morris, but not the lady who took over at number one in The Independent's second week, Madonna with "True Blue". The biggest movies were Top Gun, starring a young Tom Cruise, Crocodile Dundee and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. But not everything in the arts celebrated newness and youth. Kingsley Amis won the Booker Prize in October 1986 for The Old Devils, about ageing.

ECONOMY

By Philip Thornton

Anyone in business or finance will remember 1986 for one event - Big Bang.

The two words summed up the most significant revolution in the City of London since Wat Tyler captured the Square Mile in 1381. On 27 October, the centuries-old system of stockbrokers and stockjobbers working on fixed commissions was swept away. Restrictions on ownership of stockbrokers ended, prompting a rash of takeovers. It was the start of a process that made the City perhaps the most powerful centre for money on Earth.

Nigel (now Lord) Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer was grappling with a boom. He should have raised interest rates but held back, knowing an election was looming the following year. The markets struggled and he responded by locking the pound with the German mark. This justified keeping rates low but further fuelled the consumer boom. Three years and a few more tax cuts later Mr Lawson was forced to double interest rates, in a move that would end with house prices crashing - and three million on the dole.

SOCIETY

By Maxine Frith

During the past 20 years, Britain has become more populous, but more unequal. In 1986, the population of the UK stood at 56 million. This year, for the first time, it passed 60 million. Despite the efforts of New Labour to address social exclusion, inequality between the richest and poorest in society remains.

In 1986, less than 5 per cent of the population lived on an income that was less than half the national average. That figure has now grown to almost 10 per cent.

We are now not so much a nation of shopkeepers as shoppers; in 1986 the burden of consumer credit stood at £60bn; now it has rocketed to almost £200bn.

Cohabitation has replaced marriage; in 1986, just 11 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women were not married but said they lived with a partner; now more than a quarter of people cohabit. In contrast, marriage rates have plunged, from 347,924 in 1986 to 270,700.

But, perhaps contrary to popular expectation, the number of divorces has actually fallen, from 153,903 in 1986 to 141,750 last year. In 2005, there were 645,835 live births in England and Wales; in the year The Independent was launched, 697,700 children were born.

Two decades ago, the most popular name for girls was Sarah; for boys it was Christopher. Last year, Jessica and Jack topped the chart.

We have also become more hi-tech. In 1986, one in four households still did not possess a landline telephone, mobile ownership was so small that it was not even measured by official statistics, and just 13 per cent of people had a home computer. Now, 94 per cent of homes have a landline, 70 per cent of people have a mobile and more than half own a PC.

FASHION

By Susannah Frankel

It was the era of shoulder-pads, leggings, underwear as outerwear and puffball skirts. Azzedine Alaia's viscose-knit dresses were so tight they came with knickers attached. Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier (below left) were at the height of their fame. John Galliano was fashion's brightest young star.

George Davies was king of the high street, while Joseph Ettedgui, with Joan Burstein, had introduced the concept of lifestyle to London. Katharine Hamnett had opened London's largest designer emporium. The Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo had changed the world with dark and distressed designs favoured by the international intelligentsia. Vivienne Westwood was just as influential. More establishment was Donna Karan and, in particular, the notoriously uncomfortable "body", as worn by female executives. Madonna's influence was everywhere: young girls dressed in tattered fragments of layered, black net and lace, and their parents were afraid, very afraid.

TELEVISION

By Thomas Sutcliffe

In The Independent's first live television review, Mark Lawson wrote about an odd bit of scheduling serendipity - the profile, in two separate programmes on the same night, of two then current icons of conservative sermonising: Mary Whitehouse and James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester. "It is surely time something was done about this right-wing bias at the BBC," Lawson wrote, a little jab at the Conservative government's assumption that Broadcasting House was the enemy within.

Not that there was nothing for a weary Leaderene to watch. Yes, Prime Minister (below right) was reportedly Mrs Thatcher's favourite programme. Spitting Image, at the height of its popularity, was probably not, even though it matched her contempt for many of her ministers. You couldn't imagine her spending much time with the big dramas of 1986 either - Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, Fay Weldon's Life and Loves of a She-Devil or Alan Bleasdale's The Monocled Mutineer. There were newcomers that year - a hospital drama called Casualty began with an explosion at the docks (the first of hundreds) and London's Burning ignited with a one-off special. Neighbours also arrived from Australia, a suburban antidote to the increasingly crazed gloss of Dallas (this was the year of Bobby's shower scene).

But it was the home-grown soaps that dominated - with EastEnders in a commanding lead over Coronation Street. And while one fixture of the schedules was about to temporarily disappear - Noel Edmonds resigning after a stunt went fatally wrong on The Late, Late Breakfast Show - another was waiting to make his entrance. In 1987 Jonathan Ross made his first appearance as a presenter in The Last Resort. Miami Vice and Moonlighting were the American hits but for British viewers, it was Only Fools and Horses and the long-delayed union of Vince and Penny in Just Good Friends that sat at the top of the ratings.

POLITICS

By Andy McSmith

It was the season for party conferences. Margaret Thatcher was on a high. The trade unions had been crushed, left-wing councils had been brought to heel, and the economy was booming. The alliance between Liberals and Social Democrats was falling apart because of the rivalry between David Owen and David Steel. The Conservative Party easily rode out a little scandal concerning its vice-chairman, Jeffrey Archer, and a prostitute.

Mrs Thatcher's only anxiety was that the Labour Party was learning to present its case professionally, with a skill that Conservative Central Office could not match, but she sniffed out weakness in the shape of Neil Kinnock (below right). Specifically, unilateral nuclear disarmament was unpopular with voters and generally Labour was suspected of being more style than substance. So she stuffed the Conservative annual conference in Bournemouth with a shedload of policy ideas, seasoned with rousing patriotism. Out tumbled promises of radical reforms of health and education, and more privatisation, presaging the great upheavals of 1988-89. High council rates caused uproar in Scotland, where properties had just been re-valued, so the Iron Lady abolished them. Instead there was a "community charge", which each household paid irrespective of income.

The one area which the Conservative conference passed over in curious silence was an initiative promoted by the German and French governments ultimately to unite all the separate currencies of the EU through the exchange rate mechanism. Mrs Thatcher, with girlhood memories of the war, saw it as a German plot. So, even as she prepared her third general election victory, which would make her the 20th century's longest-serving Prime Minister, she sowed the seeds of her own destruction, through the poll tax and the great Tory schism over Europe.

TECHNOLOGY

By Rhodri Marsden

Twenty years ago, mobile phones were the size of a house-brick, generally installed in cars for easy transportation, and, at around £2,000, only on the most exclusive of Christmas wishlists.

But the market research firm Mintel predicted in 1986 that "pocketphones" (how cute) "will be as common as Walkmans", and Sony's range of personal cassette players were indeed becoming ubiquitous. The word Walkman had entered the Oxford English Dictionary that year and the Walkman managed to prolong the life of the cassette format - CD players were still relatively expensive.

JVC's VHS video format continued to bludgeon Sony's Betamax rival (below) into submission, making the word Betamax synonymous with commercial failure. But video games were about to have a resurgence after a three-year slump; the arrival of Nintendo in North America in February 1986 had revitalised the market, as had the simultaneous release of Super Mario Brothers, which became the best-selling game on record.

Home computing in the UK was dominated by the Commodore 64 and Sinclair's ZX Spectrum, but in the US, Apple Computer had just launched the MacPlus at a wallet-busting $2,600.

IBM's first unwieldy laptop, the "Convertible", emerged to a much less enthusiastic fanfare. Would the laptop ever catch on? For this we would have to wait.

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