Remembering the 80s
The heady cocktail that was the 1980s is about to be revisited in a small-screen adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's era-defining novel 'The Line of Beauty'. So how does the epoch of hedonism and strikes, cocaine and riots, Thatcher and Aids, Big Bang and Black Monday seem 20 years on? Those who lived it try to make sense of a decade of extremes
Friday 12 May 2006
Lynne Franks, PR guru
I remember the 1980s in vivid colour - it was as if we came out of the darkness of 1970s punk to vibrant designer noise and images. It was all about "designer" with a big D - Designer labels on clothes, Designer drinks, Designer architecture, Designer causes, even Designer spirituality. The Face magazine and iD were the style gods and we thought we were the high priests and priestesses. Most of my friends were in fashion or media and we worked hard and played hard. Many of my women friends, like me, were juggling motherhood and marriage. Looking back, I'm amazed we survived. Certainly a lot of our marriages, including mine, didn't.
It was the heyday of my PR agency; whatever was going on, we were there first. Live Aid, Fashion Aid, Katharine Hamnett's jumbo political slogan T-shirts, the first billboard campaigns of sexy women in jeans. There were extravagant parties most weekends, and weeknights slumped with the rest of the media world in Groucho's listening to Julie Burchill hold court or bitching about some editor or other.
There was evidence of some inward searching too, among all this hedonism. I was practising Buddhism and eager to convert the world to chanting for happiness; Bob Geldof convinced us that it was good to care about starving children in Africa; my agency was promoting green consumerism; and Katharine Hamnett and I went to Greenham Common to discover what the women's movement was all about.
I was a passionate Labour Party supporter, working with Red Wedge, the group of pop musicians that included Billy Bragg and Jimmy Somerville, who toured the country to whip up Labour votes. I introduced Neil Kinnock and team to the women's media and yoof culture, instigating designer T-shirts in their support.
Pop culture was the name of the day, and our stars led the trends. Boy George, Duran Duran and Princess Diana became ambassador icons for our fashion industry, and again London became a swinging centre of "cool". Cross-dressing was crucial and Leigh Bowery and Trojan, victims of their own indulgences, were must-haves at any club or party.
These days we visit musicals, watch re-runs of Ab Fab or read books to remember the 1980s, but when I do take a glance at today's young fashion designers or the club scene, I note that the drugs may be more sophisticated (and the technology certainly is), but "now" is very influenced by "then". We may not have had reality TV in the 1980s, staying in to watch Big Brother or The Apprentice, but we wouldn't have had time. We were out there doing it.
The 1980s were an innovative and highly creative period, and the survivors are still influencing thought and behaviour, hopefully with the wisdom that our advancing years have taught us.
Peter York, Social commentator
What you experienced in the 1980s depended on who and where you were. In London, people were having it all. They could be modern and monied. If you worked in medialand like I did, things were looking up. But that wasn't the experience of most people. I was acutely conscious of watching the television. They had a crude device on the news showing how many thousands of jobs had been lost in Hartlepool or Warrington.
When you saw things like that, three thoughts entered your head. The first was that things were falling apart. The second was; I'm glad it's not me. And the third was; it isn't remotely like that in my world.
We were about to enter the world of the Groucho Club. Zanzibar its the precursor as the hub of the media industry. If you worked in what people now call "the creative industries" at the start of the 1980s, you were part of the New World that would flower in the mid and late 1980s. People opened refurbished things in Soho and Farringdon. And you were enjoying it. But if you had an ounce of social conscience you would know that not everyone was enjoying it. It was, in that immortal phrase, "all right for some". Or it was, in the title of that David Lodge book, "nice work". The money was as nothing compared to the 1990s and today. But because it was lovely shiny new money, it seemed extraordinary. We've got used to huge amounts of cash in London now - in particular those enormous Russian sums of money - but then, the thought that all this money was passing through the same place was exciting. It was the start of the time when entrepreneurial people were gearing up to sell their businesses and make huge money. People were becoming millionaires, and they weren't ten-a-penny then.
Things like the breakfast news on TV seemed incredibly new-dawnish. When you saw a London Docklands flat, you thought: "Bloody hell!" Everyone was thinking: "I want to chuck in my old house and have one of these!" And everyone thought they could, too. Anybody could do anything.
Tim Bell, Margaret Thatcher's PR adviser
It was the end of the Cold War. America was now the sole superpower. It was a period of radical change and of political giants - Thatcher, Reagan, De Klerk, Yeltsin, Gorbachev.
Television became the most influential political medium for the first time. It came of age as a global force, and that was a huge change. Across the world, change happened. Apartheid collapsed, as did the Soviet Union. Socialism was dismissed as a credible political philosophy, and Free Market Capitalism was adopted across the world.
In Britain, it was the decade where people decided they wanted lower taxes. And they expected to be able to make money. It was the start of the idea that we've all become middle class now, and perhaps the end of the class war. A decade of Thatcher meant women were treated as having equal potential as men.
Most important, people saw political will instructing public opinion. Now, all that seems to matter is what the public think. But in the 1980s there was leadership - and people followed. When I worked for Thatcher, it was about selling ideas. We didn't flatter the public, and tell them we cried their tears. We were about saying: "This is a better way to run the world. Come with us."
Westminster was an enormously fun place to be in the 1980s. At least it was for me, because I was on the side of the government. If you were on the side of the opposition, it was probably horrible. Things were happening all the time. Unlike Blair, Thatcher didn't use her large majority to override democracy. Unlike Blair, she never limited Prime Minister's Questions. She didn't try to stifle debate. Quite the contrary; she was obsessed with parliamentary protocols and the way things were done. That meant Westminster mattered.
The most dominant thing in the media was the emergence of the idea of The Sun as the determinant in winning elections. I'm not sure if I buy that completely, but it certainly helped to have them on your side. I don't think it was as important for Thatcher as The Daily Mail, but what The Sun offered was the skilled and semi-skilled labourers. Kelvin MacKenzie was fantastically supportive of her.
How people think of the 1980s now - as the decade of greed - is rubbish. It was the decade of entrepreneurialism and possibility, where ordinary people could make something of themselves. When Thatcher left office, John Birt, who was to become the director general of the BBC a couple of years later, wrote a long letter to me. Birt, who was no Conservative, wrote: "The terrible thing about Thatcher's departure is that people who want to make something of themselves are going to have to work that much harder." It was a profound comment on what Thatcher was about, and what the 1980s in Britain were really about.
Hanif Kureishi, Novelist
The interesting period in the 1980s was the beginning. That was when Channel 4 and Film on Four started. Writers and film-makers took a stance against Thatcherism that felt very much like old-fashioned opposition. All the issues of the 1970s, such as race, feminism and gay rights, re-emerged - and those movements were very powerful in the 1980s. I felt like it was an exciting time to be writing.
Thatcher's ideology was so clear. No Conservative leader since the war had come out so strongly in favour of that certain type of economics, as fashioned by Keith Joseph. So we had a very distinct target, compared to someone like Ted Heath who was neither one thing nor the other in any sense.
It was also the time of a new drug - Ecstasy. There was dance music, of course, which came out of minimalism and so on, and led to the growth of the whole dance scene. I was a bit old for all that, but I was still very interested in the scene and was incredibly interested in writing about it. There was a key link between Ecstasy, dance music and the growth and rise of computers. People could start sampling their own tunes - that was a big development.
In literature, the big thing was Salman Rushdie. As far as British culture was concerned in the 1980s, nothing was more important than Midnight's Children. He had a huge impact on British writing - in fact, it turned English writing into British writing. The publication of Midnight's Children in the early 1980s, followed by the dramatisation of my book, My Beautiful Laundrette, really kicked the door open for British multiculturalism.
Prue Leith, Restaurateur
In the boom-time of the 1980s, it was so easy to make money it was ridiculous. I was running restaurants, a catering school and a massive catering business. When Black Monday came in 1987, suddenly our customers who had thought nothing of buying bottles of champagne at exorbitant prices weren't buying champagne at all. They were eating out once a month instead of every night. It was such a lesson. After that, we started to do all the things we should have been doing before the crash. We dropped prices, we made the restaurant more accessible, we didn't pack people in as we had in the boom years. We thought about what the customer would like. And we started to make money, even in a recession. I remember thinking that if I hadn't been spending money like it was going out of fashion before, I might have really made a fortune.
In the good times, though, we were so arrogant. At Leith's, our flagship restaurant in Notting Hill, we wouldn't take bookings of more than six, because we thought it spoilt the atmosphere. We wouldn't let anyone sing "Happy Birthday" for the same reason. We practically said: "If we don't like you, you're not coming in."
And people were ordering the most amazing things. Young guys from the City would come in and order the most expensive bottle of wine on the list. That would really irritate me, because I'd have to go out and buy another bottle of expensive wine. As far as I was concerned, I just wanted these posh bottles to decorate the list, and to look extraordinary. But we made pots of money on them anyway.
When the crash came, I had a wine lake worth £80,000 just sitting downstairs, unloved and unsold. It was a difficult time. The idea that the good times can roll for ever is, of course, a myth.
Although I was always working hard, I played pretty hard too. We just thought it was rather chic to be in the restaurant trade, and there were lots of people, other restaurateurs, who we would eat and drink with all the time. It was just tremendous fun.
John Lloyd, TV producer
The shows I was involved with in the 1980s - Not the Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder, and Spitting Image - won't go away. It gives you an idea of the kind of appeal those shows had. They're repeated, and the DVDs make money. What was it? I suppose there was a richness, not just to Blackadder and the rest, but to all those great sitcoms, of which Steptoe and Porridge stand out. There's great stuff now, with The Thick of It and The Office and so on, but God, they're bleak. They're all about how nasty and awful the world is. There was an optimism about the 1980s, which many people felt. I was young and I felt it.
Even though it was Mrs Thatcher's Britain and the age of yuppies, there was something warm about it. I do feel that those shows, even Not the Nine O'Clock News and Spitting Image, that were openly critical of the Establishment still made you feel good. When you see Gerald the Gorilla, it lightens your life a bit. Gerald the Gorilla is a lot like The Office in many ways - people bickering, absurd conflicts - but there has been a change in tone.
In the 1980s, when one sat down with a great newspaper like The Sunday Times, one sat and read. There was so much to read, and to think about. There's much more physical mass in the papers now, but nothing in them. Celebrity titties and minor television performers and footballers used to occupy one small section of the market, and now they are everywhere. I know this sounds like a Grumpy Old Man rant, but I think there has been a real, physical shift.
Television as a medium was an incredibly exciting place to be working in the 1980s. My generation was responsible for the collapse of that comfortable patrician duopoly who ran television - the Sidney Bernsteins and the Lew Grades. They were like Hollywood moguls. The guys who ran the BBC were like cabinet ministers - or at least that's how they came across.
The young guys were trying to knock this down. We didn't just want another sitcom with a sofa in it. Isn't there anything other than The Two Ronnies? And we set about doing something different. There were also people like Janet Street-Porter doing the same for "yoof television", with the wobbly camerawork. We used to laugh at it at the time, but everyone's copied it since.
I felt there was opportunity in television. When we first did NTNOCN, it was very wobbly. It needed work. But the powers-that-were didn't scrap it, they just told us where we needed to sort it out, and we came back with a hugely popular second series. The great thing was that, apart from Rowan Atkinson, no one knew who anyone was on the show. They came from nowhere to become The Office or Little Britain of its day. It was a completely different broadcasting environment, where Spitting Image was getting 15 million viewers. There was that huge communal experience in television; in some ways, that was the hallmark of the decade.
Wendy Dagworthy, fashion designer
My immediate recollection of the decade is affection. It was an extremely good time to be in fashion, especially from 1983 to 1987. There had been a lull from the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s, when there had been a kind of economic and creative recession. But, from 1983, the Americans became fascinated by Britain in a big way. A few of us went to America in 1986 to do a big promotion to push the British brands at that time - there was Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, John Galliano and me. We took a hotel in New York, and had a suite each. It was amazing - we had an absolute riot. On another occasion, Saks Fifth Avenue flew us over just to do a promotion in their store. It was a huge party all the time.
For the first time, young designers were being backed by big businesses. And socially, we couldn't have had a better time. We were always at places like Zanzibar, where I was a founder member. They were the sort of places you could just go to and never feel like you were on your own. As a girl, sometimes, it was difficult to go out on your own, but not at those places.
It irritates me the way the 1980s are referenced now, particularly by fashion students. They see the big shoulder-pads and all that, but that wasn't what I was doing. What designers and students seem to take from the 1980s is the kitsch, the worst bits. It was the whole Dynasty thing, and I want to shout: "We weren't doing that!"
It felt like the world was starting anew. We thought the boom would never stop. Of course, it did; the 1987 crash came, and suddenly the Americans were gone. Things were never the same again. I liquidated my business at the end of 1988. It was that quick, that drastic. The big markets in America and Italy were gone overnight, and you went down a lot quicker than you went up.
Jonathan Meades, Writer and presenter
The 1980s was the last decade before Britain got really dumb. There was still, in newspapers and television and publishing, a recognition that people were not as stupid as you thought. There was a move towards populism and accessibility - another word for "accessible for morons" - towards the end of the decade. It had something to do with the government's belief in market forces, and that everything had to earn its keep. Subsidised art had been on the wane during the 1980s, having been thriving in the 1970s.
The 1980s were hedonistic, but then, today is fairly hedonistic, too. The difference is that now there is a censoriousness towards hedonistic behaviour that didn't exist then. In the 1980s, it was pleasure without guilt. People were out to have a good time in a way that didn't infringe on responsibility. It's not that we've all become responsible now; we've all become guilt-stricken. And that, I'm sure, has something to do with having the most illiberal government of my adult lifetime. Thatcher was actually a libertarian. She was forgiving of peccadilloes. Under Thatcher, there was no idea of human perceptionism. The whole attitude was that people were not improvable. From a commercial and mercantile point of you, any behaviour went. There was a kind of licence that existed, which came after a long period of economic problems. People were richer, and there was a lot more money to spend on frivolities.
Jo Brand, Comedian
I was in the second wave of British comedy. I never even went to the Comedy Store in the early 1980s. I only started in 1986, with guys like Frank Skinner, Alan Davies, Julian Clary, Rob Newman and that mob. But it felt enormously exciting. What felt great about it was that there was this whole weird yuppie thing going on in the 1980s, but what we were doing seemed to be an antidote to all of that. We were playing in a smelly old pub, for a couple of quid, and it was eat-all-you-could out of the leftovers.
There was a whole non-racist, non-sexist thing going on in alternative comedy in that period, which didn't always transmit backstage. Everyone seemed to be led by the Friday Night Live thing, Ben Elton and his anti-Thatcher mob, so that the default position, if you were an alternative comedian at that time, was anti-Establishment. There were, of course, radical comedians, but there were a lot of people who were just left of centre, almost by default. For a large stretch of the 1980s, from 1982 until I became a comedian, I was working as a psychiatric nurse in Camberwell in south London. All human life was there. We took all the emergency cases from Brixton and Camberwell, so it was a kind of downmarket Hill Street Blues with a bit more violence. That part of London was a hotbed, particularly Brixton, where there was a lot of ill-feeling towards the police.
Where we were working, there were some memorable incidents. One guy was dropped off at the hospital by a police van. When he got out, he opened his mouth to speak, and all his teeth dropped out down his jumper. He had basically been given a good kicking because he was black. There was a bad atmosphere then in that part of London. There was a weird siege mentality.
So, when I entered comedy, I was really pleased to enter it on a left-wing ticket. Traditional comedy was racist, sexist jokes. I wanted to do something a bit different. There were a few other women doing it, but not many. It was so easy to get a gig as a woman back then. There were so many white, middle-class blokes, many of whom were from Cambridge or Oxford - so if you were a woman, or disabled, or a black person, they seized upon you like you were manna from heaven. They'd put you in the middle of the bill to make it seem not so much like Cambridge Footlights.
I now look back on the 1980s with mixed feelings. There was Thatcher, the decimation of the NHS and the Brixton riots, and the side of my job that was very depressing. And I hated those fucking yuppies. But there was the other side - the start of my comedy career - and I had an absolutely amazing time.
Katharine Hamnett, Fashion designer
I felt the 1980s was a missed opportunity. There was a feeling at the start of the decade that democracy wasn't making things better. People felt they had no voice. We wanted to give people a voice. That was what my campaigning T-shirts were about. I remember when the idea came to me: I was driving in Italy in deep fog, and a missile carrier passed me, and I thought: "Oh my God." I thought that at least if I put my feelings on a T-shirt, that would be a way of getting my voice across.
There was this feeling that you could get away with things. It's something we don't have now, with an illiberal government and antiterrorist legislation. You can now be arrested for wearing a "Free Tibet" T-shirt, which is unbelievable. In the 1980s, you could break the rules.
But the T-shirts achieved nothing. Even though the end of the 1980s had some great events - the end of the Soviet era and the fall of the Berlin Wall - the 1990s were a very dark time. My generation had our chance, but we missed it.
The 1980s were, though, a great time for creative people. Fashion is always more relevant when you're young; we were all young and enjoying breaking boundaries. We all became madly successful and it was utterly thrilling.
Were the 1980s more hedonistic? I don't know. I was in London, at college, in the 1960s, the whole swinging Sixties thing. And I'd been a fashion designer in the Seventies. Each decade had its flavour and there was more than enough hedonism. They were all fabulous times.
There was a lot of money around in the 1980s, but then again, I'd left college in the 1960s when I was 21 and was able to start a business almost straight away. It was easy to become successful when you were young then.
My memories of the 1980s are of possibility, and possibilities lost. We thought we could turn the world into a better place, but we were wrong. The world is now an abominably worse place.
Stephen Frears, Film director
How do I remember the 1980s? Of course, as a decade, there were good and bad things - it becomes very easy to generalise. As a film-maker, it was, generally, a difficult time to get films made. I was lucky, the cards came out the right way and I got to make films. My break came halfway through the decade when we hit on the subject matter of My Beautiful Laundrette. It was so palpably idiotic, what was going on in Britain. I suppose that the reason people talk so affectionately about the film now is that it was the first feature to say: "These politics are dreadful, and this Prime Minister is dreadful." In terms of film, it was the first note of defiance. After My Beautiful Laundrette, people started to identify a type of film that was "British". People would watch a film and could say: "Ah, that's a Channel 4 film." One of Thatcher's unexpected gifts to civilisation was the creation of Channel 4, which existed primarily to taunt her.
During the 1980s, I feel that people lived very straightforward lives. Of course you read these tales of bad behaviour in the newspaper, but most people, most of the time, live rather dull existences. It was easy to see then that there was a certain type of person that became stinking rich and behaved like an idiot. And that kind of behaviour was encouraged by the Prime Minister. But I didn't see any decadence whatsoever. It was just a question of going to work, and seeing whether interesting subjects emerged. And I'm sure, if you were a miner, no one would have described your life as decadent.
Billy Bragg, Musician
I'm still actively engaged, as I was in the 1980s, in politics. I haven't changed. But politics has. All the colour seems to have drained out of it. There seems to be a lack of ideology. Without ideology, all a political party does is firefighting, or headline-grabbing initiatives. There's no reason for existing. It's a problem for both the Conservative Party and Labour.
When I think about the 1980s, the period around the Miners' Strike is one of mixed feelings. The sense of being part of a genuine struggle over the issue of living in a fairer society - that has a double-edged sword element to it, because there was a lot of pain and misery associated with that struggle.
I don't miss the 1980s. I don't want to return to those times - Reagan and Thatcher. I don't have any nostalgia for the period. And we have to be careful on the left not to look at the 1980s through rose-tinted spectacles, as a time when we had a shared sense of purpose.
Musically, of course, the 1980s were very special for me. Any time when you make your breakthrough is special. That moment when you realise you're not going to have to work nine-to-five is amazing - ask the Arctic Monkeys. I thought there were some great people coming through - The Smiths were breaking through, and they were an engaged, interesting band. We were all moving away from that New Romantics movement. My main complaint about the 1980s is that people only remember it for the Thatcherite "loadsamoney" culture. They miss all the great activism - whether it was the Miners' Strike or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the anti-apartheid movement. People had convictions then, and a faith that a difference could be made. Our challenge, now, is to convince people to return to that mindset where they think they can make a difference.
Ken Loach, Film director
The 1980s were a difficult period for me, professionally. But you cannot overestimate the importance of the decade. It was a turning point, politically, in every respect. In the 1980s, British capitalism was struggling. It produced Margaret Thatcher, who set about reducing the power of labour - by letting unemployment go through the roof, and by diminishing the power of the trade unions. She tried to stop people organising and supporting each other, and trying to help each other.
It was a conscious strategy - to diminish the power of labour and increase the power of capital - and it has had the effect, since the 1980s, of pulling the Labour Party way over to the right, so that we now have two right-of-centre parties in Parliament. The Labour Party has continued the Thatcher agenda with a vengeance since the 1980s. The impact of Thatcher, and her government, has been immense. You see it everywhere, in Europe especially.
Trying to make films in that period was difficult. I wasn't having much luck with feature films, or making the best judgements. I tried to make TV documentaries, but many of them seemed to be censored, banned or squeezed into dead-end slots late at night or on Sunday afternoons.
It certainly wasn't a time, in my experience, of incredible licence. The experience of ordinary people was tough. Unemployment went from half a million to three million. That provoked terrific hardship, especially in the areas where things were being closed down - the pits, and those towns where lines of shutters went up on shops. It was a time of real tragedy for thousands and thousands of families. There were so many young men who were put out of work then who have never really recovered. It was savage, and the Labour leadership failed completely to counter it. I tried to make films about the crisis, but didn't succeed.
There was one thing that made me really furious about the period; that young people have grown up with no sense of what it means to be part of a community. There is no sense of solidarity, of mutual support, of the organisation of trade unions. It is just another language that people don't understand. To lose these concepts is a tragedy. You see it everywhere. That residue from the 1980s is vividly present in every conversation that you now have.
'The Line of Beauty' starts on BBC2 on Wednesday at 9pm
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