David Randall: The Seventies, decade of glamour and grit

As the BBC launches a new series 'The 70s', our writer rifles through his memory bank to relive those kaleidoscopic days

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The Independent Online

Dark beginnings. Haiphong, Phnom Penh, the Ibrox stadium disaster; Belfast; Watergate; and Idi Amin. And dark continuings, too. The Moorgate Tube disaster, dozens dying in a fire at an amusement centre on the Isle of Man. Summerland, it was called. Such a nice name, such a happy name. Such a dark, burnt-out place. In the Seventies, if the wind was in the right direction, you could smell burning almost everywhere.

It was that kind of decade – bad things, and yet silly things. Hysteria never far away. Napalm and hot pants, terrorists and Oh! Calcutta!, Vietnam and Pot Noodles. Chopper bikes and Entebbe. A world still ruled almost exclusively by men. Selsdon Man, The Ascent of Man, The Wicker Man and The History Man. But along came bra burning, an Equal Pay Act (we'd all be earning the same by 1976, they said) and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. And... 790 couples marrying in a mass Moonie wedding.

No shortage of villains. A whole villa full of them: John Stonehouse, John Poulson, the Cambridge rapist, Dennis Nilsen, Son of Sam – all of you, "Get yer trousers on, you're nicked!" But George Davis is innocent, OK? And so is Bobby Moore. He didn't steal that bracelet in Bogota. But someone stole the World Cup from us, made Gordon Banks ill. And so Harold Wilson never won his happy, footie-time election. Enter Edward Heath, a bachelor and a new broom at No 10.

An air of reform. An Industrial Relations Act, and change, change, change. Ever smaller change, actually. Gone in 1971 are half-crowns, shillings, sixpences and threepenny bits, and those nice solid pennies. In their place little decimal things. And cheerio Cumberland, Huntingdon, Rutland and Westmorland, whole counties swept away in the name of efficiency, which somehow never comes. Farewell, too, the Morris Minor, Daily Sketch, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Charles de Gaulle, and free school milk. Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher.

But enter the Range Rover, and cars with vaguely exotic-sounding names: the Morris Marina, the Triumph Dolomite, and the Capri. All running on Castrol, "liquid engineering", said the ad with the oil oozing all over the place. You'd need petrol, too, of course, but that could be a problem in 1974. Opec – no one knows what it stands for; everyone knows what it does. According to a survey, it now costs £11 a week to run a family car. And that goes for all families, not just hard-driving ones. Shocking.

Inflation, you see. It's gone mad. By December 1974 it reaches 26 per cent. The miners' strike ends with a 35 per cent pay increase, and wage inflation is soon up to 28.5 per cent a year. We're all in the money! Trouble is, it's not worth as much as it was last week, or yesterday. The Good Life? Don't make me laugh. Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh! If I want a giggle, there's The Comedians, The Goodies, or Sportsnight with Coleman – he could find overexcitement in a ploughed field. But not Love thy Neighbour, or On the Buses.

An energy crisis. Power cuts, a three-day week and government advice to get us all through it: "Think before you switch on!", "Switch off something now", "Please heat only one room", "Share a bath", "Brush your teeth in the dark". "Merry Christmas, everybody!" Later, Heath, fed up with Joe Gormley, Mick McGahey, Ray Buckton, Ray Gunter, Frank Chapple and all the other brothers, asks, "Who governs Britain?" And the answer from the electorate comes: "Not you, mate." Wilson returns.

Some names: Blair Peach, Lord Lucan, Evel Knievel, Patty Hearst, Pol Pot, and Joyce McKinney. She only went and kidnapped a Mormon missionary. Said she loved him so much she'd be prepared to ski naked down Mount Everest with a rose in her teeth. Opportunity Knocked. And I mean that most sincerely, folks. But Joyce couldn't ski, and Surrey Police nabbed her, and she went to jail.

More names: Stan Bowles, Ralph Coates, Duncan McKenzie. Whatever happened to these likely lads? Don Revie, that's what. Close 'em down, waste time, dribble it into the corner. A 0-0 sort of era. Brentford Nylons, Bay City Rollers, Bouquet of Barbed Wire, and Biba. And, if these didn't suit, there was always something chintzy, something to remind you of the good old days: Upstairs, Downstairs; Laura Ashley; wallpaper by Sanderson; The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. And Mr Kipling does make exceedingly good cakes. Nice one, Cyril.

But other things not nice. Just ask Mary Whitehouse, mother, housewife and clean-up-Britain superstar. And, by Jove, there was so much to clean up. Been to Soho lately? Raymond's Revue Bar, and streets full of porn. Walk-ups, clip joints and peep shows. Along come Lord Longford and his commissioners. Tut, tut, tut.

Some couples. Taylor and Burton, George and Mildred, Terry and June, Ally MacLeod and hubris, Mrs Slocombe and her pussy. And, for Mr and Mrs Ordinary, a new divorce law. All it would take now is "irretrievable breakdown" and that could mean anything you wanted it to. And soon you wouldn't even need to be married, thanks to Lee Marvin, a girl and a new thing called "palimony". Love is... never having to say you're sorry, said the film and the T-shirts. But it wasn't always that way. "You Make Me Feel Brand New". But later, when the shine has worn off, you'll make me pay.

But here comes North Sea oil. By the Nineties, we'll all be rolling in it! It'll be like Saudi Arabia without the sand. Until then, Rolls-Royce has gone bust, there's trouble again at British Leyland, and they're working-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. We'd like to buy the world a Coke, but we can't. No money. Better tax the rich until the pips squeak. Or go "cap in hand" to the IMF. Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.

A pair of forced migrations: Vietnamese "boat people", and Ugandan Asians. Two new arrivals that just turned up: Hong Kong flu (it killed 4,000 Britons in a week), and Dutch elm disease. You couldn't see it, but it was browning and killing off the defining tree of the southern English landscape. Just like the summer of 1976 nearly did. It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. Concorde: London to New York in three and a half hours. The A21: London to Hastings in twice that on a bank holiday Monday. And Ulster, the decade's deadly musak. Bogside, Londonderry, Falls Road, Apprentice Boys, Orangemen, bowler hats, marches, Bloody Sunday, the Shankill Road, and pub bombings: Birmingham, Woolwich, Guildford, Caterham.

Lots of anger about. Black September, the Red Brigade, and the Angry Brigade. The Revolutionary Workers Party, and Socialist Workers Party, and Abigail's Party. Grunwick, the Gang of Four, the Shrewsbury Two, and Blake's 7. And flares, tank tops, hot pants, big hair, maxi skirts, kipper ties, and platform shoes – cliché clothes for a cliché time. Fondue sets, jet sets, and the first jumbo jets. And lava lamps.

There's a Gay Liberation Front now, and Quentin Crisp is on the telly. One of the stately homos of England, he is. "Are you free, Mr Humphries?" "I'm free, Captain Peacock." What about you, Norman Scott? Yes, I'm free. In that case, says Jeremy Thorpe, bunnies can and will go to France.

Happy Days, The Waltons, Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie's Angels, and Britain's first McDonald's. "People are really rather afraid of being swamped by people of another culture," said Mrs Thatcher, but, then, she didn't mean those things. She meant other things, or rather hoped her audience would think she meant other things. Only she couldn't really say. Race Relations Act.

"For mash, get Smash". For action, Get Carter. Jim Callaghan – "you're a big man, but you're in bad shape". Uncollected rubbish, pickets on graveyards, Green Goddesses, Red Robbo, "Crisis, what crisis?". A winter – a whole decade – of discontent. An election in which ends the post-war upbeat, Keynesian consensus. Snaking queues at labour exchanges – far shorter than now, but "Labour isn't working". A win for Thatcher. "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.... And where there is despair, may we bring hope." Oh dear.

The 70s starts on BBC2 tomorrow night at 9pm