David Thomas: Begone,dull flares!

Our trivialising culture has repackaged an entire decade, the Seventies, as a kitsch joke. In fact, we can scarcely compete with its seriousness and creativity

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There is something almost awe-inspiring about television's capacity for dumbing down. No subject is so footling that they can't make it even more vacuous. But "dumbing down" has become such a cliché that any impact has been lost. So let's put it this way: if the actuality of the BBC's 10-week celebration of the Seventies is anything like its pre-publicity then our national broadcaster's take on an entire decade will not be just dumb, but also a trivial, misconceived, lame-brained betrayal of history. It's just plain thick.

There is something almost awe-inspiring about television's capacity for dumbing down. No subject is so footling that they can't make it even more vacuous. But "dumbing down" has become such a cliché that any impact has been lost. So let's put it this way: if the actuality of the BBC's 10-week celebration of the Seventies is anything like its pre-publicity then our national broadcaster's take on an entire decade will not be just dumb, but also a trivial, misconceived, lame-brained betrayal of history. It's just plain thick.

On Saturday night, 1970 was trailed as a year best commemorated by Jimmy Savile, best remembered for chopper bikes, Scooby Doo, stylophones and Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime". Well, fair enough, I loved Scooby, too. And I won't argue with anyone who wants to revel in the sight of that year's World Cup-winning Brazil team. I remember the playing-field arguments as we fought for the right to be Pelé, Tostao, Jairzinho and Rivelino.

But 1970 was far more notable for a bleakness - presaged by the blood-soaked Rolling Stones show at Altamont in December 1969 - that marked an end of any pretence of Sixties idealism. Musically, 1970 was the year that Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died and the Beatles broke up. Politically, it was the year that the US government turned its guns on its own children, as National Guard troopers killed four students at Kent State University; the year that Richard Nixon sent troops into Cambodia; the year that the glory of the moon landing was replaced by the near-catastrophe of Apollo 13; the year that Charles Manson went on trial for murder.

In Africa, the Biafran rebels were crushed, amid horrifying stories of rape and starvation. In Bangladesh a tidal wave killed 150,000 people. In Jordan, three hijacked airliners were blown up by Palestinian terrorists, who successfully demanded the release of imprisoned comrades in exchange for the passengers' safe return. Northern Ireland became a battle-zone, while London saw both the arrival of Edward Heath at No 10, and the first Gay Liberation Front march.

Here, then, were the seeds of a decade whose reality was as far removed as one could possibly imagine from the way in which it has come to be presented. The Seventies have become enshrined as "the decade that taste forgot", an era of hot pants, flares and platform heels, played out to a soundtrack of glam rock and disco. But that reductive surface image is far more reflective of our present cultural vacuity than of the Seventies themselves.

For these were, above all, years of profound ideological struggle, the first half of a 20-year battle that would see right-wing capitalism exert an apparently unbreakable grip on Western economies, while ceding control of the cultural agenda to the Left. When Edward Heath came to power, he inherited a quarter-century's consensus that presumed the role of the state in determining the course of economic development, and the right of trades unions to be represented not only in the workplace, but also at the heart of government. By the end of the decade and the arrival of Mrs Thatcher, trades unionism had become so discredited that the Labour Party's association with the TUC would render it unelectable for almost two decades.

By then, Britain's economic collapse had reached a point where it was no longer possible for the governing classes to fool themselves that they were in the business of gently managing decline. I remember my mother going on business to Germany in the 1970s and coming back, wide-eyed, with tales of how rich that country seemed: the smartness of people's clothes, the shininess of their cars. We were a shabby, impoverished nation, begging for money from the IMF, and pitied by our neighbours.

Yet that Gay Lib march was powerfully prophetic. As the economic agenda slipped from its control, the Left reformed around social and minority issues, hugely aided by its iron grip on the arts and humanities faculties of virtually every seat of further education. (Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man is as evocative of Seventies academia as Brideshead Revisted is of pre-war Oxbridge privilege.)

Along the way, the self-confidence of the West would be shaken as at no time before or since. The triple whammy of Watergate, defeat in Vietnam and the 1973 oil crisis left the USA reeling economically, bereft of political or military self-confidence.Who could have imagined that it was just around the corner from the Top Gun jingoism, Rambo-esque posturing and greed-is-good flaunting of the mid-Eighties?

It was the very darkness of the Seventies that gave the decade its extraordinary creative strength - especially in the movies. It began with the promise of a New Hollywood (here at least the BBC got it right with Saturday's screening of M*A*S*H) in which young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich would make films that combined creative adventure with box-office clout. There were new actors, too: DeNiro, Pacino, Hackman, Duvall - stars whose power came from their talent, rather than their off-beat looks. There was, in short, The Godfather.

Then, in mid-decade, Steven Spielberg made Jaws. The first film to break the $100m barrier at the US box office, it invented the concept of the movie as franchiseable marketing event. It was followed by Star Wars, Close Encounters, Saturday Night Fever (actually very New Hollywood in the social realism against which the disco sequences are set), Grease and Alien. But there was one major difference between these mega-hits and their glossed-up Eighties equivalents: they were genuinely good, even great movies.

Which point could well be made about Seventies music. It is taken for granted by critics and public alike that the Seventies were the grim morning after the musical party of the Sixties. In singles terms that may be so: Slade, the Sweet and the Glitter Band are jolly enough as kitsch nostalgia, but you'd have to be pretty tin-eared to rate their singles above the Sixties output of the Small Faces or the Kinks, let alone the Beatles, Stones or Beach Boys, still less the glories of Motown or Stax.

But the massive point missed by Nineties nostalgists is that the Seventies was the decade in which the album flowered as a work of art in its own right, across an astonishingly wide range of genres. The journey that the Rolling Stones made from "Satisfaction" to Exile on Main Street was paralleled by the progress of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder from performers of bouncy pop-soul singles to creators of full-length masterpieces such as What's Going On and Innervisions. As I was thinking about this article, I got in the mood by digging out Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. It's not just that the music is thrillingly powerful, it's also played with a commitment to musicianship that simply doesn't enter into the equation today.

When punk came along, with all its glorious anarchy, it destroyed the idea that technique was important; it was the musical equivalent of the "long-ball" theory that would have an equally devastating effect on British football. It's easy to forget that one of the glories of Seventies music is the sheer delight of the playing, whether it's the cool jazziness of Steely Dan or Joni Mitchell, the rhythmic innovation of the Wailers or (in a different context) Chic - even the prog-rock of the Yes Album. People still made records for the music, not the moolah. That would soon change, if only because musicians became far more clued-up about their financial affairs. But the sense of art for art's sake applied equally to British television. Amid the jolly trash of Dallas and The Generation Game were gems such as I Claudius and The Naked Civil Servant.

Just think: in the 1970s, Martin Amis was a dazzling, shocking young presence, rather than a wealthy, middle-aged irrelevance. And I here I am, right at the end of the piece, and I haven't even mentioned David Bowie or Roxy Music. Nor have I countered the myth of Seventies fashion with the truth that Yves Saint Laurent was in his prime, while Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein were setting the elegant, unstructured trends that would revolutionise modern dress. The Seventies was extraordinary, complex decade whose impact resonates to this day. And never mind the bollocks of platforms and flares.

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