Archive for abigail’s party

Tough times bring on 70s’ nostalgia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by gtam80

In the midst of the recent talk surrounding an economic downturn it has been interesting to note the frequency with which people have recalled the potential similarities between our current predicament and the social problems Britain faced through that most tumultuous of decades – the 1970s. Interestingly not all of these comparisons have been flavoured by anxieties or cultural depressions; indeed in the year when so many people are celebrating the memory of 1968 and Civil Rights it might, ironically, be possible to finally appreciate the social and cultural importance of the much maligned 1970s.

Admittedly the Troubles coloured the decade here in Northern Ireland, yet according to 2004 evidence by the New Economics Foundation which has been highlighted in a recent book ‘Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in The 1970s’ by Alwyn W. Turner, people in Britain were actually happier in 1976 than any time since. Despite this suggestion it might be said that popular culture in Britain, despite often appearing negative in its outlook, has never been as interesting as it was between 1970 and 1980.

While the social and cultural revolutions experienced throughout the 1960s were undeniably important in shaping an understanding of contemporary Britain, it is the manner in which people reacted to the slide in the 1970s which arguably provides more intriguing material for historians of politics and culture in particular – indeed, in his book Turner uses the commissioning of the South Bank Show by London Weekend Television late in the decade as evidence that culture had, by the 1970s, become central to observing how British people behaved and interacted with each other and their environment more generally. Turner is correct, and Mike Leigh’s classic play ‘Abigail’s Party’ (1977) with its commentary on the new suburban middle class and its beige aspirations was important in portraying how everyday life was often flavoured by an acute fatalism. Indeed less acknowledged works in the ‘Play for Today’ series at the time portray the many schisms that were causing social tensions in 1970s Britain. Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) which was centred on a day in the life of a drum major in an Orange band acutely observed everyday life in Glasgow in the midst of a constitutional crisis in Scotland.

The many recent volumes written on the punk phenomenon have continually suggested that by the late 1970s British youth in particular had reached a boiling point of disillusionment – indeed there have been observations that John Lydon’s fantastic post-Sex Pistols project Public Image Ltd. was in danger of bringing the burgeoning dystopia of the late part of the decade to dangerously wretched levels in the new wave era of the 1980s (how prophetic he was in terms of setting the mood for the advent of Thatcher’s early 1980s!). However in the early to mid 1970s David Bowie had already provided chillingly prescient commentaries on issues such as the cult of personality and the alienation of the majority with famous albums such as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’. By the end of the decade Bowie’s mood had been cheered little as he released the malevolent trilogy of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. On top of Bowie’s pacesetting work brooding soundscapes conjured by Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, Gang of Four and Joy Division laid bare the many discourses, from dealing with the legacy of the 1960s to the more immediate issue of the power of the trade unions, vying for attention in 1970s Britain

The importance of the 1970s in understanding wider British society cannot be ignored. Indeed in the same manner in which people reacted to the war and the post-war years, it has been during periods when Britain’s collective back has been against the wall that its literature and music has been at its most fascinating. Indeed in recent years some artists have called upon the zeitgeist of the 1970s for their own craft. The most obvious example of this was David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned United’ which was based on Brian Clough’s brief tenure in charge at Leeds United and which has proved to be so popular that it is soon to be made into a film.

Indeed the popularity of the recent television series ‘Life On Mars’ might provide a small clue about the depth of people’s feelings regarding the over-sensitive nature of modern British society. While cultural representations of the decade may often appear muggy and claustrophobic it has only been recently when some commentators have noted the emerging similarities between Brown’s Britain and the 1970s that a non-retro nostalgia has emerged for a time when edgy music, literature and television rallied against and commented on important social phenomena, and indeed came to the fore in the consciousness of the mainstream. One wonders how Britons in 2040 will talk about the latest Keane or Snow Patrol records in relation to their social and cultural origins?

Source: Belfast News Letter, October 2008