❉ A book about growing up in the dark side of the 70s with the darkest, most inappropriate pop culture ever.
“There’s a child whose life has changed in the last year…..Somewhere, there are other children whose lives are going to be changed.
Will one of them…..be YOUR child?”
Blind Child: Fireworks (Central Office of Information film, 1974)
“Not only has there never before been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its immediate past, but there has never before been a society that is able to access the immediate past so easily and so copiously.”
― Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (Faber & Faber, 2011)
Nostalgia seems to define and dictate our present culture, perhaps as it never has before, in ways undreamt-of as recently as a decade ago. Ever since our ability to record, edit and re-share the visual and sonic textures of our common (and sometimes uncommon) cultural experience became a viable option to those outside the entertainment industry, people (largely, it has to be said, bespectacled introverts with testicles and optional BO) have been doing so. First by exchanging physical objects with one another in the playground: physical objects like last night’s John Peel Show or that (“Honest to God it IS!”) snuff movie we got a loan of off our dodgy cousin in the next school along. Recorded onto magnetic tape and somehow both comically bulky to the eyes of today’s Netflix-and-Spotify-reared generation and simultaneously fragile, flimsy, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. As digital files and the internet gradually came to replace pretty much every aspect of our day-to-day entertainment and social requirements the exchange now happens invisibly, across thousands of miles of fibre-optic cabling and through the phantom miracle of wi-fi.
TV Cream and TV Ark. Youtube and Vimeo and Dailymotion. Repositories and forums for recorded memory, for breathless chatter about things we thought we’d forgotten, but we never had. We never could. Wisps of atmosphere from a childhood living room. Bagpuss’s yawn and Roobarb’s bark. Ivor the Engine ‘pshhh-t-kuh, ’pshhh-t-kuh’-ing his way up a lovely drawing of a Welsh hillside. ‘Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub’. The sighing, sad-whistling Clangers jerking around on their little moon. We were men and women now, some of us with children of our own. But when we saw these colours and heard these sounds again parts of ourselves we’d locked away behind adult worries and adult sex and adult booze were free once more. It was like a benign shot of heroin, wrapping our spines in cotton wool, reminding us that happiness was just something you could have without thinking about it, once upon a time.
The boom in 1970s nostalgia which hangs like smog over all of us who were ‘lucky’ enough to have been children then isn’t without its problematic side. It increasingly seems to be too much to ask that our male light entertainers who made us giggle and roll our eyes at their naff, pre-watershed antics might also not have been (at best) predatory sex pests in their spare time. If anyone really ever had rose-tinted memories of the decade as a lot of awkward, garishly-decorated but essentially innocent family fun, Jimmy Savile fixed that for us. Permanently.
As with everything in culture that hangs around long enough (The Beatles, the Star Wars saga, the concept of the superhero) 1970s nostalgia has darkened and complicated itself as its shelf-life has extended beyond its own meagre ambitions. Because it wasn’t just Bagpuss and Dad’s Army was it? It was the IRA and Pol Pot and the Ayatollah. It was panic about rabies and despair about the Cold War, summers that were too hot and winters that were too cold, and strikes and power-cuts. Margaret Thatcher smashing the glass ceiling and lacerating everyone below her. Open racism, open sexism and people of forty who looked nearer seventy because no one dared tell them how many fags they could smoke or gins they could sink at lunchtime.
Nostalgia darkens and we re-interpret the 70s now through the warped-record fog of Boards of Canada and Pye Corner Audio: through the eerily accurate mock-Open University modules of Look Around You, and the deadpan, Orwellian horror of Scarfolk Council periodically mutating social media into a nicotine-yellow NHS waiting room or rain-sodden dole queue. Threat and gloom are as much a part of our nostalgia now as charm or warmth. The Seventies, we gradually came to realise, was actually as horrible as it was extraordinary.
Naturally we want more of it. BECAUSE it was horrible. BECAUSE it was extraordinary.
And aren’t we lucky, because here comes the book some of us have been waiting on for years.
Scarred For Life Volume One: The 70s by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence comes wrapped in a cover design redolent of the ubiquitous Look-In Annuals of our favourite era, and starring some of our favourite icons and anti-icons. There’s Tom Baker as the best Doctor Who! But, oh…there’s Rudolph Walker and Jack Smethurst from Love Thy Neighbour being racist to each other for laughs. Sapphire and Steel! And a gore-drenched rabbit from Watership Down…
Presiding moodily over the whole arrangement? Your friend and mine The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, gazing his eyeless gaze at Joanna Lumley as he considers maybe drowning a kid from Grange Hill. This book jacket promises so much: surely it can’t deliver an entire decade of bad vibes to us on the printed page?
That’s the thing that strikes you immediately about Scarred For Life. The ambition is vast, the word count is daunting. At more than 700 pages it’s considerably weightier than a Look-In annual. And as you leaf through its crisp, clean, colourful pages you realise that Brotherstone and Lawrence are attempting something extraordinary: they want to capture and communicate nothing less than the texture of an entire era.
Are they successful? On the whole, yes they are. Enviably so. Their remit is ingenious: tell the story of a decade from the point of view of a frightened, bewildered, square-eyed child, plonked on a brown-patterned carpet in front of a cathode ray TV. One such innocent sits with his back to us in a period photo early on, bowlcut and knitted tanktop present and correct. The 70s really did look like the pop culture memory of it, perhaps more than any other decade in living recall.
The tone is friendly, matey, cheerful even. This is no learned tome of cultural sociology, squeezing the life out of its subject matter with studied dryness and academic detachment. The prose has the conversational feel of the (very entertaining) Twitter account that gave birth to the project, and has something of the internet forum and the saloon bar get-together about it. We’re all just mates here, chatting about the stuff that really scared (scarred?) us as kids. This hale-fellow-well-met approach belies the staggering amount of detail and research within these pages. The first section (Scarred By Television!) covers a lot of familiar territory. Folk Horror Revival-friendly titles like The Owl Service, The Stone Tape and Children of The Stones are covered of course, but there’s a lot of room made for far more obscure, dimly-recalled fare like HTV’s disturbing, unfriendly Kid-Who-Fell-To-Earth saga Sky or the Kafka-meets-Lewis Carroll meanderings of King of the Castle.
It’s not just science fiction or horror the authors are interested in either, as they (often with the help of the peerless Network DVD, archivists of 70s grit and grot par excellence) unearth some overlooked gems like none-more-downbeat school-leavers’ drama 4 Idle Hands or Gangsters, Philip Martin’s violent, postmodern assault on the nerves. There are sections on Dystopian sci-fi and English Gothic drama, and yes a lot of it might feel over-familiar to the well-read pop-culture spod, but Brotherstone and Lawrence take pains to personalise and play up the impact of these images on their tender young psyches: their re-evaluation of bumptious kids’ comedy Worzel Gummidge as a kind of stealth horror entirely of its own genre is chucklesome and convincing.
The most interesting chapter in this section, ‘How we Used To Live’, is a treasure trove (or chamber of horrors) of dated attitudes and clothing: to think now that a show like The Black and White Minstrels was even considered fit for broadcast, let alone that it was the powerhouse of the BBC prime time schedule for years is an extraordinary, shameful thing. But Scarred For Life has the upper hand on those Channel 4 and Channel 5 ‘weren’t the seventies aaaaawwwful?’ shows that periodically clog the schedule: its authors remember the prevailing, invisible doublethink that made us believe that Love Thy Neighbour or Spike Milligan’s ill-fated culture-clash comedy Curry And Chips could be seen as progressive. In an era when the only black faces on TV almost all belonged to a white Welsh Dixieland jazz troupe, the sight of a handsome, urbane black man like Rudolph Walker as the star of a leading sitcom was a start. A TERRIBLE start. But a start.
The section Scarred By Public Information Films is a wonderland of innocence and injury: individual ads and films are discussed, and it’s to the authors’ credit that they can demonstrate how the hysterical and laughable nature of many of these mini-horror movies sits happily cheek-by-jowl with a very real, completely unforgettable sense of sweaty unease and existential panic: the title of one sub-chapter, Everything Kills is perfect: in the world of the PIF, a rug on a polished wooden floor could be scarier than any chainsaw. The book is studded throughout with a running roll-call of unsung heroes of British cultural life, and in this section the career of the late, great John Krish (of notorious Nationwide-bothering railway-safety film The Finishing Line, and bleak, brutal fire-prevention short Searching) gets a thorough evaluation. The chapter’s real coup is an interview with Jeff Grant, director of the authentically haunting Lonely Water, the Citizen Kane of Public Information Films. The connections he makes between the grim, fatalistic tone of his 90-second classic and the monochrome dread of Ingmar Bergman is catnip to the ageing PIF-lover.
The rest of the book tumbles gleefully through genres and artifacts like there’s no tomorrow (and maybe too much yesterday). Scarred By Toys and Games is a Proustian minefield of inappropriate horror imagery and rogue swastikas: Scarred By Films acknowledges the role late-night telly and unnerving poster campaigns had on multitudes of unready youngsters, with a particular focus on unrepeatable details of Seventies film classification, like dismemberment-and-gore-heavy Jaws getting a mild, family-friendly ‘A’ rating, or Watership Down traumatising a generation by filling a film with cute, animated bunny-rabbits then offing them gorily one by one like a pre-pubescent John Carpenter movie.
The film section concludes with a lovely reclamation of unjustly maligned ‘What If Carrie Was A Shouty Middle-Aged Man Played By Richard Burton?’ B-movie The Medusa Touch and a terrific chapter on the grim, nasty, embittered 70s music film sub-genre: Slade In Flame, That’ll Be The Day and Stardust were films that made you want to give up on everything, let alone your dreams of rock stardom.
Scarred By Books And Comics is just about as thorough a dissection of everything a bloodthirsty boy or masochistic girl could have wanted to read, with Pat Mills’ pre-2000AD masterwork Misty For Girls emerging as a truly haunted, haunting sleeper masterpiece, and Richard Allen’s jaw-dropping run of short, sharp shocks about skinheads and bikers going under the microscope one more time. The book ends (after a brief but fun excursion into the world of traumatising sweets: Fuman Chews, anyone?) with an engrossing chapter on the rise of the paranormal in pop culture: everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Doris Stokes and Erik Von Daniken is dealt with here, with the unique mixture of healthy scepticism and ‘I want to believe!’ yearning that maybe only the decade of Uri Geller could have instilled in its kids. Those Usborne books on UFOs, Monsters and Ghosts are still serving as reference material for the likes of Inside No. 9’s Shearsmith and Pemberton to this day.
There’s so much material in this book it’s difficult to feel that any review could properly do it justice: the titles and names mentioned here are the merest sliver from the very top of the iceberg. If the book has weakness it could be that it tries to cram in every single thing the writers could remember from their youth, which lends it a heavy, uphill quality that the sparky, amusing prose-style only fitfully alleviates. Perhaps this is better seen as a book to keep on the bedside table, to dip in and out of when one feels the need. What it lacks in original thought it more than makes up for in anecdotal vigour. It conjures up a lot of striking imagery too: the ‘X’ rating is rather touchingly described at one point as ‘like a rusty gate barring my entry’ to the film of the author’s choice, while elsewhere one of our narrators describes his obsession with the supernatural as making him ‘a pig in muck: albeit a pig who was also scared of muck’. That’s poetry that is. And a perfect encapsulation of the unending attraction-repulsion of this horrible, extraordinary decade to the wide-eyed kids who poked and nagged at their own fears the way they might work a baby tooth loose.
That exquisite pain in your jaw? That sweet, coppery taste on your tongue? That’s the Seventies, kids. It’ll leave scars.
❉ ‘Scarred For Life Volume One: The 1970s – Growing Up In The Dark Side Of The Decade’ by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence is published by Lulu on 24 March 2017, RRP £16.99.
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