❉ John Rivers takes a deep dive into the darkest recesses of 80s pop culture…
Being a child in the 1980s you were painfully aware of the things that were most likely to kill you: a nuclear war, whether real or one started by a computer, the aftermath of a nuclear war, becoming sick, struggling to survive, fighting off horrors. AIDS was certainly going to end you, the government said so. Drugs would see your needle-scarred body left in the gutter or at the very least hospitalised and unable to sit your O-Levels for a few weeks.
This background of massive, unknowable threat, over which you, as a primary school child, had zero control over, was merely the foundation of fear, there was lots of terrifying stuff offered up by culture to encounter. As a sensitive and impressionable kid, my parents were slightly surprised by the number of things which I found scary: the opening credits to SuperTed (1983), Yuri the teddy bear terrorist from Terrahawks (1983), the feeling of unease whenever there was a break in transmission, NOSEYBONK.
One of the fun things about being an adult is that you get to explore these fears and make sense of what you found terrifying. Knowing why a thing was terrifying is a great way of confronting it. Is reading Scarred for Life Volume 2: Television in the 1980s a form of therapy? It just might be. Whereas the first volume of Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s exploration of the feared covered all forms of pop culture in the 1970s, the following decade has proven to be too big a topic for one just volume. Therefore this new volume focuses only on the small screen. The decade where the UK got a whole new television channel, television drama pushed boundaries with landmark productions such as Edge of Darkness (1985), The Singing Detective (1986) and, um, The Tripods (1984).
And that was just the BBC, which had a great decade for telefantasy, offering up terrifying visions with dramas such as The Nightmare Man, The Day of the Triffids and Artemis ‘81 (all 1981) and especially for children with productions such as The Box of Delights (1984), The Children of Green Knowe (1986), Moondial and The Watch House (both 1988). Meanwhile older standbys such as Look and Read and Doctor Who progressed into a new era, bringing some new scares, but also the increasing worry that budgets and an increasingly tele-literate and critical audience (even the kids) would find more to challenge. Brotherstone and Lawrence cover them all, exploring how they came to be, why they were scary and why we continue to think about them today.
Channel 4 gets a section all to itself, which during its early years was a haven of the weird and wonderful, focusing on imports, such as surrealist film La Cabina (1972) and the assorted bizarre animations that got broadcast, often as schedule fillers. Homegrown horrors arrived in the form of Minipops (1983) which saw pre-teen children impersonating popstars often in adult make-up. The fact that six episodes were broadcast is a frightening enough thought. Also with its own section is perennial hauntology favourite the Public Information Film, which deals with subjects like government warnings on AIDS and drugs, which fuelled the background gloom I described above.
Punctuating the essays found in Scarred for Life Volume Two are contributions from individuals who were there at the time, for example, Gary Russell talks about working on the Look and Read ‘Dark Towers’ series, expressing the frustrations he felt as a young actor having to say the lines exactly as written because children were going to be following them in their books at the same time. Brotherstone and Lawrence have also invited guest contributors too including We are Cult’s very own James Gent who takes a look at Johnny Jarvis (1983) which charts the fortunes of two different school leavers from late ’70s Hackney up to the early ’80s as they become involved with trying to find employment, continuing education, new wave music and drugs.
Presented in a Smash Hits tribute cover and covering 1980s television subjects such as ‘the loveable rogue’, or how cops on telly were rehabilitated, Scarred for Life Volume 2 is a fascinating look at how the things that scared on us television had moved on from the previous decade and we, as an audience had also matured. It’s worth stating that some of this is due to the writers experiencing the 80s as teenagers and not kids as they had been for the first volume. As a child in the 80s myself, this was an interesting perspective to have, though does explain why Knights of God (1987) gets a mention, but the scary teddies of Terrahawks do not.
The range covered in the book is very impressive, covering over five hundred pages and leaves the reader eager to learn more about the books, movies and imminent threats of nuclear destruction that the team are hoping to cover in a third volume. If you enjoyed the original Scarred for Life then buying this should be a no-brainer, it’s just as well-researched and written as the first. If you didn’t read volume one, then this is a great chance to jump on-board and start enjoying some of the more enjoyable television commentary available. At the very least it may help you to understand some of those things that you felt were odd or scary from TV in the 80s and it just might stop the nightmares.