TV COLUMN This Is England ’90, An Inspector Calls, It Was Alright In The 1980s

Opinion
Opinion

Columnist James Waller-Davies takes a look at this week’s television.

“The past is a foreign country…”

Television has an enduring fascination with the past. Not ‘past’ as history per se, but as a comfort blanket of nostalgia, ready to snuggle us up in a cosy cuddle of how good things were.

Not so Shane Meadows, the director with one of the sharpest eyes for nostalgia working behind a British camera today, whose This Is England ’90 (Channel 4) began this week.

The pre-titles opening scene introduced three of the gang waiting at the back of the school canteen for some free lunch. As Gadget says: “It’s not about the money. It’s about the nostalgia, isn’t it?” They are poor, but it’s not about poverty, it’s about getting to grips with not being a child anymore.

Remember the days when school chips and a mint custard with chocolate cake was enough to put a smile on your face? As Shaun explained to his incredulous mum, who can’t believe he’d walk two miles for it when there’s food in the house: “You can’t just recreate a good school dinner at home!”

The opening title montage relocates us back into the visceral politics and culture of the 1990’s: the poll tax riots; Gazza crying at the Italia ’90 World Cup; the Strangeways prison riot; the first Iraq war; mad cow disease; the end of the Thatcher era ironically accompanied to The La’s There She Goes.

It’s Britain presented as a bleak, social-war zone. I was there; that age; then. It’s enough to make anyone of my generation feel lucky we got out.

This Is England isn’t everyone’s cup-o’-tea. It’s rough shot, highly naturalistic, deliberately un-slick and with a dialogue that will cause offense to many. The first episode was short on narrative, all exposition – a reacquainting with old friends. But Meadows is a brutal storyteller and if he remains true to type, this final series will not leave with a smile on the face of the past.

Another Conservative general election win, another production of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (BBC1). Priestley’s enduring social drama has been following Tory governments around with regularity. The 1954 film version accompanied Churchill, followed by the 1982 TV series and Thatcher. In 1992, Stephen Daldry’s National Theatre revival was ready and waiting for John Major and now, in 2015, it’s the turn of David Cameron.

The politics aside – and that’s a big aside to put – An Inspector Calls is a fantastically well-structured play, combining social realism with detective fiction. This BBC version, however, gave back-story and voice to the elusive Eva Smith, the silent ‘victim’ of the original, and in the process unbalanced the play somewhat.

The impression given by some of the radio reviews suggested that An Inspector Calls is a little-known drama, somehow re-emerging from obscurity. However, it has been a mainstay of GCSEs and O-levels for years and is probably the most well-known of all modern British dramas. This latest production would have been for many a refreshing change from the faded, grainy, somewhat muffled version we watched in school; a relic recorded on an antique called a Video Cassette Recorder.

It Was Alright In The 1980s (Channel 4) threatened to be yet another of the ‘clip and talking heads’ shows which have become a byword for lazy programme making. But in the hands of Channel 4 this examination of television in the 1980s was incisive and uncomfortably revealing.

The cloak of naivety – a naivety which was supposed to have ended in the 1950s – sits uncomfortably as a defence of some of the 1980’s TV content we took for granted.

A clip from the children’s breakfast show, Wide Awake Club, featured pop band Depeche Mode and ‘Master and Servant’.

A clip from Blue Peter, that after-school haven of a wholesome childhood, had presenter Maggie Philbin and adolescent girls wearing corsets for a feature.

It’s all too easy to think of 1980s television as a grown-up and responsible form of its culturally insensitive 1970s predecessor. But it wasn’t. In the 1980’s, television was an adolescent: raucous, loud, crass.

But it was also creative, diverse and risk-taking - an adolescent with potential, who grew up into today’s TV. And though it doesn’t always feel like it, now really is a golden age of television. We couldn’t have got here, without starting from there. But looking back, it all looks so alien; so not now; a different place; a foreign country.

James Waller-Davies is on Twitter: @JamesWallerD