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Backward glance

We are finally starting to appreciate the culture of the underrated 1970s and 1980s

By David Herman   November 2006

First it was Doctor Who and the Daleks. Now revivals and comebacks are everywhere. We can see, or will soon be able to see, revivals of Cabaret and The Sound of Music, of Pravda, Bent and Tom and Viv. Monty Python, or at least Eric Idle, is back with Spamalot, a musical with a cast led by Rocky Horror Show star Tim Curry. A Gilbert and George retrospective is coming to the Tate Modern in the new year. On the big screen, Brian de Palma (The Black Dahlia), Oliver Stone (World Trade Centre) and Martin Scorsese (The Departed) are back. On the small screen, the highlights of the autumn are Robbie Coltrane back as Cracker and Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Bob Dylan has a new album (Modern Times), the Stones are on the road and George Michael is touring for the first time in 15 years. There was nothing on the Booker shortlist that got literary editors as excited as the memoirs of Günter Grass, almost 80, and a spat between the rival biographers of John Betjeman. Something seems to be going on here. What is this retrospective moment about?

It is tempting to see this as just part of the endless recycling of fashion and cultural icons, from flares to Noel Edmonds. But this doesn’t explain why there are so many revivals now and why so much of what is being revived is not ephemeral flotsam but acclaimed work by enduring figures.

Is this nostalgia or simply an acknowledgement that we are not producing the shows, the characters or the stars that we once did? ITV today cannot come up with anything as good as Cracker and Prime Suspect from the early 1990s. Today’s rock stars are all very well, but they are not Dylan or the Stones. And when did you last see a new west end musical as good as Cabaret, 40 years old this year? Which new plays would you rather see than Anthony Hopkins in Pravda or Ian McKellen in Bent?

There is one obvious absence. The only thing that isn’t being revived is modernism and high art. What we are nostalgic for, what made the greatest impact in our culture since the 1960s, was not the avant garde or postmodernist but the popular (not populist) —great musicals and rock, west end plays, the best television drama. This is part of an ongoing backlash against modernism that has run for years: plays attacking the private lives of TS Eliot and Joyce; Howard Goodall’s splendid Channel 4 series Twentieth Century Greats, which argued that while the critics praised the avant garde, the great music of the 20th century was really coming from Broadway, the Beatles and film composers.

On a more positive note, perhaps this is a revaluation of the much-maligned 1970s and 1980s. For all the sneering about tank tops and Gary Glitter, there was a tremendous wave of vitality right across the culture, in theatre, film, writing and television. This was overshadowed by the political and economic pessimism of the time. Inflation and unemployment were high, cuts in public spending bit hard. And yet these were perhaps the most creative two decades of the postwar period. Just two examples. In 1979, the year Bent first appeared, television viewers could watch Blue Remembered Hills, Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians and Fawlty Towers. In 1983, Granta’s list of the best young British novelists included Amis, Barnes, Ishiguro, Boyd, McEwan and Rushdie.

Just as we undervalued the 1970s and 1980s, we exaggerated the 1990s. All the hype about Britart and Britpop is falling apart as fast as Damien Hirst’s shark. Perhaps this is part of a growing uncertainty about the Blair years. Everywhere in the culture there is a sense of “no more heroes.” As the Blair years end amid disappointment, and fear of terrorism and religious conflict grow, we are entering an interregnum, with many morbid symptoms.

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