Thursday, 5 July 2012

US 80s-90s

This article deals with the loose period 1987-1994. It could just as easily have gone in ‘Faces’, but I assume most people who follow one decade blog follow all three.

In December 1990, tunnelling machines knocked through a final section of chalk, and an Englishman and a Frenchman were able to shake hands deep under the seabed. It came as a surprise to me, because Europe had always seemed further away than that. Culturally speaking, at least, Britain’s real neighbour in the eighties was the United States of America.  This was about more than sharing a common tongue, or the politics of the ‘special relationship’. If Business Ontology (the belief that everything in society should be run as a business) is a dominant ideological position today, then the 1980s enjoyed a particular variant on the theme: everything in society should be run as a business, because that’s how they do things in America. ‘American’ was for long time a straightforward synonym for progressive, modern, desirable.

The plutocracy-celebrating soaps Dallas and Dynasty enjoyed huge ratings. Channel 4 launched their American Football programme in 1982 (with the marketing blitz reaching peak levels in 84-85), perhaps reasoning that association rules football was in irreversible decline and that a gap existed for a flashier, more commercially minded rival sport. Others who’d been thinking along the same lines had taken over football clubs in this period, pushing their ‘inevitable’ club mergers and price rises, struggling to understand why the enduring popularity of football was failing to generate the money that washed around in American sports.

Irving Scholar floated Tottenham Hotspur on the stock exchange in 1983, and Spurs were also ahead of Manchester United in the area of omnimerchandising  - catalogues packed with everything from bedspreads to pencil sharpeners were doing the rounds in my school playground as early as 88-89. Alan Sugar picked up Scholar’s ball and ran with it through the early 90s. But Tottenham were always makeweights among the ‘Big Five’, and they never made the step up to globe-spanning giant, in either sporting or marketing terms.  The football modernisers of the 80s could say they were ahead of their time, and that’s true to an extent. ‘Ahead of your time’ isn’t necessarily a compliment, given that businessmen are supposed to understand their audiences.*

This first wave of Americana had broken by the end of the decade. Between rave, Italia 90, and Thatcher’s defeat over Europe, we’d seemingly found enough confidence to stand by ourselves for a while. But while the ‘official’, media-narrative grip of America had been broken, the process continued on an everyday level all over provincial Britain. The metropolitan media, and the creative/artistic world, didn’t really pay much attention to this (except occasionally to exhibit a sniff of disdain, before moving on to more important things). When Brett Anderson posed behind the slogan ‘Yanks Go Home,’ he and the writers were referring to one pond-crossing musical genre, not to the Americana the rest of us could see everywhere we went.

Kids who’d grown up on the osmotically influential cultural touchstones of mid- 80s America (Back to the Future, Michael Jackson) found themselves spending their adolescent leisure time in a passable imitation of this dream-country. In the late eighties and early nineties, every town in England grew bowling alleys, shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, and ice rinks, while the kids who spent their adolescence in these places almost invariably did so dressed in American leisurewear. The films showing at the new cinemas were, almost without exception, American. Even the two standout British successes of the period (A Fish Called Wanda**, Four Weddings and a Funeral) were set in a tourist’s theme park version of Britain, and had American female leads.

The theme parks, of course - a collection of sodden fields outside Lowestoft became home to Pleasurewood Hills (properly: ‘Pleasurewood Hills American Theme Park’, with a cuddly beaver mascot). In Ilkeston, a venue once known as ‘Britannia Park’, which had been ‘a celebration of British culture’ (tiresome echoes of both 2000 and 2012 there), was replaced with the American Adventure Park, its themed zones covering everything from the Aztecs to the Wild West. It fell into disrepair, zone after zone being closed down and dismantled, before it gasped its last in 2005. The pathos of the overgrown site made it a briefly popular location with urban exploration/hauntology types.

Older and wiser, we can look back and sneer at our Americanised leisure options, but there’s no denying how exciting all of this was to pre-adolescents at the time. Like the transition to Post-Fordist capitalism, this was something we wanted, something we asked for. When the out-of-town mall opened, when the local chain video store became a Blockbuster (with attendant Jelly Belly concession) – it’s not hard to see how it all seemed fantastically exotic to a child growing up in a depressed city, let alone a small provincial town. Those who weren’t fortunate enough (in the days before the internet, when you really needed a gatekeeper:  a friend’s older sibling, or a sarky bloke in a record/video shop) to stumble across a suitable subculture remained in the world of leisurewear and consumption***. ‘We’ pitied them, or reviled them – in the 80s, they might have been casuals; in the 90s, they embraced the American tendency (not that they would necessarily have admitted this) and became ‘townies’. Later, with an added dose of arrogant, frightened bravado; ‘chavs’.

With this proselytising done on the ground, the modernisers had a more receptive audience to their attempts to reshape British sport.  The FA launched the Premier League in 1992, supposedly (charitably) in order to head off a breakaway by the leading clubs, and invited bids for exclusive broadcasting rights from pay-per-view as well as terrestrial channels. Sky TV, who had hitherto struggled to make an impression on the British market, narrowly won out (the anecdote goes that, with ITV’s final bid on the table, Spurs chairman and satellite dish salesman Alan Sugar left the room to make a phonecall. Not long after he returned, Sky upped their bid by just enough to win).

The aesthetic of those early Premiership years was a strange one. The footballers themselves were still distinctly 80s-looking – relatively skinny, legs unwaxed, wave haircuts, the odd survivor with facial hair. The grounds were, for the most part, in the same condition they'd been in for decades. The Sky presenters addressed us from rickety chipboard studios perched up in the gods of places like Boundary Park, in the age before stadia were designed with executive boxes and media suites as priorities. But the continuity viewers could see on their screens wasn’t the point. What they were told they were seeing was something new and revolutionary, year zero, a whole new era in sport.

Sky’s presentation was jarring, to begin with. In those first few weeks they showed us the ‘Sky Strikers’, a dancing girl posse in puffa jackets, who gamely went through their routines to near-unanimous baffled silence (folk memory suggests massed, hostile booing, but this doesn't come out in the clips), while inflatable Bart Simpsons careened around them. As for Sky’s actual game coverage, hyperbole ruled and negativity was verboten.  Andy Gray became a comedy routine staple for his heroic insistence that every single game was a thriller.

The 80s were hardly a golden era of kit design – Hummel and Umbro in particular were responsible for plenty of overdesigned horrors. But it was only in the Sky years that football kit manufacturers really began to push the boundaries of creativity. There was a tendency toward gimmicky colouring and detailing, on away shirts most of all. Forming a neat parallel with the wider cultural trend, this took root most easily at modest provincial clubs. Tranmere? Teal and purple diagonal halves. Hull? Tiger stripes.  Aston Villa (okay, not exactly provincial, but the Midlands were culturally quiet at the time) enjoyed a green and black striped effort with a big red yoghurt company logo on the front. Manchester United’s most famous kit of the era, the Newton Heath 1893 tribute strip, was hardly ahistorical, but still fit the template – gratuitous green and a lace-up collar. The team who were wearing these shirts were backed by an off-pitch media and marketing operation far beyond anything Spurs had tried to do in the preceding years.

By 95-96, it all seemed to fade away. At the Euros, the St George’s Cross replaced the old-Establishment symbol of the Union Jack, and England lost in the quintessential ugly, commercial away strip (supposedly chosen because it went well with jeans), leading a stampede back to more familiar designs. Outside football, too, the flood of tacky Americana into provincial Britain seemed to come to a halt. The conventional wisdom on the subject would hold that Britpop and the YBAs (and so on, and so on) restored our pride in our own cultural produce, while the subsequent election of a moderately pro-EU government resulted in a cultural turn from the distant west to our immediate neighbours to the east. Alternatively, more cynically, we could hypothesise that the modernisers became more savvy to their target market, trimming away the overtly American edges of their wares to appeal to British punters. There’s a figment of truth in these arguments. The music charts began to look more to Europe, two key late nineties trends being the cheesy Europop of the Vengaboys et al, and French House. The American-style building developments of 1997 onwards had more of a sensitive, European sheen (compare this Walmart-style big box with this – but these explanations still skirt over an uncomfortable truth.

Sky’s 1992 Premiership coverage struck everyone as needlessly American. Today’s equivalent – Sky rolling out their sponsored ‘Grand Slam Sunday' idents – is, if anything, more brash and overblown, but doesn’t carry the same feeling of otherness. Britain is like that now.  In the 1980s, the gap between American leisure culture and British ground zero was unbridgeable, partly because of cultures of resistance that still existed on the ground. In the early 1990s, the poles had moved closer together, but the juxtaposition was still striking. By 2000, the discontinuity had been completely smoothed over. Britpop’s claims of patriotic triumph couldn’t be more hollow. American leisure culture is now so seamlessly worked into our lives that we no longer notice it. The ‘Yanks’ didn’t go home. We met the enemy, and we were them.

*A common trope of the time was club chairmen who’d taken power on a raft of ambitious promises eventually turning against and publicly abusing their own fans, fairly explicitly blaming the supporters’ luddite mindlessness for the failure of their own ill-conceived schemes.

 **‘Wanda’ bore a not-quite-sequel – ‘Fierce Creatures’ – about a brash, know-nothing American business guru who takes over a ramshackle British zoo. This ‘slick but clueless American business moderniser’ character was an archetype in British comedy throughout the period under discussion.

 ***Confusingly enough, kids who did belong to a subculture spent their free time in most of the same places, but they made more of a show of not enjoying them.

Haruspex 93

Before a visible audience, observed more closely between acts (along with some 'backstage' banter that includes historical figures like Cosimo Medici, participating as both 'cast' and 'audience'), a morality play is performed in 17th century Italy during the counter-reformation: The Baby of Macon (1993), a land plagued by famine which hasn't seen a birth in years. Perhaps miraculously, an (unseen) ancient hag gives birth to a Baby in perfect health, and for this reason no-one believes the child to be hers. Her virgin Daughter (Julia Ormond) claims The Baby as her own divine progeny, acquiring an appropriate air of regality; and sells blessings to the desperate townspeople. Despite her fraudulent claim, the famine begins to end. The Church, represented by The Bishop (Philip Stone), are as resentful of her success as modern skeptics like The Bishop's Son (Ralph Fiennes). The latter is particularly insistent on proving The Daughter to be a fraud, his mechanistic views betraying an aggression towards female autonomy. She offers to prove her virginity to him by having sex. This is witnessed by The Baby, who orders a bull to disembowel the Bishop's Son. Covered in blood, The Daughter is blamed by The Bishop for his son's death. He then confiscates The Baby to exploit Macon with far more vigor than The Daughter did, who in turn suffocates her Baby to death. The Daughter is apprehended, but cannot be hung due to being a virgin. Her punishment is what led to most of the film's controversy or condemnation: The Bishop sentences her to be raped 208 times. 

At this point the diegesis separating ''actors' and 'audience' breaks down; calling into question how many earlier scenes should be considered part of the 'play'. Closing the curtains on the 'audience', The Daughter reminds her 'rapists' that "you don't have to act anymore - the audience can't see you". Realizing that this hasn't deterred them, she invokes the virginity she has in common with her 'character'. The camera backs away to explore the auditorium, but both theatre and cinema audience continue to hear her screams - for over ten minutes. Although unseen, it could be the most disturbing scene filmed by a very violent film-maker. Some of the audience cry out their objection to this 'scene', only to be reminded by a rapist that we should be grateful to hear this, as "most of us die in silence". Following the death of the Daughter, the Baby's corpse is dismembered by the Church (in very graphic detail). Every little piece of him is sold as a religious relic, but famine returns to Macon. Both cast (apart from The Daughter and The Bishop's Son, both 'really' dead) and audience bow to us and each other in several directions from several angles and we, the cinema audience, are left bewildered as to who is actually performing for whom. The film concludes as a vertiginous hall of mirrors; encouraging nausea, shock and confusion in equal measure. Does Greenaway intend to make us sick? And if so, why do so using this 'play within a play' conceit? Unlike The Draughtsman's Contract or Drowning By Numbers, its internal 'puzzle' stubbornly refuses any notion of 'fun'. And despite its characteristically ornate design, it takes serious issue with the notion of 'art' too.

Considered too oblique, ripe and indulgent by many, Greenaway’s films were broadly satirical tableaux of changes occurring in Britain from the 80s to 90s. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) allegorized how Thatcherism overthrew an impotent political establishment, while it seduced the skilled petit bourgeois, leaving the bigger picture ever-so-slightly out of frame. His painterly alienation effects (he trained as a muralist) were appropriate under a regime staging its leader’s image with obsessive attention, down to her rhythms of speech and every hair on her head. Drowning By Numbers (1988) approached the renegotiation of gender roles as a carefully manoeuvred Jacobean coup; domestic war played as a game of symmetry. His most widely-seen film, chiaroscuro noir The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) lampooned the national carve-up, a cannibalistic orgy that relentlessly butchered culture, utility, leisure, sex and labour into meat, served to the most ruthless appetites. Greenaway’s many visual quotes from the Renaissance allude to the murderous source of its innovations: The bourgeois project of primitive accumulation; a process echoed by neoliberalism, which hypnotically accelerated like the time-lapsed fruit punctuating A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). In this context, it's unsurprising that Greenaway’s Shakespeare adaptation would be his fable of primitive colonialism The Tempest.

Greenaway’s follow-up to Prospero’s Books (1991) had a severely limited release. This was the first Greenaway feature that wasn’t scored by Michael Nyman, who found a mainstream audience scoring middlebrow hit The Piano. The soundtrack Greenaway used wasn't so much minimalist as bare minimum. After performing in the film, Julia Ormond’s appearances became noticeably rare. Although audiences, critics and awards panels heaped acclaim upon Ralph Fiennes’ torture and murder of Warsaw Jews in Schindler’s List (1993), his performance in Macon is rarely mentioned. A mere four years after The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover topped several ‘year’s best’ lists, Macon either received angry denunciations or was ignored entirely. With the possible exception of the The Pillow Book (1996), starring then-hot Ewan MacGregor, the director’s career never quite recovered. Funding dried up and his place in ‘British Cinema’ was quietly scrubbed away, in the tradition of eccentric British auteurs like Michael Powell, Lindsay Anderson, Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell. Greenaway retreated back into the world of fine art and further away from narrative.

Taking a minority opinion, The Baby of Macon may be Greenway’s best film. It's actually his least pretentious work, condensing previous themes with a wilfully grotesque, stark brutality. Its ‘play within a play’ scenario makes no attempt to distance the audience from the cruelties of its late Renaissance setting. It angrily mocks 'family values' and implies acting 'in gender' entails as much violence as its enforcement in reality. Framed with more immediacy than Greenaway’s earlier films, it has the effect of being more claustrophobic. Its ceremonial dialogue (filled with dirty jokes and endless, unanswered questions) only enhances the visual impact of its barbarity. It avoids the stale ‘angry young man’ routine of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), rejects the reconciliatory talent show of The Full Monty (1997), and spits in the eye of that cynical tableaux Heritage Britain (Cool Britannia’s stepfather). Its failure may be due to a misunderstanding – or outright rejection – of what it’s actually about. It isn’t simply a critique of religious hypocrisy, or the misogynistic hate-crime it was accused of being. It’s admittedly very difficult to watch – or indeed see now – but it offers the most caustic, lacerating view of modern Britain; carving up its performance of ideology, gender, morality and rule of law. It’s a relatively direct, topical interrogation of how the British political economy organizes ways of seeing: The reproduction of national narratives.


On the 12th of February, 1993, two year-old James Patrick Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre, tortured, murdered and dismembered (left deliberately on a railway track to make it look like an accident) by two ten year-old boys. Before their arrest, another boy was questioned. Before police confirmed his innocence, his family had fled the city for fear of their lives. Within days of the murder, and before any charges were made, there had already been arson attempts on ‘suspect’ homes. Bulger’s abduction was caught on CCTV – at a time when it was becoming ubiquitous in public spaces – and released to the media. Witnesses who didn’t intervene seeing a visibly distressed and bruised toddler being dragged away by two children (who claimed to be relatives) gained brief press notoriety as the ‘Liverpool 38’. When the accused arrived for their first day at the Magistrate’s court, over five hundred people had gathered to ‘protest’. What they were actually ‘protesting’ remains unclear. The crowd did, however, attempt to seize the van in which the defendants were transported. I could offer an educated guess as to what their intentions were: The abduction, torture, murder - and probably dismemberment – of two children. To this day, there are campaigns (backed by ‘celebrities’ and the Murdoch press) demanding that the Home Office publicly release details of the murderers’ locations and identities. Again, we can guess why revealing this is would be in the ‘public’ interest. As a comparative experiment in emotional theatre, I suggest you bring up the name of Robert Black, to see if you get any response at all; that is if you actually remember him.

The murder generated a great deal of shock and ‘public’ revulsion. I put ‘public’ in inverted commas because those of us less enthusiastic about cruel and unusual punishment - or lynching - often find the safest option is silence. As is usual with hatred fuelled by moral panic, to simply remind Mr. & Mrs. Outraged UK of due process of law can be risky. Eighteen years later, pointing out legal irregularities in this case can provoke angry – sometimes violent – responses. Despite how the law was rapidly changed in response to this one crime, it has been repeatedly subject to unlawful activity by the media, judges and Home Secretaries. Not only does England have the lowest age for criminal responsibility in Europe, privacy laws protecting children have been diluted and deregulated, and the influence of government on court decisions far exceeds national security concerns. The Bulger murder was arguably the most important ‘peacetime’ case to shift the balance between family and government, childhood and adult responsibility, punishment and rehabilitation, government and judiciary. These shifts all sharply diverted from what most of us would consider ‘progressive’. At the very least, boundaries have become so blurred that they may have reversed dozens of reforms and safeguards from the preceding century.

Doli incapax – or, the assumption of limited responsibility on the part of minors - was deemed irrelevant by prosecuting barristers, and the court agreed. While new psychiatric theories and ‘profiling’ asserted priestly authority within education, social services and the courts – celebrated everywhere from trashy, exploitative detective show Cracker to trashy, exploitative horror movie The Silence of the Lambs – this legal innovation was confirmed with the Holy Writ of psychiatric opinion (backed with the prestige of BAFTAs and Oscars). That many judgements have been overturned after the discrediting of mystical nonsense like Satanic Ritual Abuse or Munchausen’s-by-Proxy, peddled by a cadre of ambitious frauds, is neither here nor there. Especially since ‘profiling’ has proven ever so handy for catching Scary Muslims. Noises were made – not least by the presiding judge - about the deadly influence of ‘video nasties’, in particular a film that neither defendant had actually seen: Child’s Play 3. This didn’t prevent the all-encompassing Criminal Justice Act of 1994 from including rules on the sale of videos to children. Despite CCTV being proven useless in preventing James Bulger’s death, it didn’t prevent demands for further surveillance. As is increasingly the case this century, moral panic granted the state further rights to enforce power over everyday life.

Home Secretary Michael Howard made several interventions in the case, the main one overruling the initial sentence; adding five years to the Lord Chief Justice’s additional two. Howard’s one-upmanship followed a petition led by those passionate advocates for children’s justice The Sun. This, when the Rt. Hon. Mr. Howard Q.C. personally intervened to drastically reduce the sentence of a notorious Welsh gangster; who just happened to be his cousin (look it up), while assisting with writs to bury its reporting. His actions regarding the Bulger case were later ruled illegal, by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights (a foreign body still posing an existential threat to Free Britannia). That the Home Office routinely ignores other petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures doesn’t diminish the value of those they don’t. Taking time out from flushing the economy down the toilet, Prime Minister John Major responded to the murder with a stirring speech, stating it was time we understood less and condemned more (a statement I couldn’t quite understand, to be honest). Democracy, like justice, happens wherever they ask us to look.

Bulger’s killers were tried as adult ‘monsters’, and special chairs were supplied so both were able to see over the dock. Neither child said a word throughout the trial. Impatient to ransack their life stories, journalists settled for detailed reporting of their demeanour during the trial; contravening (then) standard media law. Due to ‘overwhelming public reaction', the judge declared after sentencing that the condemned should have their names, photographs and biographical details open to public scrutiny. Over the following decades this scrutiny hasn’t ceased and, despite further relaxation of reporting restrictions, local and national newspaper editors continue to the flout the law regarding this case. It’s become something of a national obsession, everywhere from The Sun to the Guardian, BBC News to endless radio phone-ins. It’s notable how much ‘revelations’ about the murderers’ lives obsess over their bodies: travel, sexual activity, illness, ingestion of drugs or alcohol, physical scuffles. For all the constant demands in the name of ‘public interest’, the environments and social relations that actually form the basis of their lives remain strangely anonymous. To locate ‘evil’ is to situate it in limbo, outside nature and society, until Final Judgement.

Before, during and after the trial, ‘investigations’ into the Dark Heart of Liverpool – a city admonished for its ‘untamed’ volatility by central government legislation, Harry Enfield sketches and Neil Kinnock – filled column inches in every newspaper; much of it redefining material poverty as a moral wasteland in need of salvation. Bulger’s murder unleashed a distinctly suburbanized version of apocalypse porn, complementing a more settled metropolitan contempt for de-industrialized ‘heartlands’. Tony Parsons unfavourably compared Britain’s “tattooed jungle” to the house-proud, hard-working proletariat of his parents’ generation - that mythical working class that accepted its lot stoically and hygienically – in Arena, a magazine soon to abandon its urbane pretensions and adopt the reactionary kitsch of ‘new laddism’, a lucrative menu of militarism, mutilation and mammaries. In the absence of coherent government ‘vision’, new hegemonic designs were converging. Although Thatcherism was granted some blame for ‘moral decline’, a curious stew of thuggish nimbyism, theatrical psychobabble and morbid sentimentality gradually came to the boil: the paradigm of talk shows then starting to dominate daytime TV. Utilizing his ‘common touch’ (perfected mourning the People’s Princess) Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair seized an opportunity to give a sermon decrying the spiritual decay of the working class. Space restricts discussion of how his abduction, torture, murder and dismemberment of entire nations has in any way reversed this process. A re-emergent far right found common ground with the populist spin of New Labour and John Major’s Back to Basics campaign; all of which laid claim to our ‘genuine concerns’.

At the very least, the narrative of moral outrage demands instant reaction. As with any number of modern tragedies, cottage industries emerged from the wreckage; building careers, fuelling campaigns, redrafting clauses in the social contract, restructuring modes of emotional exchange, extracting ever more value from ‘genuine concerns’ - a piece for everybody. Consolidating the counter-reformation of the 80s, these moments of community cannibalism occur at levels of emotional flatulence once alien to this country; at least within living memory. I’m weary of indulging clich├ęs about ‘collective consciousness’, but I can’t help but view these outbursts of hysteria as attempts to fill a vacuum, only serving to create black holes from which no light escapes. Press terminology encloses ambiguity with violently totalizing language: Storm, Beast, Fury, Tragic, Shock, Pervert, Monster, Scrounger, Terrorist, Horror, Yob, Hero. Occasionally these definitions exchange places. But this isn’t just an issue of tabloids. Buried beneath layers of pseudo-scientific speculation, barbaric ignorance, moral bankruptcy, profitable opportunism, emotional theatrics and judicial spectacle lies the body of a child whose short life ended in ways we’ll never fully understand; or perhaps really want to. That many felt they could make sense of it by demanding more dead children belies a famine that's neither spiritual, moral or even material. It’s the nameless, deserted wasteland that lies between each and every one of us. Whether we’ll ever recognise it for what it is remains to be seen. But of one thing I’m certain: Sitting too close to the screen - or stage - can seriously harm your eyes.