Volume Two: Television in the 1980s
David Allkins reviews the second volume of Scarred For Life, focusing on British television in the 80s - an 'engaging and fascinating read' sure to re-awaken childhood nightmares...
There’s a terrible habit, when looking at the culture of a decade, to not go into any depth; it’s an easy task to just laugh at the fashions, or assume that referring to a handful of common references will cover it. The 1980s in the UK were a time of unemployment, poverty, social unrest, and political divisions – not just everybody wearing red braces, having fax machines and watching John Hughes movies…
After the success of their first volume of Scarred For Life (which dealt with the aspects of UK popular culture chilling children in the 1970s), Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence have returned to tackle the 1980s. They’ve achieved this with the help of additional writers for some entries, as every decade brings an increase in the amount of popular culture and media texts available; due to the sheer weight of material, the 1980s has been split into two volumes. This one deals with British television alone, with a foreword assuring that the next will deal with films, books, comics, games and nuclear war. (So the television films Threads and The Day After will appear in that one, if you were wondering).
The book begins by looking at children’s television dramas, starting with the ITV serial Noah’s Castle, which dealt with food shortages and society breaking down in the face of civil unrest. Though adapted from a 70s novel, this was broadcast in the 80s, as if to mark the idea – at the start of the decade – that the discord in the world was here and not going away. Serials like The Tripods and The Knights of God dealt with young heroes fighting against controlling totalitarian regimes, showing that this has been a theme in young adult fiction for longer than commonly assumed.
Yes, the obvious titles are discussed, but the more under-the-radar things are just as interesting. The ‘Zammo on drugs’ storyline on Grange Hill is mentioned – but also the one about racist bullying. This section also reveals that sometimes the things a child can find the most frightening, or disturbing, are those that seem to come unexpectedly into the narrative, such the appearance of the Groke in The Moomins.
Scarred for Life then looks at TV programmes in the outright horror and science fiction genre. While Star Trek and Doctor Who do come up (obviously!) there were several other series and literary adaptations that made an impact on viewing audiences; these still hold up today, despite some more recent versions. The literary adaptations in question were The Day of the Triffids, Salem’s Lot, The Nightmare Man (from Child of Vodyanoi by David Wiltshire) and The Woman in Black.
Let’s not forget, too, how many short stories by Roald Dahl and other authors were also adapted in Tales of the Unexpected. There’s also the two American miniseries (and short-lived series) of V, which contained one of the great unmasking scenes of 80s horror, as the face of the human-looking ‘visitors’ ripped off to reveal the green reptile skin underneath. This links back to the children’s drama section: another story about people uncovering and fighting against a regime which has decided to install itself in power. There seem to have been a lot of stories about people struggling against the forces of authority in the 80s, for some reason…
The approach of the contributors and the editors of this book is not just to count down and tick off a list of scenes: each entry on a programme has notes on the sources, the production and the impact it had, and sometimes there are also brief interviews with some of the actors and writers involved. And as with the 1970s volume, it’s not just the material which comes in neat little genre labels going under the microscope; TV can be frightening and disturbing just through how it presents the content or frames the material. As people began to have a greater range of choices in book, record, and video shops, the sense of what a story could contain and explore began to loosen. If the media and genre literacy of the audience was growing, then why not play with their knowledge or expectations? Serials like Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective appeared, combining different elements from different sources to form an overall whole.
The launch of Channel 4 in 1982 provided another sense that boundaries were starting to stretch. The newly launched channel made an effort – not just in the original programming it offered and commissioned, but also in showing foreign language films and unconventional animation. For example, it screened Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (which is possibly the best adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) cut up into six parts over the 1989-1990 New Year. If you look for further information on this, you’ll understand why it may have made an impact on impressionable viewers.
But other society fears – closer to home – also found their way onto the TV. The fear of unemployment and the increase of poverty are examined, with TV documentaries covering it and dramas and comedies dealing with the people experiencing it. The way that race and disability were covered began to change as well, and the book contains sections on the new wave of drama dealing with these topics; the American concept of the ‘Very Special Episode’ is also explained, where sitcoms dealt with non-funny subject matter.
The final part of Scarred For Life returns to a subject which was a highlight of the 1970s volume: the Public Information Film. The purpose of these was to ensure that the public stuck to the rules, through the visions of dread these short films created. But it wasn’t just about the Green Cross Code, safety in the home, stranger dangers, rabies, and smoking. The subject matter managed to get even more serious with films about heroin addiction and the dangers of AIDS. Looking back, the educational campaigns for AIDS awareness – directed by Nicholas Roeg – are still powerful. They don’t descend into homophobic witch-hunts (as the tabloid press was doing); they warn people of the dangers and encourage them to seek out information. Given the stories during the current coronavirus pandemic about people not wearing masks, or breaking other rules, you wonder if the AIDS campaign slogan – “Don’t die of ignorance” – should be brought back.
Ultimately, the reason Scarred For Life is such an engaging and fascinating read is because it goes beyond simply listing a few popular moments or titles. It brings back the forgotten titles like the BBC’s 3-hour play Artemis 81; the Channel 4 sitcom They Came From Somewhere Else; the 1987 play The Gourmet by Kazuo Ishiguro. All of these sound so strange you wonder why they were forgotten. The writers go into what the material was, how it was made, and why it worked, illustrating this with their memories and sense of humour.
The book also shows how TV kept changing its production methods (such as the increase in location filming, both home and abroad) and how the extent of permissible subject matter grew. This progress was set against the backdrop of tabloid outrage and Mary Whitehouse raving about sex and violence. But this sort of hysteria ignores the real fears that British television was just reflecting back to its 80s audience: the fears of authority, disease, manipulation, poverty and desperation. Scarred For Life is an impressive achievement that’ll provide grim delight and several searches on YouTube for further research and information – maybe even re-awakening suppressed childhood nightmares if you, like me, are of the appropriate age.