Sherwood – BBC 1

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I thought that the first episode of this was excellent, even though having someone in Nottinghamshire shot dead with a bow and arrow by someone living in a forest was a bit cheesy.  Speaking of forests, I gather that the good people of Nottinghamshire are rather narked that a character referred to “Notts Forest”, which is the equivalent of a character from Manchester referring to United as “Man U” –  i.e. just plain wrong!   But, that aside, this was really very good.

It’s set in a Nottinghamshire mining community (everything’s a “community” these days, rather than a city, town, village or suburb), and the murder victim, Gary, is a former miner who’d never got past the wounds left by the Miners’ Strike of 1984.   And we’re talking about the divisions within the community.  Just as Civil War books tend to focus on the clash between Cavaliers and Roundheads, and ignore the divisions between different groups on the Roundhead side, the narrative of the Miners’ Strike is generally that of the authorities, led by Margaret Thatcher, versus the miners, led by Arthur Scargill.   But it wasn’t that simple.

I live quite near the site of the old Agecroft Colliery, where most miners carried on working during rhe 1984 strike and flying pickets from Yorkshire gathered outside to try to stop them.   In the Ashfield area, where this is set, some miners did continue working, others went on strike, and, again, flying pickets from Yorkshire came in.  We see that Gary still, in 2022, referred to those who carried on working as “scabs”, shouting abuse at them even as they tried to enjoy a quiet drink, and that there were divisions even within his own family because his brother-in-law was one of the “scabs”.

In early 1985, whilst the strike was still going on, there was a storyline in Coronation Street in which Hilda Ogden’s lodger was discovered to have broken a strike.  His life was made a misery even though he explained that he’d felt he had to work due to family circumstances.   The view at the time was that no-one liked a scab, blackleg, strikebreaker, whatever term you want to use; but the problem with the miners’ strike was that a national strike was called without there being a national ballot.   Also, as Joanne Froggatt’s character, Sarah, pointed out, people had the right to choose what they felt was right.  The whole thing was messy.  And the memories of what happened die hard.

A lot was going on in this programme.  There was the general issue of generation gaps, as Gary’s wife Julie kept saying “There’s somebody at the door” in the Rod Hull/Emu/Grotbags way, and her grandchildren had no idea what she was talking about.  There was the fall of the red wall, with Sarah standing for the council elections as a Conservative.  At the time of the last general election, we heard a lot about former mining constituencies such as Leigh, Sedgefield and Ashfield itself voting Conservative: it really showed how much things had moved on.  But, for Gary, nothing had moved on.

There was the return to the community of a local man now a senior police officer, and the distrust of the police nearly 40 years after Orgreave and everything else that went on in 1984.  It was all brilliantly written and brilliantly acted, and I’m looking forward to the five episodes still to come.

 

Thatcher and Reagan: A Very Special Relationship – BBC 2

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Those of us who grew up in the 1980s saw the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev (who comes from a village near the Russo-Ukrainian border, brought glasnost to the old USSR and must be absolutely devastated at what’s going on at the moment), Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa bestriding the world stage (I like that expression).  Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and to some extent Helmut Kohl were also part of that.

Going back into history, you find, to name but a few, Churchill, Disraeli, Gladstone, Bismarck, Metternich, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Charles the Bold, Henry V, Saladin, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great … on and on and on.  Where are all the world leaders now?!   That new German Chancellor’s so anonymous that I can only remember his name because it makes me think of the snowman in Frozen, and the rest of them aren’t much better.   And how is banning Russian players from Wimbledon supposed to help anyone?  Maybe that’s why everyone’s so into Zelenskyy, because he actually *has* got something about him.

Anyway.  Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were obviously both quite controversial figures at home, but this programme wasn’t about that; and I was impressed that the BBC, which often seems to forget that it’s supposed to be politically neutral, respected that – and focused on the relationship between the two, which was what it said on the tin.

We even got some Freudian-type stuff about how Ronald liked Maggie because strong women reminded him on his mother, and how Maggie liked Ronald because she was keen on glamorous, powerful men.  That does rather make one wonder how she ended up with Denis, who was many things but certainly not glamorous, but never mind.

It’s rather frightening how dated the video shots from the ’80s and early ’90s look now, but I’m trying not to think about that.  I’m still trying to process the fact that the Miami Open was won by someone who was born in 2003, and that the defeated finalist was someone whose dad I remember as a young teenage pro.  And how on earth is Brooklyn Beckham old enough to get married, when surely it was only five minutes ago that he was an adorable toddler kicking a ball round the pitch at Old Trafford after we won the league in, er, the year 2000?  Oh, and, speaking of the ’80s and early ’90s, remember the Berlin Wall coming in November 1989, Nelson Mandela being released from prison in February 1990, and those precious few months of thinking that we’d finally reached an age of peace?   It all went kaput when Iraq invaded Kuwait in July 1990, before The Scorpions had even released “Wind of Change”, but it was nice whilst it lasted.

This first episode really was quite interesting, because there was so much about that personal bond and what helped them to form it, and how Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) coped with being a woman in a man’s world.  I’m not sure that we needed quite so much psycho-analysis about the significance of her handbag, though.  Why are people so obsessed with the Queen’s handbag and Maggie Thatcher’s handbag?!   They should see the contents of mine – talk about everything but the kitchen sink.

I wish we could get back to a point where Anglo-American relations are as close as they were then, but we don’t seem to have had another pair of leaders who’ve got on so well.  Blair and Clinton, to some extent, but both of them were very narcissistic and I don’t think that they worked together anything like as well as Thatcher and Reagan did.

Also, even with the Gulf Wars, there wasn’t the sense of the common enemy that there was in the days of the Cold War.  I never really got the Cold War, TBH.  OK, it was coming to an end by the time I was old enough to understand much about it, but I think it was because people were always talking about “the Russians”, rather than “the communists” of “the Soviets”.  I like Russia.  Not easy then and not easy at the moment, but all that Russians-as-baddies stuff has never worked for me.  But it did for Thatcher and Reagan … until Gorbachev came along, and we’ll hear more about that next week.

A lot of this was about the issue of American nuclear weapons being based in Britain, and in Western Europe, and how Thatcher and Reagan worked very closely together on that, but we also saw them having their differences over trade issues, and over the lack of overt  American support for Britain during the Falklands War.

All in all, I thought it was very well-presented.  Too many BBC programmes these days take a very biased political viewpoint, and or try to make the issues of the past about the issues of today, like that ridiculous programme in 2017 which tried to make out that the Reformation was somehow linked to Brexit, or that Simon Schama programme which tried to link William Blake to Darth Vader.  This one did what it was meant to do, and it did it rather well.

 

80s Kid by Melanie Ashfield

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Mum and dad born at the end of the Second World War, two kids born in the mid-1970s, grandparents who made it through the Depression and the war and now hoped to enjoy their retirement in a bit of comfort which they never had when they were younger, living in the suburb of a big city.  Yep, that was us, and that was also the Ashfield family – although, in their case, the city was Birmingham.  This is only a short book, but it’s a wonderful exercise in nostalgia.  I read the entire book very quickly, nodding and laughing and saying “Oh yes”!   Especially when the author said that she herself, as a child, was always very interested in “the olden days”, because she was always busily reading about them in Enid Blyton books.

Did you collect Panini football stickers and smelly rubbers?  Wear a Fergie bow in your hair?  Tape the Top 40 off Radio 1 on a Sunday night?  Learn things from Judy Blume’s Forever and the Just Seventeen problem page which you never learnt anywhere else?   Yep, that was me, and that was also the author of this book.  It really did give me a good laugh!

It’s subtitled “A memoir of growing up in the last decade before technology took over” – and, yes, that’s true.  All right, I’m not saying that, when we were kids, we were out roaming the great outdoors, eating macaroons and drinking ginger beer, but we certainly didn’t have mobile phones, we only had basic computer games, and a Walkman was the height of sophistication!  But, as the book says, any sort of new gadget was very exciting, and people thought they were really something if they got one for their home.  The author devotes most of a chapter to the family’s first microwave.  I have no idea why I remember this, but we got our first microwave on the weekend that Tom Watson won the British Open.  So it must have been either 1982 or 1983, because he won it in both years.  And the fact that I remember that just shows what a big deal it was when your family got their first microwave!

And, as the author says, grandmas and great-aunts were not overly impressed with microwaves.  They liked to cook things properly.  Specific reference is made to lemon meringue pies.  Oh yes.  My maternal grandma was always making lemon meringue pies.  People who were not so devoted to cooking, on the other hand, served up Angel Delight.   We used to get this at primary school.  It was always the chocolate flavour.  Someone nicknamed it “mud pud”, and the name stuck.  The author writes at length about how utterly vile primary school dinners were in the 1980s.   They were indeed.

I was more interested in the primary school nostalgia than the secondary school nostalgia, probably because I was a very shy and boring teenager but, as our primary school was so small, everyone there was part of the in crowd.   She talks about it being a big deal when one black kid arrived at the school, but I have to say that that didn’t resonate with me, because my primary school was always very multi-ethnic.  Other things did resonate with me, though.  Having to go to school even in the bleak midwinter.  If you slipped in the snow, hard luck!   And picking up the litter in the playground being regarded as a mark of high status rather than as a punishment.  I’d completely forgotten about that, but it was true!   There was a girl in the year below me called Claire, and Claire was obsessed with being one of the people chosen to pick up the litter in the playground!   I was never that keen on it myself, but I’d never have got a look in anyway, because Claire and her mates were always in there first, so excited about getting to pick up crisp packets left lying on the ground.  I mean, why??

And the collections.  Rubbers.  We had two huge sweet jars full of rubbers.  Being a rather anal kid obsessed with record-keeping, I kept a list of rubbers, and every new rubber which my sister and I acquired was entered on to the list.  I am not making this up.  Panini football stickers, of course.   Care Bears.  And My Little Ponies.  We even had a My Little Pony game at our primary school.  Girls only.  Each girl was assigned the name of one of the ponies.  I was Applejack.  My sister was Seashell.  My then best friend was Bubbles.  No, I have no idea why I remember this, either.

Dads and grandads, meanwhile, dreamed of winning the pools.  The author writes quite a bit of this.  Our pools man came once a week, to collect the money.  My dad put on the same numbers every week, and, to this day, I can still remember most of them.  My maternal grandad, meanwhile, always talked about how, when he won the pools, he was going to buy two racehorses.  He’d even chosen names for them.  Needless to say, he never did win the pools.  Nor did anyone in the author’s family.  But we had our dreams!

Another chapter is devoted to Wimpy parties.  Now, I don’t remember ever going to a Wimpy party, but Wimpy parties and McDonald’s parties were much the same thing, and McDonald’s parties were really big round our way in around 1984.  I had one myself.  You and your friends all went to the local McDonald’s, and the staff even organised games for you.  And it meant that your mum was not left with a load of mess to  clear up at home.   So cool!  *So* cool!

Less cool were those mental arithmetic tests with which some teachers were obsessed.  I’m so glad to learn that this didn’t just happen at our school!   Our headmistress used to yell “Right, mental arithmetic test, number down 1 to 100,” and then fire questions at us so quickly that you were usually still trying to work out the answer to question 1 when she was on to question 3.  These days, it’s probably all computerised.

There were all sorts of other bits, too.  Mr Frosty machines.  Monogrammed hankies!   Fergie bows.  Watching Bullseye.   And then all the things you did at secondary school.  As I said, I didn’t get as much from this, because I was a bit of a saddo at secondary school, but plenty of it was still very familiar.  Fake IDs.  I’m not sure how it worked elsewhere, but, in Manchester, there were under 16 bus passes and 16-19 bus passes.  Kids aged 13, 14 and 15 would photocopy their birth certificates, change the date with Tippex to make it look as if they were 18, photocopy the copy, and then get a 16-19 bus pass.  The staff at the bus station shops must have known jolly well that the said kids were nowhere near 18, but I don’t remember anyone ever being questioned about it.

Forever, by Judy Blume.  Yes, we all read that.  To this day, I find it very hard not to snigger if I meet anyone called Ralph.  There are very few people under 50 called Ralph, despite the fact that it was the name of the hero of The Thorn Birds.  I think Judy Blume killed the name off.  The Just Seventeen problem page.  The constant fad diets – generally tried by mums and aunties.

And, according to the author, a lot of girls wanted to be models.  Now, I remember Aveline in Bread and Georgina in Grange Hill both wanting to be models, but I think that that particular trend must have passed my school by.  OK, a fat kid like me was never going to aspire to be a model anyway, but I don’t remember any of the pretty girls being interested in modelling either!

Taping the Top 40 off the radio, though – now that was something which we definitely did.  The snag was that, unless you had a fancy combined radio and cassette thing, those old cassette players recorded everything, and you could guarantee that a parent or sibling would barge into your room and start talking just as your favourite song came on!  Video rental shops were a big thing too.  My then best friend’s parents actually owned a video rental shop, so we got the pick of all the newest videos.  And hanging around in town on Saturday mornings.  I think calling the city centre “town” is a specifically Mancunian thing, and the author just talked about hanging around in the city centre, but, yes, everyone did that!   These days, people go into town to have a drink and something to eat, but, back then, there weren’t anything like the number of eating places that there are now.  And we didn’t go shopping.  We just hung around.

I suppose everyone thinks that the decade in which they grew up was something special.  It’s where you get your soundtrack from, as well.  I can hear a song from 1989 and know exactly when it was from, and what was going on in my life at that time.  With songs which were released later than … probably 1995, the year I graduated from university, I just haven’t got that.  I rarely listen to any music from any time later than the mid-1990s.  Because the time when you grow up’s special.  We’ll always be 80s kids.

Loved this book!   Really, really loved it!

 

Children’s TV nostalgia

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I share my birthday with Mr Benn.  Well, sort of.  He first appeared on our TV screens on February 25th, 1971, so he’s just celebrated his 50th anniversary, on the same day as I sort-of-celebrated my birthday.  I’m younger than him, so he’ll get his Covid vaccination before me.  Yes, my brain really did bizarrely come up with that thought.  Anyway, this all got me thinking about the TV programmes we used to watch when we were little kids.  We were still watching some of them when we were big kids.  It was totally uncool to watch Play School or Rainbow once you were past about 6, but most people in my class at secondary school were still watching Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds when we were more like 14.

Mr Benn was more a programme for little kids, though.  So was Bod.  And the Mr Men and Little Miss programmes.  These were animated programmes, so there were no actual human presenters them, which was pretty cool because presenters were grown-ups.  Dastardly and Muttley used to be on just after school, and He-Man and She-Ra were also really big whilst I was at primary school.  Some of them were really ’80s – The Mysterious Cities of Gold was another, as was Pigeon Street, and then there was Danger Mouse, and Inspector Gadget, and Batfink, and Around The World With Willy Fogg – but there were classics like The Flintstones and Scooby Doo as well.  Pigeon Street was really feminist, because Long Distance Clara was a female lorry driver!   Oh, and there was Willo The Wisp as well.  I loved Mavis Cruet.  Most fairies were thin.  I really appreciated the fact that there was a fat fairy!

And The Raccoons was on at weekends.  I think it was actually on as part of those Saturday morning kids’ TV shows.  Tiswas was a bit early for me, and I never really got Swap Shop, but I liked Going Live and Number 73, and, although I was a bit old for kids’ TV by then, I watched The 8:15 From Manchester because it had “Manchester” in the title.  In the holidays, there was Wac-a-Day.  We’re wide awake!  Mallett’s Mallet.

Of the programmes with adult presenters, The Sooty Show and Emu’s World were very popular in our house.  We had Sooty, Sweep and Soo puppets.  We were never really into Jackanory, and only watched Crackerjack occasionally, although I still laugh whenever anyone says “Ooh, I could crush a grape”.  For reason, we never really got into Blue Peter either.  We weren’t that into programmes with presenters.

We watched Grange Hill, and a short-lived ITV school series called Behind the Bike Sheds.  And T-Bag.  And, when we were very young, we watched Bagpuss.

There were some programmes we watched at school as well.  Mainly in the third year infants.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I remember that as being the year of watching TV in the classroom.  Zig Zag did history programmes.  I can’t remember much about You and Me, except the theme tune went “You and Me, Me and You …” and some of the boys in the class would sing “Poo and Wee, Wee and Poo”, much to the teacher’s annoyance.  And there was Why Don’t You.

I’m going to remember a million other programmes as soon as I post this.  We really do seem to have spent a worrying amount of our childhoods watching TV 🙂 .

A lot of them had very catchy theme tunes.  The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Dogtanian, Pigeon Street, He-Man … most people who grew up in the ’80s can still sing those theme tunes, which is rather embarrassing.  And know the words to the Wac-a-Day song, but possibly won’t admit it.  They stick in your head and never leave it!   And which TV programmes you watched as a kid really do mark out which generation you belong to!   You can read older books, or play older games, but you can only watch what’s on TV at the time!   There were no nostalgia channels in our day.

So happy 50th anniversary to Mr Benn, and I’m now off to think of all the programmes I’ve missed out.

 

 

 

 

It’s A Sin – Channel 4

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I’m fairly sure that this is the first TV series to be named after a Pet Shop Boys song.  I’d assumed that “It’s A Sin” was going to be the theme tune, but, disappointingly, it wasn’t – although we did get plenty of other amazing ’80s music throughout this first episode.  More to the point, it’s, rather strangely, the first British drama series to focus on the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

Unlike Philadelphia and the Mark Fowler EastEnders storyline in the early ’90s, this didn’t start with someone having already been diagnosed with HIV and or AIDS, but with four young gay lads leaving home to start new lives in London, in 1981.  All hopes and dreams, bright lights and parties, pubs and clubs.  Well, for three of them, Ritchie, Roscoe and Ash, along with their friend Jill, anyway.  The fourth lad, Colin, was shy and quiet and sat in watching TV.  I’m glad that Colin was there.  Not everyone can be confident and outgoing.

And it was good fun: they had good fun.  It was much lighter than I’d expected it to be.  I knew that there was a storyline involving a confrontation between Roscoe and his homophobic religious family and I was expecting something like the very emotional scene in Pose which saw Damon being physically thrown out of the house by his stepfather and having to sleep on a park bench.  Instead, Roscoe just told them where to shove it, and was next seen having a wonderful time partying the night away in gay bars, going through one bloke after the other.

Sadly, there are probably more Damons than Roscoes, but Russell T Davies has spoken very movingly of wanting those who died of AIDS to be remembered for the joy of their lives and not just for the tragedy of their deaths, and also of wanting to pay tribute to the friends, relatives, medical staff and activists who supported them.

Boys just wanna have fun … and it’s all so poignant, because we know what lies ahead, and we know that some of these young lads are not even going to see their 30th birthdays, and that those who do are going to be mourning the loss of some of the people closest to them.  Towards the end of the first episode, Colin’s colleague was hospitalised with a mysterious illness … and, as soon as we saw the lesion on his face, we knew what it was.  But, in (by then) 1982 none of them had any idea.  Then he died.

In the next episode, we’re – ironically, given that this was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic –  going to see how some of the characters refuse to believe that AIDS exists, and think that it’s a bizarre rumour spread by homophobic sections of the media, or else think that it’s been released deliberately by a Soviet laboratory.  Russell T Davies has talked about people trying to raise awareness being thrown out of gay pubs and told to take their leaflets with them.  It’s difficult to accept that there’s a deadly disease out there.  Until you start hearing about people dying from it.

Speaking of filming, most of it was filmed in Manchester, Bolton and Darwen, and it’s co-produced by Nicola Shindler from Whitefield.  There – that’s got my local plugs in!   We will apparently see the characters walking round a shopping centre in Eccles.  I know that people really need to know that.

The series starts in 1981, the year of the first death from AIDS in the UK. I was only 6 in 1981, and I can’t actually remember when I first became aware that HIV and AIDS existed.  We saw a character reading a newspaper article about a “mysterious illness” with no name.  That was in September 1982.   HIV wasn’t even identified until 1983.  But I do remember exactly when I first became aware of just how serious the AIDS situation had become, and that was in the summer of 1985.  Rock Hudson had pulled out of Dynasty due to ill-health, and, after it’d initially been given out that he had liver cancer, it was announced that he had AIDS.

He sadly died a few months later, aged 59.  As ever, a story about a big name celeb made a lot more headlines than a story involving ordinary people, but it was quite a pivotal moment, because he was the first really famous person to say that he had AIDS.  My friends and I were absolutely obsessed with Dynasty at the time, and older people obviously knew him as one of the world’s leading film stars, and it did raise awareness of what was happening.  What it couldn’t do, at that stage, was change attitudes and educate people.

In fact, there was quite a lot of controversy, because his character had snogged Krystle Carrington, and people were genuinely concerned that he might have infected Linda Evans, who’d been unaware of his condition.  When you think that we’ve spent most of the last year being told not to get within 6 feet of anyone who’s not in our household/bubble, those fears in 1985 don’t seem as strange as they would have done a couple of years ago.  At that time, even medical professionals were saying that it was inadvisable to kiss – as in full-scale kiss, not a peck on the cheek – someone who was HIV positive.  Most people didn’t believe some of the wilder scare stories, that you could catch it from toilet seats and that sort of thing, but there was a lot of scaremongering going on.

That was 1985. By late 1986/early 1987, everything had changed: it seemed as if everyone was talking about HIV and AIDS.  There was the big government campaign, with the pictures of tombstones.  It was horrible, but it did frighten people into being more careful and that will have saved a lot of lives.  “Hands, face, space,” sounds like something you chant during a nursery school game.  “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” scares the hell out of you.

And the famous pictures of the Princess of Wales opening an AIDS hospice, and hugging and shaking hands with patients without wearing gloves, did a lot to dispel fears that you could catch it just from casual contact.  But there were still people who thought you could.  The Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders, in 1990, probably did more to educate people in the UK than anything else did, because it went into so much detail.  Like a lot of people who were teenagers at the time, I certainly learnt more about HIV and AIDS from Mark Fowler than I did from any other source.

EastEnders were, as well as educating people about HIV and AIDS, making the point that anyone could catch it.  The character of Mark wasn’t in any of the high risk groups.  It was difficult: if they’d done the storyline with a gay character, people would have said that they were going along with the idea that it only affected gay men, and they were trying to avoid that … but it’s odd that, even now, none of the British soaps have “done” a storyline in which a gay male character’s been diagnosed with HIV.

Tony Warren, the late creator of Coronation Street, did address the AIDS pandemic in his novel The Lights of Manchester, though.  I read that in 1992.  A gay man moves from Manchester to San Francisco, and is gloriously happy there because he feels a sense of belonging in a city with such a big gay community. Some years later, he comes home for a visit and tells his best friend that his address book’s now full of crossings out, that there are hardly any names left on some pages, and that it’s pure good luck that he hasn’t contracted HIV himself: he hadn’t been careful because, at the time, he hadn’t known that he needed to be.  It’s a shame that that never made it on to TV: it was a very powerful conversation.

Then, in 1993, Tom Hanks won the Best Actor award for Philadelphia; and that was how far things had come.  Going back to 1986, we’d had James Anderton, the infamous “God’s Cop” Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, saying some really horrendous things about people who had AIDS.  Graham Stringer, who’s now an MP but was then the leader of Manchester City Council, had a right go at him.  By 1993, I don’t think a public figure would have said what Anderton did … but even then, when Arthur Ashe died, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, remarks were made about how he was a victim, in a way that someone who’d contracted it from sexual contract or shared drugs needles wasn’t.  Did Philadelphia, in which we saw characters expressing those attitudes even as they saw the Tom Hanks character suffering, help to change opinions?

The power of books, films and TV.  And music.  I was supposed to be seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the Manchester Arena last May.  The concert was rescheduled for this May, which, at the time, seemed like light years away: the pandemic was going to be over and done with by Christmas.  Yeah, right.  I don’t think It’s A Sin was ever meant as a campaigning song, but Red Letter Day must have been.  And Jimmy Somerville’s Read My Lips (Enough is Enough) actually demanded more help for HIV/AIDS patients.  The first episode ended with Smalltown Boy.  Do people who weren’t ancient enough to have been around in the ’80s and ’90s know these songs?   And was that Juliet Bravo that they were watching on TV in one episode?

Yes.  The power of TV.  I hope that this series achieves what Russell T Davies wants.  It’s been 40 years since the first death from AIDS in the UK, and a series like this is long overdue.

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

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I read this (well, apart from the fact that it was on a 99p Kindle offer) partly in honour of the forthcoming Manchester Pride weekend (although the stupid virus has put the kibosh on most of it), and partly (the author being almost exactly the same age as me) as an excuse for a big nostalgia fest about growing up in the North West in the ’80s and early ’90s … never missing an episode of either Coronation Street or Dynasty, reading teen pop magazines, and wearing hooded tops, telling everyone you were obsessed with Madchester music, and hoping that no-one would ever, ever call you either a stiff or a townie.  My entire class once wasted half a Latin lesson discussing how uncool it was to be a townie.  I have no idea why the teacher let us do this.

It’s a novel, but based closely on the author’s own experiences of growing up as a young gay man in Bolton, the issues he faced, and his obsession with Madonna.  How big was Madonna in the ’80s?!  I remember going round to my then best friend’s house for tea on the day that the Like A Prayer video was shown on TV in the UK for the first time, and it was *such* a big deal!   He rather overplays the northern working-class stereotypes; the fact that the book’s written in the present tense is a bit annoying; and the Madonna thing comes and goes rather than being the central theme as the title suggests; but it’s very thoughtfully-written and genuinely moving.

We see how our main man, Charlie (aka Matt) struggles badly due to being bullied at school, and how he feels that he doesn’t fit in either there or at home.  But we’re told that he finds that going to the gay bars and clubs in Canal Street (the heart of the Gay Village in Manchester) makes life a lot easier, which is rather lovely.  We try to be a welcoming city where everyone can be themselves ❤ .  Then we see him go off to university … and then move to London, which is a shame, as I thought the book was going to be set in Bolton.

His life gets in a complete mess, as he struggles to find his place in the world, but it all works out in the end   It could really have done with being a bit longer, to explain it all properly, but it all works out in the end.  And, when he finally meets Mr Right and they get married, the ceremony takes place at Bolton Town Hall and not in London.  Hooray!   And – see what I mean about overdoing the stereotypes?! – they even have Lancashire hotpot at the reception.  This is a really lovely book, and, especially if you can get it on the 99p deal, it’s well worth reading.

 

Back in Time for the Corner Shop (fifth episode) – BBC 2

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Ah yes, back to the 1980s!  Big hair, Choc Dips, Ice Magic, video rentals, top trump cards (who remembers horror cards?), Lilt, the greatest music in the entire history of the universe, and learning everything you needed to know about life (or so you thought) from the Just Seventeen problem page.  Just Seventeen and Smash Hits both came out on a Wednesday.  It was the best day of the school week!

The programme heralded the start of the ’80s with Joy Division and the start of the ’90s with the Stone Roses: it worked for me, but I’m not sure what the good people of Sheffield made of it.  They did mention the Human League, though, and they even got Martin from ABC in.  I hope we all point our fingers whenever we hear the “You did, you did” line in “Poison Arrow”?

Hard times for corner shops, though, especially in the 1990s after changes to the Sunday trading laws meant that large shops could now also open on Sundays, although they were given a boost by the launch of the National Lottery.  And, because of the competition, they largely moved away from selling fresh stuff, turning instead to pre-packed sandwiches and other food to buy and eat on the go.  Not very healthy, but needs must.

This was an amazing nostalgia fest, though, especially the ’80s stuff.   The way things are going, pre-recorded episodes of soaps could run out and the TV channels may have to turn to repeats, so we may be doing Back in Time with Alf Roberts’ Corner Shop before long!!

As they said, by the ’80s, supermarkets were king and corner shops were used mainly for top-up shopping, and also for various other things.  Phonecards were mentioned.  So was Royal Wedding memorabilia – I’m not sure it was tactful to spend so much time talking about Charles and Diana’s wedding, the way it turned out, but it was such a big thing that I remember the day very clearly, even though I was only 6 at the time.  I actually remember it more clearly that I remember Live Aid, which was also mentioned.

There was so much nostalgia here.  The thrill of getting a sandwich toaster.  ZX Spectrums – although we never had one of those, because we had an Acorn Electron computer instead.  Croaker and Killer Gorilla!  I’d never heard of the Star Walk, I have to admit, but that was obviously local to Sheffield, and a really big thing there – but I do remember when Meadowhall opened, and making a special expedition from Manchester to Sheffield to go round it!

And video rentals.  The parents of my best friend in the 1980s owned two video rental shops, so we got to see all the videos first!  It was such a big thing at the time.  There were things I’d half-forgotten, too, like 5-4-3-2-1 bars.  The parents immediately started singing the jingle from the adverts.  The kids looked blank!

I was rather sorry when it moved on to the 1990s!   My decade was definitely the ’80s.  It was sad to hear how many corner shops closed in the ’90s, the new Sunday Trading Act proving to be the final nail in their coffins, but there are still plenty of them around, and both they and the supermarkets are doing a sterling job in these troubled times.  If you’re reading this, stay safe and well, stay strong, and thanks for reading.  And maybe put a bit of ’80s music on!

 

 

Back To The Future The Musical – Manchester Opera House

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Great Scott – it’s Back To the Future, The Musical!  I’m absolutely delighted that Manchester is the first place in the world to get to see this new stage adaptation of one of the greatest cult films of the ’80s, and indeed of all time; and what an absolutely amazing spectacle it is!  1.21 gigawatts of spectacle, in fact (sorry, that had to be said!).  Flying cars, flashing lights and lightning strikes. I’ve never heard so many men yelling and screaming at a musical: it’s usually only we ladies doing that 🙂 .If you’re looking for Les Miserables, you’re not going to get it: apart from the original songs from the film, the music isn’t really that memorable. But, if you’re looking for Back To The Future and you’re not sure that it’s going to work on stage – believe me, it does!  If you’re worried that someone’s going to spoil a sacred bit of your ’80s childhood – it’ s fine, they’re not!   And, yes, the DeLorean flies!

It’s a bit surreal when you stop to think that we’re now going back further to get to 1985 than Marty’s going to get from 1985 to 1955.  It’s especially surreal if, like me, you’ve never entirely got out of the 1980s.  But the story works for any age. When you look beyond the sci-fi/time travelling elements, it’s a story of learning to stand up for yourself, overcoming bullying, trying not to worry that people are going to laugh at you for not being cool or trendy, and making a success of things by being yourself and doing what interests you.  That’s pretty inspiring in any decade. I think that the musical actually gets that side of it across better than the film does.

And it is definitely entertaining. I’m not someone who usually gets excited about special effects, but this is really something. It’s on a 12 week debut run at the Opera House, the 5th night of which happily coincided with my birthday, and I believe that people are travelling from all over the UK and even from the US for the chance to see it; but it’s going to run and run. When this baby hits 88 miles per hour …

Obviously, you can’t do everything on stage that you can on screen. For a kick off, you can’t spend 3 hours slapping make-up on people to make them look 30 years older, so, in the scenes in the 1980s, the McFly parents look around the same age as their kids 🙂  – but just try to ignore that! There’s not much skateboarding, and (hooray!!!) there are no dogs. George falls out of a tree, rather than being hit by a car.   Also – and it’s killing me to say this, because I am a child of the ’80s, and I got quite upset when it hit me that no-one much under 40 will even remember 1985 – there are things which worked in the ’80s which just wouldn’t work now.  References to Libyan terrorists, and indeed any terrorists, have been removed … and, thinking about it,  it’s kind of weird that they were considered suitable at the time, TBH.  And Doc Brown’s bemusement on learning that Ronald Reagan the film star is now the President of the United States, which was hilarious in 1985, falls a bit flat now.

However, I’m pleased to say that the Thought Police haven’t been allowed to get to it and take away the ’80s and ’50s feel of it. I know there’s been some whingeing about recent musicals being made of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman, from people saying that they’re sexist, but can we just accept that times change and that you can’t and shouldn’t try to change the past to match? Lorraine being impressed by first Marty and then George rescuing her from the unwanted attentions of Biff, largely by walloping him, works in the context of the 1950s. And, whilst no-one is more paranoid about their weight than I am, the thing about original 1985 Lorraine being fat and new model 1985 Lorraine being slim works in the context of the 1980s.  Talking about the prospect of “a coloured man” becoming mayor is the language that would have been used in the 1950s – and, of course, Goldie, who starts off sweeping the floor in a café, does indeed work his way up to the position of mayor, and he does it through his own hard work, without anyone having to change to change history for him!  I don’t know if anyone now would make a film in which a girl fancies a boy whom she’s unaware is her son. And even a friendship between a teenage boy and an older man might be considered dangerous territory now – which is a shame, because Marty and Doc Brown are such a great team.  But we’re not writing the story for 2020.  It was written for 1985.  And it’s largely been left as such.  Good.

So, yes, this is Back To The Future, and this is the 1980s!  As I said, it’s quite strange when you realise that, to younger members of the audience, the ’80s clothes, hairstyles and music, and things like the ’80s phone and TV in the McFlys’ kitchen, look like something from history.  It’s like when you’re walking round a museum and you see stuff that you remember using.  Most of it’s set in the 1950s, of course, though … and people who are 30 years older than me will probably feel exactly the same about the ’50s as I  do about the ’80s!  The music and dancing are part ’80s and part ’50s. And there’s a lot of music and dancing, because, well, it is a musical.  In fact, it had a bit of a feeling of Grease about it, because, as they couldn’t show scenes in as many parts of town as they did in the film, quite a lot of it was set in the high school attended by teenage George, Lorraine and Biff.

The new songs aren’t that great, as I said, but the original songs are still great, and the new ones are lively and upbeat even if not very memorable.  I’m a purist and a traditionalist and I would normally howl with indignation at the slightest suggestion that the main attraction of a musical was anything other than the music, but this is an adaptation of a particular film and so the special effects were always going to be the big thing.  And, if you’re looking for special effects, then, yep, you are going to get them, big style!  There are a lot of flashing coloured lights.  There is dry ice.  It has actually been made to look as if the car is going through time.  Well, OK, we don’t actually know what time travel looks like, but you know what I mean!  And, yes, all right, all right, we now know that 2015 was not an age of flying cars, but we didn’t know that in 1985. There is a flying car at the end, because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

It’s more than that, though.  It’s genuinely very funny – the comedy element is great.  And it’s genuinely inspiring.  Because you can’t do as much on stage as you can on screen, there’s more about the characters.  Or maybe I’m just getting old – and, yes, that is part of it.  When you’re a kid, it’s all about Marty.  When you’re older – and birthdays always make me feel like Methuselah – you feel much more for young George, shoved around by the school bullies, never able to stand up for himself, and hiding his love of sci-fi and the stories he’s writing because he’s convinced that people are going to laugh at him.  And you feel much more for the original version of adult Lorraine, who’s turned from a lively, vivacious teenager into an unhappy woman, turning to food and drink for comfort.  Well, unless you were a Biff-type kid at school, but, if you were, you probably won’t be reading anything written by me.

This is a brilliant fantasy time travel story.  And it’s a brilliant comedy, because of the way that Marty accidentally messes up the past and then has to try to sort it out, and because of all the time travel jokes such as Lorraine thinking Marty’s called Calvin Klein because that’s what the name tapes on his underpants say.  But, when you think about it more deeply,  it’s a story about the shy, uncool kid, who’s got zero self confidence and gets pushed around by bullies, becoming Mr Happy and Successful.  And it’s about Doc Brown’s years of trying to invent something that works finally paying off.  And I love that.

Oh, all right, it’s about the flying car, as well!  Because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads …

 

On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester

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This was wonderful.  It was mostly music from 1988 to 1991, which is just my era, so it was a brilliant nostalgia-fest!  But it was more than that.  It was the story of two immigrants who overcame adversity to live the American Dream.  It was their love story.  It was the story of how a  courageous woman fought back from terrible injuries.  It was full of emotion, like a 1980s musical, but also full of dance and colour, like a 1950s musical.  And how come I can remember all the words to all those songs from thirty years ago, yet I can never remember where I put my keys five minutes ago?!

Gloria Estefan (and the Miami Sound Machine – she didn’t use her name alone until 1989) didn’t become popular in the UK until 1988, when I was thirteen.  We’d just got our first CD player.  Cutting edge technology!   But we were taping music off the radio as well.  I quite liked the upbeat songs, like 1-2-3, Get On Your Feet, Oye Me Canto and Rhythm’s Gonna Get You, but, being hopeless at dancing, not to mention going through an extremely soppy phase starting in mid-1989, I preferred the ballads.  They were all in there!   Can’t Stay Away From You, Don’t Wanna Lose You Now, Cuts Both Ways, Anything For You, Here We Are …  and I still know all the words to them all.  And there was quite a bit of her earlier music too.  All those Cuban rhythms and dancing, all those colourful clothes!

It finished with Coming Out Of The Dark, her comeback song.  That didn’t do very well here.  I don’t know why not.  We were all so upset about the accident, which happened in March 1990.  She’d had one hit after the other, and she was so popular.  Such a lovely person.  I remember reading an interview with her, in Smash Hits or Just Seventeen or something like that, and thinking how terribly romantic it was that she’d married her first boyfriend.  It was such a positive time, as well.  That brief interlude.  The Berlin Wall was down, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, everything seemed possible.  It only lasted until the summer, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but that short period was a really special time.  I’ve got completely off the point now, haven’t I?  She had to learn to walk again.  The musical showed some of what she went through, the rehab, how difficult it was.  To come back from that, to get back to performing at the highest level … incredible.

To get back to 1988, Gloria was in her thirties, with an eight-year-old son.  She and the band had had success in the US earlier, but only a few years earlier.  The likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue were having hits in their teens, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were only in their mid-twenties.  Madonna was about the same age as Gloria, but she’d already been around for years.  The Miami Sound Machine (to add to the confusion, originally it was the band’s name alone, without the then Gloria Fajardo’s!) had released its first album in 1977.  So what on earth took so long?

Well, OK, sometimes it does take a while.  But what this musical showed was the specific issues faced by a Cuban-American group, performing Cuban-influenced music, trying to break into the English language mainstream market.  It wasn’t that the English-speaking public didn’t like their music.  It was that producers wouldn’t take a chance on it.  They’d been touring Latin America, but producers in the US were urging them to stick to the Latin market, and not even to sing in English.  I don’t know how accurate the musical was, but the way it showed it was that they were handing out copies of their singles in the street, offering to perform at clubs for free, and even playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Partly a marketing thing, but partly also general prejudice.  There were some fairly hard-hitting scenes with Emilio Estefan saying “This is what an American looks like” and talking about how, in his early days in Miami, he’d been faced with signs on apartments saying “No pets, no Cubans”.  It’s not an uncommon story.  “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish.”  No-one bleating about “wokeness”, or claiming that singing Cuban-influenced music in English was “cultural appropriation” or saying that someone should lose their job because of a comment they made twenty years ago.  Just someone talking about the difficulties which they personally had had to overcome.  And being proud to be an American, a Cuban-American.

And the musical showed how they went from being faced with signs like those to playing in Washington DC, with the Stars and Stripes as the backdrop to Gloria’s performance, to meeting President George Bush at the White House.  It was so positive.  People don’t talk much about “the American Dream” any more.  Is that due to modern negativity, or is just seen as an old-fashioned term?  Anyway.  They made it!  And how ironic it was that it was whilst returning from the White House that their bus was involved in that horrific accident.

I was going to say “two Latinos” or “two Hispanic people”, but I think that that’d perhaps mask the fact that the Cuban-American experience has been very different from, say, the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican American experience.  It happens here too: the term “British Asian” perhaps masks the fact that the British Indian experience has been very different from the British Pakistani experience and British Bangladeshi experience.

Emilio Estefan left Cuba with his dad, initially for Madrid and then for Miami, as a teenager in 1967.  His mum remained behind to care for her elderly parents, and they were separated for four years.  Gloria’s family, the Fajardos left Cuba, where her dad had been a soldier with close ties to the Batistas, in 1959, when Gloria was only two.

Gloria’s mum had been a singer in Cuba, and had an offer from Hollywood but was stopped from going by her father.  The musical showed how she initially wasn’t happy about Gloria going into the music business, and being on tour when she had a young child, and how they became estranged for a time.  She’d later got a PhD in education, but, because the Cuban authorities destroyed all her certificates, she had to retrain from scratch when she got to Miami – where she was the family breadwinner, because Gloria’s dad became severely disabled.

It wasn’t mentioned in the musical, but he took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured by his own cousin and imprisoned.  He was eventually released, but then served in Vietnam.  The musical showed him in Vietnam, but, presumably to avoid controversy, didn’t spell out the fact that his medical condition was probably caused by Agent Orange poisoning.  Gloria cared for her father and her younger sister, aided by her beloved maternal grandma whilst her mum was retraining and then working, but still got a university degree.

Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan – they had it tough, they struggled to get their music into the mainstream market, and then, at the peak of Gloria’s success, she suffered that horrific accident.  And they overcame it all.  What an inspirational story.  This is a wonderful nostalgia fest for those of us whose music collections have never really got past 1988 to 1991, but it’s so much more than that.  Great story.  Great music. Very, very impressed.

 

Pose (Season 2) – BBC 2

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It was lovely to hear Pose‘s Dyllon Burnside singing “God Bless America” before the Rafa versus Medvedev US Open final last month … even when you were as nervous about the match as I was!  He’s spoken very powerfully about the issues he faced growing up as a gay black churchgoing Christian in the Deep South; and Pose in general seems to be having quite an impact.  The first episode of the second season certainly didn’t pull any punches, with scenes including a depiction of a much-discussed December 1989 protest during mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, against the Archdiocese’s attitude towards the HIV and AIDS crisis at that time.  On a lighter note, we got Madonna – where is Madonna these days, incidentally? – popularising “vogue” music, in the year of the pointy bra tour.  Sorry, the “Blond Ambition” tour.

Hands up, I was never particularly keen on all that dance stuff – give me “Like a Prayer” over “Vogue” any day – so I was very pleased to hear music from Roxette and Soul II Soul, much more my thing, as well!  The standout characters of the first episode, though, weren’t just the dancers and models but also the doctors and nurses who showed such compassion to people living with, and dying from, HIV and AIDS at a time when political and religious leaders were handling the situation very poorly.  The world badly needs more compassion, and less aggression.

I’m trying not to dwell on the fact that a lot of the cast won’t remember Vogue being number one, or the pointy bra thing.  The lad who plays sweet little Damon, who disappointingly didn’t feature much in this first episode, wasn’t born until 1999.  1999!  It was rather nice to see Sandra Bernhard and Trudie Styler: that stopped me feeling so old!   Ask me what’s number one now and I will not have the remotest clue, but name any number one from 1990 and I’ll be able to sing it.  OK, caterwaul it.  It’s quite strange seeing my time portrayed on TV.

Anyway.  This was a pretty hard-hitting first episode, with much of the emphasis on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  As I said, it didn’t pull any punches.  As well as the “Stop The Church” protest, we saw funerals, coffins lined up, and even someone in a coffin.  We heard characters discussing how many people they knew had died of AIDS, and we were also told how less well-off patients were unable to access medication and had to rely on supplies left by better-off people who’d died.  It certainly got the point across.

However, there was plenty of music and dancing and ballroom competition as well – although sadly no Dynasty costumes as well!  It’s much darker than the first series was, though: there was no romance in the first episode of the new series and nothing about how Damon’s getting on at his Fame-like music school, and there were some quite violent scenes after one of the characters was mistreated by a photographer and other members of the House of Evangelista took revenge.  It wasn’t always easy watching, but it was absolutely gripping.  I started watching the first series for the ’80s music, but I’ve got really involved with the characters and the storylines now.  I’m not sure how many people in the UK are watching this, but I hope it’s a lot, because it’s something really different and it’s well worth the watching.