The Strangeways Riot: 25 Days of Mayhem – Channel 4


I feel awful for saying this, but my teenage friends and I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot.  Our school bus went right past the prison, and we used to wave to the rioting prisoners on the roof.  And they used to wave back to us.  We thought we were *it*.  Classmates who lived on different bus routes were super- envious of us.  The fact that these people with whom we were exchanging cheery waves were some of the most violent people in the entire country, convicted criminals who’d committed horrific offences and ruined innocent people’s lives, in some cases even taken innocent people’s lives … er, didn’t seem to occur to us.  I feel awful for saying it now, as I’ve said, but, at the time, it all seemed quite exciting.

The Strangeways area itself was uber-cool at the time.  The HQ of Joe Bloggs jeans, which, along with black hooded tops, were the Madchester uniform, was very close to the prison.  A few months after that, we went on a school trip to London, and, as it was a trip, we didn’t have to wear uniform (probably so that no-one would be able to identify the school if anyone misbehaved). Pretty much every kid turned up in a pair of jeans and a black hooded top.  We strutted round London thinking that we were the bees’ knees.  Capital city?  Stuff that.  Manchester ruled!

We were actually going to see some boring classics plays, as the headmistress thought befitted a group of Nice Girls from a Nice School, but we drew a veil over that.  It didn’t exactly fit with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.  No-one needed to know that that was what we were in London for, did they?

And, of course, the riot had absolutely nothing to do with being cool.  Two people died.  Scores of others were injured.  £55 million worth of damage was done.  The prisoners’ relatives and friends went through horrendous emotional turmoil as false reports came out that tens of people had been murdered.  There was nothing cool about it.  It had nothing to do with Madchester music, it had nothing to do with the James Stannage phone-in on local radio (which we were all really into at the time), and it had nothing to do with the fact that United had had an absolutely terrible league season but were about to win the FA Cup.  And it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with us.  But, when you’re what school stories describe as a “Naughty Middle”, you can tend to think that everything’s about you and your world; and, when I look back at that time, it’s all mixed up together in my head.

I’m doing that again now, aren’t I?  Making it all about me and my world.  Suppose that I try writing something about, you know, the riot and the documentary …

I was quite glad that Channel 4 played Fools Gold and Step On You as the background to some of the footage, and showed people turning up outside with picnics, as if it were some sort of outdoor theatrical event.  At least we weren’t the only ones who, ahem, rather enjoyed it and got it mixed up in our heads with all the Madchester stuff.

Incidentally, Kay Burley, then a very new reporter with Sky News, even claimed that it was the start of 24 hour rolling news.  I’d say that that was more the Gulf War, which happened later that year, but I suppose you *can* make an argument for it having started with the Strangeways Riot.

In amongst all the music and pictures of people having picnics, we did actually hear from some of the prisoners and staff involved in it all, and we did get the background to the riot.  Crime was rising, for a number of social and economic reasons, and, at the time, it was thought that putting people in prison was the best way to deal with it.  Prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and the way in which prisons were run hadn’t really been reformed for years.  Warders were even allowed to use tranquillisers on prisoners, which seems horrendous now.

Everything built up, and a number of prisoners started a riot in the Anglican chapel, and managed to grab the keys.  The staff, vastly outnumbered and with no way of keeping control, pulled out.  And what tends to be forgotten is that it was only a minority of the prisoners who were rioting.  Others, especially sex offenders who knew that they faced brutal attacks from other prisoners disgusted at what they’d done, were terrified.  Meanwhile, ongoing building works made it possible for the rioters to get out on to the roof.

And that’s what we remember.  The prisoners on the roof.  We had no idea what was going on inside the building.  But all sorts of reports were coming out.  There was talk of massacres.   Of sex offenders being carted off to Crumpsall Hospital (that’s our local hospital, officially known as North Manchester General but still referred to by most people by its historic name) with castration wounds.  A large number of reporters set up shop on the roof of a nearby warehouse, and they were talking to the prisoners.  And the authorities were going mad about this.  The rioters had everyone’s attention.  Everyone was listening to every word they said.

I’m not sure what the wider national, or possibly even international, coverage was like – the national press were also busy covering a major anti poll tax riot which took place in London at that time – but, in Manchester, it was practically all that anyone was talking about.  Well, that and the FA Cup run saving Alex Ferguson’s job.  It seems unthinkable now, but then, a fortnight before Easter 1990, a joke was doing the rounds – “Alex Ferguson OBE – out before Easter”.  Can you imagine if that’d happened?   Don’t even go there!  Anyway, the attention was off Fergie for a while, because the local media were all over the riot.  And the Home Office ended up asking the editor of the Manchester Evening News to go into the prison and find out what was going on.  Not a prison chief, a police chief, a senior politician or someone from the military.  The editor of the Manchester Evening News.

So, once he’d been in and seen what was going on, we knew that the inside of the prison was being wrecked but that, thankfully, the reports of a massacre weren’t true, nor were the reports of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  And, as the programme’s narrator said, it had moved from being a riot to being a siege.  A small hardcore of prisoners remained on the roof.  And someone came up with the idea of using sleep deprivation to try to get them down.  So, the next thing we knew, loud music was blaring out over the Strangeways area at night, a helicopter was flying overhead, air raid sirens were being used, and bangers embedded in potatoes were being lobbed in.  Bangers.  Embedded in potatoes.  It sounded like something from a Carry On film, not an attempt by the authorities to bring an end to a major disturbance.   And all this was going on just down the road, on our school bus route.

Meanwhile, riots were breaking out at other prisons across the country, the last few prisoners wouldn’t give in, it was all just crazy, Maggie Thatcher was really not a happy bunny, and, eventually, prison officers went in, and the last few prisoners came down in a cherry picker, like … I don’t know, a cross between an action movie and a pop video.  They were giving clenched fist salutes to the watching crowds of press and members of the public, and people were cheering.  Looking back on it now, it … well, sometimes fact’s stranger than fiction, and this was one of those times.

Afterwards, prison practices were changed, and the prison was rebuilt.  It’s now supposed to be called HMP Manchester, as if changing the name’s going to erase the memory of the riots.  Everyone still calls it “Strangeways”.  And those of us who lived in the local area during those strange 25 days in the spring of 1990 will never forget what happened – but, unlike the people who worked there, and the people who were imprisoned there but weren’t involved in the riot, we don’t bear any scars from it.

Kenneth Baker, who was the Home Secretary at the time, said that it marked “a watershed in the history of the prison service”.  It was one of the biggest national events of its time.  And we had a close up view of it from the top deck of a school bus.  Strange (pun intended).  Very strange indeed.  Thanks to Channel 4 for this.  I know that it was intended to be a documentary about a very serious prison riot and the very serious things which it told us about our prisons at the time, but, for those of us from North Manchester, it also brought back a lot of memories of a very strange and never forgotten time.



Pose (Season 3) – BBC 2


This is the third and final series – or “season”, as our American friends say – of Pose.  It’s going to cover the ongoing difficulties caused by the attitude of religious organisations towards the LGBT community, an area in which, nearly 30 years after this is set, sadly little progress has been made.  And it’s also going to revisit the story of the body in the trunk in the wardrobe: I was really hoping that they’d decided to forget about that, but it seems not!

Well, it’s now 1994, and the gang have reunited to … er, watch O J Simpson being chased by police.  Has anyone ever actually rung their friends to ask them to come round and eat popcorn whilst watching live coverage of a police car chase?!   Oh well, whatever, it worked as a plot device to get everyone together!

The first series, set in the late ’80s, was generally quite upbeat, as we saw people making new lives and forming surrogate families in the ballroom scene in New York, but the second series, set in the early ’90s, was dominated by the effects of the AIDS pandemic.  This series has also started on a downbeat note, as the community continues to lose people to AIDS, others struggle to cope with living with HIV, and a number of major characters turn to drink and drugs.   Meanwhile, the ballroom scene’s becoming increasingly commercialised, and that’s detracting from the community spirit and support that it’s always provided.

However, we’ve got the house mothers doing a superb job of trying to hold it all together – supporting the people who need it, and reminding everyone else of the need to stand by their friends.  A lot of the focus is on the older characters this time, and M J Rodriguez as Blanca, Dominique Jackson as Elektra and Billy Porter as suffering Pray Tell really are putting in very strong performances, as we jump from home scenes to hospital scenes to ballroom scenes.   The 1994 music’s a bit too late for me 🙂 , but never mind!

This has already been shown in America, but I’m not going to try to find out in advance how it ends.  However, I gather that it does end on a positive note, although some characters aren’t going to make it to the last episode.  It’s difficult to find a balance between being too upbeat and being too downbeat when telling the story of a community that’s faced a lot more than its fair share of problems, but this has been really good.  It’s a shame that there isn’t going to be a fourth series, but the producers have said that they feel that this is the right time to stop.  All the best to everyone involved in whatever they do next.

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain


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


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!



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


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


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.

Our Classical Century – BBC 4


The soundtrack to the glorious summer of 1990 wasn’t anything by the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays, or even one of my beloved power ballads. It was Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. How mad (for it 😉 ) was that? Kids like us did not listen to classical/opera music. It was totally uncool. It was for old (i.e. over about 35) posh people in the Home Counties. Or Ken Barlow. And then, suddenly, it was for us as well. We even nicknamed one of our school bus drivers “Luciano” (there was a very vague resemblance, if you looked hard). The following year, Pavarotti sang in Manchester shortly after United won the Cup Winners’ Cup, in English clubs’ first season back in Europe after the ban. He wore a United scarf on stage. This was it – yep, classical music was cool after all!  Classic FM launched a year later. Nigel Kennedy’s Mockney accent was rather annoying, but, as the ’90s went on, along came Vanessa Mae, and she was brilliant. Suzy Klein, who’s the same age as me to within a few weeks, will probably have grown up with the same music as I did, but it still makes me feel really old to be reminded that Alexandra Burke, her co-presenter, is Melissa Bell’s daughter! But even people who aren’t old enough to remember the summer of 1990 know Nessun Dorma.  Vincero!  Vin-cer-o …!

I have to say that a lot of the stuff mentioned in this episode, about how classical music shed its stuffy image in the ’80s and ’90s, seems to have passed me right by at the time! I remember Bolero, obviously. Everyone remembers Bolero! I could have done without Alexandra Burke pointing out that she wasn’t born in 1984, but still.  And I remember classical music being used for TV adverts. We had to listen to Air on a G String in school music lessons, and, instead of looking blank like we usually did when the teacher asked if anyone knew what the piece was – I was OK with the 1812 Overture, because of its links with Russian history, and I must have recognised some things from the “Amadeus” film, but that was usually about it – everyone brightly pointed out that it was the music from the Hamlet cigar advert.

But I don’t remember the nation being “brought together” by a piece of classical music played at the funeral of Diana. Princess of Wales, although I remember Elton John singing Candle in the Wind, as clearly as if it were yesterday. And I have no recollection of a Venezuelan orchestra bouncing around whilst playing music from West Side Story, which the programme insisted was some great turning point in cultural history! Oh, and I never knew that Elgar supported Wolves – you learn something new every day! He wrote a football song called “He Banged The Leather For Goal”.  Seriously.

But Nessun Dorma in 1990 – oh yes. It was an interesting time, the summer of 1990. People Like Us, who were into football, were suddenly listening to The Three Tenors. People who were into high culture stuff were suddenly watching football.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the changes in football. Don’t get me wrong, no-one wants to go back to the days of hooliganism, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the pre-1990 days as I try desperately to work out when to book some shows I want to see in the run-up to Christmas, knowing that Sky and BT Sports and now Amazon Prime as well can change the dates of times and fixtures whenever and to whenever they feel like it, and it’s hard not to feel resentful knowing that, should my team get to a Cup final, I’ll struggle to get tickets because priority will be given to the prawn sandwich brigade. But feeling that, yes, classical music is actually for everyone after all – that’s a definite change for the better. I don’t actually listen to Classic FM, because I’m usually listening to stations that play ’90s power ballads instead , and I don’t usually listen to the Proms except on the Last Night, but I will listen to classical music sometimes, and I don’t feel that it isn’t for People Like Us.

And, when I think of 1990 – which I do quite a lot, because it was a really big year for me, for various reasons – I think, along with all the “Madchester” music, and along with Roxette, and Elton John, and The Beautiful South, and Sinead O’Connor, of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, and making classical/opera music cool!

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 7)


I was still at school at the beginning of the 1990s, but most of this episode on that decade seemed a million miles away from my day. All that technology in the classroom!  I was way too old to have a Tamagotchi, and I only watched the odd episode of Byker Grove.  I recognised all the music, though, so I was obviously still “with it” – well, as far as I ever was!    It was good fun to see some of the Cool Britannia stuff again.  Oasis over Blur every time: it’s a Manchester thing!   But the BBC’s obsession with pushing their political agenda has really marred this series.  Claiming that everyone in the ‘80s was far too self-obsessed to raise money for charity?  They should be forced to issue a formal apology to Bob Geldof for saying that.  And what was all that rubbish about the government stifling creativity by making people draw wheels?   Also, why does the BBC seem to think that everyone wants interactive lessons with as much pupil participation as possible?   What about all those of us who just wanted to fade quietly into the background?!

Hearing teenagers refer to the 1990s as “back then” and say that their parents had been at school in the 1990s made me feel about 100, but at least it was said to the background music of a Happy Mondays song. No reference to the whole “Madchester” phenomenon, though.  Boo!  I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in 1990, and – uniform not being worn on school trips, presumably to make sure that no-one’d be able to identify the school if anyone did anything terrible – everyone turning up in hooded tops and Joe Bloggs jeans, and strutting round thinking how incredibly cool we were compared to people in London!   We did, however, get Italia ’90.  I was doing my GCSEs then.  I had three exams – three!! – on the day of the group match between England and the Republic of Ireland.  Very stressful day!   It was good to see that the kids knew all about it.  Italia ’90, I mean, not my GCSEs.  And those wonderful Panini sticker albums we all had.  We also heard about Game Boys.  Not being very technologically-minded in those days, I never had one – but my sister did, so I used to play Tetris on hers!   And about all that awful modern art – unmade beds and stuffed animals.  I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.  Give me a nice landscape painting any day!

Back with the actual school stuff, we were reminded about the introduction of school league tables. Ah yes.  If I remember rightly, the first league tables came out during my first year at university.  They’d somehow made a mistake with the points for my school, so it appeared far lower down the league tables than it should have done.  The headmistress hit the roof – understandably – and my school ended up all over the headlines of the news!   Needless to say, the programme, and especially that one really irritating teacher (the one who claimed she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before) did nothing but moan about the National Curriculum and the league tables.  The kids featured in this all seemed very bright and well capable of formulating their own opinions, but Sara Cox was clearly trying to lead them towards saying what the BBC wanted them to say, which really did annoy me.    What on earth was all that whingeing about creativity being stifled by being expected to draw a wheel in art lessons?  What exactly do you expect to do in school art lessons?  I can barely draw a straight line with a ruler, so I never had any artistic creativity to stifle 🙂 , but it all seemed like a lot of moaning about nothing.

The moaning about the school dinners was more justified. I appreciate that the government was trying to cut costs, but it really wasn’t one of their better ideas.  But, again, the BBC had to politicise it by encouraging all the kids to say that the government was being hypocritical by allowing vending machines in schools at the same time as they were trying to encourage kids to do more exercise.  Yes, it was a fair point, but a) it all seemed very sanctimonious, b) Sara Cox was clearly trying to put words into the kids’ mouths and c) the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Going back to the point about exercise, Jet from Gladiators – a programme I could not bear! – turned up to take the PE lesson.  There’s been a lot in this series about PE lessons.  How I hated PE!   I would have hated it in any generation!

There seemed to be a lot more about social change and popular culture than about actual school life in this programme – although, to be fair, they did try to tie it into education. The introduction of the National Lottery – and, yes, some of the money did go to schools – was very exciting at the time, although I do now have a nostalgic yearning for the days when everyone did the pools, which were never the same again after the Lottery came in.  No mention of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, strangely.  The reaction to it all was ridiculously OTT, but it was a very, very big thing at the time.  The Spice Girls got a brief mention.  I’m not sure that the “Girl Power” thing actually influenced society, but it certainly got a lot of attention.   The “coming out” storyline in Byker Grove in 1994  was also covered.  As I’ve said before and have said again, soap operas and similar programmes have done far more to change attitudes over LGBTQ issues, and many other issues, than any sort of official campaign ever has.  And, as much as I often criticise the BBC, kudos to the EastEnders scriptwriters for tying in the recent storyline about the death of Dr Legg with references to the worrying rise in anti-Semitism both in the 1930s and today.

There was also a load of rubbish about how the 1980s was all “me me me”, whereas the 1990s was all about raising money for Comic Relief. Er, what?!   I do remember raising money for Comic Relief at school.  Some of the teachers did “The Stonk” in assembly, which, given that my school was quite formal and old-fashioned, was quite an event.  But schools were involved in raising money for charity in the ‘80s, as well, and long before the ‘80s.  My school chose a different charity every term, and tried to raise money for it.  Saying that no-one in the “Thatcherite ‘80s” was bothered about helping other people, when you think about Live Aid, and all the money raised for disaster appeals both in the UK and abroad (the ‘80s was very much the decade of the charity single), not to mention the BBC’s own Children in Need appeals, and the 1988 ITV Telethon, was just disgusting.

One of the fundraising ideas was a fashion show. Ugh, ugh, ugh!   I cannot think of anything worse.  Maybe it would’ve been great fun if you were slim, glamorous and confident, but … I feel ill just thinking about it.  I suppose that anyone wanting to take part in a reality TV series is going to be confident, but what about all the people who aren’t?  Earlier in the programme, they’d been going on about how wonderful drama lessons were.  Not if you were the sort of kid who just hoped no-one’d notice you were there, and was convinced that everyone was laughing at you behind your back because they thought you were fat and weird, they weren’t!

On to the 1997 general election. They were very positive about Tony Blair: given the general tone of the programme, I’m amazed they didn’t slag him off for not being far left enough.  I completely fell for the whole Tony Blair New Labour thing.  I genuinely thought that he was a decent bloke with a real vision for the country.  Hah!  These days, I change the channel the minute he appears on TV: the very sight of his face makes me want to slap it!   I wish we could get back that feeling of optimism about politics, though.  If a general election were to be called tomorrow, it’d be a case of trying to decide which party was the least bad, not of voting for any positive reason.  Both main parties are a disgrace, and I cannot think of even one politician whom I’d genuinely like to see as Prime Minister.  The positivity of 1997 seems a very long time ago.  Well, it was a very long time ago.   22 years! Bloody hell – how did that happen?!  I was rather put out that they didn’t mention the truly great leader of the 1990s – the one and only Sir Alex Ferguson.   Unlike Phoney Tony, he never let us down!

Most of the rest of the programme was about technology, and made me feel like I was a dinosaur because we had none of it when I was at school. I never used Encarta.  I remember having CD roms for professional exams in about 1998, but certainly not when I was at school.  Web design lessons.  CDs giving advice on job options – and the only mention in this episode of gender-based educational differences, with a comment that the CD never even asked the user’s gender.  Tamagotchis – I remember the craze for them, but I was way too old to have one!  And dial-up internet – which I still had until … about 2010, I think.  The kids seemed to think it was all like something from a completely bygone era.  That made me feel very old!   Hooray for the Take That music, though.  I shall be going to see Take That in a couple of months’ time – I may be a child of the 1980s, but I can do the 1990s too!  Well, some aspects of the 1990s.

Asked which decade they preferred, neither the kids nor the teachers seemed very sure. The general opinion seemed to be that there were good aspects and bad aspects of each of them.  That’s life, I suppose!   There’s one more episode of this to come, but that’s going to be about imagining school life in the future: the exploration of the past’s over.  It’s been very interesting, despite the BBC’s political machinations, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they choose for the next “Back in time” series.