Review: The 70s


I’m all in favour of expertise on TV: better a historian than a newsreader, a scientist than some bloke off Countryfile. But knowledge isn’t the only thing that matters. Warmth is important, too: a connection with the viewer, whose attention the presenter must hold. On BBC2, there comes a well-timed new documentary series, The 70s (Mondays, 9pm), which explores the years that brought us Black Tower, Genesis and the rise of the Wimpey housing estate. It’s presented by Dominic Sandbrook, whose writing about postwar Britain is much praised and whose latest book, Seasons in the Sun, is a history of Britain between 1974 and 1979.
Sandbrook knows his stuff, which is all to the good so long as people stay tuned. But will they? I’m not sure. I would have switched off if I hadn’t been reviewing the programme and I could not be more interested in the 1970s if I tried. Ah, those halcyon days when my parents fought one another in the courts for half-shares in a teak dining table, various earthenware bowls and a few sets of Sanderson curtains!
The BBC publicity department styles Sandbrook as a “1970s enthusiast”. But you can no more imagine him cracking open the Findus Crispy Pancakes than you can George Osborne. Often, he seemed to be sneering. When he wasn’t sneering, he was grimacing, and when he wasn’t grimacing, he could be found looking distinctly awkward in, variously, someone’s front room, the HQ of the National Union of Mineworkers in South Yorkshire and a three-star hotel in the Costa del Somewhere called the Barracuda. My dear! The places one sees when one is on tour with a television crew!
He described the British taste in wine as “untutored” – what did your parents drink in 1971, Dominic? Château Lafite? – and the educated, entrepreneurial Ugandan Asians who landed British jobs with such admirable speed as having “dragged themselves up”. (He meant this as praise but his tin ear means that he is prone to reaching for the wrong word.) He even, when he compared the prime minister’s French to that of Voltaire and found it wanting, achieved the astonishing feat of making me feel sorry for Ted Heath. Heath, incidentally, installed gold carpets in No 10. His pals thought this made the place look like a modern bachelor pad. But most people – or so Sandbrook said – thought it looked like “a boudoir” (nudge, nudge).
Which people? This is the other problem. The series cries out – it positively screams – for interviews. I longed for someone other than Sandbrook (who was not even born until 1974) to look back, to give events both perspective and immediacy. As it was, this was just a clip show with a grand essay laid decorously over it, like a doily on a Formica table.
They were sometimes very good clips. Someone had dug up fantastic footage of miners who had been told by their bosses to wear hairnets down the pit; better that, the young men said, than abandoning their be­loved new feather cuts. And I loved the moment when a TV reporter asked a wailing Bowie fan why she was crying and all she could tell him was: “He’s smashing!” (The campaign for the revival of the word “smashing” starts here.) Only the stupid or heartless could fail to take pleasure in watching Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp. Especially Bewes, whose luxuriant and preternaturally springy hair puts me in mind of a family-sized malted loaf.
But this kind of thing isn’t enough to sustain an hour of television, let alone four. Sandbrook tried his best to give it some energy: he scattered the word “seismic” about and attempted to surprise us by claiming, for instance, that Arthur Scargill’s rhetoric was “almost That­cherite” (as ideas go, this seemed a little strained to me). The soundtrack, meanwhile, didn’t fall silent for a moment, so if Journey, T. Rex and the Moody Blues are your thing – and when I’m in the right mood, they’re certainly mine – this could be the show to do your ironing to. Still, it felt to me like a horribly missed opportunity. It was uninvolving, whe­ther you were there or not. What a shame. People do love the 1970s, as I remember every time the ageing rock star who lives on my street wobbles by on his chopper.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial