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26 October 2022

Channel 4’s Made in the 80s shows how history repeats itself

High inflation, endless strikes, the spectre of nuclear war: it doesn’t take a genius to notice the painful similarities.

By Rachel Cooke

This new Channel 4 series about the Eighties has slight delusions of grandeur. Hoping to be a little bit Adam Curtis-like, it has a go at unspooling the odd vague but overarching theory, the better to sinisterly connect now and then. But it’s really very half-hearted. For the most part, it’s just a superior talking-heads show, retired Saatchi & Saatchi executives vying, in the first episode, with ex Greenham Common protesters and the odd pop star for our attention.

Does this bother me? Actually, it doesn’t. Not only am I too exhausted by events for much deep thinking; I’m also, as a child of the Eighties, disturbingly easily pleased in the nostalgia stakes. Just show me the Katharine Hamnett T-shirts, the scenes from Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, the video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”!

The painful similarities between the early Eighties and the present moment are, in any case, blindingly obvious. High inflation, endless strikes, the spectre of nuclear war: it doesn’t take a genius to point these things out. And perhaps a little straightforward perspective is at this point useful, if not precisely soothing. Even as someone who used to lie in bed worrying about the missile that was almost certainly on its way to Sheffield from Moscow – I was anxious that when I died of nuclear radiation, I would inevitably be with only one of my divorced parents – I’d forgotten how incredibly grave the situation was before Gorbachev and Thatcher took a shine to one another (their relationship led eventually to de-escalation). Kids, the government really did publish a pamphlet called Protect and Survive in which it told us what to do in the event of a nuclear attack! (Among its advice, inadequate to the point of reading like a spoof, was the instruction to move the body of anyone who’d died into the next room.)

As Made in the 80s shows, there was a certain lack of subtlety in the way that pop culture reflected politics back then. Terror isn’t nuanced. Seven million people tuned into Mick Jackson’s horrific 1984 nuclear drama, Threads, on the BBC (spoiler: everyone dies); in the same year, Katharine Hamnett arrived at No 10 to meet the prime minister in a T-shirt that yelled: “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” (Mrs T promptly pointed out that the missiles that had arrived in Britain courtesy of her other pal, Ronnie Reagan, were cruise, not Pershing).

But neither was the traffic all one way. Thatcher owed her electoral success at least in part to Saatchi & Saatchi, and it was to the ad agency, slick but inevitably heavy-handed, that Michael Heseltine again turned in 1983 when the polls showed that people were increasingly angry about the missiles stored at Greenham Common. Why had Britain enjoyed peace for so long, asked the party political broadcast. Answer: nuclear weapons, you dummies!

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Saatchi extolled the virtues of the missiles, in other words, in much the same way as it might have enthused about a new Saab. Forget the politics! This whole nuclear nightmare is just about stuff, too. Excellent hardware, glorious countryside; do please note, dear consumers, the relationship between the two. You can’t enjoy one without the other. If you’re not convinced by this, then remember it was Tony Scott, a former ad director, who just a few years later made Top Gun, the true stars of which are basically bits of shiny new military kit. (It is, as someone notes, a film about winning, which was what the Eighties were all about.)

Simon Gilchrist, the director of Made in the 80s, has deployed more than one ageing ad-man in his first film, seemingly in an effort to give it some philosophical heft. For one can always rely on industry legends such as John Hegarty, one of Saatchi’s founders, plausibly to insist that advertising is “about ideas” rather than stuff and how to shift it. But we all know the truth, even Gilchrist. The film ends not only with footage of the US’s missiles leaving Britain, but with an acknowledgement that soon afterwards Saatchi moved into making ads for Soviet television. Someone is always selling something. Ah, well. The two next films in the series are about moral panics, and coal versus computers, and I will certainly be there for both, shoulder pads or bust.

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Made in the 80s: The Decade That Shaped Our World
Channel 4, 24 October, 9pm; now on catch-up

[See also: Daisy May Cooper’s Am I Being Unreasonable? is dark, strange comedy]

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder