Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

All that is formulaic does not have to be bad.  When sports teams hit on a winning formula either of personnel or tactics they would be foolish to move away from it.  And of course there’s something to be said for sticking to what you know (incidentally, I notice that Feeder have a new album out).  TV seems to work on a similar principle, namely that you should be inventive only until you stumble across something that people like, then you make sure to give them more of the same until they are sick of it.  For evidence, see Popstars, Popstars (the rivals), Pop Idol, American Idol, Fame Academy, The X factor, Britain’s got Talent.  The name changes, but generally the product stays the same.  Of course ITV are most guilty, but the BBC have to hold their hands up in at least two areas.  The first is the now-ubiquitous travel/cookery programme, many of which tend to focus on the British Isles in a sort of upmarket Man v Food manner, including vast quantities of whitecurrants, samphire and cob-nuts, whilst Giles Coren or the Hairy Bikers tell us what we should be eating more of, and isn’t it a shame how what used to be orchards is now a ring-road around Stoke.  The second is the nostalgia shows, and keen to live up to their name, the nostalgia shows have been away for a time but are now back with a vengence.


The BBC decided to go large on the nostalgia show around the year 2000 (a sensible time to look back), and spent every Saturday night with a programme entitled ‘I love 1970’ one week, followed by ‘I love 1971’ the following week.  The feeling was that they knew it was possible to cobble together an entire night’s TV on one of their two channels by simply showing repeats, as long as the repeats all happened to be from the same year.  The glue that held these programmes together took the form of various comedians and social commentators (wherever else would Stuart Maconie and Gina Yashere come together?) whose role was to exclaim ‘I can’t believe we all used to wear leg-warmers’ at the end of a clip where people wore leg-warmers, or ‘I can’t believe we all used to wear 3-foot high top-hats with mirrors on them’ when a clip of Slade was shown.


The popularity of these programmes was such that when the ‘I love 1970s’ series came to a close in late 2000, they simply wheeled out an ‘I love 1980s’ series.  This was followed by the ‘I love 1990s’ series.  It was more difficult to class the ‘I love 1999’ programme strictly as nostalgia, bearing in mind that the show aired in 2001.  I can’t believe I used to wear that?  Not really – clothes from 1999 made up the most fashionable items in my wardrobe at that time.


The Beeb have re-introduced the nostalgia again recently with a series called ‘The 70s’.  Apart from the fact that something from 1972 might turn up alongside something from 1976, rather than being separated by four Saturday nights, it doesn’t smack of anything original.  But people still seem keen to lap it up.  But who is actually allowed to feel nostalgic whilst watching kids bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Rayleigh Choppers?  Surely only those people that were bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Choppers at the time?  So anyone from the ages of about 5-15 in, say, 1976 can feel nostalgic, which means that only those people aged between 41 and 51 now really be experiencing a feeling of nostalgia, or at least a heightened sense of nostalgia.  These people are experiencing genuine nostalgia; they are whistfully remembering a time gone by, a happy time, a simpler time and a time about which they can say ‘I was there’.  I’m not nostalgic for space-hoppers because I never bounced on one, nor did I know anyone that did.  I’m no more nostalgic for those squidgy orange balls than I am for penny farthings or Arkwright’s spinning Jennys.


But nostalgia affects us all, and it seems that we’re able to feel nostalgic about the past, even if it wasn’t our past.  I watched a programme about George Formby last week, which included clips of many of his bawdy songs (most of which seemed to be about his penis, or his desire to spy on women through windows).  Yet by the end of the programme I was convinced that the London riots were pretty much a direct result of the decrease in the number of people playing the ukelele and that what this country needed was a mass-exodus to the Blackpool ballroom to listen to a load of George’s old music-hall classics.  I got rather carried away, as you can probably tell.  


We’re all keen to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, and tend to remember just how bad today is compared to the halcyon days of yesteryear.  Wattle and daub houses and rampant syphilis, that’s when times were truly great.  Mind you, things can be taken too far.  The Happy Mondays are back on tour.

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What’s new?

This is a particularly irritating way to start a conversation; similar to saying ‘how’s tricks?’. No-one is quite sure how to respond to either of these, and I’m not even sure what the second one means, unless you’re talking to an member of the magic circle, which seems unlikely.

The only acceptable answer to the question posed by this blog is: nothing. Nothing’s new. We as a nation seem to have run out of ideas. Everything is a re-working of something else, and if it’s not, it’s simply a straight repeat. I do genuinely worry that in popular culture, we’ve run out of stuff. There is nothing new, and it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.

TV is one of the worst culprits, with I heart 1975, the top 100 best family animated musicals ever, take me out (bawdy blind date), Have I got news for you, Have I got old news for you all spamming the airwaves with their unoriginal tune. TV is stuck in a mass of repeats and nostalgia, and when someone tries to be original (10 o’clock live) it’s unbearably bad, pandering to a Guardian-obsessed sub-species of uber-cool City dwellers and students that don’t really exist anywhere. Films at the cinema tend to be part of a ‘franchise’ , such as the Fast and the Furious, which I now believe has churned out 5 films (when did film sequences become ‘franchises’? I’m pretty sure I never admitted to watching the later offerings from the Police Academy ‘franchise’), or re-makes of successful films, such as the Italian Job. The hangover wasn’t particularly original, but it was quite funny, which means the inevitable sequel (a la SATC) where the plot is indentical, just taking place in a different time zone.

Theatre, often a bastion of originality, is not immune. The Mousetrap inexplicably enters its sixth decade (surely even tourists are now bored?), the Rattigan revival continues to celebrate his centenary, and there’s Jersey Boys and other assorted singalongs from the past to entertain the proles.

Music, surely? Well not really. The last really original thing I heard was The Streets in 2002, and Mike Skinner ended up sounding like the voice of the whinging chav generation. The last band I went to see was Suede, and they were going through their back catalogue of albums, one by one (again). They were great, as always, but these songs are nearly 20 years old. Manufactured pop is back in, just like the 1960s, and everyone who was anyone has reformed, from Pulp to Dollar, to feed the nation’s bottomless appetite for nostalgia. The best music programme I saw recently was a retrospective of 1990s music on bbc4, and my twitter timeline almost exploded as other 30-somethings relived the days of Doc Marten boots and global hypercolour T-shirts. I listened to some Gil Scott Heron just after his death, and the commentator prounounced that his tunes were ‘as relevant today as they were in 1971’. Maybe so, but that’s because there’s been nothing new in between. Fashion? Judging by the 70s revivial (and 80s revival) of recent years, I sense not, but at least no-one’s going to force me to grow back my PJ and Duncan-style 90s curtains.

So what is genuinely new? The only thing I can come up with is reality TV, specifically to incorporate ‘scripted reality’. Jersey shore, Geordie shore, Made in Chelsea. This is the present, and maybe the future.

So next time you’re asked ‘what’s new?’, assuming that you have irritating friends, you can tell them.

‘Nothing’s new; and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back caeslessly into the past…’.