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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Bruce’s Britton

I’m no social or cultural historian, as if you hadn’t noticed already, but I do take an interest in fashions and fads; in particular the question of whether the sort of fads that seem to grip the nation are dictated by what people actually want to wear, watch or listen to, or whether there’s some kind of conspiracy by higher powers to see what people can be made to wear, watch or listen to.  I can understand the popularity (past or present) of X Factor, Downton Abbey, Masterchef, Ugg Boots, Take That in boy and man incarnation, jeans tucked into boots (Uggs or otherwise), small plates of food and pop-up restaurants and cinemas.  I can even just about comprehend the very short lived fad of staying up half the night to watch some hatchet-faced Scottish Grandmother win a Curling medal at the Winter Olympics (it was only a one-night thing, after all).  I’m not sure why my ‘Dead Pool’, in which one predicts which celebrity deaths will occur over the next twelve months has not caught on yet, but it’s got time to become a fad that’ll grip the nation, and my next blog will feature the crop for 2012.

The latest TV fad seems to be the travel + food-umentary, and it looks as though everyone’s cottoned on to this sure-fire ratings winner.  The Hairy Bikers, Oz and James, Jamie Oliver, Michael Portillo, Ade Edmondson, Rick Stein, some posh twit mates of Hugh F-W, Rory McGrath and Paddy McGuinness and the soap dodger from single-serious curate’s egg ‘One Man and his Camper-van’.

The premise is quite simple, and by this, I mean cheap.  It involves a man, or maybe a couple of men, or sometimes even three men, driving around Britain, meeting local people, usually doing a bit of cooking along the way and generally reminding us what a great place this island nation is to live.  The rules seems fairly simple, and consist of the following:

1.  A regional stereotype must be wheeled out at every opportunity.
2.  The vehicle in which the man/men travel around the country must be ‘vintage’, ideally caravan/campervan.
3.  Any cooking must be done on location, ideally using a mini-stove from said campervan.
4.  (optional) – some kind of challenge might be involved, presumably to add a competitive edge.  This might involve the protagonists needing to cook only food that they can catch/barter/work for/steal.  It is never explained why this should be necessary.

A perfect example of how one can cram all three of the above rules into just 5 minutes of television came from the truly awful ‘Ade in Britain’, starring Ade Edmondson.  This show seems to have been put together simply because someone thought the title was good, and there’s only one famous Ade out there of course, which at least keeps him in work.  One stop on Ade’s trip was Morecambe.  He pulled up in his Mini Cooper, complete with small cavannette/stove being dragged behind.  He visited a local man that made potted shrimps, obtained the recipe, re-created it from his very own camper-stove before feeding the fruits of his labour to four buck-toothed men from the George Formby appreciation society (we knew this because they each had a ukelele); all this took place in the shadow of the Eric Morecambe statue.

Why has there been a sudden explosion of TV shows of this kind?  Has there been an outcry from the public, demanding a fusion of game-show, travel and al fresco culinary travails?  Or have a group of media moguls suddenly come to the same conclusion that this is what our screens have been missing?  Or are they just cheap, and require little or no budget/planning?  I think I know which one it is.

Hugh F-W seems to have had the best idea, in that he doesn’t even appear in his latest culinary road-trip.  Instead, three snaggle-haired photogenic posh-boys hammer round the South West in (you guessed it) a camper-van, with no money, eating only food they have earned, before cooking it all up on a ring-burner in the back of their vehicle.  Hugh merely provides a voice-over, and even that looks to associate him a little too closely with this rot.

I await the next installation of the format with baited breath.  ‘Bruce’s Britton’ perhaps, featuring Bruce Forsyth and Fern Britton.  Bruce and Fern drive around the country in a 1973 Austin Allegro, compete with the sort of caravanette you used to win on Bullseye.  They visit artisan food producers, but can only eat the food if they manage an arm-wrestle win.  Voice-over by Vernon Kay.  I’d watch it.  Wouldn’t you?