Remember the 80s?

by Ted on April 20, 2005

Zoe Williams has an interesting article in the Guardian about howThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now a nostalgia item. In the US, the Hitchhiker’s Guide was more nerd samizdat than cultural phenomenon. However, I’m attracted to the idea that my generation is seeing the nostalgia media complex turn the 80s into something that we don’t recognize.

Of course, people whose formative decade was the 60s say exactly the same thing. When Tony Blair made his ill-considered attack on that decade’s legislative liberalism some months ago, I asked my mother what the 60s were like, and she said: “They really were a lot like the 50s.” The historian Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Sunday Times last weekend, gave us the killer fact about this era: “There were almost 60 million people in Britain and, at most, only 1 million bought the best-selling single of the week. In comparison, 20 million regularly tuned in to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show.” It wasn’t liberal, and it wasn’t cool. It’s news like that that turns your world upside down. Next we’re going to find out that there wasn’t really a war on in the 40s.



vanya 04.20.05 at 3:14 pm

I remember the 70s and the 80s well. And the 80s were nothing like the 70s. Although I would say for the most part the 90s were a lot like the 80s.


Harry 04.20.05 at 3:25 pm

She;’s quite right about the 60’s, but so incredibly wrong about H2G2. The story simply stands the test of time; it could have been made any time in the last 20 years, and any time in the next 40 (I’d guess). Even the radio series still sounds fresh. Unlike (I can barely bring myself to admit this) a good deal of Dr. Who….

Doesn’t mean the movie’ll be any good — might be complete crap, we’ll see.


nick 04.20.05 at 3:53 pm

Well, the commissioning editors are in their thirties, and their experience of the 1980s was different to their parents’.

The Williams piece does have one huge flaw: HHGTTG wasn’t a creature of the 1980s, but of the late 70s. (The original radio broadcast was in 1978; the first book in 1979.) That ‘chummy exasperation with local authorities’ is Callaghan’s Britain, not Thatcher’s; the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is more Ronco than Innovations. (My big beef with the film is that Marvin is too damn shiny.)

On nostalgia and its discontents, Michael Bywater’s piece is also worth a read, particularly for its insight on how the bloody film project kept dragging Adams backwards for two decades.


DonBoy 04.20.05 at 9:07 pm

Oh yeah, The Black and White Minstrel Show. I’m American but we lived in London from 1970-3; when this show came on, my parents’ jaws hit the floor, whereas I was just mystified: “What’s that?” Amazingly, the show ran on and off until 1978.


Paul Watson 04.20.05 at 10:58 pm

“[A]t most, only 1 million [Brits] bought the best-selling single of the week. In comparison, 20 million regularly tuned in to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show.”

Far from this being “news that turns my world upside down”, it’s just a stupid statistical comparison. Ultra-frequent (= weekly) buyers of recorded music always have been comparatively rare, but so what? There is plainly no equivalence – demographic and otherwise – between being a consumer of effectively “disposable” music, and being a television program regular.


Brian 04.21.05 at 12:01 am

Yeah, I remember Hitchhiker’s Guide being too nerdy for me and I liked Dungeons & Dragons. Same with Dr. Who.

My dad insists he went through the entirety of the 50s and never once saw some Fonzie-like dude in a leather jacket, or a poddle skirt, or a hot rod . . . he claims that was all retroactively foisted on the 50s in the 70s by Happy Days.

Though I do remember the 80s pretty much as it’s portrayed in the media: day-glo colors and plastic and big hair.


derrida derider 04.21.05 at 12:24 am

When most people talk of the cultural changes of the 60s they’re really talking about the decade starting from around 1965.

And of course most people live by habit and this creates tremendous social inertia – the hippies, the underground, the New Left etc definitely were small minorities, though influential ones in the longer run.


chris 04.21.05 at 2:49 am

There were two 60s. 1960-66 (approx) was a continuation of the 50s with more money and better music. 1967-69 was a dry run for the 70s, and as good and bad as that sounds (but still better music).

The world of Antonioni’s Blow-Up was experienced by about 2000 people in London, while the rest of the country got on with it. the political priorities of the decade were exactly the same as the previous one. Tony Blair is an ignorant provincial git.


RS 04.21.05 at 4:18 am

My rough guide to these things is that every decade described as the Xs actually ran from 19X+5 to 19X+14, thus what we commonly think of as the 60s didn’t start until at least ’65, the 80s ’85 etc. Which of course means that we’ve only just left the ’90s.


Simstim 04.21.05 at 12:50 pm

Ye gads! A Zoe Williams article being quoted (approvingly!) on CT?!? She’s one of the most irritating writers in the Guardian/Observer camp. For instance, take this incisive analysis of the new pope:,3604,1464458,00.html

It finishes with “Who knows what goes through a pontiff’s mind, in these interesting times.” No sh*t, Sherlock.

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