Month: April 2013

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, pt 5: Activism and the left

In the last post, I looked at how neo-liberal capitalism and market populism was lampooned in The Young Ones and it is pretty clear that the show often critiqued Thatcherism from left-of-centre position. However that did not mean that the show didn’t also criticise the left, with many jokes made about the self-importance of the left (particularly of the student left) and the left’s delusions of grandeur.

The left in the early 1980s was in a state of flux. The early 1970s were a period of optimism for the British left – what Chris Harman in The Fire Last Time called ‘the British upturn’ – but by the end of decade, with the election of Thatcher, the left was quite demoralised. Thatcher’s 1979 electoral victory had both deflated and invigorated the Labour Party – deflated after it was discovered that around a third of trade union members voted for the Conservatives in that election, but invigorated as Thatcher’s policies, up until the Falklands War, made it look likely that Labour would regain power at the next election. Many on the far left were heartened by Labour’s leftwards shift as pronounced by the Party’s 1983 manifesto, which many have argued (wrongly I would say) was ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The Communist Party of Great Britain, as the largest party to the left of Labour, had started its journey into terminal decline in the late 1970s, with the Party split between several warring factions and losing membership quite rapidly. The International Marxist Group, the most ‘student-based’ of the left wing groups dissolved itself in the early 1980s to become an entrist faction inside the Labour Party, joining the long term entrists Militant, who would become the far left ‘success story’ of the 1980s. The Socialist Workers Party had built itself as a party to rival the CPGB for influence on the left and had made a successful venture with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, but by the early 1980s, it had started to stall in terms of membership, wider influence and its analysis of the struggle against Thatcher. The left in the early 1980s was no longer the vibrant movement that it was in the 1970s, but it was nowhere near the dire straits it was in by the 1990s. Although the first series of The Young Ones was filmed in 1982 before the disastrous 1983 election, it was clear that the proletarian revolution was not imminent.

The self-important revolutionary had already been parodied in the late 1970s with Robert Lindsay’s Citizen Smith and the Tooting Popular Front, and Rik in The Young Ones used many similar tropes. But Rik was a younger, student-y version (studying the much-mocked in the 1980s sociology degree) and as much as Rik ‘talked the talk’ of the lefty stereotype, there is hardly any moment in either series where Rik actually partakes in any political activity.

Rik liked to see himself as a ‘guru’ for the left, a figure that ‘the kids’ could look up to – going as far as to call himself ‘the People’s Poet’. Although Rik had recited poetry in the first series already in episodes ‘Demolition’ and ‘Bomb’, the ‘People’s Poet’ is introduced in the episode ‘Flood’, where Rik recites poetry at the police to stop them harassing young people. The ‘People’s Poem’ as recited by Rik goes:

What do you think you’re doing, pig?

Do you really give a fig, pig?

And what’s your favourite sort of gig, pig?


Barry Manilow?
 Or the Black and White Minstrel Show?

As shown in the clip, in Rik’s dream, the power of his words is enough to physically defeat the police.

The power of ‘the People’s Poet’ as an inspiration for the youth of the Thatcherite Britain is also mentioned in the second series episode ‘Bambi’. While losing a bet about how many housemates like Rik, he threatens to kill himself with laxatives and argues that while they didn’t appreciate him, his poetry would have a greater impact upon the world. In the midst of munching a handful of laxatives pills, Rik says to the others:

I feel sorry for you, you zeroes, you nobodies. What’s going to live on after you die? I’ll tell you — nothing, that’s what!…

This house will become a shrine! And punks and skins and Rastas will all gather round and all hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader! And all the grown-ups will say, “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say, “Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!”…

And then one particularly sensitive and articulate teenager will say, “Why kids, do you understand nothing? How can Rick be dead when we still have his poems?”

As well as this image of himself as ‘the People’s Poet’ and the fantasy of being revolutionary figure, Rik also made other mentions of his supposed (and often conflicting) political affiliations and activist credentials. In the episode ‘Sick’, Rik states he won’t be able to attend the next ‘Friends of Stalin Society “Show Your Bottom” competition’ as he feared being called a ‘bogey bum’, while in the same episode, Rik declares that he can’t write to this MP as he is an anarchist (thus writing to the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen – ‘Mr Echo’).

Throughout both series, we also see that Rik was quite accustomed to namedropping revolutionary figures into conversation. In ‘Interesting’, he invites his tutor to the party so they can discuss Trotsky, while in ‘Bambi’, he mentions that Lenin probably had a dirty bottom when he led the October revolution. In ‘Summer Holiday’, Rik namedrops the Red Army Faction when Mike tells the group not to use the guns he bought for the robbery they were planning:

Yeah, c’mon. Robin Hood! Baader Meinhoff! Those bank clerks didn’t have to become bank clerks! They knew the risk when they took the job! Let’s go in and let them have it!

But when confronted with the opportunity to partake in ‘revolutionary’ activity, such as the anarchist bombing of a police car (ala the Angry Brigade), Rik is unsure of this, as seen in this exchange in the episode ‘Interesting’ (at 1.15):

RIK: Hi, Fisher. What do you want to know? Better be ready for some pretty angry vibes! [Man sprays orange paint in Rik’s face, across his mouth]



ANARCHIST: Political activist, eh? Ah, what’s the last thing you blew up?



RIK: Well, I blew up a rubber johnny actually in the union bar. It was hilarious – everybody thought so.

[Anarchist puts his arm round Rik’s shoulders]



ANARCHIST: Yeah. Look, next Tuesday, I’m gonna blow up a Panda in Croydon.



RIK: Yer, right on. Bloody zoos, who needs them?



ANARCHIST: No, a police car, you terminal wally!



RIK: [Nervously] Oh, the – the pigs?



ANARCHIST: Bastards



RIK: Yeah [Snort] Especially the few bad apples that spoil their otherwise spotless image.



ANARCHIST: Yer, if pigs could fly, Scotland Yard would be London’s third airport! [He laughs, Rik looks confused]

I’ve got everything ready. All I need is a plan, a bomb and a dedicated and ruthless accomplice. Are you in? [Pours his drink over Rik’s shoulder]



RIK: Er, you spilt your drink!



ANARCHIST: Yeah, I know. I was getting bored.



RIK: Shall I get you another one? Cinzano?

The only time that we really see Rik involved in kind of political activity is in the episode ‘Bomb’ when he tries to use the bomb to convince Thatcher to implement radical social policies. For the record, Rik’s policy demands were (at 6.55):

Point one: Abolish poverty! Point Two: Abolish capitalism. Point Three: Dexy’s Midnight Runners playing free, daily, in the University library!

In contrast to Rik’s stereotype of the student lefty type, the left is also satirised through Alexei Sayle’s piece to camera parts in the series. As discussed in his autobiography Stalin Ate My Homework, Sayle came from a Communist family and was brought up in the 1950s and 1960s as a devout young communist. In the late 1960s, Sayle’s act of rebellion was to join the Maoist Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, was vaguely associated with the various groups of the left. Sayle makes fun of his Communist heritage in ‘Oil’ when the character he is playing says that his middle name is ‘Yuri Gagarin Siege of Stalingrad Glorious Five-Year Plan Sputnik Pravda Moscow Dynamo Back Four’, as his dad ‘was a bit of a Communist’ (Sayle made a similar joke in his later show Stuff in the ‘pupil x’ sketch).

In the episode ‘Nasty’, Sayle, breaking from the character of Harry the Bastard-cum-South African vampire, laments the problems of being a Marxist comedian and not being respected by other Marxists (at 2.19), who in the 1970s and early 1980s still had aversions to popular culture:

But you see, the worst thing about television is: you see, I’m a Marxist comedian, you know, but em, since I’ve been doing television, a lot of me Marxist friends have accused me of selling out, you know. Like they make me march at the back on demos. They’re all selling the Socialist Worker, and I’ve got to sell the TV Times. So I’d just like to take this opportunity, on national television, to assure you all, comrades, that honest to God, I have NOT, sold out.

This tension between the left and popular youth culture was something highlighted in other scenes in The Young Ones. As myself, Matt Worley and Lucy Robinson, amongst others, have shown, the left had long resisted any attempts to engage with popular youth culture in any significant way and it was only the advent of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism that really started to change perceptions of youth culture on the left. In his history of the ANL, David Renton (p. 81) wrote that numerous sections of the British population formed their own ANL support groups, including ‘Vegetarians and Football Fans Against the Nazis’, ‘The Albert [Pub] Against the Nazis’, ‘Aardvarks Against the Nazis’ and ‘Skateboarders Against the Nazis’. The show pokes fun at the various ANL groups and the potential for the ludicrous with Rik forming the ‘People Who Don’t Pay Their TV Licences Against the Nazis’ society in the episode ‘Bomb’ – although the ANL had actually wound up by the time The Young Ones aired in 1982.

But the enthusiasm for youth culture to motivate political activism in British youth was most explicitly parodied in the episode ‘Oil’ with the concert to support the ‘oppressed worker of the house’ Neil. Rik gets the band Radical Posture to play a gig in the drawing room of the house and plans that at the height of the gig, the masses would rise up, liberate Neil and overthrow Mike’s domestic dictatorship. However Neil is the only audience member and has to pay the £500 to ensure the gig goes ahead.

Sayle, as Radical Posture’s singer Alexei Balowski, further parodies the recent enthusiasm for youth culture by the British left (and in contradiction to his statement in ‘Nasty’) by singing that the only thing that would bring people together was Dr Marten’s boots.

So it is obvious that while The Young Ones can be largely seen as ‘progressive’ and an exemplary example of ‘alternative comedy’, critiquing Thatcherite Britain from a left-of-centre perspective, it also was not afraid of sending up those on the left, who were seen by many as self-important and over-confident. But while Rik’s character openly satirises the student left, Sayle’s routines about Marxism were from a much more friendly and sympathetic position.

———————————————————————–

All dialogue transcripts taken from here.

An ephemeral history of the Adelaide music scene (ie some old band flyers), part 2

Following on from this post in January, this post is the second installment in my series of curating the music flyers of the Adelaide scene between 2003 and 2008. Here we go again down memory lane…

Snap Crack

Minke was a bar underground below the Rosemont Hotel on Hindley Street. It wasn’t really a band-oriented venue, but a place to go at the end of the night. Snap! Crack! Le Pop! were a great three-piece who played electro, tongue-in-cheek songs. The band became simply Snap Crakk when Michael and Yama moved to Melbourne.

Jerks

The Underground was a Christian-run music venue that was used by a lot of hardcore/straightedge bands. As it had no bar, it was all ages. Hardcore kids used to line up all down Waymouth Street for gigs. The Paddington Bear Affair were a great band – a six piece of underage kids (when they started) that played screamo styled music. Their drummer ended up playing in my crappy band.

Calvin Johnson

K Records’ legend Calvin Johnson played an ‘unplugged’ (literally) set at Rocket Bar on Valentines Day 2005. As he only played acoustic guitar with no PA, the audience had to be very quiet or they drowned him out.

Brillig

Jacques Chirac Attacque was my band’s name for this show only. We had a policy of changing our name for each gig. As the flyer says, we were also Space Horse and Go Black Panthers! at different shows, as well as Jimmy Floyd and the Hasselbainks, Not in the Face, Time for a Tiger, Hot to Trotsky, the Hated Salford Ensemble, Stroszek, and Mike Rann and the Mechanics, amongst others. This show sticks out in my memory for two reasons. Firstly, while the Jade Monkey was a well-known Adelaide music venue, our drummer had never played there and got lost, only arriving two minutes before we were supposed to go on stage. Secondly, we took the French theme seriously and had a fight with baguettes on stage during our last song.

My Disco

This is an alternative flyer to the gig at Avalon featured in the last post. It was probably designed by the guys from My Sister the Cop, who always had very intricately drawn flyers.

Jemima

Jemima Jemima were quite an avant-garde band, with Michael from Snap Crakk on guitar. They released one CD on Unstoppable Ape Records and broke up very shortly afterwards I believe. Sweet Raxxx were Adelaide’s answer to Gravy Train!!!

Ltd Exp

Limited Express (Has Gone) was a Japanese band that was touring with The Roger Sisters. The night before their show at the Grace Emily, the kids from Paddington Bear Affair organised a secret show for them. The venue was supposed to be the squat on Coromandel Place (next to the Historian Hotel), but some of the occupants of the squat refused to let people in. The bands thus played in the lounge room of a small flat on Hindley Street. It was the debut gig of I’m Gonna F**king Kill You, who were practising in the flat when a whole bunch of people rocked up, having walked down Hindley Street after finding out that the show at the squat was not going ahead.

No Thru Rd

No Through Road were a regular feature at the Jade Monkey. As they were headlining, I’m assuming it was the full six piece version of the band at this particular gig. When No Through Road debuted the full band at the Jade Monkey, the lead singer Matt apparently fell of the drum kit and hit his head during their cover of Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So’. Very rock n’ roll.

Proscineum

The Proscenium was a goth/electro club off of Hindey Street that had been a famous Adelaide venue since the 1980s. The basement wasn’t used that much, but occasionally had bands. This show was the last gig for Love Like… Electrocution with their original guitarist Tim, who ended playing in Snap Crakk.

Brutal Snake

Brutal Snake started off as a solo act featuring Tom (from 1984, St Albans Kids and Love Like…) playing very noisy guitar, before becoming a full band. Artax Mission had a similar noisy post-rock guitar sound. I am assuming that this was still when The Exeter had gigs in the back beer garden, rather than in the front room. Brutal Snake in the front room would have been, well, brutal.

So there you have it – another round of flyers. Hopefully this shows some of the subcultural history of Adelaide, which often goes undocumented. If anyone has any memories of these shows, or have any other flyers that they’d like to see up on the web, please comment below.

Seminar paper at Flinders University – Friday 3 May

seminar flyer

For all you Adelaideans, I am giving a seminar paper at Flinders University for the History Discipline Seminar Series next Friday on 3 May. The title of my paper is ‘A Blueprint for the ‘War on Terror’? Counter-terrorist operations and monitoring Middle Eastern and North African visitors to the UK in the 1970s-1980s‘. Here is the abstract:

In the twenty-first century, the security of the border has become central to the national security agenda of the United Kingdom and the border control system has become one of the front-lines in the ‘War on Terror’. This paper will demonstrate that the intersection between national and border security is not just a recent phenomenon and that the national-border security nexus has a well-established historical precedent. Using recently uncovered documents from the National Archives in London, this paper argues that in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the threat of modern international terrorism was at its peak, the immigration/border control system was established by the UK authorities as a front-line defense against terrorist activities occurring in the UK. The immigration control system was used to prevent ‘potential terrorists’ from entering the country, as well as detecting and monitoring people from certain national/ethnic groups who were thought to be ‘potential terrorists’. Similar to the situation in the contemporary era, the external terrorist threat was believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa. It is the purpose of this paper to show how this anxiety over Middle Eastern/Arab terrorism informed border control practices that profiled certain national groups and in the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. Most of the literature on UK counter-terrorism in the 1970s has focused on the methods used to counter Irish terrorism (and the creation of a ‘suspect community’ amongst the Irish in Britain); this paper seeks to show that similar processes were undertaken by the authorities with regards to Middle Eastern and North African people traveling to the UK. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it was the procedure to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

Details of where and when can be found here. It’d super swell if you all could come along.

If you are unable to attend, but would be interested in reading the paper, please email me for a draft copy.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, pt 4: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

The previous post in this series looked at theme of unemployment on The Young Ones as a key feature of Thatcherism, while this post will look at broader trends in economic thinking under Thatcher. Nigel Lawson in his autobiography (via Wikipedia) described Thatcherism as standing for:

Free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian values’ (of the Samuel Smiles self-help variety), privatisation and a dash of populism.

This encouraged many to believe in the supremacy of the market and for laissez-faire capitalism to be embraced by many in the middle class, who invested heavily in property and shares. It also encouraged consumerism at an unprecedented level and for ‘cultural capital’ to be obtained by many through the acquisition of consumer goods – what Stuart Hall described in this article as ‘consumer capitalism’. Getting rich quick (and showing it off) became a key idea amongst significant sections of the British population, often at the expense of others. The Young Ones, while critiquing Thatcher herself in several episodes, also satirised other examples of neo-liberal capitalism and the ‘get-rich-quick’ hedonism of the 1980s.

In the first episode ‘Demolition’, the group are facing eviction from their home as the council have revoked the status of their house as protected housing for students (at 2.37 and 7.27). This reflects the effects of the Housing Act 1980 which saw councils across Britain sell off many of their council housing, many under the ‘right to buy’ scheme, but also to investors who started the process of property redevelopment that has fed several housing bubbles in the UK since the early 1980s.

With the fall in affordable housing under Thatcher, exacerbated by the effects of the Housing Act, many lower class Britons fell prey to the slum landlord, which we can see represented in the same episode by Jerzy Balowski (played by Alexei Sayle). Balowski enters the house without permission and demands his rent on the spot (at 4.05).

In the final episode ‘Summer Holiday’, Jerzy Balowski makes a re-appearance for a surprise inspection. After charging exorbitantly for damages caused by himself (as well as an elephant mask left over from a previous sketch), Balowski evicts the group for not having the money to pay for these ‘damages’.

Alexei Sayle also plays another ‘get rich quick’ type in the guise of ‘Harry the Bastard’ in the episode ‘Nasty’. Harry, the manager of the local Rumbelows and who may or may not be a local gangster, allow Mike and Vyvyan to rent a VCR overnight with a fine of £500 if it is not returned first thing the following morning in working condition. In order to get this £500, Harry dresses up as a South African vampire, which causes the group to forget about returning the VCR in the morning and Harry surprises them by asking for his money in the graveyrard, popping up from the Habitat sofa-coffin (at 5.32).

But most of the ‘get rich quick’ schemes featured on The Young Ones come from Mike ‘the Cool Person’ himself. In the episode ‘Oil’, we see two examples of this. Firstly, Mike finds Buddy Holly hanging upside in his room, apparently being there since 1959. Mike quickly gets Holly to play a song, which he records on his cassette recorder and while Holly plays, Mike is seen calculating the money he’d make from selling this new Holly song. Unfortunately for Mike, Holly’s parachute straps come loose and he falls into the floor, thus dying.

Secondly, when Vyvyan discovers oil the basement of the new house, Mike establishes himself as ‘El Presidente’ (a mixture of Arab dictator, such as Gadaffi, and Latin American junta leader) and owner of the oil’s potential profits. Mike employs Vyvyan as his head of security and forces Rik and Neil to dig for the oil. This may also be seen as a critique of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, who became a friend of Thatcher’s during the Falklands War and the authoritarianism experienced under the junta.

In the episode ‘Bomb’, Mike also sees the potential of making money in selling the bomb they discover in the kitchen, with Mike auctioning of the bomb between various criminal organisations and dictatorships – very much in a similar way to what the Thatcher government were doing in the arms trade in the 1980s (Mark Phythian has written that the Conservatives under Thatcher had a ‘very permissible approach to arms sales’) In one scene, Mike is seen trying to get hold of Colonel Gadaffi in Libya and in another tells Neil that the CIA, the Mafia and the Chinese are all interested in purchasing the bomb (at 8.30).

In ‘Bomb’ we also see another of the Balowski family involved in illicit trading, with Reggie Balowski acting like a dodgy East End geezer who calls himself an ‘international arms dealer, scrap metal merchant and French cabaret chanteuse’. But in the colour red, Balowski isn’t interested in buying the nuclear weapon.

One of the problems that the British left encountered under Thatcher was explaining why so many working class and lower middle class people, who usually supported Labour, voted for the Tories between 1979 and 1992. One of the reasons why these sections of the British population may have voted for the Conservatives was that they believed in the rhetoric of self-sufficiency and ‘rewarding’ hard work, which Thatcher tapped into with her ‘no such thing as society’ comments. This is addressed in The Young Ones when Rik talks about his father voting Tory in the episode ‘Summer Holiday’:

And Daddy, alright, so he’s an old square. And maybe he does vote Tory. He’s got where he is today by hard slog, and he’s got to put tax concessions first.

But while many working and middle class people endeavoured to make more money for themselves under Thatcherism, it was the super wealthy (colloquially now known as the ‘one per cent’) that benefitted the most of under Thatcher and under the neo-liberal economic agenda that has endured for the last 30 years. The Young Ones parodies the influence and world outlook of this class in the episode ‘Bambi’ when the Cambridge Footlights come on University Challenge to ‘smash the oiks’. In this episode, the ‘toffs’ are seen bribing the show’s host, being given the answers to questions answered wrongly because the host ‘knows his father’ and declaring themselves the ‘richest person in the world’, as well as complaining that the only job for them was chairperson of the BBC and buying the Socialist Workers Party.

As the host of University Challenge says, ‘the posh kids win, they always do’ – an apt sentiment for the neo-liberal agenda that the Tories have pursued since 1979.

Thanks to @_The_Young_Ones for the topic suggestion.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, part three: Unemployment

‘Unemployment haunted British culture in the early 1980s’, wrote Richard Vinen,[1] and this is evident in The Young Ones. The Conservatives had campaigned in 1979 on the high level of unemployment under Labour (famously captured in the pictures of the dole queue under the banner ‘Labour isn’t working’), but it significantly increased under Thatcher during her first term in office. Ruth Levitas notes that when Thatcher entered 10 Downing St, the unemployment level was 1,299,300, but by January 1982, it was 3 million.[2]  Remaining high until 1986, high unemployment was seen by the Thatcher government as a necessary evil and the price to be paid for curbing inflation. In her autobiography, Thatcher herself wrote about this:

Other ministers, however, saw little that was positive in this picture. The believed that unemployment over three million – the figure now predicted – was politically unacceptable and that higher government spending should be used to accelerate and strengthen economic recovery. My own analysis was entirely different: the way to achieve recovery was to ensure that a smaller proportion of the nation’s income went to government, freeing resources for the private sector where the majority of people worked.[3]

In The Young Ones, the issue of unemployment was referred to in several episodes and became the focus of one episode (‘Cash’).

In the episode ‘Demolition’, the ‘yoof’ TV program Nozin’ Around does a segment on unemployment. The female presenter Maggie explains it this way:

Hey, yeah! Really great! And now, I’m gonna be looking at what it’s like to be a young unemployed adult! Because–more young adults are becoming unemployed on account of they can’t find work! Basically, the problem is this: if you haven’t got a job, then you outta work! And that means only one thing– unemployment!

The other presenter Baz (played by Ben Elton) interviews Roland Perceval, Career’s Officer at East London College, who offer the bland words of encouragement:

Well, surely, Baz, your mates must realize that there definitely is a point…

But adds the caveat, which would eliminate most unemployed youth:

Oh, I should stress that you do have to have a degree…

This reflects that youth unemployment (particularly amongst school-leavers and lower class youth who were entering the search for work without qualifications) was far higher than the national average and that demands for young people searching for work to have degrees only alienated and demotivated them.

In the second episode ‘Oil’, the high level of unemployment is referred to off-handedly by Rik in another sanctimonious moment (at 5.15):

Rik: Oh, ha ha, very funny. I suppose you think it’s very clever to laugh with three million people on the dole!

Mike: Yeah.

But the issue of unemployment is mainly focused on in the episode ‘Cash’ when the group decides that Neil needs to get a job, firstly to pay for food and then to provide for Vyvyan’s impending baby. After looking through the ‘situations vacant’ section of the paper, it emerges that the only job advert is for the Army. The ad says (at 6.03):

JOIN THE PROFESHIONELS, IT’S GREAT! YOU CAN HAVE A GUN IF YOU WANT! AND THERE’S MONEY IN IT (NOT THE GUN). H.M. ARMED FORCES

After being rejected from the Army for stating that he was a pacifist, the group sign Neil up to become a police officer (there is a sign outside the police station saying ‘We take absolutely anyone’). This exchange with Benito Mussolini was mentioned in the previous post.

This episode highlights the dire economic situation faced by many in Britain under Thatcher and the lack of suitable employment for many youth. The Army and the police were two institutions of the state that did not receive the same level of spending decreases as other government agencies under Thatcher and traditionally were avenues for those jobseekers with no qualifications or experience, so were seen as an option for many unemployed youth.

But even if you did have a qualification, finding a job in the 1980s was difficult, as demonstrated in the episode ‘Summer Holiday’. In the final episode of the series, Rik, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil find themselves homeless and living on the streets. Rik blames Thatcher for this (at 3.13):

Thatcher’s Britain. Thatcher’s bloody Britain! Look at me. I’m young, I’m pretty. I’ve got 5 O Levels. Bloomin’ good grades as well, considering I didn’t do a sod of work cause I’m so hard. And look at me now! Homeless, cold, and prostitute.

But after successfully robbing a bank and escaping on a double-decker bus, Rik is more optimistic  and looks to throw off the shackles of Thatcherism:

Who needs qualifications? Who cares about Thatcher and unemployment?! We can do just exactly whatever we want to do! And you know why? Because we’re Young Ones. Bachelor boys! Crazy, mad, wild-eyed, big-bottomed anarchists!

However in the end, Rik’s optimism is short-lived as Neil drives the bus through a Cliff Richard billboard and off an actual cliff a few seconds later. So the TV show portrays the only way out of the miseries of Thatcherism are crime and death – a positive and reaffirming message for all, don’t ya think?


[1] Richard Vinen, Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the 1980s (London: Pocket Books, 2010) p. 125.

[2] Ruth Levitas, ‘Fiddling while Britain Burns? The “Measurement” of Unemployment’, in Will Guy & Ruth Levitas (eds), Interpreting Official Statistics (London & New York: Routledge, 2005) p. 44.

[3] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years 1979-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p. 148.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, part two: ‘Race’ and the Police in the 1980s

The Young Ones debuted on British television in November 1982, just over a year after the large scale inner-city riots that swept across Britain. The 1981 riots resulted in some of the biggest examples of urban unrest on the British mainland in the post-war period and resulted in millions of pounds in damage and several hundred arrests. The riots were a reaction to the socio-economic policies of the Thatcherite government, but at the same time, were the product of years of police harassment experienced by Britain’s ethnic communities. The riots have been characterised as a rebellion by African-Caribbean and Asian youth to the racism of the authorities, the criminal justice system and the far right that was a day-to-day occurrence for them. But it was not just African-Caribbean and Asian youth involved in the riots, with many scholars pointing out that 60% of those arrested were white. Hatred of the police was something felt by both black and white youth in the 1980s (I have written about this here). In the aftermath of the riots, Lord Scarman conducted an inquiry that found that relations between the police and Britain’s ethnic communities had broken down and while denying that institutional racism had infected the Metropolitan Police, the Police were susceptible to racist attitudes and behaviours. As a result of Lord Scarman’s findings, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was introduced to regulate police procedures and a complaints body was established. The British Crime Survey, first instituted in 1982 and carried out bi-annually since then, found that people’s ratings of the police decreased during the 1980s. The Young Ones captured these attitudes towards the police and in several scenes, lampooned the racism and authoritarian attitudes of the police.

The first clip (starting at 1.29) is a direct satirisation of the racist attitudes of the police in the 1980s. The policeman has sunglasses on and the person he is addressing is wearing black gloves and from this, the policeman believes he is talking to a black person. Note the threat that he could pull both the person’s arms off and ‘Lord Scarman need never know’. Only when the person removes his gloves does the policeman realise his ‘error’ and then is polite to them. The clip satirises the difference in treatment experienced by white and non-white Britons.

The second and third clip both satirise the police harassment experienced by most youth in Britain in the 1980s. In both clips, the police are shown as quick to anger and use excessive force, using the excuse of a loud party in the previous clip and criticism of the police in the latter. Rudeness towards the police was famously made an offence in 1986 under the revamped Public Order Act and used recently to arrest a student who called a police horse ‘gay’.

The fourth clip also show the police harassing youth, but also satirises Rik, the student-lefty, as the rebellious activist, who can defeat the police with poetry (which does allude to the police as racist through their love of The Black and White Minstrel Show). The clip makes fun of Rik’s earnest activism and ‘right on’-ness defeating the ‘fascist’ police.

While the show repeatedly parodied the police as authoritarian and ‘fascist’ (which many argued in the 1980s), this clip turns around and satirises the idea of the police as ‘fascist’ by portraying the local police recruitment officer as Benito Mussolini. The surreal nature of Mussolini working for the Metropolitan Force emphasises the hyperbole involved in calling the police ‘fascist’, which was a common occurrence by British youth and activists at the time.

The show also addressed the issue of racism in other ways as seen in this clip from the episode ‘Demolition’. Rik asks Neil whether the lentils are South African and that Neil is a totalitarian for using South African vegetables. At this time, there was a boycott of South African goods as the result of the activism of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which grew significantly during the 1980s (This blog is a fantastic resource on this topic). The clip does not really poke fun at the Anti-Apartheid Movement or the boycott itself, but at Rik’s sanctimoniousness and ability to judge Neil as a ‘scab’ out-of-hand before Neil can say anything.

It is worth noting that while The Young Ones did highlight these issues, the cast of the show was almost entirely white. Probably the largest acting role given to an ethnic minority in the series was Lenny Henry’s cameo as a Nazi postman in the final episode ‘Summer Holiday’, as seen in the clip below (from 5.01).

In conclusion, The Young Ones highlighted attitudes amongst British youth towards the police in the 1980s, which had been severely damaged as a result of the 1981 riots, and portrayed the police as racist, authoritarian and quick to use violence against those who they disliked. The police were also portrayed as unintelligent. But at the same time, the show parodied the left’s attitudes towards the police (and other issues of ‘race’) through Rik’s pompousness, although most would agree that the show’s sympathies lay with the opposition to Thatcherism in the 1980s.

Are there any clips that I missed out? If so, please leave a comment below.