What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism? part one

This is the beginning of a work-in-progress piece I have been devising on The Young Ones and Thatcherism. I thought I would post it as the clip is great and rather topical. If you can think of any particular bits in the series that have historical relevance for understanding Thatcherite Britain, please comment below.

In one of my history topics that I used to team-teach in, I presented a lecture of Thatcherism and Britain in the 1980s. In this lecture, I showed my students a clip from the episode ‘Cash’ from the UK television comedy show The Young Ones. The scene portrays one of the characters pretending to have a baby in a non-furnished house. In the panic of the impending ‘baby’ (the character, Vyvyan, is actually male), another character, Rik (the typical student-lefty stereotype), yells:

We can’t, we haven’t got any money. Vyvyan’s baby will be a pauper. Oliver Twist, Geoffrey Dickens. Back to Victorian values. I hope you’re satisfied, Thatcher![1]

As well as the delightful pun of mixing the author Charles Dickens with the Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens, this exclamation by Rik echoes a theme that emerged around the time of 1983 General Election, when Margaret Thatcher used the phrase ‘Victorian values’ to describe her political outlook:

The other day I appeared on a certain television programme. And I was asked whether I was trying restore ‘Victorian values’. I said straight out, yes I was. And I am… I believe that honesty and thrift and reliability and hard work and a sense of responsibility for your fellow men are not simply Victorian values. They do not get out of date.[2]

Using this clip is not just for entertainment purposes or an excuse to show some audio-visual material to wake up first year students who may have been asleep. I would argue that watching The Young Ones has a definite pedagogical benefit for students. Most of the students in the class would not have seen the television show before and for them, it is history. The Young Ones touches on many of the historical themes that I raised in my lectures on Thatcherism and British society in the 1980s and does so in a very engaging manner.

However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. I would argue that a whole history topic or a weighty tome could be dedicated to the historical themes portrayed in The Young Ones. It is a ‘simulacrum’ of Thatcherite Britain, but we watch it in acknowledgement as a simulacrum, rather than as a trustworthy first-hand account of the times. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity. In future parts to this work, I hope to uncover some of the key themes of the Thatcherite zeitgeist and highlight how scenes from The Young Ones can reflect on how we understand more traditional historical concepts of Thatcherism and Britain in the 1980s, such as unemployment, the left, police harassment, the threat of nuclear war, racism, women’s rights, apartheid and the ‘generation gap’.

As I mentioned above, any suggestions for key scenes from the show and how they illuminate our historical understanding of Thatcherism would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, enjoy the clip.

Boomshanka, Evan.

 

 


[1] ‘Cash’, episode 8, The Young Ones, 1984

[2] Margaret Thatcher, Speech to Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, 28 January, 1983, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105244

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