John Major

Thinking historically about acid house & early rave culture: The soundtrack to late Thatcherism

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Most discussions of the soundtrack to the Thatcher years concentrates on the early-to-mid-1980s and the rise of Thatcherism. For example, many have referred to The Specials and The Beat at the time of 1981 riots, Duran Duran and Wham! as the Thatcherite hegemony won the 1983 election and Billy Bragg and the Style Council during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. But I want to think about the soundtrack to late Thatcherism (and the early Major years), particularly acid house and early rave culture.

Exported from the United States, house music made its way into the UK club scene in the mid-1980s and acid house became a phenomenon from around 1987 to 1991, before morphing into various strains of rave music in the early 1990s. The rise of acid house coincided with the opening of new wave of clubs across the UK and beginnings of the warehouse and open air ‘raves’, situated against a backdrop of high Thatcherism, which included heightened deindustrialisation and the growth of the high finance capitalism in the City of London

Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving to massive unemployment in these regions. Where jobs were available to replace the traditional heavy industries, they were usually unskilled, low paid and short-term, leaving many without the stability of employment enjoyed by the previous generations.

Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. The story since the mis-1980s was that London became too expensive for many workers and those who benefited from the boom in the finance industry moved in.

As the north and south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave/club culture. I believe that the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.

Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs and gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Unlike punk or reggae (or even rap), this subculture was seen to have no redeeming socio-political features and was viewed as just an excuse to indulge in social drug experimentation.

Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic and the pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money of partying. This was probably true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism and spend a considerable amount of money on weekend activities.

But in the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Not sites of resistance to Thatcherism, but a withdrawal from engagement with it.

Furthermore, with the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom was praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly the selling of illicit drugs).

Unlike punk, reggae or folk music, acid house and early rave culture did not really get political and for most, was more an apolitical rejection of the Thatcherite status quo, using music (and the drugs) to collectively cast off the burden that Thatcherism brought down on young people in the late 1980s. Although I would say that acid house was given a political edge by its crossover with the gay scene in Britain in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, gay men and women were persecuted for their sexuality and the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28 were used by those in power to publicly harass gay men and women, arguing that their lifestyles were deviant. Acid house became the dominant sound in many of Britain’s gay clubs and this deviancy and portrayal as the ‘folk devils’ of the 1980s was transformed into a particular subcultural identity, combining the hedonism of acid house culture with the ‘deviancy’ of being gay in Thatcherite Britain.

However the apolitical nature of acid house and rave culture changed in the early 1990s. Concerned about the amount of illicit drugs being allegedly sold and used in the scene, the government and the police cracked down on raves and dance clubs, using the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a revised version of the Public Order Act 1986 to shut down underground raves and strictly monitor licensed clubs. In 1992, the Major Government started to draft the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (which eventually became law in 1994), which included an entire section dedicated to the policing of raves. This led to significant political resistance and raves became part of a political battle over the use of public space. Taking some inspiration from the anarchist ‘Stop the City’ protests of the 1980s, a serious protest movement developed, using the method of occupying public spaces and putting on ‘free parties’. This crossed over at stages with the rise of the Reclaim the Streets movement and other green/anarchist protests.

This post has attempted to give an overview of how acid house and early rave culture fits within the wider history of Thatcherism and that of contemporary Britain. What I need to do is delve into primary sources of the period, primarily the documents produced by the subculture itself – the zines, the magazine interviews, the flyers, media reports and government files, as well as any oral history and reminisces of the period. Any suggestions for where to find relevant materials would be greatly appreciated – however, as usual, there are a million other projects that I need to finish beforehand!

Defining and demonising asylum: A brief history of UK refugee discourses

One of the recurring tropes in politics in Australia, as well as across the Western world, is the contested nature of the processing of refugees and asylum seekers, with many critics from the right declaring that the definition of refugees according to the UN 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol being out of date in an era of global migration. Most recently Bob Carr, Australia’s Foreign Minister, has claimed that most people seeking asylum in Australia are ‘economic migrants’, but similar debates are occurring in Canada, New Zealand and the UK (where there is a Select Committee investigating the asylum seeking process).

From a recent campaign by the Red Cross in the UK

From a recent campaign by the Red Cross in the UK

Below is something that I wrote back in 2009-10 on the definition of asylum and the processing of refugees in the UK context (for this book chapter), which I thought might be relevant (if not a little out of date):

The history of Britain as a port of asylum stretches back to the French Huguenots and prior to the 1980s, as Robin Cohen has noted, ‘[i]t is often asserted and widely believed that Britain has an exemplary record of offering hospitality to those fleeing from political and religious persecution’.[1] From the late 1980s onwards, the number of refugees seeking asylum in Britain rose dramatically. Despite a peak of approximately 9,900 applicants for asylum in 1980, the decade saw the number of applications steady at around 4,000 per year in most years.[2] This increased significantly to 44,840 in 1990, which then fluctuated between 22,370 in 1993 and 80,315 in 2000, before reaching a peak 84,130 in 2002, then decreasingly considerably to 23,430 in 2007, although the number of successful applications has been drastically lower.[3] Britain is a signatory of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which categorised a refugee as any person who:

owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.[4]

However this definition is limited, as there are numerous reasons for persecution not included in this definition, for which people flee their homeland and seek asylum, such as persecution on the grounds of gender or sexuality, as well as other reasons, such as fleeing war zones, natural (or manmade) disasters and abject poverty. As Frances Webber wrote in 1991, at the beginning of the massive influx of refugees into Britain:

The Convention’s definition of refugee is very narrow, covering only those fleeing because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’… Western governments have consistently rejected calls from refugee organisations to extend the definition of ‘refugee’ in the Convention to include victims of war, civil war, natural disaster or serious disturbance… Even if the criteria were applied with care and generosity (which they are not), they would exclude those who have lost their family or home through war or civil war…; who have lost their home and their livelihood through forced resettlement… or the creation of military buffer zones.[5]

The result, Webber predicted, was that ‘[t]he number of people who, having not qualified under the strict definition of refugees… is to be severely reduced’.[6] The last two decades have shown Webber’s predictions to be correct as the limited scope of the official definition of a ‘refugee’ has seen many within the Government, the immigration control system and the popular press view many people escaping immense hardships in their own countries as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers with no genuine claim to remain in Britain.

Also included within the Convention is the internationally recognised (and moral) obligation of the host nation to provide legal and welfare assistance to refugees that seek asylum within their nation. This has further fuelled the suspicion that many of the people who are seeking asylum in Britain are ‘bogus’, who fall outside the UN Convention definition of a ‘refugee’ and actually ‘economic migrants’.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the dichotomy between the ‘genuine’ refugee and the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker has been a prominent discourse in Britain. As Robert Winder has written:

[P]ublic opinion regarded the migrants as a mere pest. The new term ‘asylum-seeker’ rapidly acquired a sarcastic prefix: ‘bogus’. The British public came to believe that all migrants were false: none had a right to be here; all were helping themselves at our expense. There was sharp political pressure on the government to get tough.[7]

The tabloid press, particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun, ran numerous articles on how ‘bogus’ asylum seekers were abusing the system, who were falsely presenting themselves as refugees, but were actually ‘economic migrants’. A number of scholars have documented the portrayal of refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers by the tabloid press and how this populist anxiety over the issue of asylum in Britain was appropriated by the Government and developed into official policy. This negative portrayal of refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers and illegal ‘economic migrants’ seeped into Parliamentary discourse and the Conservatives, who were in power as the influx of refugees increased, responded to this anxiety by declaring that ‘something’ had to be done to prevent ‘bogus’ migrants seeking asylum. Michael Howard, Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997, repeating the consensus that ‘fair but firm and effective immigration control is a necessary condition’ for ‘preserving good race relations in this country’, stated:

For far too many people across the world, this country is far too attractive a destination for bogus asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants. The reason is simple: it is far easier to obtain access to jobs and benefits here than almost anywhere else. That is the problem that these measures are intended to remedy.[8]

The measures introduced by the Conservatives were legislation, the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 and the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which ‘applied harsh new measures to asylum seekers, designed to reduce the numbers arriving in Britain’.[9] This focus on ‘bogus’ refugees dominated the debates on the 1993 and 1996 Acts in Parliament, with Emily Fletcher calculating that in Parliamentary debates on the 1993 Act, the word ‘bogus’ was used 53 times and 122 times in the debate on the 1996 Act.[10]

In May 1997, Tony Blair’s Labour Government came to power under the banner of ‘New Labour, New Life for Britain’ and similar to Wilson’s election in 1964 and 1974, many believed that a Labour Government would design a more ‘humane’ immigration policy. As Schuster and Solomos wrote, ‘[t]he election of a Labour government… led to expectations of an asylum policy more concerned with social justice than narrow national interest’. [11] However this was not to be the case. Although New Labour may have softened the language utilised by the Conservatives (Fletcher notes that the word ‘bogus’ was only used 19 times in Parliamentary debates on asylum between 1997 and 1999)[12] and spoke of ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ in immigration control policy, New Labour still focused heavily upon distinguishing between ‘genuine’ (and deserving) refugees and ‘bogus’ (and undeserving) asylum seekers. Labour’s 1998 White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum, stated that ‘[t]he Government is committed to protecting genuine refugees… But there is no doubt that large numbers of economic migrants are abusing the system by claiming asylum’.[13]  The Government promised to assist ‘genuine’ refugees, but emphasised that ‘new arrangements are needed… which minimise the attractions of the UK to economic migrants’.[14] The policy changes outlined in this White Paper formed the basis of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1999, which strengthened the Acts introduced by the Conservative during the mid-1990s and continued the bi-partisan dichotomy between the ‘bogus’ and ‘undeserving’ asylum seekers and the ‘deserving’ refugees.[15]

Many critics saw the Labour Government’s actions as a renunciation of its commitment to social justice and pandering to popular racism.[16] However the architects of New Labour, such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw, had conceded the ground to the Conservatives on the need to detect and deter ‘bogus’ asylum seekers long before the introduction of the 1999 Act. In 1995, Blair declared, ‘We oppose bogus [asylum] applications and fraud and we recognise the need for immigration controls’, and a few months later, Straw admitted, ‘No one doubts the need to tackle the problem of bogus asylum seekers’.[17]

Over the next decade, Labour introduced several additional pieces of legislation to further restrict the amount of migrants seeking asylum and refugee status in Britain. This was accompanied by a relentless campaign in the popular press, the tabloids in particular,[18] to further demonise and criminalize refugees seeking asylum. It cannot be said that the Government (under both Labour and the Conservatives) and the press have worked together to promote stricter policies regarding asylum seekers, but the discourse has seen the negative portrayals of refugees echoed by both sections, a ‘feedback loop’ of moral panic[19] that has seen policy decisions and public/media responses seek ever increasing restrictions upon potential refugees. As Tony Kushner wrote in 2003:

In Britain at the start of the twenty-first century, the government, state, media and public have intertwined in a mutually reinforcing and reassuring process to problematize and often stigmatise asylum-seekers. It is through this combination of anti-asylum sentiment finding legitimacy from the top down, alongside the sustenance provided by the daily press campaign and the encouragement of ordinary people from the bottom up, that enabled a poll carried out in February 2003 for The Times to suggest that the number of asylum-seekers was ‘the most serious problem in Britain at present’.[20]

Numerous studies have been conducted over the last decade, which have demonstrated that the popular press has routinely portrayed asylum seekers as undesirable, undeserving and deceitful ‘economic migrants’ and that the discourse on refugees and asylum in Britain has been skewed towards negative stereotypes. A 2000/01 report by Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme in Scotland found that coverage of refugee and asylum issues in the Scottish press was ‘characterised by negative imagery, hostility towards asylum seekers, and a “culture of disbelief”’, with 44 per cent of 253 articles classified by the study as ‘negative’.[21] The report found that the press had created a ‘climate of fear’ through the ‘use of unsubstantiated claims about the numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK, their motives, and alleged anti-social behaviour among asylum groups’,[22] which had a serious impact on the Government’s policy towards refugees. Tony Kushner noted that over a six month period, ending in March 2003, an electronic search using Lexis-Nexus yielded over 400 articles in the Daily Mail on asylum seekers, who ‘relentlessly reminded its readers’ that asylum seekers were ‘swamping’ Britain.[23] On the subject of this supposed ‘swamping’ of Britain (a phrase at echoes Thatcher’s 1978 infamous statement), a 2004 study by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (ICAR) detailed the negative language repeatedly used to describe asylum seekers and refugees in the popular press:

‘scrounger, sponger, fraudster, robbing the system’, ‘burden/strain on resources’, ‘illegal working, cheap labour, cash in hand, black economy’, criminal (unspecified or non-violent’, ‘criminal violent’, ‘arrested, jailed, guilty’, ‘mob, horde, riot, rampage, disorder’, ‘a threat, a worry, to be feared (terror, but not terrorism)’.[24]

These depictions of refugees and asylum seekers as undesirable, criminal and potentially dangerous, the report found, ‘imply that Britain is under attack from migrants, particularly asylum seekers and refugees.[25] The report asserted that an outcome of this negative press reportage is the ‘potential to give rise to extreme feelings of fear and hostility’ and an ‘increase [in] the likelihood of harassment of asylum seekers and refugees’.[26]

The ever-tightening restrictions on asylum seekers in government policy, as well as the menacing presence of the BNP and the EDL, seem to vindicate these 2004 predictions by the ICAR. The discourse on refugees and asylum seekers has been overtly defined by the negative stereotypes of the popular press and reinforced by both major parties, as well as several extra-parliamentary groups and minor political parties on the right. For refugee advocates and anti-racist activists, the discourse seems irrevocably skewed. In their ‘Just.Fair’ campaign for an ‘end to the unjust and unfair treatment of refugees’, the Refugee Council declared:

the asylum debate has become so distorted that the right to asylum in the UK is now under threat. Increasingly harsh government policy is eroding the protection we offer to those in need. British politicians are even talking about withdrawing from the 1951 Refugee Convention altogether.[27]

And this debate seems set to continue. The Conservatives have proposed cracking down on ‘bogus’ asylum claims and limiting access that asylum seekers have to services, including legal aid, and on the other side of Parliament, there is little evidence that Ed Miliband’s Labour will move away from the immigration control policies of the Blair years, particularly as several key Labour MPs view the party’s ‘softness’ on immigration to be a key reason for their defeat in 2010.

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[1] Robin Cohen, Frontiers of Identity: The British and the Others, Longman, London, 1994, p. 72

[2] Liza Schuster & John Solomos, ‘The Politics of Refugee and Asylum Policies in Britain: Historical Patterns and Contemporary Realities’, in Alice Bloch & Carl Levy, Refugees, Citizenship and Social Policy in Europe, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1999, p. 62

[3] Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Key Statistics about Asylum Seeker Applications in the UK, ICAR Statistics Paper 1, February 2009, p. 6, http://www.icar.org.uk/download.php?id=515, accessed  21 November, 2009

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR, Geneva, 2007, p. 16

[5] Frances Webber, ‘Refugees: Countdown to Zero’, Race & Class, 33/2, 1991, p. 81

[6] F. Webber, ‘Refugees’, p. 80

[7] Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, Abacus, London, 2006, p. 419

[8] Hansard, 20 November, 1995, col. 335; col. 338

[9] Alice Bloch, ‘A New Era or More of the Same? Asylum Policy in the UK’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 13/1, 2000, p. 34

[10] Emily Fletcher, ‘Changing Support for Asylum Seekers: An Analysis of Legislation and Parliamentary Debates’, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex, Working Paper No 49, May 2008, p. 17

[11] L. Schuster & J. Solomos, ‘The Politics of Refugee and Asylum Policies in Britain’, p. 69

[12] E. Fletcher, ‘Changing Support for Asylum Seekers’, p. 17

[13] Jack Straw, ‘Preface by the Home Secretary’, in Fairer, Faster and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum, Cm 4018, HMSO, London, 1998, http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4018/preface.htm, accessed 30 October, 2009

[14] J. Straw, ‘Preface by the Home Secretary’

[15] Rosemary Sales, ‘The Deserving and the Undeserving? Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Welfare in Britain’, Critical Social Policy, 22/3, 2002, p. 463

[16] Patrick Barkham, ‘Beginner’s Guide to the Refugee Crisis’, The Guardian, 27 August, 1999

[17] Hansard, 15 November, 1995, col. 17; 22 February, 1996, col. 545

[18] While the tabloids demonstrate the most explicit examples of this, that is not to say that the broadsheets and other media outlets are free from encouraging these negative depictions of refugees and asylum seekers. Majid KhosravNik has argued recently that ‘the Daily Mail  generally perpetuates the existing known stereotypes and thus reproduces negative attitudes…, whereas The Times is more creative and refrains from reproducing the stereotypes explicitly’. But both newspapers ‘hardly recognise [refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants] using their names or other qualities, unless they can be positioned inside or adjacent to one of the negative topoi available, e.g. violence’. Majid KhosravNik, ‘The Representation of Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants in British Newspapers during the Balkan Conflict (1999) and the British General Election (2005)’, Discourse & Society, 20/4, 2009, p. 49; Italics are in the original text.

[19] For a description of the phenomena of ‘feedback loops’ and ‘moral panic’, see: John Muncie, ‘The Construction and Deconstruction of Crime’, in John Muncie & Eugene McLaughlin (eds), The Problem of Crime, Sage Publications, London, 2002, p. 53

[20] Tony Kushner, ‘Meaning Nothing but Good: Ethics, History and Asylum-Seeker Phobia in Britain’, Patterns in Prejudice, 37/3, 2003, p. 261

[21] Ceri Mollard, Asylum: The Truth Behind the Headlines, Oxfam, Oxford, 2001, p.4; p. 9

[22] C. Mollard, Asylum, p. 11

[23] T. Kushner, ‘Meaning Nothing but Good’, p. 258

[24] Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Media Image, Community Impact: Assessing the Impact of the Media and Political Image of Refugees and Asylum Seekers on Community Relations in London, ICAR, London, 2004, p. 35

[25] ICAR, Media Image, Community Impact, p. 42

[26] ICAR, Media Image, Community Impact, p. 42

[27] Refugee Council, Why Asylum is a Human Right, http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/campaigning/takeaction/campaigners_pack/asylum_human_right.htm, accessed 29 November, 2009

What can Men Behaving Badly teach us about post-Thatcherite Britain? A guest post by Lauren Piko

Following on from my series of posts on The Young Ones and history, PhD student at University of Melbourne, Lauren Piko, has written this guest post on popular culture in the John Major years, focusing on the portrayal of work and unemployment in 1990s sitcom Men Behaving Badly. I hadn’t paid much attention to the show when it aired here on the ABC, but Lauren’s analysis is fabulous. Hopefully she can provide more of the same in the future! As usual, I do accept guest posts on this blog from time to time, but they do have to be on-topic. So now for the main event…

Work and unemployment in Men Behaving Badly 

Men Behaving Badly screened on British TV from the years 1992 to 1999, and positions itself as a sitcom exploring ‘lad culture’, gender roles, and the differences and similarities between men and women. Yet less obviously, alongside this explicit gender focus, Men Behaving Badly illustrates changing trends in cultural representations of work and unemployment during the 1990s. In particular, the characters of Tony and Deborah in series 3 through to 6 go through experiences of unemployment which indicate some tendency towards the phenomenon being normalised. On the one hand, Tony’s experience of carefree unemployment represents a shift towards the greater acceptability of unemployment as an economic reality. Yet on the other Deb’s experience is much darker, and the show doesn’t flinch from describing her depression and soul-searching after losing her job. Moreover, Gary’s steady job is presented as unfulfilling, further complicating the picture and suggesting that ‘jobs for life’ are not necessarily an ideal outcome.

The ideal of full employment was generally accepted by both Labour and Conservative governments as a political goal during the early postwar years.  The rising unemployment figures in the 1970s were reported on with apocalyptic intensity as numbers reached one million. As this figure rose dramatically, there grew some level of acceptance even amongst the Labour Party that unemployment was, or even should be, a permanent feature of the economic landscape. This view was consolidated under the Thatcher government, where relatively high unemployment was redefined as an economic necessity and as evidence of the government’s fearlessness in taking tough measures against inflation. (See Evan’s post here)

Series 3 of Men Behaving Badly was broadcast in 1994, while the British economy was still experiencing the effects of the 1987 financial crash. While the British economy was officially out of recession by 1993, this growth was shaky and unemployment levels were at nearly 3 million. In this series, Men Behaving Badly first started to deal with the unstable job market.

Tony’s working life is fairly itinerant, describing himself as having had 72 jobs in the last 15 years (S5E6). He is repeatedly unemployed throughout series 3 to 6. This begins when his record stand at the covered market literally ‘collapses’ (S3E2):

Deborah: What happened to your record business?

Tony: It just collapsed, you know.

Deborah: It’s the recession, isn’t it.

Tony: No, I mean I came back one lunchtime and half the stall had collapsed and smashed most of the records.

He appears essentially happy with his unemployed life, watching children’s tv and eating cereal during the day, and describing his lifestyle as ‘brilliant’. He gets a job as a barman at their local pub the Crown in Series 3 Episode 4:

…only to lose it when the bar is unexpectedly closed down (S5E3). Tony is re-employed at the new Crown in the following episode. These jobs are represented as underemployment, in which he continues to financially rely on Gary for rent and expenses. He takes a long break from work in order to backpack around Europe with no mention of how he funds this or what effect this long holiday has on his employment. There is no mention of his receiving any kind of government benefits or support at any time, and considering the morally condemnatory framework placed around drawing on National Insurance during the Thatcher years, it is perhaps unsurprising that the show’s creators sought to avoid what had become explicitly political territory. The implication is that he is fully supported financially by Gary, with Gary suggesting that his work with Tony qualifies him for charitable status (S5E6 – jump to 6 minutes in):

Gary: Well Tony’s my charity, isn’t he, he never pays me any rent. I’m running a one-man shelter group here, I could get a grant from the council for my work with Tony.

Deborah’ experience of unemployment is arguably much more realistic and presents a darker counterpoint to Tony’s story. Deborah is made redundant from her job as a restaurant manager at the same time as Tony loses his job, (S3E2) and considers selling her flat to make ends meet. She describes her life as ‘empty’ and she becomes increasingly depressed at her life being on hold while ‘most of her friends are settling down and moving away.’ When she shares her frustrations and feelings of pointlessness with Tony, also unemployed at this time, their responses indicate how different their experiences are:

DEBORAH: I haven’t worked for ages, I don’t do anything all day, if it wasn’t for worrying about bedsores I probably wouldn’t get out of bed at all.

TONY: Me too. Brilliant.

She gets another job quickly but is made redundant again between series 4 and 5. She becomes depressed again, closing herself in her flat in the dark ruminating over her unpaid bills (S5E1).  Deborah resolves this not by getting another job in the restaurant industry, but by choosing to go back to university to study psychology – effectively taking the opportunity to spark a career change. This decision to embark on further study was increasingly common over the 1990s for those with financial means to do so. It also reflects Deborah embracing an adaptive stance in an environment where the idea of a steady job for life, or even career path for life, is no longer something that she expects.

The world of steady employment, most frequently seen through Gary’s job in a security firm, is not necessarily seen as ideal, secure, or happy. Gary’s job is not a source of pleasure to him, yet he has given most of his life to it, starting as an office junior straight out of school, and working up to the position of regional manager. George and Anthea, Gary’s employees who have been with the company for decades, are pleasant but self-consciously dull characters who are resigned to their lot in life. When Gary is discovered to have saved £33,000 over the course of his working life, while his hoarding is criticised by the other characters who attempt to get their share, Dorothy recognises too that this has been Gary’s reward for “spending 15 years in a job you hate”. Unlike Deborah, Gary does not consider career change despite being bored at work; while not trapped in this job, it is presented chiefly as a tool for Gary to pursue his main interest of getting drunk after work.

Yet ultimately the show is centred around a celebration of the leisured life Gary can lead because of his job. Gary’s, and indeed Tony’s leisure depends on Gary’s labour. Gary’s endurance of tedious, unfulfilling work is the foundation on which the series rests, facilitating the very ‘lad culture’ which appears to reject the notion of responsible work. In the post-industrial Britain of Men Behaving Badly, increased leisure is built into the economic structure, not only through the celebration of consumption, but also through the redefinition of unemployment as both necessary and potentially positive. While on one level Men Behaving Badly celebrates this relationship of work to leisure, the darker realism of Deborah’s experiences of unemployment challenge the idea that Gary’s lifelong job, and general lifestyle, is perpetually secure or sustainable. As such the economic concerns explored in Men Behaving Badly are more complex than might immediately appear when exploring the gendered reading the show elicits on the surface. Its depictions of work, leisure, and unemployment are ambiguous at times, with its supposed celebrations of ‘lad culture’ undercut by a sense of living on borrowed time. Men Behaving Badly is ultimately an uneasy celebration of post-Thatcher Britain, one which relates to its economic setting with trepidation as well as acceptance.