Some time ago at 8pm on a Saturday evening, the BBC broadcast a tribute programme to Bill Cotton, the former production executive who brought the nation a golden era of television in the 60s and 70s. His portfolio of national treasures included Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies, the Generation Game and Monty Python. It was fitting that the programme went out in this high-profile slot, because all of these progammes (except Python) occupied the same or a similar slot. But, beyond the justly deserved celebration of a production talent, does this programme and others like it say something more?
These days shows like this do not exist in isolation. The last few years or so have seen an explosion of programmes on TV and radio that explore the formative years of television, radio, music, art, film and so on. They are too numerous to list; from memory I can recall programmes either specifically or generically about most prominent comedies or sitcoms in the 60s, 70s and 80s; a whole range of radio programmes that have explored the music of the twentieth century; programmes about veteran shows like Coronation Street, Eastenders, The Archers, Desert Island Discs; not to mention all those ‘100 greatest films/adverts/bands’ programmes. Bluntly, we have, in recent years, been making a lot of programmes about old programmes. Why?
One answer is simply that they were good. In their time, they were widely watched and firmly interwoven into the cultural experience of a generation. And who hasn’t indulged in a bit of unhealthy navel-gazing based on their own memorable experiences? You want to know more about them or even just speculate about them, and carry out a bit of idle, unstructured nosiness and back-story digging: who were the people involved, what was their background? And, in the case of entertainment, you want to know the anecdotes and coincidences that gave rise to it, the production executives – or lack of them – that made the whole thing possible. This level of interest has always existed, and is only a slightly more stately version of the front-page celebrity dramas that wallpaper modern tabloid media.
It’s also interesting to understand why these programmes were a success, though in posing the question, the programmes about the programmes almost provide their own answer. That they were popular enough to deserve a eulogy, suggests that they occupied some unique position in time. It suggests that they managed to capture or articulate something particular to the period that resonated with a wide audience. Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies most probably formed part of a post-war tradition of British comedy, sharpened by the 1960s world of satire, if not to a subversive degree. One recent historian of the 1960s argues that of all its cultural progeny Dad’s Army most represents the period, rather than, as some might think, something more radical: Dad’s Army, so it goes, spoke for a Britain that had changed enough to look back on itself with a wry smile, but also with a sense of nostalgia and respect.
All of this may very well be true, and it may even be right, proper, good and natural to carry out this sort of reflection and analysis. If popular culture is anything like politics, history, science or most areas of thought and practice, then it is only natural that the past should inform the present.
But is there a danger that acclaim for the past can paper over paucities and misplaced energies in the present? Does it all disguise something slightly more disquieting? It is common enough now to draw cultural parallels across time; growing up in the 1990s, the 1960s seemed to loom large; judged from a distance, the noughties had a similar relationship with the 1970s, and there have already been muted attempts to draw comparisons between the days, hours, and minutes of the present and the 1980s. But might the stylised – probably over-stylised – associations with the past not simply disguise the lack of anything new, authentic and innovative in the present? Is there a programme, a band, a film etc that speaks for the current generation and its widely divergent collective experiences? Or are those programmes, bands, films that exist now only perfecting postures that were first adopted in the past?
Take Rock and Roll; in recent years – true to the chronicle of this article – music journalists, academics and historians, not to mention one highly esteemed playwright, have drawn parallels between political and social movements of the twentieth century and the reinvented forms of its popular music. Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changin’ is probably the simplest example of this; here was a song that became popular because it articulated a mood – mainly among young people – bound up with the civil rights movement, and the long list of other progressive causes from the period. Dylan might have influenced contemporary or near-contemporary musicians, through the notion that music can act as the vanguard of a political movement, but are Dylan’s cultural scions genuinely speaking for a shared experience? Or are they simply imitating the master because he was both right-on and cool and because all the politics stuff went hand-in-glove? Is the music a natural expression of the context or the context an expression of the music? In other words is the meaning ‘real’ or just ‘aesthetic’?
With these questions in mind, what might a cultural historian in the future writing about the last two decades say? If ‘programmes about programmes’ reveal something in the water, is there actually anything emblematic of our time at all? Or is the thing that is culturally distinctive and representative a disembodied voice that only talks in cliches from the popular culture of the last fifty to sixty years? A bit like a computer programmed to sequence famous snippets of footage to a predetermined soundtrack.