Specifically, I developed a deep aesthetic preference early on for the clothes, décor, music, atmosphere and attitude of certain programmes. That may have been personal but all of it is iconic, recognisable and redolent of the time because for everyone now, these are certainly all shared memories.
Enthusiasts these days can choose to view whatever manner of programme they wish, and at any time. In those days there were times when there literally was “nothing on the telly” and also times, TV Times in fact, that were the high points of our lives, unmissable, and what was most significant – everyone else you knew would see it too. This is why the late Baby Boomers growing up were was so influenced by TV. In the UK with our mere three channels (that ended at midnight), it meant a cohesive culture, a shared “history”. This is difficult to imagine now in the age of YouTube, iPlayer and satellite.
Only the astronauts themselves missed out on seeing the moon landings on TV. It was a time of imagination, optimism, individuality untethered – and incredible musical and visual flair.
Never had there been such a maverick creative time as the late sixties and early seventies, when everything was bursting with such surety, promise and a sense of progressive modernity. I was a small, wide-eyed child at the time of Swinging London, when my parents happened to be working in fashion design not far from Carnaby Street. I knew for sure from their trade magazines and the samples brought home, that cool things were happening. I also had a sense that everything idealistic or fantastic on TV was possible, even if not quite plausible. But everyone at that time did. Being cool didn’t mean being cynical. The grown-ups had parents who had a war, smog and no fun. Enough negativity and darkness; they were the epitome of positive thinking, and only looked back to take good ideas, designs and quirky elements from Deco, Nouveaux, Bauhaus or the jolly dress military jackets for a psychedelic retro Lonely Hearts Club band. Everyone but the old guard looked forward, and did so with huge expectations.
Mrs Tracey must have died from having too many sons
It was an exciting time to be alive even for adults, and by the late sixties the programmes children could enjoy were infused with an innocent optimism and a positive vibe that was a case of talking across, and not down.
In Yellow Submarine, the kids all understood the Blue Meanies were bad and made things black and white. We were on the side of good and groovy storybook cartoon wonderfulness. We knew The Beatles were real. We loved the original Adam West Batman (being the younger of two, I got to wear the Robin outfit), pure playful comic book wit and style – and without the post-modern brooding and explanation. Our Joker was a baddie in drag whose motivation and attire we never questioned. This was an era when adults could play and it was okay. In so many programmes for adults and children (usually both) the groovy, hip, well-meaning individualistic good guys would, with light panache, wallop and outsmart morally inferior uncool baddies.
When Leonard Nimoy died earlier this year I wrote about Star Trek. It really was the end of an era, not just a loss of my generation’s childhood past, but of the way the future was. An optimistic, primary-coloured, good-natured one. Star Trek was a celebration of friendship, good fellowship and tolerance, a spirit that made its mythology so beloved and part of the collective baby-boomer psyche. I have a picture of Captain Kirk on my office wall, always have done, it reminds me to go boldly, and in that I mean bold like the very colours themselves.
But it wasn’t just in science fiction where we saw this. Bravely, the most slick and iconic programmes came from our own British TV output. The spirit that excited me, the atmosphere I refer to, was shared to perfection in the opening scene (and much of the rest of) Austin Powers: the music, the fashions, those very programmes. The British spies and detectives and our own Gene Rodenberry with a vision – Gerry Anderson, one of the great British boffins as much as anything else. Spectacular depictions of how great things could be, or were. We had faith in all of this.
Maverick adventurers like John Steed and Emma Peel, the ridiculously wealthy International Rescue eccentric John Tracy and his handsome sons – he even had a groovy swimming pool that retracted to allow a private rocket to launch. What made it so of its time was the most far-fetched part today, that a billionaire with all that cutting-edge technology, with his own autonomous island, who owns a space station all manned by his dynasty, was a good thing and gently approved of by the establishment.
As a little girl I was fascinated by the females. I always thought Mrs Tracey must have died because she had too many sons, but I am sure the wife and (often pregnant) mother could never have been a woman as utterly fabulous as Lady Penelope. She was a glamorous, single, independent, middle-aged woman without children, who had a chauffeur-driven pink Rolls Royce that shot bullets (we had a Corgi toy one in our house, it did that too). She was so cool. Even as children we knew that she and Mr Tracy were more than friends because he referred to her not only without her title, but intimately as “Penny”. Much was because of class; it was English after all. I loved the women, though: the appearance, the wit, they were women I wanted to be.
I realise that so much of the style I myself have adopted in clothing and wound up surrounded by in design and in attitude, is as a direct result of this wishful thinking, a bit of fantasy and a touch of fetish.
The women never seemed to have ever been so beautiful. They were powerful and playful and I loved their clothes, always did, still do. When I had the body I strutted about in Catwoman/Emma Peel type catsuits and silver PVC Barbarella Mini Skirts and always, and to this very day, long boots. The only reason I dislike summer is I have few shoes. I have sandals and boots. These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ was always my karaoke song. They make me feel tall and stronger because I am quite small, but they also reminded me of those tough, smart, kick-ass heroines, and my mother’s long white PVC boots.
Ah yes, my mother. My beautiful, smart, fashion designer/model mother. She really did look like a Bond Girl, or Destiny Angel from UFO, Gerry Anderson’s real-person, super-chic hokum. I had a little bendy Destiny Angel doll so I knew. UFO: Metropolitan contemporary style, the ‘plastic fantastic’ London scene and the Andy Warhol Factory, set in the most up-to-date future. John Straker and his car, the homes, the clothes. Then there was The Prisoner, weird and wonderful and pure atmosphere.
I drive a nearly vintage MX5, it reminds me of the quintessential Sixties Roadster. I admit I have a CD of the great TV Themes of that ilk – The Avengers, The Saint, Department S, Thunderbirds (which I used to like playing when coming home to a remote activated automatic garage door). I was once told when I was very slim and had huge hair in the 80s that I resembled a Thunderbirds Puppet. I think it was meant to wound; I was delighted.
How were they to know I always aspired to and admired the goddesses of the time? Sexy, smart TV Lady Detectives, mysterious spies, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cher. Big hair, big voices, wonderful, beautiful women. Was there ever a woman more beautiful than Barbara Eden in I Dream of Genie? A British version of her at the time however would not have her stay at home. Instead, she and the astronaut who found her, who does nothing interesting ever again, would have had really cool adventures. She would have been so useful on missions.
I wanted one day to be a girl-about-town like Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham in the film Smashing Time, having fun and going to the revolving restaurant on the top of what was once the most exciting, glamorous and modern thing in the West End, the Post Office Tower. When I was of an age I could use public transport (far younger than now of course) my Best Friend Debbie (who, like me, loved to draw these types of women) and I went to BIBA. It was FAB.
I played with my mother’s black and silver, deliciously packaged Mary Quant cosmetics, with that daisy pop art logo that just made you feel excited somehow. When I lived with the person who was to wind up being my double-act partner, in a flat above a Londis in 7 Dials Brighton in the eighties (a soul mate; we even had a vintage BIBA poster in the bathroom), due to the fact that I was curvy with long brown hair and had a boyfriend, and she was short and blond and kooky, we made signs for our rooms saying “Nerys Hughes” and “Polly James” i.e. Sandra and Beryl from The Liver Birds.
It’s strange how I finally did get to indulge my sixties hobbyhorses in the eighties. This was all down to the magic of Brighton, a place where all that counter-culture, hedonism and Bohemian ethos had not departed. It had something of a remaining, cult sixties community about it. I knew this at the time when my career master rolled his eyes and looked at my velvet dress, and army surplus bag, lace-up boots and reputation and sighed, “Let’s face it, you want the best place for La Vie Boheme and student action.” So naturally, he sent me to Sussex.
He was right of course. I had always had family there and so I gave up studying Film Studies elsewhere for this new, exciting location. I must say it did deliver, the first term’s reading list contained Ken Kesey’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.
I hung out at the stately home Stanmer House in Falmer when it was squatted. There were candles and weird evenings in the ballroom. I even enjoyed a student occupation (Arts D, I believe.) There was Food For Friends and Infinity Foods for the vegetarian, eventually, later on, even a peace camp. I gorged on second-hand vinyl and added to a collection I had begun years earlier. I have the soundtrack, and more. I saw cult films, we ate hummus sandwiches and smoked upstairs at the Duke Of York cinema; and so the love grew as it had for most of my life, in retrospect.
There were many bad things about that era but the media at the time, the popular culture, was what made young people have ideas, and some of the best ones still exist.