Books

Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s – Book Review

One of the absolute banes of social media has been the rise of the nostalgia-themed account: a load of people asking if anyone out there can recall the most facile things from their youth, from Spangles to Clackers, and all points in between, getting wistful and misty-eyed in the best Proustian-style remembrance of things past.

The memory can cheat, however, as it has been remarked on that there is a tendency to recall summers of your childhood as always being sun-filled and free of rain, when in actuality that was often far from the case. For kids of Generation X in particular, growing up could be a very hazardous experience, one which is not typically that well reflected by all the inane – if ultimately well-meant – chitter-chatter about having a shared recollection of Rumbelows or Space Hoppers.

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If your birth just happened to follow the Baby Boomers, then more than likely your formative years were a minefield of all manner of horrors, both real and imagined, the sorts of stuff that would either shape your character, or lead you to try and repress those memories for fear of future therapy. The news would inevitably  be filled with stories of international crisis and potential nuclear armageddon, with the world seeming to be almost continually poised on the brink of totally wiping itself out in a mushroom cloud.

Public information films were ever looming on the horizon of the television landscape, with their fear-inducing attempts to put you off swimming in any bodies of open water, going to collect errant frisbees from electricity substations, trying to pick up used sparklers, or talk to strangers (which seemed to rather conflict with the efforts to promote road safety by using the Green Cross Code Man, a muscular individual who was dressed in tight leggings and would randomly approach children on the street).

If you thought that children’s TV would provide some respite or a safe haven of sorts from all of these real-world traumas, well, guess again. It was a minefield of its own special design, bringing the UK’s kiddiwinks teatime visions of folk horror, decapitation, drug abuse, supernatural terrors, and – maybe the most horrifying one of all – the nightmarish figure which was Noseybonk. Even seemingly innocuous TV adverts could throw up new worlds of pure psychological terror, embodied in the forms of bizarre, disturbing cereal mascots.

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At times, it feels like a minor miracle any of that generation ended up even remotely well adjusted and functional. Such shared memories would become a conversational topic when chatting with your peers in later life at the pub, or at colleges and universities, the suffering you felt both pre- and during adolescence becoming a sort of bonding experience or a rite of passage that you collectively endured and could reminisce about, jogging each other’s memories with all the sources of various sleepless nights.

This fertile territory had formed the basis of Scarred For Life Volume One: The 1970s, which was a 2017 publication from Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence, its front cover so proudly proclaiming it was about “Growing up in the dark side of the decade”. Finally, we had a compendium that collected all of those things which had lived buried – and, sometimes, not-so – in the recesses of the juvenile psyche. A trip which took us down a Memory Lane that had more resembled Elm Street than Coronation Street or Pigeon Street.

That primary volume covered all manner of source material, from feature films to comics, toys to sweets, and everything in between, all of which had provided triggers for flashbacks to the bizarre, the terrifying and the deeply unsettling. With a follow-up underway, it soon became clear there would be too much to fit into just one tome about the 1980s, which is why we have Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, with a forthcoming third volume covering everything else, like books, games, and so on.

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Scarred For Life Volume Two is far more than just a faithful aide-mémoire for those of us who were there at the time, as it also provides a delve into an era during which society was changing in numerous ways, and television’s role played its part in that. For one thing, the UK saw its fourth terrestrial channel start transmitting, providing a bookend to a decade the opposite end of which was the beginning of the multi-channel revolution, giving homes far more choice and content than before, but also innumerable arguments about whether or not it was impacting on quality.

With portable TV sets becoming increasingly commonplace, this also meant that the communal viewing experience would start to become less of a family fixture, as it gave rise to people being able to watch different things in different rooms, and the family dynamic started to change subtly. It also meant that kids now had an option to surreptitiously view decidedly more adult-skewed content in their own space, without having fear of parental censorship; the advent of the VCR also had a role, as you could rewatch things over and over, and keep them, rather than having to rely purely on childhood memories.

As such, Scarred For Life Volume Two gives us a sociological snapshot which helps to give useful context to the 1980s as a whole, but also for all the programmes that it covers. Having assembled a raft of writers to bring their own takes to all the assorted subject matter, Scarred For Life Volume Two takes us through children’s TV, sci-fi, horror and the supernatural, ghost stories, adult dramas, advertising, and those utterly terrifying public information shorts which would punctuate the schedules.

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It would be easy to have just put together a dry recitation of facts, but each writer here brings to bear their own personal experiences of the material that they are covering, bringing things to life, and making them seem not only fully fleshed out, but also relevant and important. Everything which they describe here has shaped or affected them in some way, and all of their individual perspectives make the book compelling reading. Even if you are not personally conversant with what they are covering, you can feel their trauma vividly seeping through the page into your pores.

A huge joy here is finding out about things which somehow passed you by at the time, and learning all about what you missed; another one comes with you suddenly unearthing a half-buried memory which you thought nobody else shared, as well as rediscovering things which you totally forgotten about, but were there all the while, itching in the recesses of your forebrain, awaiting re-emergence. It also presents you an opportunity for sidequests, with the temptation to head off to YouTube periodically, and discovering for yourself just what has caused such abject horror.

Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s is in equal measure a truly spellbinding, shocking, nostalgic and disturbing read, which stands up to – and actively invites – repeated revisits, so densely packed as it is with its mixture of information, reminiscences and making completely sure you fully share the experience of the writers promised by the book’s title.

Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s is out now.

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