Monday, March 03, 2008


Did the Tories Win Because of Howards’ Way?

Not the offputting Michael Howard, of course, but glossy ’80s supersoap Howards’ Way, featured last week in BBC4’s series on hit Sunday night shows. If you’ve read Neil Stockley’s blog analysing successful politicians in terms of how they tell a good story about themselves, you might have an idea of what was going through my head about the narrative of Howards’ Way… While both the BBC and ITV produced great drama in the ’80s, different series often matched politics of the time in seemingly speaking to completely different nations. And the Howards’ Way nation looked like it had more fun. Yes, this is what comes of watching TV and realising that the Liberal Democrats are twenty years old today, born out of the ferment of the ’80s.

So, did you see that episode of Howards’ Way last Sunday, and BBC4’s rather good The Cult of… programme about it? These mini-documentaries have all been well worth seeing, though after several weeks of them you can now predict each cast will talk about the churches closing early, being recognised in the supermarket and unglamorous BBC budgets. Of all of them, though, Howards’ Way was the one so far that’s sent shivers down my spine. A stirring, keening nautical theme tune as catchy as last night’s The Onedin Line (a dim memory from primary school years) kicked off a drama with a heady whiff of the ’80s, reminding me as it unfolded of just what was good and what was off-putting about that decade.

With the ’80s packed full of political drama, I may be unusual in that none of those seemed at the time like they spurred me into politics (even Edge of Darkness, which had me glued). I still reckon the show that had the biggest impact on my philosophy was Doctor Who when I was a much smaller boy back in the ’70s, while the series that directly got me interested in politics was Weekending – the wittier radio equivalent of Spitting Image, which made me laugh so much I wanted to find out who the people involved were. Watching Howards’ Way, though, made me realise how much other series had an impact on me as part of the political narrative of the time. Around the age of fifteen, 1986-87ish, I realised both that I wanted to change the world (working out I was gay had a bit to do with that too) and that I really didn’t like the nasty, polarised class warfare on offer from Labour and the Tories.

Watch Howards’ Way today, and it feels like a poster campaign for Thatcherism – culturally, rather than politically. We often watched it, though my parents tended to disapprove of the people in it: the greed, the flashiness, the ‘bed-hopping’. Despite that, it painted a far more palatable picture than Mrs Thatcher and her hard-faced hordes, or than the brash, triumphalist yuppies shown waving braces, bungs and brick-sized mobiles at each other in the opening minutes of The Cult of Howards’ Way. Yes, some of the characters in Howards’ Way were greedy, oily and filthy rich, from the smoothly manipulative Charles Frere to the archetypally Thatcherite ambition of Ken Masters (known to my mother-in-law as “the slug”), but a lot of the show was the softer, less objectionable side of Thatcherism. As well as very much the British attempt at Dynasty.

The working title of Howards’ Way was The Boat-Builders, evoking ’60s industrial drama The Plane-Makers but then dropping that for putting a family rather than an industry in the centre of the story. At the heart of it was charismatic Maurice Colbourne as Tom Howard, made redundant as an aircraft designer and throwing his savings into his dream of boat-building, and go-ahead wife Jan (Jan Harvey), unimpressed by him throwing it all away and wanting to strike out on her own. And those two, as much as the money and the sexual freedom, made the series’ outlook persuasive. A man made redundant and deciding to take a chance, do something better and make something great instead; a woman who decides she’s not just going to be a housewife and wants to make her own decisions and fulfil her own potential – both following their dream in a heady cocktail of ‘you can be what you want to be’. Like the sexual freedom, this was the sort of thing that Thatcherite rhetoric seemed to encourage, even when the Conservative Party’s political programme went down a much narrower road. Mrs Thatcher’s government was in many ways sexually regressive – difficult to work out you were gay the year before Section 28 and not notice that – but their narrative meant they were as often washed along with the times as channelling them.

However, when a commentator on the documentary claimed that
“If every cultural artefact of the ’80s was lost or incinerated apart from tapes of Howards’ Way…”
…then viewers would still know what the decade was all about, something clicked into place in my head. Because that’s just not true, is it? For every glossy, aspirational drama or soap like Howards’ Way, there was a grim, bleak drama – usually regarded as a better drama, too – which told the story of another side of the ’80s. Put Howards’ Way and Boys From the Blackstuff, say, side by side, and very little would tell you they’re from the same decade, with each telling the story of a different nation.

One of the earlier series featured in BBC4’s Sunday night season was The Brothers, a ’70s industrial drama devised by the same producer who created Howards’ Way. They’re recognisably the same idea on paper – they even both brought in Kate O’Mara to eat the men and the scenery – but the ethos couldn’t be more different. In the ’70s, the BBC drama thought that the men were important and the women were adjuncts, that realism was important and that ‘both sides’ of industry should be represented. In the ’80s, women characters were powerful in themselves, but drama no longer suggested there was one society that had to work together. Howards’ Way didn’t have to confront the disastrous social consequences of Thatcherism; you watched a different series to see those.

Compare and contrast the different styles of drama the ’80s had to offer: aspirational versus laments for how it was; success versus failure; go-ahead women versus grim matriarchs; rich versus poor; North versus South. And while you might watch them and admire the tragic stories as more heartfelt drama, wondering perhaps if socialist playwrights were putting their soul into their work while Thatcherite scriptwriters were just in it for the money, the powerful cultural pull of each tradition sums up both what I disliked most about the ’80s and why the Tories won. The ‘Labour’ dramas were more powerful when you watched them, more moving, better-written… But while you might watch and appreciate the romance of suffering, who wanted to buy into it? The ‘Tory’ dramas were less emotionally gripping, but had a much more powerful idea: rather than wallowing in their tribe, they were recruiting people, and they had characters from poor backgrounds who’d got in the money and told viewers they could do the same. If politics and drama were both telling you that was the choice, no wonder people preferred the Tories.

That narrative for me crystallises the ’80s. The Tories were rich and powerful but nasty, with some of the nastiness filed off and made to look more alluring on screen; Labour were, literally, hopeless. And the divisions in the country were magnified in the dramas – not focusing on how most people lived, but on the extremes of the upper middle class doing glamorously well for themselves and the working class out of work and miserable. With socialist writers contributing so eloquently to the narrative of defeat, it’s no wonder Labour kept being defeated – and, as The Cult of Howards’ Way noted, it’s remarkably appropriate that that series came to an end just three days after Mrs Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.

And me? I didn’t identify with either narrative. Culture, drama and the Conservative Government and Labour Opposition all seemed to glory in the idea that there were two rigidly divided sides and you had to choose one. I chose something different (and perhaps it was that yawning division that encouraged more people than at any other time in the last ninety years to vote for our lot). So the question at the end of it for me is… Other than Doctor Who, what sort of drama would have a persuasive Liberal Democrat narrative? And do you know an influential drama producer to whom you can pitch it?

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Modern Who has lost its Liberal way (waily waily) IMHO. It's not like it was in the Pertwee era.

Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes both have a fairly strong "look how awful the repression was" vibe...

* is clutching at straws, and knows it *

I reckon someone needs to make a proper stab at some Pratchett, really. Not like the style over substance Hogfather that Sky did. Mind, can't expect the Murdoch empire to emphasize Pterry's liberal agenda, can we?
Good points - though I'd argue that Doctor Who is less clear-cut than that. The series' basic premise (go wherever and whenever you like, don't take orders but choose to do good) is still very much a Liberal one, though I agree the ethos of the stories is less Liberal than it has been at many stages. But while in many ways I got my Liberalism as a boy from reading Pertwee books, once I saw them on TV I realised the paradox: Liberal stories, patronising git of a Doctor. So I'll stick with the glass still half-full...
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