Our attitude to the past of our own youth is like our feelings towards an old grandfather: we love him, admire him for what he’s done, but, goodness, we don’t half patronise him.
Our attitude to the past of our own youth is like our feelings towards an old grandfather: we love him, admire him for what he’s done, but, goodness, we don’t half patronise him. ‘Gosh, grandad, you mean if you weren’t at home, nobody could phone you? How did you find anything out without Google?’ Television does this mixture of affection and condescension very well. Rock and Chips (BBC1, Sunday) was John Sullivan’s prequel to his astoundingly successful sitcom Only Fools and Horses. It was set in 1960 and told the back story. But this was scarcely a comedy at all. Apart from the names of the characters, it had only the faintest link with Only Fools. There was no laugh track; we were in a bleak, sub-fusc East London world of poverty, crime, stunted ambition and rather good rock music. The rogues here weren’t loveable villains flogging fake Rolexes, but nasty, grubby, selfish, violent people, too stupid and lazy to be anything else.
This was, Sullivan says, the world he knew, and he’s clearly nostalgic. But like all viewers of his age, he could look down on it. ‘Do you like Rossini?’ ‘Oh, I’ll drink anything.’ If your taste in booze was more sophisticated, you drank ‘chee-anty’. People actually wanted to live in tower blocks — at least before they did. They had their own respectability. Woman getting ready for a night out: ‘I am not getting tarted up, I am getting dolled up.’ The period details were nearly perfect: Bob Dawes as the creepy cinema manager, lusting after the young Mrs Trotter. ‘I see you rising, with a tray of Mivvis,’ he says, his voice choking with lust, and I remembered that, yes, I liked Mivvis (a sort of ice-cream and lolly combo), but now I look down on the teenager who did.
They were all also desperate to be American. In those days people despised ‘Yanks’, and yet at the same time the US represented everything they dreamed of. Which is why Mad Men (BBC4), also set in the 1960s, has got the British invasion of Madison Avenue so wrong. A pity, since everything else in this show — the third series began on Wednesday — has perfect pitch. Even the credits: a silhouetted body falls past skyscrapers plastered with images of female beauty and the consumer good life, hinting at the despair behind the glamour, prefiguring the plunging victims of 9/11, the collapse of the banks, and the end of all that optimism.
But, just as people believe what they read in the papers until it’s about something they know, we can see it’s nonsense. The agency has been taken over by Brits, and the writers have crassly worked in every stereotype of snobbish, insecure, overeducated, offensive twerps, who use words like ‘unseemly’ and ‘presumptuous’ and look down their noses at Americans. The new boss’s wife misses home. ‘But what we’ve lost in London, we’ve gained in insects,’ she says, with plonking rudeness. Her duplicitous husband is called Lane Pryce. He’d be in his late 80s now. How many 80-year-old Brits do you know called ‘Lane’? It’s as if we had a serious drama series about an American taking over a London bank, in which he wore plaid Bermuda shorts to work, and said, ‘Hey, ain’t that the bee’s knees!’ You’d cringe. I did.
The British people who went to America back then were obsessed, adoring and devoted to the States. Being accepted was all that they humbly craved. So why, in a series which is so punctilious, is this so mistaken?
Secret Diary of a Call Girl is back on ITV2 (Thursday), and is a cunning blend of reality and fiction. Belle de Jour, played by Billie Piper, goes to the launch of her book, actually written — we now know — by Dr Brooke Magnanti, who was the real Belle de Jour, but Ms Piper, the fake Belle de Jour, leaves in disgust when they bring on a seriously tarty-looking woman to read extracts from the book because she can’t, being the then anonymous Belle de Jour. She then has loads of delightful sex, except for one bloke who goes on too long, and earns lots of money. Yeah, right. The channel also ran a filmed conversation between Ms Piper and Dr Magnanti, who, unlike the actress, looks a shade on the beefy side and has a bad complexion. Billie Piper is as real as a real prostitute as a snotty Brit in 1960s New York advertising.