No one remembers this now but there really was a period, not so long ago, when the Eighties were universally reviled as the ‘decade that style forgot’.
For a time it got so bad that none of us survivors could even bear to look at old photos of ourselves: mullets, feather cuts, Limahl-style bleaching, pastels, legwarmers, unflattering suits so boxy they made you look broader than you were tall…
But try telling this to the kids today and they won’t believe you. The Eighties, as far as they’re concerned, are so achingly, incredibly, bleeding-edge cool that there’s no way their parents could possibly have lived through them and, ‘Oh, by the way, Dad, do you mind if I take that old jacket of yours back to school?’ (That last quote is a lie by the way. They never ask. They just assume.)
So it’s no wonder that Deutschland 83 (Channel 4) has established itself as such a seductive Sunday night TV rival to War and Peace. Even if the drama were rubbish (which it’s not, though it does teeter occasionally on the verge of silliness) you could just sit back and wallow in that echt early 1980s ambiance: the haircuts, the charmingly old-fashioned geopolitical tensions, the thrill of encountering your first Walkman…
And, of course, that immaculate soundtrack. I don’t remember at the time being particularly smitten by Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’, let alone Bowie’s ‘China Girl’. But the intervening decades have lent them the patina of classics that can now happily rank with the Eighties stuff that was always good such as New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ and — I’m sorry — Nena’s ‘99 Luftballons’.
The drama concerns a sweet-looking East German border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) who is recruited via his wicked aunt to work as a deep-cover spy as aide-de-camp to a West German general. Amazingly, Bundeswehr security is so lax that he is parachuted into a job with no questions asked, only the most rudimentary training and an understanding of the West so poor that he can barely even work the telephones. Despite all this Martin is accepted instantly and is free to spy at high-level conferences, breaking with relative ease into the hotel safes of senior diplomats, kung-fu fighting with hot Chinese agents disguised as waitresses, seducing important secretaries, while arousing barely the slightest suspicion.
You accept this nonsense, though, because it’s part of the series’ distinctive tone: straight Cold War drama meets early James Bond meets Eighties pop video meets tongue-in-cheek comedy. I rather like it when writers are given their head to create a style all of their own. Another brilliant recent example of this was the second series of Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists, which I highly recommend you catch up with on BBC iPlayer.
Deutschland 83 isn’t sure what to make of the politics and neither are we. On the one hand we can see that the Commies are ruthless, brutal, cynical and rightly doomed to fail. On the other hand, there’s something rather underdog-engaging about their grave, warped integrity, their relentless chain-smoking (everyone in the West has given up, apparently) and their bleak humour.
In the most recent episode, the Stasi bigwigs finally acquired some top secret information from the West only to be flummoxed by two major problems: first, they’d never seen a floppy disc before; secondly, they seemed to have only one very basic model of computer in the whole country — and it wasn’t compatible with the disc.
No doubt there’s a bit of dramatic licence here. I can believe the shambolic incompetence, but I suspect the real East Germany was a lot more dingy and sinister. Here, it’s made to seem slyly sexy: at one point, a nubile blonde Mädchen skinny-dips in a pristine lake and offers up her body to her surprised but grateful male companion with his wispy moustache and crap washed denim jacket. Such back-to-nature free-spiritedness, we are given to understand, would never happen in the crass, commercial West where the furniture’s all modern and the supermarkets are disgustingly full.
One of the odder aspects of living through history is the way things that mattered so very intensely at the time often come to seem, with hindsight, almost cute. This idea, for example, that we were all on the verge of being wiped out by a third world war: the characters in Deutschland 83 are all obsessed with it, whereas for the viewer it’s more an excuse for a fond, nostalgic chuckle.
That nostalgia isn’t entirely misplaced. The West German general’s hot daughter has gone to a hippie commune in Cologne. But it’s almost impossible to watch those scenes now without muttering to yourself: ‘Wouldn’t fancy her chances much outside the railway station on New Year’s Eve.’ I sometimes think that the East did win the war in the end, only not quite in the way it planned. One of its agents — a female one called Angela — found a rather more subtle means of destroying Western civilisation than nukes, that’s all.