The 1980s - Films and Television Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 1980s - Films and Television

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Throughout the late 1960s and '70s, independent filmmakers had grown in power and importance. But in the 1980s, the independent bubble popped and the major studios clawed back control. How did they do this?


This was the decade where Steven Spielberg confirmed himself as the most recognised filmmaker since Hitchcock (Hitch himself had died in 1980). With his own self-directed films such as ET - The Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones trilogy, plus the many he oversaw as producer, such as Back to the Future, Gremlins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. For many people, Spielberg was the cinema of the decade, to the extent that he's still credited with directing plenty of films he had little or no hand in.

Sequelitis and Formula Films

Much of Hollywood's cinematic output - as well as the general political and economic trends of the 'real' world - during the decade can be summed up by Michael Douglas's character in Wall Street with its classic line: 'Greed, for want of a better word, is good.' Sequels became the norm, especially in the horror genre where Nightmares on Elm Streets, Halloweens and Friday the 13ths reproduced like rabbits. Add to that the Beverley Hills Cops, Rambos, trips Back to the Future and Rockys, and 'sequelitis' became a major concern for cinemagoers.

The best title for a sequel in the 1980s was Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo. Not exactly the best film, just a great title.

Pretty in Pink

Another major trend was the 'Brat-Pack' film. With plots consisting of variations on similar archetypes - the jock, the geek, the prom queen and the class swot - they starred a cast of young, attractive, confident and largely interchangeable actors such as Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwold, John Cusack and Rob Lowe.
  • Pretty in Pink - Molly Ringwold picks a prom dress
  • Risky Business - Tom Cruise experiences a sexual awakening
  • Sixteen Candles - Molly Ringwold turns 16
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Matthew Broderick plays hooky
  • The Breakfast Club - detention never was such fun
  • Better Off Dead - John Cusack contemplates suicide - with hilarious results
  • The Lost Boys - Kiefer Sutherland introduces Jason Patric to vampirism
My favourite film at the time was St Elmo's Fire - my friends and I saw it in the theatres nine times. I think we were all going through the high school-to-college transition and it really resonated. We each had our own character (I was Jules) and could quote the entire thing. I can't remember what or who else I liked - it really has been 12 years, hasn't it?
Desperately Seeking Susan was surely a seminal '80s film. Great soundtrack and Madonna's first film role.
Wasn't Howard the Duck great!1  My favourite films would have to be Die Hard and Wings of Desire (opposite ends of the spectrum but both excellent). Oh, and David Cronenberg's The Fly and John Carpenter's The Thing were great examples of how remakes needn't always be worse than the original.

Ironically, the gloss, explosions and expense of the films of the decade led to a revival of fortunes for independent cinema in the 1990s with small budget pictures like Reservoir Dogs and The Blair Witch Project.

Television of the 1980s

Every generation has their own TV favourites. here are some of the picks of the class of 1989: In 1982, the UK got their first new TV channel since 1968 (by the end of the decade, they'd have cable and satellite TV exposing them to 50 or 60 additional channels). The imaginatively-named Channel 4 set itself out right from the beginning to cater for more minority tastes with documentaries, ballet, and classical music sitting alongside hard-hitting dramas and a gritty Liverpool-based soap called Brookside (which was so earthy it earned the broadcaster the nickname 'Channel Swore'). Right to Reply offered viewers the chance to confront the makers of TV programmes directly over the things that upset them, while the gameshows included the words-and-numbers-based Countdown and the helicopter-based race against time, Treasure Hunt.

Another of Channel 4's great successes was The Tube, a Devil-may-care rock/pop music magazine show that introduced the world to Frankie Goes To Hollywood (who sent in an audition video that could only be described as 'raunchy'):

My dad worked at Tyne Tees Television, who made The Tube. It was a great feeling being able to walk straight past all the crowds at the entrance to the studio and waltz right in the front doors

Make 'em Laugh

As comedy moved away from the traditional working men's clubs and towards universities for its new recruits, viewers began to see the rise of what was known as 'alternative' comedy. Stars such as the motormouth host of Friday Night/Saturday Live Ben Elton, Rik Mayal and Ade Edmonson (of The Young Ones and The Comic Strip), French and Saunders, Rowan Atkinson (who would go on to create Black Adder and Mr Bean), Lenny Henry and Harry Enfield among many others.

Like their pop counterparts, comics managed to take things seriously and raise money for charity, the two most notable events being the Secret Policemen's Balls (for Amnesty International) and Comic Relief, the hectic TV telethon that has become the bi-annual event 'Red Nose Day'.

In America, Saturday Night Live was at its best ever with Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Joe Piscopo, Gilda Radner, and Eddie Murphy. And new shows included The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Night Court, Cheers and Moonlighting.

A great series called SCTV was in its biggest stretch during this time. It had begun in the late '70s and ended at about 1985. From it sprang several things, Ed Grimley and other Martin Short characters, the movie Strange Brew, and appearances from Rick Moranis of Ghostbusters/Honey I Shrunk the Kids fame.

Baby Remember My Name

You got big dreams... you want fame... well fame costs, and right here's where you start paying - in sweat!

In 1980, director Alan parker released a film that depicted the lives of the young hopefuls of New York's High School for the Performing Arts. But it was the TV show that followed which our Researchers hold dear to their hearts. See how many characters you remember:

  • Leroy - The talented but wayward dancer who couldn't read.

  • Bruno Martelli - the curly haired synthesiser obsessive with the taxi-driving father.

  • Danny - the Italian stand-up comic with the drug problem that lasted for one episode(!).

  • Doris Schwartz - the over-eager drama student.

  • Coco - the elegant but streetwise dancer who was probably the first person ever to wear leg warmers on TV.

  • Mr Shorofsky - the grumpy Austrian music teacher who hated modern music.

  • ... and Julie, the one who played the cello but didn't seem to ever do anything.

Aliens Land!

The mini-series V was shown in the UK in a late night slot during the 1984 Olympics, and everyone was talking about it:

... there were aliens who swallowed hamsters whole and wore rubber human masks to hide their reptile faces. Bleugh! It had this ominous theme tune that was a cross between Holst's 'Planet Suite' and the theme from Halloween. It was very much a WWII allegory with scientists replacing Jews as the targets of oppression. And those huge space-ships which the makers of Independence Day clearly had in mind when they made theirs. I remember the aliens had strange electronic reverb when they spoke, proving the old addage that V has ways of making you talk...

For anyone under the age of 15, the kings of '80s TV were definitely the action shows that appeared to have been shot on the same backlot in California: Knightrider, The A-team, Mannimal, Blue Thunder, Air Wolf, Street Hawk, Magnum PI and of course the trend-setting Miami Vice.

For the mums, there was Brideshead Revisited (adapted from the Evelyn Waugh book of the same name) which made Jeremy Irons a star after spending the 1970s on the children's variety show Play Away, while The Jewel in the Crown (based on The Raj Quartet) brought both Tim Piggott Smith and Charles Dance into the public eye.

The 1980s also gave us gritty dramas like Lynda la Plante's Widows and Widows 2 - the story of three women who decide to do a robbery that their recently deceased husbands were planning. They bring in a stripper mate of theirs and pull off the job and escape to Rio - only to discover that one of their husbands is very much alive and wants his cut from the job.

But for many, '80s TV was typified by BBC sci-fi:

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy crossed over from Radio 4 to BBC 2.
  • Red Dwarf got started, but took two years for anyone to notice.
  • There were terrifying 'what if' shows such as Edge of Darkness (Bob Peck investigates a radioactive conspiracy), Threads (what if the bomb goes off?) and First Born (in which Charles Dance created the first gorilla-human crossbreed).

  • The long-running Doctor Who entered its final decade with Tom Baker resigning in late '80 to hand over to Peter Davison. The show ended in 1989 with Sylvester McCoy in the starring role after a season that many fans consider to be one of the show's best.

  • The Tripods - an adaptation of the superb trilogy of books by John Christopher.
  • It managed to cut out loads from the books and then mess them up by inserting six pointless episodes of padding in the middle. The special effects weren't that spectacular in the first series but did get better in the second. Sadly, it got worse ratings than Doctor Who (which it was kind of being lined up to replace) and they never bothered adapting the third book.
  • Star Cops - a kind of Z Cars in space with a mellow theme tune by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues. David Calder starred as the laconic Nathan Spring and, we're reliably informed, it kind of dragged on a bit.

  • Day of the Triffids - an adaptation of the John Wyndham book about killer plants taking over the world after a freak meteor shower turns everyone blind. John Duttine played the lead.

Animated Adventures or Just Elongated Adverts?

Does anyone remember OG Readmore? He was a singing cartoon cat here in the States that encouraged children to get interested in books (oh, the irony). 'My name is OG Readmore, my motto's tried and true: read a book today, and then you'll say, "Oh Gee! I'll read more, too!" ' God, can you believe I still remember that?

Some TV favourites for children of the time include: The Gummi Bears, Ewoks, Droids, Pacman, The Muppet Babies, The Littles, The Monchichis, The Snorks and The Smurfs. What seems to be a running element of these shows is that most of them seemed to be promoting products as much as gaining viewers.

I remember when Star Wars came out in '77, the merchandising hadn't been sorted out so we missed out on the cool toys until the following Christmas. But in the 1980s, the toys started to come out before the film, or cartoons were developed with the main intention of selling toys. They were just cynical marketing machines designed to sell tacky merchandise.

There were Care Bears and Cabbage Patch Kids too... and Wuzzles (creatures that were half one animal, half another, like 'Bumblelion'), Defenders of the Earth with Flash Gordon, Thundercats, Transformers, Visionaries, Jem, My Little Pony, He-Man and She-ra ('I .... have... the POWERRRR...') and the every-popular Dogtanian.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were famously renamed Teenage Mutant 'Hero' Turtles when they came on British TV. A much nicer title apparently, and protected all our little kiddy-winks from the horror that is martial arts. Apparently, American studios went through an appalling phase of getting child psychologists to vet every programme they made for its potential to encourage little Johnny to rape/beat-to-death/otherwise harm his little playmates. The result, of course, was a selection of programmes that bordered on the surreal for their bizarre non-violence.

'Here's One We Sprayed Earlier'

BBC children's magazine show Blue Peter entered its third decade with new presenters but the same familiar approach of recycling bottles and boxes to make toys, collecting bottle tops and stamps to raise money for charity and the annual summer expedition to places around the world. Though there were still accusations that the show was out of touch with its audience, there was one element of the show that managed to reflect the times - its fashion:

Peter Duncan's green and white suit designed for him by a viewer of Blue Peter. What on earth was that all about! He even wore it when he ran the London Marathon! Which means he must have had more than one! Surely it could not have survived that experience.

The show also ran regular competitions, dividing the winners by age to ensure they rewarded a good cross-section of their audience. But not everyone appreciated the judges' decisions:

The overall prize would inevitably get given to the under 5s age group, a problem if the ultimate prize was to see your artwork on a massive 30ft high and 50ft wide mural on the side of a Ferry then that's a problem. Really, it was a good painting for a five year old but you don't want to see it that big - it looked like the passengers had had a mass up-chucking session over the side of the ferry...

Further Reading

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1Er, no.

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