Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image fist appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had never looked weaker.

What’s more, there was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue through the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, perhaps partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (Jim Hacker was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. Yet NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise Central in 1984.

The project in retrospect seems hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact that Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable and the show not only managed to be produced so close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live) but that the show was so often on the mark, highly topical and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (rather sexistly) in a man’s suit (something which may actually have helped her image). John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot being secretly controlled by Thatcher before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was of course at this stage not known to the general public.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere (notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence) either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He soon became a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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The Oscars: myths, legends and statistics

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Four score and seven years ago (or thereabouts) the Oscars burst onto the world. With this year’s ceremony fast approaching, let’s take a look back at the highs and lows of Academy Award history…

1927: World War I based thriller Wings wins the first ever Best Picture Oscar. It is the last silent film to win until The Artist wins in 2012.

1933: In a scene reminiscent of the early scenes of Zoolander, comedian Will Rogers opens the Best Director envelope and says “Come and get It Frank!” Unfortunately, there were two directors called Frank nominated in that year. Frank Capra was half way to the podium before Rogers clarified that it was Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade who had won, not Capra. Happily, Frank Capra wins for Mr Deeds Goes To Town in 1936. In future years, the awards are always announced in a heavily scripted way, to avoid such a cock up happening again.

1941: How Green Is My Valley beats Citizen Kane, subsequently the most critically acclaimed film of all time, for Best Picture.

1968; A tie in the Best Actress category! Barbara Streisand wins for Funny Girl. Katharine Hepburn also wins for The Lion In Winter (her third).

1970: George C. Scott wins Best Actor for Patton. He chooses not to attend and instead watches a ball game on the other channel.

1972: Native American Sacheen Littlefeather picks up Marlon Brando’s Oscar for him to promote Native American issues (it is Brando’s second. This one is for The Godfather). She is actually not a political activist herself but a small time actress and later appears in Playboy.

1973: David Niven remarks of a streaker at the ceremony that “the only laugh that man will ever get is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings”.

1974: Robert De Niro wins his first Oscar playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Marlon Brando played the same character in 1972’s The Godfather. It is the only time two actors have won Oscars for playing the same (fictional) person.

1980: Robert De Niro also wins his second Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The timing is awkward as President Reagan has just been shot. His attempted assassin John Hinckley was reportedly inspired by Scorsese and De Niro’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.

1981: Katharine Hepburn wins her fourth and final Oscar for On Golden Pond. No other actor, male or female, has ever won four. Cate Blanchett later wins one for playing Hepburn herself in The Aviator in 2004.

1992: Rumours abound that Jack Palance read out the wrong name during his announcement of the Best Supporting Actress winner Marisa Tomei. In fact, this is impossible: only one name is ever on the card, the name of the winner. Marisa Tomei in fact thoroughly deserved to win for My Cousin Vinny (even though it was a surprise result). That said, Palance did seem to be in a somewhat “tired and emotional” state as he announced the award.

1995: Tom Hanks wins two Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years (a feat not achieved since Spencer Tracey in the 1930s) for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Both times he delivers excruciating acceptance speeches inadvertently “outing” a high school teacher in the first (a moment which inspired the Kevin Kline film In and Out) and in the second stating “I feel like I’m standing on magic legs.”

1995: Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Martin Landau (Ed Wood). Lipreaders can see Jackson clearly says “shit” on hearing the announcement (from 12 year old An Paquin). Jackson is later unrepentant, arguing he deserved the award more than Landau.

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King becomes the third film to win eleven Oscars. The others are Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997). All About Eve (1950) and Titanic remain the most nominated films (14 each).

2012: Meryl Streep wins her 17th nomination (and her third win) for The Iron Lady. No actor has ever been nominated as many times as she has. In 2014, she won her 18th nomination for August: Osage County. Her other wins were for Kramer Vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

2013: Daniel Day Lewis wins his third acting Oscar for Lincoln. Only five other actors have achieved this: Katharine Hepburn (who won four), Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman.

Trying to guess who will win this year’s Best Picture Oscar? Why not let the past be your guide?

Sixteen of the last fifty Best Picture winners were based on true stories (for the record, I am counting The French Connection as “true” but not Shakespeare In Love). This, of course, means that around 68% of the last fifty Best Picture winners were entirely fictional. The most recent “real life” winners were and 12 Year’s A Slave.

Comedies hardly ever win the Best Picture Oscar. Only around five of the last fifty Best Picture winners were comedies. Annie Hall, Forrest Gump, The Artist, Shakespeare In Love and American Beauty. And some would dispute that American Beauty or Forrest Gump are comedies.

Nearly half of the past fifty Best Picture winners had either a British director, lead actor or actress, a British setting or has other heavy British involvement.

No science fiction film has ever won Best Picture. Gravity, Avatar, Star Wars and A Clockwork Orange were all nominated but didn’t win in this category.

Only two sequels have ever won. The Godfather Part II (the first Godfather film also won) and the third Lord of the Rings film.

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Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller The Day of the Jackal.

How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter OF Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unintelligently): “Why run n the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978 if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those harts and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties, perhaps guiding the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis Who Governs Britain? election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto underperform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgewood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell particularly portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes they are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius with the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence” for example covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

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The Wasp Factory: 30 years on

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This week sees the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Iain Bans’ controversial debut novel The Wasp Factory. It is a sad anniversary, in that for the first time Banks himself who died of cancer last year, will no longer be around to celebrate it.

In truth such was the tabloid furore surrounding the book in 1984 that Banks, then in his twenties, did well to ever escape the book’s long shadow. It remains perhaps his darkest book and one that I (perhaps wrongly) hesitate to recommend to readers who have never sampled Banks’ work before, even though it was the first one I actually ever read myself. That said, it is still quite mild next to some books which have appeared since (such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho). It is also still, alongside The Crow Road, one of Banks’ best and most famous works.

Banks was undeniably right to describe the book as a “dark comedy” though even though parts of the book (such as the reasons for his older brother’s breakdown) are deeply unpleasant. The main character Frank is undeniably deeply disturbed enjoying an isolated life with his retired ex-hippy dad, playing in a world of fantasy or fighting a giant bunny (a scene which actually appears to be based in the real world when activities around a rabbit warren get out of hand). But the wasp factory of the title isn’t a metaphor: it is a physical structure which Frank has built himself. And he is a killer. Grim though they are, Frank’s accounts of his murders are among the most memorable bits in the novel.

Throughout the book there are also subtle indications that something more is wrong with Frank. Unlike most teenage boys, he seems oddly repelled by women.

Thirty years on, The Wasp Factory remains hugely compelling from its odd unworldly opening to its very final line.

How not to win a TV quiz show

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One of the fun things about TV quiz shows (particularly those which offer a multiple choice of possible answers and which encourage the contestant to explain their reasoning at tortuous length) is seeing the same question answering technique return again and again.

Here is a typical question and answer, plus a selection of different (and mostly stupid) ways people tend to respond

Q: Which English monarch was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century?

Is it:

a)      King John.

b)      King Richard III.

c)       King Henry VIII.

The correct answer is: c) King Henry VIII.

Method 1: Ruling out the correct answer for an irrelevant reason.

e.g. Hmmm. Well, Richard III was at the Battle of Bosworth. I know Henry VIII had six wives. So I’ll go for John!

Henry VIII did, indeed, have six wives. But he also dissolved the monasteries. He did both! However, this answer is still better than inexplicably ruling out the correct answer straight away for no reason at all which is also popular.

Method 2: Getting it right but for a stupid reason.

e.g. Well, King John was a fictional character in Robin Hood. And there has never been a King Richard of anything in England. So it must be Henry VIII!

This is equally irritating.

Method 3: The inexplicable loss of nerve.

e.g.  Well, I know the monasteries were a big issue under Henry VIII and he did act against them… But my instinct is telling me to go for b) King Richard III.

Method 4: Total guesswork.

e.g. I’ll go straight down the middle. B!

In fairness, this is understandable if the contestant really has no idea. And it sometimes works. But not this time…

And bear in mind, if it’s a History round, the question may well be based on subject matter which predates your own lifespan.

Oscar predictions 2014

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Here are my predictions for twelve of the main categories at next month’s US Academy Awards.

Please note: These are not my favourite films (I have not seen most of them) nor are the ones I think most deserve to win necessarily. I am just making an educated guess at what will win.

Please note as well, that my track record on this is poor. Last year only a third of my predictions were correct! 

Best picture:

Oscar loves worthy films like this…

12 Years a Slave *

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best director

Assuming I got the Best Film right, this is a reasonably safe bet. The Best Picture’s director also wins 90% of the time (although this didn’t happen for Argo director Ben Affleck last year).

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave *

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

David O Russell, American Hustle

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street


Best actor

Could conceivably also be Bale or McConaughey.

Christian Bale, American Hustle

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave *

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club


Best actress

A consolation prize for Hustle? Might go to Bullock otherwise. Cate Blanchett was the favourite until the Woody Allen controversy. I’ve no idea why Naomie Harris didn’t get an Oscar for Long Walk To Freedom. She richly deserved one.

Amy Adams, American Hustle *

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Judi Dench, Philomena

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County


Best supporting actor

A brilliant performance. Fassbender deserves to win.

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave *

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club


Best supporting actress

I’ve no idea really!

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

June Squibb, Nebraska *


Best animated feature

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Ernest and Celestine

Frozen *

The Wind Rises

Best adapted screenplay

Taking a risk here as the best film usually gets a screenplay Oscar two out of three times. But that isn’t the same as every time is it?

Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight

Billy Ray – Captain Phillips

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – Philomena

John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street *

Best original screenplay
It won’t be Woody Allen anyway…

Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell – American Hustle

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine

Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack – Dallas Buyers Club

Spike Jonze – Her

Bob Nelson – Nebraska *

Best foreign language film.

The Great Beauty (Italy)

The Hunt (Denmark)

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium) *

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

Omar (Palestine)

Best original song

Let It Go – Frozen *

Ordinary Love -: Long Walk to Freedom

Alone Yet Not Alone – Alone Yet Not Alone

Happy – Despicable Me 2

The Moon Song – Her

Best documentary

No idea! Although this is one of the few categories I got right last year.

The Act of Killing*

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet from Stardom

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A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s book review

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £25

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Some might think it a bit soon to be writing histories of the 1990s. Perhaps they should think again. This volume, the third and final part of Alwyn W. Turner’s trilogy takes Britain up to the General Election of June 2001. It was a sleepy campaign, enlivened only by the celebrated “Prescott Punch” when the Deputy PM John Prescott was filmed punching a voter.

Turner argues the 2001 election saw Britain winding down after the industrial unrest of the 1970s (chronicled in his earlier Crisis? What Crisis?) and the battles and mass unemployment of the 1980s (detailed in his second volume Rejoice! Rejoice!). 2001 was at any rate still a considerable time ago. E-readers, iPods, the Iraq War and Credit Crunch were still in the future. But the book starts with Thatcher’s fall in November 1990. Twenty four years ago, this is definitely the stuff of history.

In 1990, Britain was preparing to go to war over Kuwait (a much less controversial war than the Iraq conflict which began twelve years later) as the nation licked its wounds from the ordeal of Thatcherism. It is arguable that Britain has not fully recovered from her leadership even today and certainly the Tory Party don’t seem to have done so.

Mrs Thatcher’s successor was John Major who Turner reminds us, was at the time the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. We have got used to younger leaders since. Major was 46, Blair who would succeed him would be 44. Cameron in 2010 was younger still and all three major party leaders today are under 50. Major  at any rate did what no Tory leader has achieved in the 22 years since, winning his party an overall majority in the General Election of April 1992. Thereafter, it proved to be a very bad decade to be a Tory.

Major’s economic record was much better than Thatcher’s. But he was a poor leader and after the election win the party went into freefall, alienating any group who might have potentially supported them. The number of Tory MPs fell by more than half during John Major’s leadership of the party between 1990 and 1997.

Had he not died, another John, John Smith would surely have won power in 1997. Sadly, we will never know how a Smith premiership might have turned out (Turner is certainly harsh on the Blair Government) and it will remain forever one of the great pondering points of post-war party politics.

This isn’t just about politics though, far from it. As before, Turner covers seemingly every aspect of British life in the decade including Lad Culture, the comedy scene, the recovery of the British film industry, the rise of Britpop to the death of Diana, in massively comprehensive detail.

I wouldn’t share all his emphasises. Much as I love the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, Turner quotes from it a bit too much. It is odd also that he devotes time to mediocre TV offerings like Waiting For God and Root Into Europe too while never mentioning memorable dramas House of Cards or GBH. I wouldn’t have described Alan Rickman as “fresh from his triumph in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” in 1999 either. The film came out in 1991, eight years before the point  Rickman was touted as a possible London Mayoral candidate.

(For the record, Michael Foot became Labour leader in 1980 not 1981. And William Hague was never the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century. Harold Wilson was only 31 when he was appointed by Attlee in 1947).

But these are minor quibbles in a book spanning well over 600 pages. Alwyn W. Turner has triumphed yet again. His three volumes on the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties should be required reading for all students of popular culture, politics and history during the period between the grinning smiles of the grumpy bachelor Mr. Heath and that nice Mr. Blair.