Remembrance of the Sixties
1988: Doctor Who and the Second Summer of Love
At some point in the summer of 1987, my girlfriend and I were trying to decide what film to go and see. One movie in particular had caught my eye but her father - who was a film critic for the Times - persuaded us that it wasn’t worth it. He recommended Spielberg’s adaptation of J. G.Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which made for a very weird date.
I didn’t get to see the film I had wanted to see that afternoon until a year later, in 1988, which is when I found out just how wrong her father had been. But more on that later.
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Philip Larkin, Annus Mirabilis
The Doctor Who story Remembrance of the Daleks was broadcast in October 1988, almost exactly 25 years after the very first episode had been broadcast in November 1963. And Remembrance of the Daleks returns to the setting of that first episode: Coal Hill School, in the East End of London, in 1963. (In the background of one scene, a TV set appears to be about to announce a new BBC sci-fi series before someone turns it off.)
1963 had been the year not only of the Beatles and sex but also, as Philip Larkin mysteriously failed to point out, Dalekmania. Doctor Who was a massive hit for the BBC, and as much part of the pop cultural explosion of the early ‘60s as ‘Love Me Do’ and allowing your servants to read filthy books.
In 1980 there was a sense that Britain might finally achieve escape velocity from the groovational pull of the Swinging Sixties, via Punk, synthesisers and New Romance. But it didn’t happen. Throughout the ‘80s the influence of the ‘60s was everywhere, from Marvin Gaye songs in jeans ads to films about the Vietnam War. Every year was some kind of Boomer twenty-year anniversary; the whole decade was one long midlife crisis. Gen X childhoods were full of reruns of Thunderbirds and The Monkees, and our adolescence haunted by reanimated rock dinosaurs. When Remembrance of the Daleks aired in 1988 The Hollies were number two in the charts with ‘He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother)’. The cinemas were showing Buster, a film about the 1963 Great Train Robbery. (Apparently even the criminals had been better in the ‘60s.) 1988 also saw the publication of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, which details every single moment each of the Fab Four spent in a studio, what they recorded there, who playing mellotron on it, and what John and Paul were bickering about that day. I even subscribed, at one point, to a magazine called Idols, a journal of ‘60s pop culture, which dealt in profiles of Jim Morrison and exhaustive episode breakdowns of Linda Thorson-era Avengers.
This all culminated in 1988 with The Second Summer of Love, a cosplay 1968 but with house music and MDMA rather than Jefferson Airplane and LSD. Even the symbolism - ‘acid’ house and the smiley face logo, tie-die and floppy hats - was full of ‘60s references. The music might have been hypermodern cyberpunk, but the ‘60s myth was inescapable.
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In the summer of 1988, I finally got to see that film.
I was working in London and living in squalor. The entire sink had gone rotten. There were things living in there. Matter. We were drifting into the arena of the unwell. One evening my friend returned with meat - the first solid thing to pass my lips in sixty hours - and announced that there was a film on that I had to see.
Some of you will already have figured out what it was.
For British Metropolitan readers of a certain age and inclination, Withnail & I needs no introduction. It was less a film than a lifestyle bible; we know the script the way previous generations knew Shakespeare or the Lord’s Prayer. Key lines became Masonic pass-phrases for a universal fraternity of wasters. It made finding friends in the Fresher’s Week a lot easier.
Happily, not everyone who reads the Metropolitan is a British person of a certain age and inclination, so here’s the introduction anyway. Withnail & I is set in 1969, and it describes the comedown from the first Summer of Love. Out-of-work actors Marwood (the ‘I’ of the title) and his friend Withnail, trying to escape the drink and drugs of Camden, go on holiday to a country cottage owned by Withnail’s Uncle Monty. Monty, having conceived a lust for Marwood, follows them there. They flee back to London where Marwood discovers he has won a part in a production of Journey’s End. He leaves Withnail behind to begin the new phase of his life; the last we see of Withnail he is standing in the rain, reciting Hamlet to the wolves in Regent’s Park Zoo.
Ok, so it doesn’t sound like much, plotwise. But Bruce Robinson wrote a brilliant script, and directed it so that every joke landed, helped by extraordinary performances from (future Doctor Who) Richard E. Grant and (future Doctor Who) Paul McGann as Withnail and Marwood, and (almost Doctor Who if it hadn’t been cancelled) Richard Griffith as Uncle Monty.
One fundamental theme of the film is just how wretched the late ‘60s were, away from the swinging clichés of Carnaby Street and Haight Ashbury. Just as in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (set two years later in 1971), Withnail and Marwood’s drug-addled lives are miserable and marginalised; the world around them is grey and grimy, still distinctively post-war. As Danny the drug dealer puts it: ‘the greatest decade in the history of the world is coming to an end, and… we have failed to paint it black’.
The late ‘80s were an fitting book-end to the world portrayed in Withnail & I. There was a sense that the radical dream of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s - Punk, TwoTone, gender-bending and futuristic electronica - had died, and been replaced by apolitical animatrons operated by Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Thatcher and Reagan were in power and all the ex-hippies were running businesses (which is why the advertising agency started by Elliot and Michael in 1987’s thirtysomething still sticks in the mind).
1988 saw a totemic British political lowpoint in Section 28 of that year’s Local Government Act, which ruled that local authorities ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. Institutionalised, state-sanctioned homophobia found an odd echo in Withnail & I; it is much concerned with homosexuality, and its characters express themselves in period-accurate ways that make for some uncomfortable viewing now. But the actual plot is quite careful. Uncle Monty is not quite the predator he seems: he pursues Marwood because Withnail has told him that Marwood is gay. When Monty finds out the truth he is mortified, and apologetic. Withnail’s expressed homophobia is, it is hinted, the result of his own repression: he can’t admit that he’s in love with his best friend. This stance of the film was reasonably progressive for it’s time. In the British Social Attitudes survey of 1988, 74% of the population thought that homosexual relationships were ‘always wrong’.
In the dreary comedown of the late ‘80s, even ‘60s icon Doctor Who was starting to look like a failure. The show had come close to be cancelled in 1986 and BBC1’s controller Michael Grade was not, to put it mildly, a fan:
I hated Doctor Who. I said to the producer, ‘Do you go to the cinema much? Have you seen Star Wars or ET?’ He said yes. I said, ‘I’ve got news for you: so has our audience.” What we were serving up as science fiction was garbage.
The invocation of 1963 in Remembrance of the Daleks was an attempt to recover the show’s lost youth, a time when it was intriguing and mysterious. Unfortunately the show tries to conjure this mystery by ladling on mythology and complications, Time Lord arcana and internecine Dalek politics. It's like trying to follow one of Pete Frame’s tangled Rock Family Trees, in that it all ends up being entirely incomprehensible. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. The following year Doctor Who went off air for the first of 16 continuous years (not counting the TV movie starring Withnail & I’s Paul McGann). The legends of the ‘60s were demonstrably no longer fit for purpose.
Remembrance of the Daleks is at least aware that the myth of the revolutionary ‘60s was just that: a myth. The plot is full of Cold War resonances; the main human villains are a group of right-wing ‘60s thugs; and in one key moment the Doctor’s companion Ace finds a ‘No Blacks’ sign. Doctor Who always saw itself as an historical education programme for children. This nutritious approach distinguished it from the feelgood fantasies of Grade’s favoured comparators Star Wars and E.T.; it also set it apart from the apolitical culture of British teenagers in the late ‘80s. The Second Summer of Love wasn’t characterised by Gloucester Square demonstrators or cobble-chucking soixante huitards. It was just twenty thousand people in a field, all sorted out for E’s and whizz.
Twenty years later the National Attitudes Survey found that the majority of British people thought that homosexual relationships were ‘not at all wrong’. A dynamic Labour government had swept the Tories away (as in 1964) and introduced civil partnerships for same-sex couples in 2004; Union Jacks, football and guitar bands were everywhere; and Swinging London - in the form of Noel Gallagher and Patsy Kensit - made the cover of Vanity Fair. And Doctor Who was back on BBC1, this time being run by Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk (1999). The ‘greatest decade in the history of the world’ had finally found a happier echo.
For more on Doctor Who and the end of the Sixties, try our pieces on Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, or you can find all of our Doctor Who pieces: https://www.themetropolitan.uk/t/dr-who