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Old TV keeps us grounded

What started as nostalgic escapism became much more

One of the great tricks of ageing is that the past always offers certainty when the present has none the past being not so much another country as a safe room. As lockdown hit, our household took refuge in cosy archive telly such as The Good Life, To The Manor Born and Spaced alongside Ealing classics Passport To Pimlico, School For Scoundrels and The Titfield Thunderbolt. We wanted shows and films that reminded us of our own pasts — as children watching from the family couch as much as an imagined global history.

The rough, unsteady production values can somehow feel more human

 But as the lockdowns persisted, I realised what had started as nostalgic escapism was more than that. It was a rare chance to step back from the zeitgeist as new pop culture product ground to a relative halt and gain a bit of context. I wanted to revisit old shows I had once loved and conduct a kind of positioning exercise much as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus famously pinned down his place in the universe. I knew where we were, but where had we come from? How had those old shows changed, how had I changed and most importantly how had mass culture changed?

 Stepping back into the archive can be a lesson in what we’ve lost. There’s the stiff-lipped mythologising of a nation’s character in films such as Went The Day Well and A Night To Remember. There are the lavish arthouse films of the 80s and 90s that could risk avoiding the mainstream. There is the sense that the people onscreen looked more or less like us not gym-bunny Amazonians, but the same plain, unkempt faces that fill the average high street. Even the rough, unsteady production values can somehow feel more human than today’s glossy output.

 An instructive example of these changes arrived with the anticlimax that was the most recent series of Line of Duty. For the sake of the three people who avoided this BBC phenomenon, it concerned the increasingly convoluted investigations of a police corruption squad. At heart, it was the same premise explored by Between The Lines on BBC1 some 30 years earlier. Feeling deadened by the slick spectacle and soapy melodrama of Line of Duty, I was drawn back to what I remembered as an intelligent, progressive and often bleak drama.

 The most obvious change on returning to 1992 is, unsurprisingly, the nature of television production. On an aesthetic level, Between The Lines has the tactile, gritty glamour that film stock used to give a prestige drama. It feels very much of a piece with acknowledged classics Edge of Darkness and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

 In terms of its storytelling, there is a curious balance between space and economy. We wait with characters, we sit with them through awkward silences, but there is little dwelling on sentiment or emotion. Many of the episodes end not on a cliffhanger but on an abrupt and brutal moment of despair. If it feels more adult than its modern counterpart, it’s not because it is more violent or profane (it is often both), but rather that it assumes its audience doesn’t need to be jollied from one plot point to the next. Line of Duty may smother its script in impenetrable jargon, but its beats and messages are telegraphed with the subtlety of a Blue Peter presenter.

 Yet what has been most striking about rewatching Between The Lines is not a general shift away from British understatement towards American spectacle, but a narrowing of ideology. While the show is progressive in outlook, other voices and readings are available. The stories are socially engaged, but address issues of race, gender and power with a complexity and ambiguity that might now be considered problematic. Take the bracing episode in which a black police sergeant (the always brilliant Paterson Joseph) is accused of sexual harassment by a white woman constable. The writing denies the viewer any of the easy sympathies — not only is he guilty, but his accuser is a racist. As she puts it, does she deserve justice any less for not being a Guardian reader?

 Our hero Detective Tony Clark (Neil Pearson) is defined by his relentless, “romantic attitude” to the truth, but ultimately learns to play the system that has frustrated him. In the perfect final moments of the second series (we will not speak of the third), he finds himself on the wrong side of the interview table, reading a false statement and flipping back the taunt that has plagued him for the past 26 episodes: “Prove it”. It’s a glorious moment of pyrrhic triumph — not just for the soon-to-be-unemployed Clark, but also for the viewer. We started desperately seeking the truth and ended by celebrating a lie. 

Looking backwards provides proof of what has been gained 

By way of contrast, Line of Duty ended with the revelation (spoiler alert) that what had seemed a great conspiracy was actually just one idiot failing upwards. It was a heavily telegraphed swipe at the current PM, whose uselessness has long been his shield, but was a pat solution that dismissed complexity, rather than embracing it. Throughout Between The Lines, while the drama is powerful, the moral is frequently opaque. 

 What a thrill such ambiguity is in 2021, when a new slice of pop culture tends to be predominantly judged not on its artistic merits but on its adherence or otherwise to a particular ideology.

Ideology is, of course, usually just something that happens to other people. Detecting our own can be borderline impossible, but stepping outside of our context (in this case, back to 1992) can help make our current ideological trappings more obvious. 

 Looking backwards isn’t just about mourning a lost — possibly imagined past. It also provides proof of what has been gained. A lot of the progressive elements in Between the Lines around homosexuality, for example, now appear positively conservative. But that sort of context like complexity is anathema to social media discourse. Online, we exist only in the moment, where everything and everyone is judged according to the unique values of this singular, contextless present. What risks being lost is that sense of cultural positioningthe understanding of where we have come from, how our values have changed, and how the stories we tell have changed. 

 In the most annoying corners of the internet, the proper response is to condemn anything made prior to last week as morally suspect (if not outright dangerous), label it as irrelevant to a contemporary audience or seek to erase it from the canon (or, even better, erase the canon). But maybe the present has less to teach us than it imagines. Without the context that the past provides, the knowledge of where we all came from, progress becomes invisible.

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