Sunday Reflections #2

So, last Sunday I looked at getting up and getting off to a lazy start, and this Sunday I’m going to look at a short-lived but fondly-remembered highlight of my Sunday mornings (well, early afternoons, anyway). That bright spot in my memory is Channel 4’s “Network 7”, a youth-oriented news, current affairs and entertainment show that ran for two seasons in 1987 and 1988. It was aimed at the 18 to 30-ish age group. I was actually only twelve when it first aired, but my sister was 20, and she was quite excited about it. I remember settling down in my living room to watch the first episode with her. Here’s a clip of it.

I had seen the future!

I think it’s probably fair to say that the TV schedules of the mid-80s were dominated by shows made by, and for, middle-aged men. There was stuff for “housewives” on during the day midweek, and there was stuff aimed at kids and families, but “young people” (however you define them) never really got much. I remember feeling constantly short-changed by TV as I grew up, because there was a massive gap between TV aimed at children and mainstream adult audiences. Blue Peter tended to be OK, at least some of the time, but usually stuck to dull and worthy subjects. Newsround made an effort to keep kids informed, but could be quite simplistic and only covered very child-friendly stories. Music and entertainment shows tended to cover very safe, mainstream acts who got high in the charts. At weekends, TV schedules were wall-to-wall sport, which bored me senseless. So…Network 7 was exciting. I was too young for it, really, but it seemed like someone had finally twigged that there was a need for TV shows aimed at an age group most people in the business ignored consistently.

Network 7 was there at the beginning of the sort of TV that MTV popularised – it was all quite chaotic, broadcast live so anything could happen, using young, inexperienced (and occasionally shockingly bad) presenters, with crazy camera angles, the picture bombarded with captions, jumping from piece to piece at a frenetic pace. It was absolutely, unashamedly youth-friendly, and I believe that during its entire run, not a single person over 30 appeared in the studio.

It was enough to hook me – I remember watching that first piece, about cash card cloning, wide-eyed with wonder, amazed that someone was getting away with broadcasting this stuff. Although the show deliberately courted controversy and revelled in the publicity it brought them, and could sometimes be a bit exploitative and voyeuristic, it never felt patronising (at least not to me back in the day, anyway).

One thing Network 7 pioneered was interaction. The audience in the studio were regularly interviewed and involved in things, and there were phone polls on controversial subjects – a death row prisoner was interviewed, and the viewers invited to vote on whether he should die (they condemned him by a narrow margin). The internet was still at least a decade away for most people, so this was one of the few ways young people could debate and engage with the big topics of the day. Here’s a (typically fast and manic) highlights reel.

For a bit of comedic light relief, we had Dick Spanner, produced by Gerry Anderson, although nothing like any of his other work!

All of this came from a converted banana warehouse in London’s Docklands, filled with caravans which acted as little studios for the presenters, such as Magenta Devine, who truly proved one of the best of the bunch. She was pretty much unflappable and dealt effortlessly with difficult guests, later moving on to Def II when Network 7’s producer, Janet Street-Porter, was poached by the BBC.

Network 7 piqued my interest in Docklands, actually – this previously derelict area of London was transformed into a gleaming modern metropolis in just a few years. The Docklands Light Railway opened in August 1987, and I remember riding its futuristic driverless trains wide-eyed with wonder. The Network 7 studio (helpfully identified with a giant logo on the side of the building) was visible from passing trains. The area I lived in at the time was a bastion of suburban dullness and conservatism, and Docklands felt like a different and considerably more exciting world, full of possibilities. Sadly it’s now bit of a corporate hellhole, with the studio long-since demolished and replaced by Canary Wharf’s biggest skyscraper.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the cultural landscape was pretty prehistoric back then. Although the eighties were a time of dramatic change in some ways – technology marched on very quickly indeed, with music, fashion, culture, politics and work (or lack thereof) changing beyond all recognition – in other ways it was a gruesomely backwards time. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister for the entire decade, and her government was dominated by an authoritarian social conservatism that made life really grim for a lot of people. It’s not that long ago, but a lot of ideas that are now widely accepted were really out-there and radical at the time.

One of Network 7’s most controversial moments was live coverage of “the wedding of an Italian couple”, as the voiceover at the beginning of the show told us. It turned out that both members of the couple were men, and coverage of this gay “wedding” caused an outcry. I use inverted commas because, of course, gay weddings were illegal at the time, so the ceremony wasn’t valid. Even civil partnerships were way into the future. At the time, relationships between gay men in the UK had only been legal for 21 years, and they had none of the protections that straight couples had. The age of consent for gay men was 21 until well into the nineties. Back then, if you were in a same-sex relationship, and financially dependent on your partner, you were absolutely screwed if they died suddenly – it was highly likely you’d lose everything, including your home. It was brave of Network 7 to highlight this, and the fallout was insane – a prominent Tory MP massively lost his shit and wrote angry letters of protest to just about all the papers. Gay people really were the bogeymen du jour at the time, with a considerable moral panic around them. These were the days of AIDS paranoia, and Section 28. Network 7 came along and seriously questioned society’s attitudes, challenging prejudices and the lack of protections gay people had at the time.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough to stop me being a raging homophobe in my twenties, but that was more the fault of the church than anything else, and I’m pleased to say I’ve repented of this particular sin.

Network 7 had bad moments too – I remember watching Kylie Minogue squirm awkwardly in an interview as she was asked rude questions about her weight and appearance, and there were some unfortunate public humiliations on-screen as people were shown up and exposed live on TV. But generally it hit the right note. I was very sad to see it go after its very short life, but it probably did what it needed to do – it demonstrated a viability for “yoof TV” in a world where young people were often denied a creative voice and outlet. The BBC picked up the baton with Def II, which covered similar ground, although no longer on Sundays and perhaps in a slicker, less deliberately provocative way (“Reportage” dealt with similar stories, and I was a fan later on when I finally hit the intended demographic).

Channel 4 graduated on to “The Word”, which proved to be both wildly popular and hugely controversial – who remembers the “I’d do anything to be on TV” segments? They also made “The Big Breakfast”, which was almost entirely entertainment-based and quite fluffy, but was a wonderful antidote to the stodgy news-based shows on other channels in the morning. It’s difficult to identify a “son of Network 7” these days, as the target demographic of the show has been the first to largely abandon traditional broadcast media. BBC3 was created for young adults, but struggled to maintain viewers. It was taken off broadcast platforms and moved online for several years. It’s now back as a conventional TV channel, but barely anyone seemed to notice. I can’t remember the last time my kids watched live TV.

I think there’s possibly been a big demographic shift since the eighties, which has made Network 7’s target audience harder to pin down and serve effectively. I’m currently 47 years old, the same age that my mum was when Network 7 first aired. Back then, the gulf between my age group and hers felt absolutely enormous. We were light years apart in many ways, with her deep social conservatism feeling like a void between us. We would never have similar views or reach a consensus on anything. Fast forward to now, when I have three kids in the house in their early twenties, and we agree on loads of stuff. There’s a huge range of issues where there’s barely any divergence of opinion, and I have common cultural interests with all of them. We like a lot of the same music, the same TV shows, the same films and the same popular culture. We’ve been to festivals and concerts together. That never tended to happen in the past, and I think that gradual eroding of hostility between generations has been a very good thing. I certainly feel I have a much better relationship with my kids than my parents did with me, back in the days when we just mystified and offended each other. My dad was a working-class Tory, which I’ve never been able to even remotely understand.

We won’t see the likes of Network 7 again, but I’m glad I was there to witness it, and had my Sunday afternoons sorted.

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