A slightly irreverent look at a decade which spawned the internet, Cones Hotline and Gladiators
In the 1980s, local and national radio stations’ Golden Hour/Solid Gold Hour/whatever type of Golden Oldies slot would have focused on the 1950s and 1960s. Which was 20 – 30 years ago. Fast forwarding to 2013, the music of 20 – 30 years ago would include early Take That, the Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama and Duran Duran. The people who were nostalgic for Manfred Mann or The Beatles in 1983 may well have been in their 20s – 30s. Today they would have children who have flown the nest. Today’s twenty to thirty somethings may well be similarly nostalgic over the Shamen, East 17, and Boyzone.
They may have watched Nickelodeon in their formative years, jerked off to Jet or Pamela Anderson, or did the full compliment of National Curriculum tests. The social history of Generation Y (or late Generation X types like yours truly here) seems to have been neglected. It was this reason which spawned a blog post, dreamt up from nowhere via the usual sources (walking my dog, or as a sudden brain fart on the 343 to Chez Vall).
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America On Line:
By the tail end of the 1990s, we experienced a boon in the number of internet businesses, and saw the seeds sown for today’s multinational giants like Google, Amazon and eBay. With the internet seen as big and scary place for some families, America On Line gave many users a first taste of the World Wide Web, though with a safety net and stabilisers. Adorning many a letterbox at the fag end of the 1990s, and start of the noughties were the plethora of free AOL CDs. Other companies like Freeserve followed suit. Meanwhile, web averse Britons found the AOL discs most useful as cheap cup coasters.
how could we forget Noel’s House Party in any round-up of 1990s popular culture? Among the features on the popular BBC One Saturday programme was the Gotcha Oscars, whereby a celebrity would have been caught doing something daft (a bit like Beadle’s About or Candid Camera), then be given a Gotcha Oscar from Noel Edmonds himself. The most seminal ones involved the rotund and clumsy Mr Blobby, who would also muck about in the programme itself (and – indirectly – muck about with Happy Mount Park, Morecambe). Sadly, Blobbymania became a bit of a muchness with BBC Enterprises finding the character a bankable asset (soft drinks and a Christmas Number One single), and Noel’s House Party was canned in 1999.
Coca Cola Wannabes:
1994 – 95 saw a uniquely British cola war. Whereas for the best part of a century it had been between Pepsi and Coca Cola, the UK’s was against supermarket own brands. Sainsbury’s sensed blood when their Classic Cola had a can design similar to the Atlantan beverage. Then Virgin and Woolworth’s even got in on the act.
Janet Street-Porter’s ‘Yoof TV’ project offered a number of teen-friendly programmes through BBC Two’s DEF II slot. Programmes included Dance Energy, Standing Room Only, and Cyberzone.
In 1992, the BBC thought they had a winning formula with their ‘Sun, Sex and Sangria’ soap. Given that the often successful Tony Holland and Julia Smith (of Angels and EastEnders fame) would produce it, they felt they would have a hit. Instead, their first episode on July 1992 was panned and got the same hostile press coverage Coronation Street did in December 1960. Though viewing figures picked up by Spring 1993 – thanks to more dramatic storylines – a change of BBC Director General (to Alan Yentob) saw the soap’s demise.
Though the genius of Andrew Brownsword in the late 1980s, it was Hallmark’s purchase of the rights to his creation which put his adult and child friendly bears on the map. By the mid 1990s, they would be seen on wrapping paper, greetings cards, and as ornaments.
‘Can you feel the power of the Gladiators…’ trilled London Weekend Television’s hugely successful take on the American Gladiators format. Over an hour on Saturday teatimes, we would see the likes of Shadow, Jet, Nightshade or Wolf doing battle with giant cotton buds, climbing walls and the like against challengers. Continuity came via Ulrika Jonsson and John Fashanu, with John Sachs behind the commentators’ mike. The programme continued in to the noughties and has spawned a remake on Sky One in recent years.
Not the Aaron Spelling production, but BBC’s 1998 docusoap which was set in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. It, along with Driving School before then and Airport shortly after, made employees brief stars and spawned numerous other docusoaps on most terrestrial and satellite channels. Today, Lion Television (who produced the thing) is better known for Homes Under The Hammer, a staple of BBC One’s daytime schedules since 2003.
Independent National Radio Stations:
The start of the 1990s saw the rise of new commercial stations with a national base. Before licences were awarded to the new breed of commercial stations, there had been equivalents broadcasted from the Royal Duchy of Luxembourg (no prizes for guessing which station that’ll be) and the Republic of Ireland (Atlantic 252). The new wave included Classic FM, Talk Radio (now Talk Sport) and Virgin 1215. Today, they peacefully coexist with the BBC on analogue and digital wavelengths. Originally, the aim was to provide competition for the BBC.
Still pretty much part of the televisual furniture today. Maybe more so with his own Parkinson meets Letterman style programme on ITV, where he has crossed the cult popularity/mass appeal rubicon. The mid to late 1990s, mostly through his Planet X production company, saw him feature on both BBC and ITV channels.
Kit Kat Chunky:
Peter Kay might claim Garlic Bread as a taste sensation, but top of the list for most chocolate fanatics was the Kit Kat Chunky. Its launch in March 1999 caused a stir owing to its thicker than usual chocolate. Today, it is available in peanut and mint flavours as well as original. And each bar remains as moreish today as it did in ’99.
Lotto (or the National Lottery as it was originally known as):
The fickle finger of fate, which never seemed to have shouted ‘It’s You’ over Chez Vall, would darken our TV screens by October 1994. The first National Lottery draw took place on the 12 November 1994 with an hour long special hosted by Noel Edmonds. Subsequent draws travelled to theatres up and down the country with Anthea Turner and Gordon Kennedy its first presenters. The best part of the draw for me was Mystic Meg predicting who would win that night’s jackpot.
You can define one person’s memories of breakfast television by the exercise instructor they remember most. I remember Lizzie Webb being a Child of the 1980s, but her replacement on GMTV (as TV-am lost the franchise on New Year’s Eve 1992), was a muscular male who seemed to have wondered everywhere with his baseball cap on. Mr Motivator (or Derrick Evans as he is known to his mother), would offer slightly more intensive workouts with faster music. With the present coronavirus pandemic (March 2020 to date), he has muscled in on the Zoom-based fitness video scheme a la Joe Wicks.
The cool kids’ children’s channel whose UK service was launched in 1993. With edgier yet child friendly programming, animated features like the Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life put the channel on the map. Its unique live action features such as Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Clarissa Explains It All were also popular with many viewers and stations for several years. The later part of the 1990s would see Nickelodeon’s output seen on the UK’s terrestrial channels.
Own Brand No-Frills Items:
Though Fine Fare and Quinnsworth (in Ireland) were first with their Yellow Branded items, the no-frills market came into its own during the 1990s recession. Kwik Save went a step further by selling its bargain basement own brand items on a white ‘No Frills’ label. Morrisons’ response came courtesy of Coronation Street‘s fictitious supermarket chain managed by Reg Holdsworth (‘Bettabuy’). Nowadays, no major superstore chain can do without an economy line; even the exemplar of bargain-basement retail ALDI has one to call its own.
The 1990s would be synonymous with Nintendo Gameboys and Sega Mega Drives, but the ‘must have’ toy of 1994 was a set of cardboard discs, which would be traded at school playgrounds like football stickers.
The thinking man’s New Musical Express was a popular read among musos in the 1990s. It offered broadsheet style analysis of the latest acts and releases. The impact of EMAP’s monthly magazine led to the beefing up of music and video sections in quality newspapers.
Robson and Jerome:
Two affable Geordie actors became unlikely singing stars in 1995, thanks to a certain Louis Walsh (who would later inflict Westlife on us all). After a successful innings on Soldier Soldier, their cover versions of I Believe, Unchained Melody and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted became UK Number One singles. Their album, Take Two, also topped the UK album charts.
Didn’t know whether to wear a skirt or trousers? This fashion fad from the late 1990s combined the two, and was fashionable for about 10 minutes in 1999. In more recent times, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson has been seen wearing this sartorially-challenged garment.
Thanks to the success of Granada Television’s Stars In Their Eyes, the least hippest yet most popular art form went stratospheric and reached a high water mark throughout the early 1990s. For many people, seeing a tribute act remains a most affordable and accessible way of enjoying their favourite band’s music. Some I’ve seen myself are that faithful to the original act to a point where they could be mistaken for the original artistes (if you see a poster for Mercury at your local theatre, book early as possible; they are probably the best Queen tribute act anywhere on the cosmos).
The underground rave scene began properly in the mid to late 1980s, with warehouses turned into makeshift clubs. The 1994 Criminal Justice Bill saw a new threat to that pastime: sections 63 – 67 had reference to ‘music of repetitive beats’ – in other words, rave, techno and hardcore music. Indirectly, it led to the rise of more commodified Superclubs like Cream and Gatecrasher. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc, some people have had illicit raves, getting a well-deserved brush with the law.
Sometime in the early 1990s, it was thought that people running about with clunky headsets would have been the future of video gaming, through 3D virtual worlds. How wrong we were as twenty years on, today’s consoles surpass the polygon graphics from the clunky headset. Today, people also yearn for simple video games, a la 8 bit style on smartphones. Our smartphones (with your own clunky headset) can also do virtual reality these days, only with more sophisticated graphics.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?:
At one point, 20 million did as Chris Tarrant’s quiz show proved to be a ratings smash for ITV and a nice little earner for Celador Productions. Its multiple choice questions and process of elimination for choosing contestants came from Raise The Roof (a modern take on Double Your Money presented by the late Bob Holness) and Everybody’s Equal (ironically another Chris Tarrant show). Shortly after its launch, it was claimed by TV executives as an ‘Exocet missile’ due to its high ratings. It also spawned a bastard offspring of game shows with big cash prizes and dimly lit sets (step forth The Weakest Link and The Chase)
Cue the creepy Mark Snow signature tune… The X Files was a smash on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and made stars out of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. It also tapped into Britons’ thirst for all things paranormal. Without which, Most Haunted may not have been commissioned.
You’ve Been Framed:
Still a staple of ITV’s programming, its cheap and cheerful collection of camcorder catastrophes began on the 21 July 1990 fronted by the late great Jeremy Beadle. The original series had an audience gallery and a star price for the funniest clip shown that Saturday. That was subject to an audience vote using interactive keypads (also used on Stars In Their Eyes). Today, it has binned the audience gallery, replaced by Whitstable’s finest comedian, Harry Hill on voiceover. That had not only ensured its future but also reversed falling viewing figures (after Jeremy Beadle’s succession by Lisa Riley and Jonathan Wilkes). As times have changed since 1990, mobile video clips have become a popular part of the show.
The Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum had Dizzy, Sega was indelibly linked with Sonic the Hedgehog, but the Amiga never had a definable video gaming character as such. In 1992, Gremlin Graphics launched a fast multidirectional scrolling platform entitled Zool. It had modest success and even gained ports for the Amiga 1200 and Amiga CD32 console.
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Still Stuck in the 1990s?
Feel free to comment on the 26 examples of 1990s popular culture, or suggest a few others.
S.V., 07 April 2013.
Revamped in the 2020s on the 19 February 2021.