My earliest registered nightmare (circa 1971): Coming downstairs in the dark to find the TV taken over by a ghost station, broadcasting horrors for the denizens of the night.
I didn’t know then of course, that one day there would be ITV3, where monstrosities of 70s cinema flicker in their nylon negligeed, muttonchop-sideburned, tombstone-toothed lechery in an eternal digital afterlife.
One afternoon, as a change from teaching them catchphrases from The Sweeney, I forced my children to watch some of the On The Buses oeuvre (Mutiny & Holiday) as a kind of feminist warning from history and watched their jaws drop in horror. And Bob Grant (Lothario conductor Jack) went to RADA, you know.
Operation Yewtree may have forced a re-assessment of the cop-a-feel culture of 70s light entertainment, but I’m not sure as a nation torn between No More Page 3 and TOWIE we know quite what to make of the sexual licentiousness of the decade. 70s sex star biopics are everywhere. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth as Formula 1 champion James Hunt (33 airhostesses bedded in a 2 week booze and fags marathon). Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace (Deep Throat porn vamp or victim?) The terrific central performances in The Look of Love, just out on DVD, are somewhat swamped by endless irony-free photoshoot reconstructions with modern Lads’ Mag-style lovelies of Paul Raymond’s boundary-breaking Men Only magazine.
When what is most fascinating, surely, is the “erotica” industry’s weird radioactive presence in the culture of ordinary 70s British life.
My parents never went to the Raymond Revue Bar. But like many middleclass couples in the 70s did occasionally go to the Playboy Club in Mayfair for a posh night out with friends or business clients. The 8 year old me thought it was a boys’ school where grownups got to sip Babycham in the playground and go on the climbing frame at night.
Having opened the Pandora’s box of 70s memories there, too, is the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl. She climbs out of the box and once the noxious fumes of high tar Rothmans and Hai Karate aftershave have cleared I take a long good look. Her long limbed, sultry-eyed lusciousness is still spilling out of a half zipped scuba suit or a weird Navy uniform leotard. Driving to school, walking to the bus stop, there she was on giant posters everywhere, intimidating me with her full-on sexy stare.
Though like my dolls, Action Girl (Action Man’s shortlived 70s sister) and Mary Quant’s black catsuited Havoc, sometimes she was climbing into a helicopter, as if on a mission.
Was feminism somewhere in there – in dolls and media images, fighting it out with 70s ad man machismo in those loose-zipped catsuits? Madeleine Smith endures having her dress unzipped by a smirking Roger Moore with his magnetic watch (Live and Let Die 1974) but she confounds my schlocky expectations of Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) with her rather fine acting. Shakespearean actor Louise Jameson delivers action, charm and superheroine integrity as Leela in Doctor Who even while the script writers tittered and found excuses to put her in Victorian underwear (The Talons of Weng Chiang 1977) as a change from the leather bikini.
I saw Smith and Jamieson at recent Q and A screening events at the British Film Institute. Both seem to have survived the 70s in better shape than many of their male peers. Dignified, thoughtful in their answers exuding an almost zen-like calm, while Doctor Who script writers and Tom Baker apologized profusely and with sincere regret for boorish behaviour and “you wouldn’t get away with it now” attitudes. Women made the best of the roles there were, I sensed. Feminism was doing its longterm best, but in the short term it was this or no work. And 4 decades on, the men who used to run things have woken up and ruefully admitted, “it should have been better”.
I made my peace with the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl, too. For several years from the mid 90s Caroline Munro was a near neighbour. As I negotiated my own early years of new motherhood, pushing a pram, I saw her almost every day; those unmistakeable exotic eyes on a middle aged mum: in the supermarket, walking her daughter to school, signing autographs on the street for bedazzled men. Perhaps she serves to remind us to be wary of sweeping judgments about decades and attitudes. For all the horrors that lurked within the 70s, many who were there did, after all, make their peace with it and grow up just fine.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
Special thanks to the UK Peter Cushing Appreciation Society, whose website is a font of riches about Hammer Films.