The 1970s Unzipped

NLCS purse

Recently I wrote that the BBC appears to be run by a bunch of 70s obsessives with dubious taste in music. Little did I suspect that BBC2 was about to join the party and — in the words of TV Choice magazine — whisk us back to the “decade of strikes, spacehoppers and Star Wars.”

Historian Dominic Sandbrook’s new series, The 70s, starts on BBC2 on Monday, and I for one will be tuning in to hear his take on what I call The Brown Decade. Perhaps I’m guilty of the kind of muddled thinking that afflicts BBC programme-makers, but my memories of that decade will forever be swathed in brown dralon, baggy oatmeal jumpers and mustard-coloured wallpaper.

It’s not simply that I’ve wasted too many hours watching repeats of The Good Life — surely one of the brownest sitcoms ever to grace our screens. Between 1975-82 I was a pupil at North London Collegiate School, located in Edgware, a drab north London suburb. Our school uniform, which was compulsory up until the Sixth Form, was mainly brown and came from a shop called Pullens in nearby Stanmore. I think it’s fair to say that those annual trips to Pullens with my Mum were only marginally less painful than visits to my (inconveniently located) orthodontist in south London.

The NLCS garb wasn’t the ugliest or worst-designed school uniform I’ve ever seen, but it has left me with mixed feelings about the merits of brown clothing. Does anyone really look good in it? Novak Djokovic sported a ghastly brown Tacchini ensemble in 2011, which did nothing to offset the effect of his “loo-brush” hairstyle. (I guess that’s what people mean by “winning ugly”.) I do own some brown cord trousers, but if you ever see me teaming them with a matching jumper, it probably signals the onset of a serious depression or a catastrophic lapse in taste.

It wasn’t all bad: we NLCS girls may have been desperate to get into stripes, polka dots or flaming red, but at least we all had one genuine cool accessory in the shape of the NLCS sling purse. It was brown, with gold lettering (see above) and was handy for storing wads of tissues, “emergency” money, keys and sweets. This design classic is still available from the John Lewis website, price £9.00. Sadly, these days it comes in 100 per cent “sponge clean” polyester and features the school logo — a rather naff-looking ship.

It will be hard to sell the 70s as a period of technological innovation to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade in a Tibetan monastery.

The zip on my own recently unearthed NLCS sling purse is stuck, which rules it out of contention as my next iPhone case. (It is the perfect size, though.) When I posted a picture of it on Facebook yesterday, several former classmates from the class of ’82 were moved to share their memories of school days in the low-tech 70s.

In today’s Telegraph, Dominic Sandbrook explains that his new show will re-evaluate the 70s as a period that was “much more exciting” than we remember. He reminds us that consumers were “rushing to get their first colour televisions” so that they could watch horsey Princess Anne marry dim bulb Captain Mark Phillips in 1973. But it will be hard to sell the 70s as a period of technological innovation to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade in a Tibetan monastery.

I also question Sandbrook’s reference to our ongoing “love affair with credit”, given that we’re now living in a (nearly) Bankrupt Britain, still afflicted by toxic levels of personal and national debt. Sorry, but I don’t think I’m ready to get teary-eyed over the thought of wallets stuffed with Access, Visa and Diner’s Club cards.

So when I watch The 70s on Monday I’ll probably resist being crushed under the wheels of the BBC nostalgia train. Instead, I’ll clutch my NLCS purse and think of my former classmates, now scattered far and wide but brought together again through the auspices of Facebook.

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