Saturday, 27 February 2021

The London Weekend Show

The heartbeat of youth culture in the 21st century is the internet; it's a luxury that previous generations could have only dreamed of. This isn't to say they lacked the necessary cultural harbingers, there was still Radio 1, Smash Hits, NME and all manner of television strands dedicated to youth culture. But the precision with which every idiosyncrasy, of every individual, could be engaged was way off. Now, however, there's a YouTube channel, Twitter feed, blog or Instagram account for any whim that's ever fermented in a teenage bedroom. It's a seismic shift in dynamics and technology which has obliterated the monoculture right down to its foundations. It's even made the architects redundant.

Television programmes, in 2021, that are dedicated to youth culture are virtually extinct. But these prehistoric beasts, all currently becoming fossilised in various archives, provide a wealth of detail about the society of our recent past. And, at least for anyone who regularly loads up Curious British Telly, there's an intoxicating hit lurking within these programmes. The vibrancy of youth, juxtaposed with its various challenges, makes for an engrossing brand of social analysis. One of the finest examples of this is The London Weekend Show.

The first appearance on The London Weekend Show in the television schedules was during the summer of 1975, but it only appeared in the listings for one ITV region. And, as you must have surely guessed, its sole occupancy was in the LWT region. Just over 130 episodes of The London Weekend Show were produced over the course of four series (ending in 1979), all of which were presented by Janet Street-Porter. The programme was one of Street-Porter's earliest forays into television. And it tells. At least, it does at first. The earliest episodes, which are heavy on studio-based features, find Street-Porter exhibiting a subdued performance compared to the forthright style which has since made her famous. But, you know, it's early days in front of the camera for Street-Porter here; the odd stumble and fluffed line is to be expected. The journalistic instinct, however, is there and she soon relaxes into the role.

The London Weekend Show, of course, is very London-centric, so you can see why it only aired where it was possible to simultaneously bathe in the Thames as you were served pie and mash (pile on the liquor, mate). The youth of, for example, deepest Manchester would have been unable to generate much enthusiasm towards the discussion of which burger bar in London was the best. And especially at those prices - 71p for burger and fries in Fulham's Great American Disaster?! You could buy five pounds worth of eccles cake for that in Sale! Nonetheless, while almost all of the location filming in The London Weekend Show takes place in London, the majority of themes share a universal scope regardless of whether you're a youngster living in Brixton or Bridlington. And The London Weekend Show leaves no stone unturned in its journalistic pursuit.

Thanks to The London Weekend Show having a significant run, it manages to tackle a mindboggling range of subjects. The latter half of the 1970s was a turbulent time for Britain and these challenges were acutely felt by its young population. One of the most defining moments of youth culture in the 1970s came with the emergence of punk. And The London Weekend Show not only got there early, but explored it with vigour. A November 1976 episode, airing a week before the infamous Bill Grundy incident, finds Street-Porter heading to Soho's Notre Dame Hall to cover The Sex Pistols. Amindst a wave of bin liner outfits and safety pins, Street-Porter interviews both the audience members and the band who are on irresistibly spiky and hilarious form. Later episodes throughout the series tenure explore the catalyst that punk has provided to revitalise the King's Road and time is also made to catch up with Sham 69 in 1979. The archive footage in these features is of historic cultural value and quite remarkable, but there's much more to The London Weekend Show than punk.

Teenagers and young adults may exude insouciance in biblical proportions that threaten to drown them, but, thankfully, The London Weekend Show is on hand to gather together the topics affecting them. And, given the turbulence experienced in the world over the last five years, the prescience contained within the episodes is startling. A look at the lives of black youths in 1976 highlights the prejudices experienced by black people and is the driving force behind many of them yearning to return to their ancestral homes. Youth unemployment is put under the microscope and dissected on several occasions whilst time is allocated to politicised subjects such as abortions, student grants and the contemporary laws surrounding homosexuality. Again, these discourses are treasure chests of societal landscapes and the footage, featuring swathes of London before gentrification kicked in, provides a murky peek into a past slipping ever further away.

The series certainly develops as time goes on, an early episode finishes with Thin Lizzy playing out the show as Joe Brown chases Street-Porter around the studio with a dead eel, but even these beginnings of the series are fascinating. One episode is dedicated to jeans and, to someone not born until the early-1980s, it's difficult to comprehend jeans as a new phenomenon. But in 1975 they were, with only 15 companies in the UK producing jeans. Different times indeed, but certain aspects covered throughout the series are timeless in their accuracy and appeal; the most notable evidence of this comes in the 1978 profile of David Bowie. Filmed around the Earls Court arena before one of his concerts, the episode is a touching profile of an established artist with plenty still to prove. And this is underlined by many of the fanatical Bowie lookalikes queuing up outside and falling over themselves to venerate his name as a force for artistic expression. And Street-Porter even manages to catch up with the great man backstage - what more could you want?

If I'm being completely objective, The London Weekend Show probably holds little appeal for the majority of people in 2021. Only a handful of cultural enthusiasts and researchers are ever going to be intrigued by its contents, so it's unlikely that a Blu-ray boxset will be forthcoming and it would be a miracle for BritBox to start streaming the series. Snippets and a few episodes are available on YouTube if you're after a taster, but the BFI hold a substantial number of episodes if you want more. And, as for whether a similar programme could work today, I think it could. Naturally, its audience share would be low due to the online competition, but young people face enough hardships in the 2020s to make it a viable proposition.

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