Jackie: A Girl’s Best Friend
Monday, April 9, 2007 by Paul Stump
Dear Cathy and Claire, this is not an easy letter to write. I fancy this programme on TV and so want to write about it. Please help!!!! Yours, a confused boy.
Yes, I’ve a problem. And as the Hotspur and Shoot didn’t have agony aunts, far less the Beano, where else did a bumfluffed ado turn in the late 1970s? But boys didn’t have problems then. Girls did.
This documentary on the heyday of Messrs DC Thomson’s magazine Jackie was akin to wolfing down an entire box of Guylians. Comfort food, not too exclusive, can just manage it. Similarly this was comfort TV, intelligence without braininess. It could have been a mere collection of dullard talking heads. We got a few of them, but most of what they said made more sense than usual, and it said as much about the media as dopily evoking a lost world of training bras and Strawberry Shortcake and Robin Gibb and kissproofing.
There were glimpses of drably horrid emotional and material privation. One letter to Cathy and Claire – the magazine’s legendary agony aunts/big sisses – raged against parents who “couldn’t afford to buy a telephone”. Another contained a phial of urine, so desperate was the sender to sidestep the shame of teenage pregnancy. It was, as one staffer put it, “their only port in a storm”. One wants to weep.
The adolescent media preys on hormonal disturbance, on what Martin Amis once perceptively called, “Damp, adoring need”. Why else should this market still be an advertiser’s Holy Grail?
What was omitted was any opinion that Jackie’s take on adolescence was in any way a bad thing. The problem with adolescent media then as now was the sense, perceived only in later life, that they were de facto training manuals, enculturations. Shoot trained boys to read football as a linguistic prism, through which the world was one where people would blast or storm when upset. Headlines like “Billy Bremner – The Night I Had Murder On My Mind” prepared one for accepting a tabloid-mediatised cosmos. Nobody talks like that in real life; but using tabloid shorthand helps cretinize us into thinking they do, and thinking in similarly circumscribed ways. Similarly Jackie had its own constructions of language (“Dishy” was a favourite) and its own goals for its readers.
Some of the celebrity witnesses on this show (why celebs? The David Cassidy Fan Club, none of whose wattles were a day under 40, were much more fun) recounted the magazine’s obsession with propriety and marriage. Then there was the horoscopes. Pseudo-science: “If he has a square head, it means he wants to change the shape of the world” – absolute shit, and the people who made this up gleefully admitted as much. Is this the Frankie Frazer syndrome, where crimes committed 30+ years ago are absolved into larks by a time limit? This show made lively and convincing TV to persuade us that Jackie was a formative influence – Myskow, Carroll, Jacqueline Wilson, ex-Thomsonites all, significantly moved into the upper media echelons from Jackie. Shouldn’t these people be a little bit ashamed of what they did, what they made, and how what they made made of them?
Er … there was Myskow, former Jackie editor, sitting in state like the Queen of Hearts in retirement at Theydon Bois. At least she and Wilson, another ex-staffer, showed a trace of contrition and awareness of their deeds. Not so Sue Carroll, a colour that suggested not so much perma-tan as a Burmese army torturer with a blowlamp. She made George Hamilton look Finn-pale. God, she made fellow-contributor Trisha Goddard look pale.
Why else, save for terminal thickness or masterful manipulation, would the magazine’s target audience, and presumably that of this programme, take seriously the likes of the awful Michelle Collins? Or Fiona Bruce? Or shell out money on Closer? Who made them like this? Jackie did, sure as fortysomething slapheads, Clarksonites and members of Fathers4Justice still view the world through the crosshairs of Dredger and Hellman of Hammer Force.
The present writer’s theory is that many of the UK’s postwar ills can be laid at the scrubbed doorstep of DC Thomson, shapers of the world for untold millions of children. The comic arm of the Wee Frees, a dingy bastion of dingy Dundee, it was stridently and unapologetically illiberal, anti-union, provincial and small minded (abroad was a land of spies and whores where they said things like dratski and caramba!) mean and antediluvian in morals and thought-processes (so mean they used rubbish illustrators instead of photographers when it suited the company purse). If Adolf had won, it would have bid to produce an Anglophonic translation of Julius Streicher’s periodical Der Sturmer and the party organ Volkischer Beobachter. It was therefore ideally placed to bring to the tinies the virtues of thrift and chastity and prejudice, the lardy cake reality of make-do, pictured in Ivor Cutler’s Life in a Scottish Sitting Room which so underpinned British life post-45. How the Bash Street Kids snuck into this fortress is unknown.
The programme adopted a well-gauged tone, conceived by someone who had the magazine’s number. Conscientious but romantic, head in the sky, feet on the ground, you know the drill. But this post-fem indulgence of oppressive ideologies can only get you so far. What wasn’t given nearly enough space was the charge that Jackie was gynophobic from the off. Significantly, Thomsonite boss Gordon Small’s pinched Lowlands accent, more suited to the pulpit than the composing room, was the first one heard on the subject of sex. How many lives did DC Thomson’s photo-story ruin? This puritanical ostracism of hormonal drives contrasts bluntly with teen literature on the mainland of Europe (the excuse was, of course, that the Germans and Danes and French were all sex mad). But this absurd oversight fucked people over, genuinely, irrevocably, in ways that can’t be undone by a dollop of post-fem giggly irony about how watching the Chippendales can be empowering.
Props and research departments earned their corn, with plenty of feathers and stack heels (memo to producer – why no Wombles?). There was no Janet Street-Porter or Jenny Éclair, which must necessarily improve anything. There wasn’t the fetishisation of the past, making an object of it. Those are essentially male issues of control. The psyche of teenage girls was probed with less shallowness than one might have expected, but wasn’t that depth part of what it meant to be female and young back then? It’s what attracted the boys – me, anyway. Girls didn’t bother with contingent and pointless things, like identifying the green double-decker in one marvellous piece of archive as AN11, a London Country Leyland Atlantean PDR1/1A of Stevenage garage (depot code; SV). The disdain of such nonsense is what made girls special. This is what they were never told made them special.
Sad, then, to see insight not extending to a comparative study of what made girls and boys different, and also how those differences were reinforced by the discourse of their reading matter. The presence of Trevor and Simon as spokesmen for blokes was a poor move, albeit one which performed the minor service of proving that these two saddos seem to have achieved the major feat of being even less funny than they were in their Saturday Superstore “pomp”.
Like its intended constituency, this had not a supermodel’s allure, and neither did it wear bottle-bottom NHS bins. It got it right, most of the time. It kept its hand on its penny, as mums would have said back in the mag’s youth. In sum, rewarding and deserving workaday TV, of which there is too little of any quality at all.
One other thing, though. If I remember rightly, it wasn’t just Donny vs David; Michael Jackson was in the fantasy mix, too, wasn’t he? Or is this me being insufferably boyish?
Dear Cathy and Claire, there’s this boy who’s really nice, but he ain’t half picky …