Sometimes I wonder if it all ended on 2 November 1982, the night Channel 4 began. Silver Screen, the NME film and TV section, was edited by Monty Smith then – and almost everything about C4 in its first instance seemed perfectly pre-designed to suit the Silver Screen worldview. Except of course Silver Screen‘s internal logic and tone demanded a response at once slantwise and happily disrespectful. This tone was largely set by ‘On the Box’, a what-to-watch-out-for summary of coming TV schedules, which was a tiny ruled-off square of page adjusted weekly to fit available space, full of two-sentence film squibs written at speed, a dozen at most, more likely half that. As a workaround for extreme space limitation, it had begun to evolve into a kind of script, a long-running skit full of intra-office chitchat about specific personal tastes (who liked Herzog, who preferred Hitchcock), its sense of humour derived from deep expertise lightly worn. It was reacting, as often as not, against assumptions made and attitudes struck in other film publications, with authority treated more as a pratfall than a value – and its tone, smart and playful, judgmental and unfooled, helped entice you the reader into discovering more. You sensed that if you paid attention week-on-week, you got a lot more joy from it, and knowledge too [Footnote 1] .
C4 promised to screen a much wider range of films, from arthouse to cult – and was of course widely anticipated among the London cineastes that the section enjoyed mocking. All of which is maybe why NME chose to celebrate the night of the birth of this new and important platform by running a big made-up spoof list of the many films it ought to be running – none of which were actually going to feature . A joke which mainly seemed to land at the expense of exactly those it thought to amuse: the readers. The filth and the fury! Feeling dicked around with, many rang in to complain. Smith ran an apology, calling it a huge error of judgment that threatened to undermine everything he’d been working towards, and handed in his resignation .
I’ve been thinking of this absurd event since the sad news a few weeks ago of Andy Gill’s death. Gill inherited the section, and if it was never again quite as irresponsibly freestyle, it was every bit as intellectually robust – its spirit and reason survived Smith’s departure. Contributors still included Smith’s co-prankster Ian Penman (with Gill now the main straight man), plus the reliably sober Richard Cook, and Cynthia Rose as a fount of energised curiosity chasing this or that subcultural story. In terms of information and entertainment, it remained as good as or better than many far-more storied film and TV publications.
Gill had been at The Independent for 30-odd years when he died (at just 66). Much of this time he was its chief music critic, risen deservedly high in his profession. But if Silver Screen was a young man's achievement, I don’t think it’s perverse to look back and celebrate it. High-end directors and actors queued up to be featured, and it was respected across the industry, surely partly because it was always so cheerfully willing to toss rotten cabbages at bogus claims to authority . When Smith said the prank nearly undermined something that mattered, he was wrong about the undermining but not about the mattering. As a subsection with an ethos, Silver Screen was important to NME as a whole, and here’s how.
In the mid-70s a rock weekly was straightforwardly also a youth weekly – because rock itself was still young, and the notion of a generation gap was aesthetically and politically foundational for rock culture. The papers generating energy from goosing older readers, even sometimes gleefully driving them away. By the early 80s, market pressures (and strategies) were cleaving the age cohorts making up youth culture from one another, and the very idea of youth culture was beginning to splinter in social meaning. At each end of their once well defined constituency the rock papers faced a conundrum: how to attract new readers in their mid-teens (in the face of a plethora of more tightly targeted titles), and how to retain readers in their thirties and even forties. Was there a way to reconfigure the ideological clichés of the generation gap (perhaps even dispensing with the belief that it was in any sense the foundation of value) . What Silver Screen brought to the paper was a short run of pages which refused to operate as if these clichés transferred naturally from rock to film or TV. In particular, "datedness" was not considered a sin. Faced with the entirety of celluloid history – from the silent age through screwball, noir and the 60s cult backwaters – it was as happy to recommend a Saturday morning Laurel and Hardy or Tex Avery as the new Paul Schrader. Unlike rock (which began with a bump and an erasure in the mid-50s, every reach of this much longer history was meat for enthusiasm and critique, serious or teasing .
The naughtiness went hand-in-hand with the knowledge. NME’s understanding of its remit was to fashion – sometimes as scholars, sometimes hilariously – an unlikely countercultural continuity: to demonstrate that a possible "together" could exist which conjoined these various age-tranches as they negotiated the paper’s multi-purpose space. There was enormous (implausible, impossible) ambition to this cultural reach: in a magazine consciously and thoughtfully aimed at grown-ups as well as kids, there was little that couldn’t be somehow broached or discussed or explored. And perhaps somewhere here there was even a model for the working of the media of the future, music and otherwise, cultural, political, whatever. If only the centre could hold…
That the C4 prank, miscued, carried a destructive threat shows how delicate the balance was, between in-gang fun-poking and in-joke indulgence, between the fostering of reader-loyalty and abrupt slippage into alienation (especially in pages produced at speed for not much pay and a punishing weekly schedule). These were mostly young writers travelling by touch, teaching as as they discovered, and yes, sometimes the discovery was fun and read like fun, and if you the reader did the catch-up work needed to include yourself, you would indeed feel included. But if a reader found they hadn’t the means or the time to keep up (especially with so much niche-targeted media springing up to peel them away to quicker pleasures, to tug at the older, the younger, the less patient, the committed metalhead or club kid or goth or popstrel. And if it felt for a moment that you were being looked down on for not getting it, you were probably gone. Anyway, what I’m saying is that the ethos I’m sketching – and approving – was becoming hard to maintain, and much more vulnerable than it seemed to its fans (= me).
When Richard Cook died in 2007, the sadness I felt was directly personal: he was the NME editor who’d most encouraged me when I was new and shy and paralysingly uncertain of myself (scroll down for my obit). Andy Gill was a senior figure on a paper I desperately wanted to write for, but he ran a section I didn’t feel able to approach for work, and while I’m sure I chattered at him nervously – he was always a friendly and an affable presence – I never interacted with him professionally. Several mutual friends were mourning the loss of a well liked colleague when he died; the wave of melancholy I felt was more in response to something more collective, harder to define. As if the possibility of an idea and an ideal had suddenly become less easy to reconstitute. There was something profoundly attractive (to me but not just to me) about the idea of the Silver Screen gang-within-a-gang, with its shared knowledge and its sensibility, this cheeky Algonquin Circle of full-spectrum informed hubbub, of all culture high and low, daft and demanding. And yes, most magazine offices are also aggressively competitive and ruthlessly pragmatic – and yes, much of what gets delivered is only a little better than reactive guesswork with jokes added. And the pleasures of it – including the sense of loyalty and belonging – are often contradictory and easily compromised. But I believe there was more going on here – and I don't think I'm alone believing this. If such ideals as flourish even in so highly compromised a space are fragile, then all the more important to identify them, and to acknowledge them with gratitude.
1: When I interviewed NME's Charles Shaar Murray in A Hidden Landscape, he traced this technique back to Stan Lee’s approach at at Marvel comics, with every title devoting a chatty page to in-jokes and gossip and nonsense about the artists and office-workers involved. NME's experts were promising a wild strange ride through all kinds of semi-pop-cultural arcana – and an effective element in the promise was the amusing and humanising self-deprecation of those you were embarking on the adventure with.
2: At this distance the only actual title I can remember is Diva, a minor art-house hit of 1981, very stylish and of-its-moment (and quite hard to find these days).
3: I don’t have the exact quote to hand, but this was I believe the gist of it. I should note here that I’m relying almost entirely on memory for this tale and its context, and may well have got some elements wrong.
4: UK film-writing at that time was very much a battle between backward-gazing common-sense belle lettrism (think Sight and Sound as then was) and the ageing new wave of theory-kids (think Screen): one side pulled ever back to the established classics (as this idea was understood in 1980), while the other could be provocative and even inventive in what they suggested you check out beyond the classics. Neither wing was especially deft with youth pop culture; both wings, in their very different ways, could be starchy and buttoned-up prose-wise, slathering everything they loved, classic or obscure, with a needlessly unappealing self-seriousness. Obviously youth pop culture was very much the bailiwick of the rock press, though the listings mags (which shared an ancestry in the underground press) had purchase on this also, with film sections that were likely something of a model for Silver Screen, and hence rivals worth tweaking. There were often joky pokes at City Limits (Time Out's ultra-political offshoot est.1981), mocking its over- pious and humourless approach. Silver Screen was absolutely not pious – but these jokes were surely pretty hermetic for non-Londoners, and intimations of what suddenly became a problem the night C4 began broadcasting.
5: The notion of a generation gap was aesthetically and politically foundational for rock culture: but as an axiom it was always also a problem, devolving in the end towards the half-baked id-pol blather that renders today's boomer-think such a cultural nuisance. Even in the late 70s it was enough of a shaping kneejerk that post-punk (some of it) attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to demolish (or anyway deconstruct lol). Which is certainly one reason why all the pre-rock and pre-50s forms of popular music were so energetically revalorised at NME and the style-mags around this date, with jazz in particular re-emerging as something readers were encouraged to explore and care about, in all its current as well as all its past forms – rock’s great defeated pop-vanguard foe repurposed to animate a whole slew of smaller critical battles. Of course ‘generation gap’ slurry was also being pumped out all over film and television in the early 80s – but even as unaddressed ideology, it simply didn't function in the same way, which left lots of room for subversive leverage.
6: "Datedness" not a sin? Perhaps more accurate to say that different readings of what mattered in one medium's history were wittily leveraged against others. To part-quote Penman's ‘On The Box’ of 28 August 1982: “Sunday August 29: Tommy (Ken Russell 1975). One of the worst films man could possibly make, ever ever ever. ‘One of the few films I have actually walked out of,’ I remark to Andy Gill. ‘One of the many films I have never walked into,’ quips he, with Sun Ra-diant surety. (BBC2).” Here were celluloid's long-established values being leveraged to challenge and counter some of rock's more recent shibboleths (with Elvis Presley’s bad films coming in for a pasting around the same date, for the free pass they seemed always to get for their place in the “rock tradition”).