The Wretched Timesheeters

I watched Anything More Would Be Greedy, the 6-part drama series shown on ITV in the summer of 1989, telling the stories of 6 friends over the previous 15 years. I saw 1 episode on first broadcast.

The script was written by Malcolm Bradbury, the academic and novelist who had a great success with The History Man in the 70s. That was also adapted into a TV series with Anthony Sher in 1980. It was about a world that was already passing away: left-wing sociology lecturers, pandering to radical students yet already failing to keep up with them, and losing heart in it all. The pay-off line from that story announced that its central character had voted Conservative in 1979.

Anything More Would Be Greedy attempted to chart the shifting attitudes from 70s to 80s. The title was apparently taken from an advert for a share floatation. There is narration at regular intervals by Simon Cadell, in addition to quick recaps at the starts of episodes.

NARRATOR: This is the story of the New British, the New Britain. In the summer of 1973, the Swinging Sixties ended and the Serious Seventies began. The Oil Crisis came, property speculation grew wild, and young people stopped saying “Never trust anyone over 30” and started saying “I want to be a millionaire by 30”.

The title sequence shows 6 different lines rising on a financial chart at different rates, then colliding with the title. They twist together like electrical cable, before turning into snakes snapping and each other and severing their own necks.

We start at Cambridge in 1973, at “St. Benedicts College” portrayed by Fitzwilliam College, which matches it as a modern college only established in 1960 and with only 1 Master so far, an old veteran of Alan Turing’s team working on the Ultra decryption and a pioneer of computing. Our 6 anti-heroes are:

Peter Vickery, physics graduate from Hull now down here to work on a PhD on lasers, but also heavily involved in the computer research going on in the science departments, with professors Shilling and Nuttall.

Jonquil Harmer, his girlfriend. She brings with her a dad who is a farmer, with plenty of savings and spare land to support a business that the 2 youngsters may build up together.

Lynn Hart, law student and current love interest of…

…Economics student Mark Golan:

Also friendly with the gang is American student Anna Wynant.

And they all know the supreme Tory smoothie, law student Dennis Medlam:

We start in June, with everyone ready to enjoy the May Ball. Mark is mulling whether to tell Lynn about the prize he has won, which gets him in to Harvard Business School. Then Dennis does the first of many nasty manoeuvres, spilling the beans and causing a rearrangement: Lynn leaves Mark and goes out with Dennis, whilst Dennis loses Anna who then marries Mark, and follows him over to America, where he soon prospers in the corporate management world of Dartram and its Defense contracts.

Peter and Jonquil are deeply involved in the new computer businesses that have spun out of the university in Cambridge. We now have one of those newsdumps that occur throughout this series: a sequence of headlines and footage, whilst the Narrator fills in the national story, sometimes with the public voices dropping in as well.

NARRATOR: In 1978, everyone was talking “hi-tech”. Mr Callaghan announced 2 programmes for the British microchip industry. Trade unionists saw little pieces of silicon waiting to take over their jobs. That was the summer of the Micro Men.

The firm Peter is involved with picks up some of the new money going around. Although Malcolm Bradbury certainly knew the world of academic meetings and intrigues in The History Man, this story takes him into many new fields that he could only have researched, not known, and it certainly comes across in many scenes in which schemes and negotiations are clipped and truncated into absurdly quick interactions, and business deals struck on the spot. But never mind, it’s as realistic as it needs to be. Slightly more worrisome are the references to “hi-tech” and “Silicon Valley” in 1978 – were the expressions already in use? The former certainly was, but I think the latter only got wider recognition in the 80s. However I suppose we can assume that men already involved with computers would know what it meant.

Hmm, was this model of Commodore PET available in 1978? It would be the very latest machine if it was. Never mind.

Meanwhile Dennis has made rapid progress in his law career and got himself selected as a Conservative candidate and elected as an MP in 1979.

The Vickerys are married, have started a family, and also set up their own business in a converted barn on the estate of Jonquil’s dad.

Mark and Anna have come back to London where he can work on getting control of British businesses for Dartram, and she runs her art exhibitions. One of his prospects is of course Peter’s company, which has developed a new scanner for medical uses. It can also be used in missile targetting for attack helicopters. Although Peter has always been vaguely on the Left (we are told he used to be in CND and the SWP in the 60s) all that rubs off and he accepts he has to go after Defence contracts. But it’s all a complicated world, with Dennis and Mark both pulling dirty tricks and trying to force his hand. Meanwhile Lynn fell out with Dennis and is out to make trouble in his rising ministerial career. Of course the 2 alpha males can still play squash with each other.

The double-dealing and intrigues continue through the mid 80s, despite the lamentations and warnings of old Professor Nuttall, who has now retreated back to college life.

NUTTALL: That was our delusion, Peter. We thought hi-tech was all about the frontiers of science. We didn’t realise hi-tech was really the saviour of capitalism.

JONQUIL: Oh come on, Nutty…

NUTTALL: No really. Twenty years ago, who would have given capitalism much of a chance? All it had to offer were goods and commodities. Then came The Chip. Changed the system down to its very core. A new way to live and work – people like it. Even the Marxists want it now.

PETER: I didn’t come into this game to save capitalism.

NUTTALL: No, but you will, Peter, you will. And all the old “pure scientists” were never all that pure anyway, have become the new entrepeneurs – so long as they remember to look after their patents and keep an eye on what the world is like.

PETER: You’re a cynic, Nutty.

JONQUIL: We ought to go, Peter…

PETER: We have a board meeting…

NUTTALL: Just one word of advice: don’t let them go the path of quick profit-taking. Stand up for science, Peter.

As the wranglings about Defence procurement go on into mid 80s they get entangled in bigger issues such as industrial policy (do we still have one?), maintaining independent supply chains and capability, and integration into what is still called “the Common Market”. Peter brings other executives into his board and is then knifed in a boardroom putsch. Dennis gets married to a broke aristocratic family and become close chums with a much dimmer Tory MP, Julian Holmes-Coppitt, played by Stephen Fry. Fun fact: Stephen Fry, Robert Bathurst (Dennis Medlam) and Paul Shearer (the research scientist Dave Hall) were all in the 1980 Footlights Revue, along with Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie, and the other member who did not get a career in show business.

Of course the conflict over US/European options in future defence procurement matches a real-life story: the saga of the troubles with Westland Helicopters in 1985-6. This story doesn’t ignore the similarity, it embraces it by giving us news broadcasts mentioning the financial troubles of Westland followed by those of Starway, the company that Peter and 2 other parties are fighting over. As even dim old Julian realises: “We need to establish a strong hi-tech base in Europe, ready for the expansion of the Common Market.” (“expansion” at this time meant the accession of Spain and Portugal. The only person who thought eastern countries would join was Neil Kinnock, in a weird speech he gave in 1983 that didn’t make any sense back then).

Meanwhile Lynn is still determined to bring down Dennis, but when she threatens to publish a book detailing their affair, some mysterious agents break into her flat to steal it, and she gets warned off by men with odd credentials and security passes. Everything is getting tense as worlds that have been built up over the previous decade could tumble apart.

This show was the first attempt at a “look back on the Thatcher Decade”, before she’d even left office. Other early drafts of history attempted at this time include the long Radio 4 documentary series The Thatcher Effect presented by Mary Goldring, with lots of interviews with various people whose lives had changed. There were also a few odd documentaries about Essex Boys made good and other entrepeneurs. Bradbury seems to be a bit blurry on the role of finance houses and stockbrokers in this world, but they’re not at the centre of the story so it’s fair enough that a single Yuppie-With-A-Sports-Car character has to do the entire job of representing it and also insider dealing and any other crooked practices. Lynn mentions that electronic security and monitoring systems are now coming in to use, so this show is at least on the cutting-edge on one new development.

When this was shown, I read an interview with Bradbury in which he admitted he realised when writing it that he’d said all he wanted to say thematically after about the 4th episode, but had to carry on to fill up the quota of airtime. It certainly feels as though we’ve reached a neat symmetry when we have the scene in which Older Mark looks disdainfully at young people being silly in a punt, even though he was doing the same ten years earlier. But we still have 2 more instalments of high financial stew to get through, just to space out the timeline of historical narration. Since the latter gives a reflection of how liberal opinion in the late 80s saw the very recent past, here it all is, with a selection of the pictures that accompanied it.

In episode 2, for the 1979 election:

NARRATOR: Revolutions often happen when no one is looking, as this one did. On the 3rd of May, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, former Head Girl of Kesteven & Grantham Girls School, remembered for her over-bulging satchel, led the Tory Party to an election majority of 44.

THATCHER [in clip]: There is now work to be done.

NARRATOR: Just a temporary swing, said the commentators. But the Economic Eighties had started, and the Iron Lady had come to town.

Episode 3, 1981 and the apex/nadir of monetarism:

NARRATOR: As 1981 started, everyone was talking money. It seemed there was no difference between money and motorways – each had names like M1, M2, M3, neither got you wanted you wanted to go. Sado-monetarism was in charge, old manufacturing collapsed, unemployment rose. Was it working?

THATCHER: The lady’s not for turning.

And then of course 1982:

NARRATOR: In March 1982, 60 Argentine scrap merchants landed on an Antarctic island largely inhabited by penguins, evidently looking for a scrap. Many people had never heard of the Falklands before, few could find them on a map. But they knew they were the stronghold of democracy, and in the UN and in Whitehall, the scrap began.

THATCHER: Failure? The possibilities do not exist.

And then that front page, and so:

NARRATOR: GOTCHA, indeed. The crisis was over, and now Britain could walk tall. Maggie walked tall. Ronald Reagan walked tall. Only Leonid Brezhnev… well. A troublesome, changing year, 1982, no wonder people wanted 1983.

Episode 4, in to 1983:

NARRATOR: In early 1983, Mrs Thatcher returned from the Falklands a triumphant Britannia, and somehow everything felt better.

THATCHER: I want more jobs. Now cheer up and go and boost the success, not always standing there as moaning minnies. Now stop it.

NARRATOR: Unemployment stayed high, the manufacturing base declined, but small hi-tech businesses were booming, and the cheap home computer appeared in all the stores. Now you could play war games in the comfort of your own homes.

NARRATOR: The Spring Budget was kind, and Labour was weak. Could it be election year? “Should she, shouldn’t she?” asked the press in May 1983. “June or October?” The pundits said October, but Mrs Thatcher didn’t.

THATCHER: I will not be pushed around. I have never been pushed around.

KENNY EVERETT: Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!

Scenes of strife…

NARRATOR: And in the morning, Tony Benn had gone, Shirley Williams had gone, the Alliance had not made their breakthrough, Labour had put their foot in it. The Tories had one of the most secure of all modern majorities: 144 seats, and Mrs Thatcher, after a celebration or two, didn’t take long to announce her second term Cabinet.

THATCHER: You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

Episode 5, in to 1984:

NARRATOR: 1984 was the year of pits, pickets, and privatisation. The Miners Strike wore on. Arthur Scargill wore a baseball cap. Ian McGregor put his head in a paper bag. Meanwhile the public sector was rapidly turning into the private sector.

[“If you see Sid, tell him” advert]

NARRATOR: British ports went private in April, British Gas in May, Enterprise Oil in June. The Shareholding Democracy was here, “Sale Of The Century” said the press.

THATCHER: Soon there will be more shareholders than trades unionists in this country.

I don’t think that gets the chronology right: the first big privatisation was British Telecom in 1983, the “If you see Sid…” adverts were for British Gas in 1986.

Finally, in episode 6:

NARRATOR: By the end of 1985, everyone knew the spirit of Mrs Thatcher’s New Britain. Down in the city was a new City: postmodern buildings with plant-filled atriums and crystal elevators so you could always see who your competitors were taking out to lunch. Everyone was taking stock, and looking for a share, in British Telecom, British Airways, British Airports, and British Leyland.

LORD STOCKTON: You can’t sell the coal mines, I’m afraid, because nobody would buy them [audience laughs]

NARRATOR: Meanwhile down in the West Country, a small helicopter company called Westland was in financial trouble. Happily, it seemed, everybody wanted a piece of that too.

And so to another election:

NARRATOR: Then, in June 1987, it was election time again. Not a hope, said the pundits, Neil Kinnock predicted a Labour landslide.

KINNOCK: It’s got to be Labour.

NARRATOR: Even the Prime Minister had her private doubts, though they didn’t last.

THATCHER: Success doesn’t look after itself, you have to work at it.

Final things:

NARRATOR: And on and on and on it was to be. There were difficulties to come, of course: the Big Bang turned into the Great Crash, the Wind Of Change became the October Hurricane.

THATCHER: A woman’s work is never done.

NARRATOR: Ivan Boesky did for insider trading what Jim Bakker had done for fundamentalist Christianity. Some won and some lost.

There is also a final wrapping-up of what happened to the central characters.

Each of these episodes has its own allusive title, the first one “Enigma Variations” playing on the idea of computing as an offshoot of the Bletchley Park project. The others are: “Trading Favours”, “Playing Games”, “Realising Assets”, “Second Term”, and “Georgian Silver”.

For another quick-reaction to the Thatcher years, I recommend Bloody Margaret by Mark Lawson, published in 1991. Whatever you think of Lawson’s other writing, that early fiction was very sharp.

There certainly was a world of excited men setting up companies near Cambridge which they hoped would conquer the world. It was dramatised in 2009 in Micro Men, and for a slightly more analytical (though slanted) take on the Sinclair “phenomenon” you can find most of the book Sinclair And The ‘Sunrise’ Technology on ZX Spectrum nostalgia site. Some of the story related there has parallels with the boardroom trouble of Starway, It doesn’t also mention the unhappy subplot of Jupiter Cantab set up by 2 disgruntled Sinclair employees who may have been a bit like Dave Hall; I don’t think Steven Vickers was any basis for “Peter Vickery” however. I do have a 35th Anniversary copy of Forth Programming and very nice it is too.

Intellectual property and patents are part of the plot of Anything More, and a concern over copyright may be why someone changed the spelling of an advertising slogan when they used it in a song in 1983. Something to notice about that song: I think the computer he bought is a Sinclair ZX81. I think that because he’s trying to correct the spelling G-0-H-0-H-0-9-0 by using the RUBOUT code SHIFT+0:

The anxiety of the new VHS era:

Who tells you what
To tape on your vid. chip
How do you know the progs you miss
Are worse than those you single out?
And what’ll you do when the rental’s up?
And your bottom rack is full of vids
Of programs you will nay look at
….

You’ll just have to wait 30 years and see them as computer files.

3 thoughts on “The Wretched Timesheeters

  1. Excellent insights…

    You have him down as a kind of Liberal grandee, but is Bradbury as easy to pin down ideologically as that? He could be anywhere from moderate Labour to social democrat to One Nation Tory to, well, eurosceptic Liberal!

    The next year Bradbury wrote The Gravy Train (1990) which seems to follow Thatcher’s Bruges Speech turn into euroscepticism though I gather he also wrote Rates of Exchange much earlier in 1983. Interestingly it and also its 1991 sequel can be watched on All4… https://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-gravy-train

    In many ways, Bradbury’s PFT ‘The After Dinner Game’ (1975) seems more amenable, if still critical, towards the HE environment compared to The History Man. Perhaps this is because Christopher Bigsby was co-writer. There are some fantastic roles for Margaret Whiting, Diane Fletcher and Timothy West. Plus, a good deal of sardonic yet righteous defence of the Robbins Report settlement against a proto-Dominic Cummings type technology-fetishising and business-centred “reformer” from the North. You are fully on the side of the eye-rolling Marxist Flora Beniform (Diane Fletcher), or at least I am! Bigsby and Bradbury seem to point to a necessary alliance of liberals and Marxists – and, yes, small-c conservatives – against cornucopian “progress” which always proclaims itself as in touch with “the real world”.

    It’s notable that Bradbury eventually found a home at Channel Four. The History Man had been on BBC2 and TADG had gained low viewing figures on BBC1, suggesting his work was especially attuned to educational, journalistic and political elites. It is easy to imagine casual viewers who had loved the recent, accessible Plays for Today like Philip Martin’s ‘Gangsters’ or Welland’s ‘Leeds United!’ switching off Bradbury and Bigsby’s mainly video-studio play which centres on sharp, erudite and bitchy characters drawn from the professional middle-classes and higher. Of course, Bradbury did become a dab hand at populist TV drama, writing for various detective series’: A Touch of Frost, Dalziel and Pascoe and, for me, one of the best Inspector Morse episodes, ‘The Wench is Dead’ (1998).

    Another PFT that comes to mind, specifically regarding representations of the coming of the silicon chip is Stephen Lowe’s underrated Cries from a Watchtower (1979) featuring that great unsung actor Paul Copley in the lead role. The more flawed John McGrath two-parter PFT ‘The Adventures of Frank’ (1980) does at least capture something of Thatcher-era stock market changes a long time before Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bradbury also did “Cuts – A Very Short Novel” in the 80s, which I remember for getting a bad Literary Review in Private Eye just at the time I started reading that. He also did the French Theory spoof “Mensonge”, which got a tepid response. “Cuts” was eventually given its own TV adaptation, which PE also didn’t like, though by then they were quite keen on the original source (different reviewers of course). The Cuts review would have been done by either D.J.Taylor or David Sexton at that time; one of those is on Twitter and would probably own up to it, if he can remember.

    The other “campus fiction” exponent of the 80s was of course David Lodge, and he delivered “Nice Work” in 1987, which got a TV version in 89 or 90, set in the world of Industry Year 1986 around Birmingham. And there’s also Andrew Davies’s “Peculiar Practice” series, which were a sort-of novel-on-screen.

    Like

    1. I have still only ever seen the first series of AVPP but liked that a lot. Barbara Flynn surely was widely appreciated for her work in Beiderbecke and that… She kind of develops Diane Fletcher’s character of a Marxist-Feminist in ‘The After Dinner Game’, emphasising the latter a lot more. Fletcher and Flynn imbued such characters with wider public visibility and possibly even minor levels of public appeal. The humanising performances maybe go against the critical satirical grain perhaps intended by Davies and Bradbury?

      Cuts is, I think, on my bookshelves. As yet, unread…

      Liked by 1 person

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