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The "Get a Life" factor of the mid 1990s

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  • The "Get a Life" factor of the mid 1990s

    Did anyone think that the mid 1990s was full of the phrase "get a life" and "look at him, he collects stamps - how boring!" most of the time? Not to mention, Norman, Malcolm, Kenneth and Nigel getting plenty of stick for it as well. The nineties was a cruel decade, but thankfully, not a bullying or a menacing one; at least I didn't think so. Being a teenager in the 1990s was tough but thankfully I had left school by the half-way point in that decade; the place where anyone dares to be different and you will know what will happen. The mid 1990s seemed to be a phase where people who were, shall we say, rather different, and was pointed out, quite often by the tabloid media. The Sun newspaper was full of them, giving readers a chance to "meet the eccentric people you didn't know had actually existed". The phrase "get a life!" feels so mid 1990s to me, and even Richard and Judy had a Granada talk show with that title around 1996. People who were regarded as boring due to various hobbies and activities were focused on with this. And the colour grey seemed to have a to do with it; school uniforms were that colour in many schools around the country (but then again, school was deliberately like that). It was also the colour was associated with John Major's Spitting Image puppet and also the strip belonging to the Euro 96 England squad, even though to most TV viewers; the 1966 World Cup winners looked a similar colour on screen due to the then monochrome nature of TV broadcasts. Mid-grey is the only colour which can complement itself. Even the word "pants" didn't seem to become an adjective until the 1990s.

    Characters like Mr Bean, who was someone who had immediately shaped the flavour of what the 1990s was going to be all about before it could even have a chance to begin, (courtesy of Rowan Atkinson), to burst onto our TV screens when the 1990s was just 20 hours old, is a case in point, and one could argue that he was the pioneer for the "get a life" moment at the start of that decade, but it becomes more prominent from around 1994 onwards. Looking at mid 1990s episodes compared to the Thames franchise period of 1990-1992 and it becomes more apparent, such as the Mind the Baby Mr Bean episode - how did he have a baby to look after when he wasn't even perceived as a family man? But he was given a partner in the shape of Irma Gobb who was seen dancing with someone else in the Goes to Town episode. Coronation Street had introduced Roy Cropper during the summer of 1995; a character who seemed unique and unprecedented in the recent history of the soap, although turning the clock back a decade or so, Hilda Ogden briefly had a lodger called Henry Wakefield, played by the over-the-top named Fine Time Fontayne, who just like Cropper I believe was interested in trains and the like, and I have assumed that he was a 1980s answer to Cropper. The main reason why Cropper has survived so long in the series is because of his uniqueness, as well as the trainspotting stereotype. I found it ironic that William Roache at the start of that decade tried to sue some people who said that Ken Barlow was boring - ironic because of Roy Cropper's arrival. The actor David Nielson who plays Cropper appeared in an episode of Casualty in 1991 (the episode which had that plane crash)in which Drama had shown a few months ago, and also guested in The Bill, playing, some person who is up to no good, i.e. someone who would have been named and shamed by the News of the World had they had known about him.

    I always knew that an anorak was a coat which kept you warm during the autumn and winter months, unlike a cagoule which just keeps you almost dry but still leaves you freezing; and it is a step forwards from the fur-trimmed "Eskimo" hoods and orange lining of coats of the previous two decades. It wasn't until I started listening to the newly launched Talk Radio UK, almost 24 hours a day but not quite during spring 1995 that I had heard about the word "anorak" being given another meaning; someone who knows a lot about a little rather than the other way round, but unlike most Mastermind champions, it is almost like to be about soap operas, pop music, or most likely, the numbers on trains. A guest called Chris Stacey, someone who was involved with the knowledge of soap operas and the like, was given the nickname of the Anorak, and that is the first time and place where I had heard of the double meaning of that word. Certainly by 1995 there was the ridiculing of various people, institutions and so on for having unusual hobbies. "I want to speak to the jacket" one caller said on the programme. We didn't have this "look at him" attitude back in the 1980s, so why did it all come along in the mid 1990s? Mr Bean, perhaps? Or even John Major, our PM? (June Whitfield on the News Huddlines even compared Major to Mr Bean in one edition). Even Bill Clinton had grey hair back then, but enough said about that.

    There was a series of commercials for Banks' Bitter on TV in the mid 1990s where various people were interviewed by Lee Hurst (of the repugnant sports quiz They Think It's All Over, and also of Anglia TV's Tuesday 7.30 pm opposite EastEnders' programme Shark Tank) about unusual hobbies or collections such as Andy Park who celebrates Christmas 365 days a year (366 days on leap years); someone who collects traffic cones and even keeps some in the loft away from his wife who doesn't know about them (the advert is on YouTube). Other adverts in the series include a garden gnome collector and a fan of testcards. (All I can say that it's not a crime to be different or boring). "Have you tried drinking Banks' Bitter" Hurst asked the interviewee off-camera. "No, I haven't", was one reply. "I think you should try it", was the counter-response. It also reminds me of the Twix adverts from around 1997-1998 with some no-hoper called Norm, as in "Norm's the name - sensible's the game". Norm was grey from top to toe which was obviously obviously influenced by the then former Prime Minister John Major's Spitting Image puppet. "It's just a pair of underpants upside-down", suggested Norm to a young woman. "That's not a skirt, that's a belt" and "grey will never go out of fashion, because it's never been in fashion!" The commercials ended with the slogan "a break from the Norm". It is a truism that Norm wouldn't have appeared in the commercial breaks ten years previously. Even back then when "End of Part One" came up on screen during Coronation Street and 190 seconds of advertising was to follow, and in this instance, one of those series of Twix adverts was seen, I did think whether it was going a bit too far when it came to the social stereotyping of those who are outcast.

    I also remember when Vanessa Feltz had her 2.20 pm afternoon programme circa 1996 (which eventually morphed into Jeremy Kyle's show many years later), and during a debate about people with unusual hobbies, they had a guest on who found various wallpapers fascinating. However, he said that even he found one of them boring. My own Asperger Syndrome diagnosis was around this time and so in hindsight, it was fascinating to be surrounded by this culture of "look at him" and all that; after all, the chances are the ordinary man who walks down the street every day is someone who is just ordinary and has nothing special about him. Comedy programmes, and in particular satire and observational comedy has a lot to do with the way it has spread into culture, and it could travel fast back in the mid 1990s. All I can say is that if someone actually has a problem with someone who has an unusual hobby such as trainspotting or stamp collecting, then perhaps it is that person who cannot accept that who should get a life, and not the man with the hobby? After all, it would indeed be boring if everyone was exactly the same.
    I've everything I need to keep me satisfied
    There's nothing you can do to make me change my mind
    I'm having so much fun
    My lucky number's one
    Ah! Oh! Ah! Oh!

  • #2
    Interesting observations. Yes there was a big element of ridiculing people for being "sad" in the 1990s. I used to read the Beano a lot around that time where you had characters like Walter the Softy, who always dressed smartly and had unfashionable or effeminate hobbies like playing with dolls or collecting antiques, and basically being bullied by Dennis the Menace for it. There was a degree of latent homophobia about it, but I suppose if you're looking for morals, the strips would normally end with Walter having the last laugh and Dennis being punished.

    When you mentioned anoraks, it brought to mind a recurring character on CBBC called The Anorak, who always wore a red anorak, bobble hat, thick glasses and bushy sideburns. From memory he had a deep voice and snorted a lot, and was simply presented as someone to laugh at because you - whoever you are - are cooler than him.

    It's interesting you mention your Asperger's diagnosis as I wonder how much of it was due to a limited understanding of neurodiversity at the time. Mr. Bean in some ways was an extreme parody of conditions like autism and OCD in that many of the situations he found himself in could have been solved by simply explaining it to someone, but because he struggled with social interactions he would come up with strange and often ingenious workarounds, with varying degrees of success. Not for one minute suggesting Mr. Bean should be "cancelled" for insensitivity, but I think it may be viewed differently if it had come out today.

    I suspect the internet had a lot to do with how this phenomenon was largely left in the 90s. In its infancy, going on the internet was seen as a bit of a "geeky" thing to do, the popular kids in school would be out playing football while the less popular ones would stay in and send emails to each other (I was somewhere between the two). Gradually, the 2000s saw the internet become more and more of a way to socialise, and it was the popular crowd who were the most active on sites like Myspace, and later Facebook and Instagram. Today, avoiding social media would probably be seen as more of a loner's thing to do.

    It actually now seems quite fashionable to be a geek. The likes of the Harry Porter series and The Big Bang Theory kind of celebrate being uncool and allow people to identify with traditionally unfashionable characters.


    • #3
      Some other geeky hobbies like computer gaming and cosplaying seem to be more mainstream these days.
      The Trickster On The Roof


      • #4
        I remember but I liked reading science fiction and comics too much to be swayed at all, I just never cared what was 'cool' which made me cooler than cool as far as I was concerned. I always gravitated to people who were into something and enthusiastic or knowledgeable. I received more actual laughing at from choice of music I think. Basically 'we' took over I suppose! Now people should be able enjoy what they like without being written off entirely.
        My virtual jigsaws:


        • #5
          There are times when I think George should have become a sociologist...

          Very thought provoking observations, although I'm not sure that Mr Bean should have been mixed up with stamp collecting! Rowan Atkinson is a very talented actor, and at the time Mr Bean was being produced by Thames TV, you could find magazines for every conceivable hobby at WH Smith.

          I can vaguely remember a TV Licensing advert with the strapline "Get a life, get a TV licence" some time in the late 1990s.

          LilacLobster and Richard make a valid point that things which were geeky back in the 1990s have become acceptable or normal now. Social media in 1990s was deemed to be a den of nerds and geeks with no social life and no social skills. Nowadays, anybody who doesn't use social media is deemed to have no social life and no social skills. Even online shopping was seen as a bit weird in the 1990s - the decade when big shopping centres were under construction.