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Pop in the suburbs

14 October 2016

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IF YOU reckon that you have some interest in British culture, why not plot where you lie on the spectrum that stretches from 18th-­century landscape gardening to 1970s punk rock? That ought to cover all the bases, and last week’s TV helpfully sharpened up our analysis by broadcasting docu­mentaries on both.

Pe­ople’s History Of Pop (BBC4, Friday) did its best to position rock music at the forefront of national political life: at its apogee was the worldwide Live Aid performances in 1985, which led to the wide­spread hope among the young that “music would change the world”. Thirty years of war, violence, and famine shows this to be a hollow fantasy, but, although it was a for­lorn hope in terms of power pol­itics, in one sense it is true.

Developments in popular music altered wide­spread attitudes. The centrality of black performers, the acceptance of Afro-Caribbean music, the loosening of conven­tional atti­tudes — all were spear­headed first in pop music.

Boy George’s 1970s: Save me from suburbia (BBC2, Saturday) focused on the acceptance of sexual and gender variety. George was modest about the engagement of the pop world with wider political and social movements: by his account, they were all paying far more attention to the out­rageous clothes and make-up sported by their friends.

But the public affirmation of homosexual orientation, the free­dom to cross-dress, the breaking down of hard distinctions between how men and women should look — these battles were all fought not in the pages of The Guardian but on Top Of The Pops. Both pro­grammes were exemplars of that great truth that last year’s revolu­tionary is this year’s elder states­man — but George made the point that, in the drab 1970s, the clear line between the Establishment and youth culture provided a rich environment for protest and re­­volu­­tion, seen above all in the deliberate offensiveness of the Sex Pistols. Now we think that they were really rather sweet: a good method of suffocating all change.

Capability Brown’s Unfinished Garden (BBC4, Monday of last week) was a rather foolishly specu­lative attempt by Bunny Guinness to work out how Brown might have landscaped his own estate in Fenstanton, if he had ever got round to it. But, in the course of her research, visiting glorious gardens throughout England, she made clear the paradox that lies at the heart of le jardin á l’anglaise.

Their whole point is to appear, in contrast to the previous geo­metric parterres, entirely natural, a vision of God’s Eden. But, in fact, they are entirely artificial: the natural contours are plumped up, smoothed down, and cut away; watercourses are dammed, raised, and piped in. The whole thing is man-made, and requires constant human intervention to maintain.

Wild West: America’s great frontier, BBC2’s new three-part natural-history documentary (Sun­days), demonstrated an extreme contemporary example of this process. Beneath Death Valley, the hottest desert in America, lies an enormous freshwater aquifer. Us­ing modern technology, we can at last gain access to this life-giving water. It is used entirely to maintain a golf course.

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