Shiny Shelf

Girls and Boys: Sex and British Pop

By Eddie Robson on 24 October 2005

The history of British pop is such a well-worn subject that new angles to assess it from are very welcome, and so this documentary series represents an excellent opportunity to come at it from a different angle to the usual Q-reader-targeted run-through of the rock/pop canon. Unfortunately its makers appear to have seen it as an excellent opportunity to simply re-hash the history of British pop without adding anything new.

This first programme starts promisingly with an account of how the first British rock’n’roll stars were plucked from obscurity by homosexual managers who had shrewdly anticipated their appeal to teenage girls. However, when the Beatles turn up, the documentary adopts a simplistic zeitgeist approach, pointing out what happened without really asking why. What was different about the Beatles that triggered this?

The Beatles’ stellar success is usually attributed to being the first British pop group to write great songs of their own: this programme has an opportunity to put forward an alternative view, but apart from noting how manager Brian Epstein reworked their image, there’s nothing. To what extent was their success based upon their looks and personalities, rather than their undoubted talent as musicians? How about some analysis of the music to try and work out what it was that appealed to young girls so strongly? How about some analysis of record sales, so we could see what percentage of Beatles record sales were to teenybopper girls and how many were bought by boys who just liked the music? How about some social history, to give us some idea of why British teenagers were so receptive to a band like the Beatles at this time?

By largely sticking to the well-known facts and offering little in the way of speculation as to why these things happened, ‘Girls and Boys’ repeatedly raises more questions than it answers. It notes that female artists were very differently marketed than their male counterparts (boys were in groups and wrote their own songs, girls were solo artists and did covers), but it tells us nothing about how the fanbase for male and female artists differed. It notes that the Stones adopted the rhythm and blues style because it was about sex whereas traditional pop was about romance, but this claim is given no substance. It notes that Mod style saw an acceptance of dandyism, but doesn’t address how this was different from previous versions of dandyism, why dandyism had gone out of vogue or (most importantly, given the title of the programme) what was it about Mod-pop that appealed to Mods.

The problem is that there’s nobody in the programme who can give voice to these notions. The narration is straightforward history and the talking heads are largely pop stars of the day (Peter Noone, Marianne Faithfull, Adam Faith, Sandie Shaw), who can give their accounts of what it was like but are generally none the wiser as to why it happened when it did, or why it happened to them. If they did make any more insightful comments then these have been cut.

The programme is in dire need of some social history and context and (especially) some musicology. How much better it would be if someone like Howard Goodall could pop up from time to time and have a bash at explaining why some music sounds sexy whilst other music sounds sweetly romantic. Alternatively, a more authored tone in the narration would have been a good idea, rather than trotting out the facts.

Programmes like this are making it increasingly difficult to reject the notion that any kind of cerebral documentary-making, even on populist topics, is being left to BBC4. So is the BBC2 audience now composed of people who want to be told things they already know? Apparently so.

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By Eddie Robson

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