1981: The Year Of Riots…and a Royal wedding!


In many ways 1981 (in the UK) can be dubbed the Year Of Riots – of which more later. However, the year began with the nation traumatised by the horrendous Yorkshire Ripper murders – and the bungling police investigation that had allowed the distraction of a hoaxer to delay the arrest of the serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe. Finally, on Jan 5th 1981 Sutcliffe was arrested –and sentenced to life imprisonment on 22nd May 1981.

In some ways it seems the early 1980s bear a striking similarity with Britain today – a Conservative government introducing deeply unpopular public spending cuts in the face of a major recession and record high rates of unemployment and those who could least afford it carrying the can for those who could have done a lot more to share the burden. The general population – many of whom were poor, disenfranchised and without either hope or help – felt driven to riot. And riot they did! Right across the country.

In April 1981 the Brixton riots in South London set the tone. By July there were major riots in Toxteth (Liverpool), Moss Side (Manchester) and throughout the regions. Mrs Thatcher was characteristically unimpressed by the rioting – and appeared wholly oblivious to the notion that her government’s policies might in any way have contributed to the social unrest (an idea that 1990’s Poll Tax riots no doubt dispelled – costing her the Premiership in the process!). As a response to the riots, she gave the police permission to use rubber bullets.

In the world of music the NWOBHM – ‘New Wave Of British Heavy Metal’ – bands continued to dominate the album charts. 1981 saw LPs released by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Girlschool, Motorhead, Saxon and Def Leppard. I had, however, cured my own (very brief) flirtation with NWOBHM from the previous year and was back listening exclusively to ‘alternative’ sounds from the likes of The Cure, Gang Of Four, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Japan and Public Image Ltd (all of whom had albums out in ‘81). My favourite album released in 1981 was by one of my favourite artists, Iggy Pop – an LP called Party. Meanwhile, Queen’s Greatest Hits LP – first released in 1981 but remastered and reissued many times since – rapidly became the UK’s biggest selling album of all time.

Another musical landmark (of sorts!) was the UK actually winning the Eurovision Song Contest. Bucks Fizz won for us singing ‘Making Your Mind Up’ – assisted to a large extent, no doubt, by the famous ‘skirt rip’ routine (which surely has to be worth a few points in itself!)…an act recently voted the ‘all-time most memorable moment in Eurovision Song Contest history.’ Makes a change from the usual politically motivated ‘nil points’ of recent times, I guess!

1981 was a desperately poor year for Hollywood. Almost without exception, the biggest grossing box office films from the US were unadulterated M-O-R dross. (Another similarity with the present day methinks!) Happily, European cinema rode to the rescue. The UK film industry of 1981 gave us Gregory’s Girl and Chariots Of Fire while German cinema produced Christiane F – a harrowing insight into the true-life experiences of a 13-year-old girl caught up in West Berlin’s depressing 1970s drug scene. Christiane F featured specially commissioned music by David Bowie. The only American film I recall seeing from that year that has stood the test of time is David Cronenberg’s Scanners. After all, who can forget the exploding head in the lecture hall scene?!

The UK’s telly screens in 1981 saw the first ever episodes of the classic and long-running sitcom Only Fools And Horses and the popular darts-based TV game show, Bullseye. Peter Davison took over from Tom Baker as Dr Who and the Muppet Show ceased to broadcast. And, oh yes, I nearly forgot – on July 29th some 30 million TV viewers also tuned in to see Prince Charles marry (the then) Lady Di.

Other events from 1981 include the poor, ill-fated kidnapped racehorse Shergar winning the Epsom Derby by a record 10 lengths and the establishing of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (part of the anti-nuclear movement).

Here’s a pic of yours truly in 1981. See you all in 1982 on the next blog post.

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