Oh, to be transported back to Sarajevo in 1984 when the duo won the world figure-skating championships gold medal. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.
On Christmas Day I will be curled up in front of the telly watching a feature-length biopic about the skaters. It is the centrepiece of ITV’s schedule, evoking an era when 24 million people watched the ice dancers win what the commentator called, perhaps a tad exaggeratedly, “the most cherished prize in sport”.
According to the Radio Times, the channel is “banking on Torvill and Dean to win the Christmas Day ratings battle… hoping that viewers will be caught up in a wave of nostalgia for the couple’s gold medal-winning performance of Bolero.”
I am not a great fan of nostalgia. To me, it is airbrushing of the mind, sucking away at the deep and jagged lines of a country’s divided and fraught history.
The reason I will be curling up on the sofa on Christmas Day is not because I pine for those carefree days when ice skating was at its peak, shoulder pads and perms were all the rage and kids played with Rubik’s Cubes rather than iPhones.
I am not, to be frank, a great fan of the 1980s, the decade that taste – and morality and decency – forgot. Those who elevate Torvill and Dean to the status of demigods are trying to hammer the old world of shared national TV experiences, fairy-tale celebrities and Romeo and Juliet-style dance routines into the emptied scenes of their childhoods. The good-old-bad old days are being revisited, rewritten and reinvented by people who were children and teenagers in the Thatcher era and are now in a position to commission dramas about their formative years.
The best documentary I ever watched about that dreadful decade was Channel 4’s insightful film about the miners’ strike, which cleverly merged images of two set-pieces enshrined in 80s’ folklore: the Bolero routine and the Battle of Orgreave. It was if the duo’s perfect pirouettes were being re-enacted on the streets of Yorkshire’s mining towns and villages. As one reviewer so memorably put it: “Police and pickets, scabs and striking miners mimicked the pair’s fluid dance, this time in violent confrontation.”
I have a very strong memory of watching the box on the eve of their triumph in Sarajevo. Just before John Humphrys introduced the Nine O’Clock News – “McGregor’s message to the miners: ‘Go back to work. I won’t give in.’” – the BBC’s continuity announcer trailed the much-awaited event by comparing the “nation’s sweethearts” to Hollywood superstars Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
What tends to be forgotten is that Torvill and Dean’s heroics gave succour to a divided Britain. They brought a bit of glamour and entertainment to some very dark times. Like the New Romantic bands who provided the electrifying, escapist soundtrack to the early Thatcher years, they were matinee idols. “People wanted that in Britain in the early 80s,” explained ABC’s Martin Fry, lead singer of Yorkshire’s finest pop band. “They wanted heroes.”
Whatever happened, as the great Hugh Alan Cornwell once famously wondered, to all the heroes? Especially the ones who, like Christopher Dean, worked their way up from humble backgrounds. “Billy Elliot was my story,” he said recently. “My dad worked eight-hour shifts down the pit and I had always thought I was going to be a miner.”
This is what I really like about Torvill and Dean. In the 80s, a small island nation, beset by economic gloom and political turbulence, increasingly polarised and in seemingly-irreversible decline, was briefly cheered up by their inspiring, rags-to-riches story. Whatever happened to all those working-class legends? The ones who soared and sparkled and showed great spirit – and made the nation fall in love with them.
At the end of a week in which this country has appeared more divided than at any time since the Thatcher decade, The Stranglers’ lament is most apt. No more heroes any more.