Star Wars, The Bill and a landslide for Maggie

Margaret Thatcher celebrated a landslide General Election victory in 1983.

Margaret Thatcher celebrated a landslide General Election victory in 1983.

I was 11 years old in 1983. I hadn’t even started my Sentinel paper round but my world was about to get much bigger with a move to high school.

Trawling through the archives is fascinating but it doesn’t half make you feel old – particularly when you realise how long ago it is that certain people died.

1983 was the year when we lost some stellar names from the world of showbusiness.

Believe it or not it is 30 years since the likes of David Niven, Dick Emery, Billy Fury, John Le Mesurier and Violet Carson passed away.

It was also the year that music mourned the loss of the irreplaceable Karen Carpenter, aged just 32, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys – along with American heavyweight boxing legend Jack Dempsey.

Closer to home, Sid Daniels – the last surviving crewmember of the RMS Titanic – died at the age of 89.

It is difficult to comprehend now but in 1983 the Cold War was still cropping up on TV news bulletins.

In March of that year U.S. President Ronald Reagan outlined initial proposals for the Strategic Defence Initiative.

The media dubbed the plan to develop technology which could intercept enemy missiles ‘Star Wars’ and it stuck.

In September the Soviet Union admitted shooting down Korean Air Flight 007 which had entered their airspace – claiming that its pilots were unaware it was a civilian aircraft.

Two months later we saw the final scare of the Cold War when Soviet officials misinterpreted a NATO exercise codenamed Able Archer as a nuclear first strike. Thankfully, someone had the gumption to realise it wasn’t.

That same month the first U.S. Cruise Missiles arrived at the Greenham Common Airbase – prompting protests from the likes of CND and other peace protesters.

While managing to keep his finger off the big red button, actor turned U.S. President Reagan proudly watched as the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger set off on its first flight – three years before its final, tragic flight.

The former Hollywood hearthrob also indicated that the Global Positioning System or GPS, which we all now take for granted, would be made available for civilian use.

1983 was the year that the infamous ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Klaus Barbie – who is estimated to have been involved in the murder of 14,000 people – was indicted for war crimes after a lengthy crusade by Nazi hunters.

Of great interest to us here in the UK following the Falklands Conflict, military rule in Argentina ended in 1983 after seven years following democratic elections which resulted in Raúl Alfonsin’s first term as President.

Back home, on a wave of euphoria after the Falklands victory, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was re-elected by a landslide majority in June.

Four months later Neil Kinnock was elected leader of the Labour Party, replacing Michael Foot.

The Northern Ireland troubles made headlines daily in 1983.

In September 38 Irish republican prisoners armed with hand guns hijacked a prison meals lorry and smashed their way out of the Maze Prison.

It was the largest prison escape since World War II and the biggest in British history.

Then in December a Provisional IRA car bomb which exploded outside Harrods killed six Christmas shoppers and injured 90 more.

Another major story from 1983 was the Brink’s–MAT robbery in London.

Around 6,800 gold bars worth an estimated £26 million were stolen from a vault at Heathrow Airport.

In October Scottish entrepreneur Richard Noble set a new land speed record of 633.468 miles per hour by driving the British designed and built Thrust 2 jet propelled car across the Black Rock desert in Nevada. The record stood for 14 years.

In sport the Old Firm’s dominance of Scottish football was broken when Dundee United were crowned champions for the first time in their history.

Meanwhile, in tennis, the legend that is Bjorn Borg retired from the game after winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles.

In entertainment, Rock group Kiss officially appeared in public for the first time without make-up, the final episode of M*A*S*H was screened and UK TV favourite The Bill first aired as one-off drama called Woodentop.

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We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.

How TV and pop music changed our attitudes…

When people speak of major events of the Eighties, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War often spring to mind.

But I would argue that one of the most significant steps forward during my formative years was actually a radical change in attitudes.

It may seem incredible these days, but being gay in the early to mid-1980s opened people up to ridicule and much worse.

Mercifully, by the end of the decade, outdated stereotypes and overt homophobia were finally on their way out.

Here in the UK we had a couple of people to thank for this seismic shift in the way in which gay people were viewed.

One of the leading lights in this social revolution was the man who was to go on to become one of the people representing us Stokies in Brussels.

Michael Cashman is now the Labour MEP for the West Midlands but rose to prominence as an actor on BBC TV’s misery-fest Eastenders.

You have to remember that during the mid-80s gay-orientated content was still relatively rare on prime-time television.

However, Michael Cashman changed all that with his portrayal of yuppie graphic designer Colin Russell.

There was outrage when in 1987 the BBC screened the first ever gay kiss in a British soap opera between the character of Colin and his boyfriend Barry.

To be fair, it was only a peck on the forehead, but some national newspapers reacted furiously – dubbing the soap ‘EastBenders’ and branding the content ‘filth’.

Questions were even asked in Parliament about the appropriateness of having openly-gay men in a prime-time TV show as fears over AIDs grew.

At the time, huge misconceptions over the origins of AIDs, the way in which it could be contracted, and its association with gay men had caused widespread fear and confusion as our ill-advised health services struggled to come to terms with this ‘new’ illness.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the first mouth-to-mouth kiss between Colin and his partner Guido was screened and again it caused controversy.

Around 20 million people saw the show and some right-wing newspapers condemned the brief scene at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s government was championing a return to ‘traditional family values’.

Thankfully, however, attitudes had already changed.

Over time, the viewing public – including yours truly – had grown rather fond of nice-guy Colin whose character had helped to highlight issues such as homophobia and so-called ‘gay-bashing’.

Cashman quit the soap in 1989 and went on to found the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity and lobbying organisation Stonewall before entering into politics. Another person who was responsible for altering the way the public felt towards the gay community was George Alan O’Dowd – AKA Boy George.

I recall delivering the Sunday papers over a period of months (I’d have been about 14 at the time) and reading numerous stories about Culture Club’s ‘gender-bender’.

Despite suffering some horrendous abuse courtesy of the tabloid press for his androgynous appearance, Boy George was a superb showman – who also happened to produce some killer pop tunes.

I was bought the album Colour By Numbers – containing the singles Church Of The Poison Mind and Karma Chameleon for Christmas in 1983 and genuinely thought it was the bees knees.

Despite the criticism, the constant scrutiny, a media vendetta, and a battle with his own personal demons, Boy George went on to become one of the UK’s most successful recording artists of the decade.

At the same time, his simple live-and-let-live philosophy helped to win many hearts and minds and persuade the nation that being different wasn’t necessarily bad or wrong.

By the end of the decade, I like to think that the tide had genuinely turned.

It wasn’t being gay that was no longer acceptable – it was being openly hostile towards those who were.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia