The Times They Are A-Changin'

Article from Radio Times 11 - 17 September 1999

For her new drama about love and rock'n'roll, writer Debbie Horsfield took a fresh look at the sixties and found an era when pop music and sex set young people at odds with their parents' values.  Here she explains how the Ice Cubes get twin sisters swinging in Eccles.

It started with a question. "How do you fancy writing a drama about sixties girl group?" Actually, I didn’t. It wasn’t really my era. I had only the sketchiest knowledge of the music business, and my own "girl group" activities were limited to harmonising Onward, Christian Soldiers with my four sisters in the Eccles Parish Church choir. My dramas [such as Making Out and The Riff Raff Element] have always been set on home turf, and the British girl group scene of the sixties was conspicuous by its absence. While America had the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, we had the Ladybirds! So the girl groups idea bit the dust, but the germ of another idea began to seed. Sisters. Sisters who sang together just for the fun of it. Twin sisters. Twin sisters with big ideas and zero expectations. Twin sisters who were each other’s best brief – and worst enemy. Twin sisters who fell in love with the same man … But what period to set it in? I came of age in the seventies, so why set a rites-of-passage story a decade before?

Of course our received images of the sixties are immensely compelling. This was, after all, the decade of feminism, free love, sexual liberation and the Pill. Or was it? The more I delved, the more I became fascinated by the gulf between the myth and the reality of this period. If this was the decade when women found liberation, if pre-marital sex was no longer taboo, why were record numbers of unmarried mothers packed off to mother-and-baby institutions to conceal their pregnancies and have their infants adopted?

The reality, I realised, was that London’s King’s Road and Carnaby Street where apparently "swinging", the rest of the country was scrambling to catch up. Many provincial towns were only just emerging from the war, rationing was a not-so-distant memory, parts of the North (Sex, Chips and Rock ‘n’ Roll is set in Eccles, Manchester) were only just being rebuilt. And in many households, Victorian attitudes to sex, morality and the role of women still ruled OK.

So a story began to take shape of twin sisters Ellie and Arden (Gillian Kearney and Emma Cooke) growing up in just such a household, in 1965, under the watchful glare of their strict and over-protective grandmother Irma (Sue Johnston). When we met the girls in the first episode last week, it was at a critical point – their 18th birthhday.

Just at the moment when they might be expecting to spread their wings, however, the generation above has other plans for them: shorthand, typing, deportment and elocution for Arden, while an even greater barrier to freedom and ambition presents itself to Ellie: her cousin and newly acquired fiancÚ, the dashing chip-shop entrepreneur Norman (David Threlfall) – a man twice her age and with very firm ideas about the role of women. ("Nine O-levels, four A-levels – but what she’s really good at is sticking the kettle on.") Early on, I had some concerns about this storyline. Would a 1999 twentysomething even begin to understand why Ellie would consider yoking herself to such a man? The freedom of choice that we take for granted today would have been unthinkable in the mid-sixties. But how to convey that?

I decided to rely less on a knowledge of the social mores of the period and more on the obvious external factors limiting Ellie’s horizons: a domineering grandmother, an ineffectual father and a sister hell-bent on grabbing the "best bits" for herself. In this way I hoped it would become clear why a man who could deliver "posh clothes, posh car, posh house, all the chocolate you can eat" might be enough to tempt a girl whose alternative was standing behind a counter serving cod and chips.

Meanwhile Irma herself was presenting something of a challenge. I wanted to create a woman who is both author and victim of her own subterfuge, whose obsession with control in all its forms masks a terror of being left along and redundant. It would be easy to devise a monster, but I was more interested in what lay beyond the cold, judgmental exterior. What was the hidden tragedy that had transformed Irma from the vibrant, wide-eyed beauty of her youth into the bitter and bigoted old woman who now seems intent on dictating the lives of all around her? What choices faced her in her younger days? Did she choose her fate or was it thrust upon her?

So the main theme of the story began to emerge: choice – freedom of, lack of, and the lengths people will go to to get what they want. "I want doesn’t get" was an oft-quoted phrase from my childhood – and one I was determined my own children wouldn’t hear! If Sex, Chips and Rock ‘n’ Roll had an aim, it was to prove the absurdity of that statement. My other hope was to eradicate the phrase from current usage!

In the story, "I want doesn’t get" is the belief that has limited Ellie’s hopes and ambitions, and that threatens to sabotage her future. It’s no accident that she shares her struggle against this fallacy with Dallas, the man she falls in love with. It’s no accident that I Want Doesn’t Get is the title of the song they write together, which later becomes the Ice Cubes’ first hit! Which brings us to the band. When Dallas McCabe (Joseph McFadden), Tex Tunicliffe (Julian Kerridge) and the Wolf (James Callis) walk into the chip shop where the sisters work, they don’t just embody the sex, chips and rock ‘n’ roll of the title, they also represent the new energy of the age – musically, culturally, morally (amorally in their case). And the clash between this energy and the dead hand of Victorian values is what provides the conflict in the story.

The music of the sixties was the other, obvious, factor that attracted me to the period. Though the seventies were my era, I had enough recall of the mid-sixties to draw upon: buying my first records, playing them on a hand-me-down battered old Dansettte record-player, realising the Hollies hailed from just down the road in Salford. But in choosing the music for the story, we were faced with an array of options.

Should we use period source music as a backdrop, or to undercut the drama? Should we include the American hard-hitters (Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Tamla-Motown sounds), or the British supergroups (the Beatles, the Stones)? Or should we try to create an atmosphere which, while including as much "local" source music as possible, would have its own identity? We opted for the latter. Much of the music is specially composed, but the music of the "local talent" like the Hollies features prominently.

When it came to the Ice Cubes themselves, we were faced with another decision. The band had to represent the new energy of the sixties, so they would need their own original musical identity. Of course they would be inspired by some of the bands starting out alongside them (the Kinks and the Who in particular), but it seemed to me, and the composer Mike Moran [who has worked with Freddie Mercury, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder], that it wouldn’t be appropriate to do cover versions of existing material. The Ice Cubes would have to be a law unto themselves, which is how I found myself treading a path I hadn’t ventured down before.

Dallas McCabe is the group’s lead singer and songwriter and his songs are very much an extension of his character. As I had created him, it seemed absurd to hand over that expression of his personality to someone else. So while Mike composed the music, I embarked upon my first attempts at lyric-writing. The Ice Cubes’ first single, All through the Night, was meant to have less-than-inspired lyrics (though, believe me, writing duff lyrics isn’t a pushover!), but the responsibility I felt for writing proper words for their first hit I Want Doesn’t Get was terrifying. So it’s the song which gives me the most satisfaction. In fact, Mike Moran and I enjoyed the collaboration so much, we ended up writing six original songs together (including a Phil Spector special The Boy Next Door, and the end title song Everything Changed) while forming a partnership that is set to continue into other projects.

When the producer Liz Trubridge found me trying to write an Andy Williams-type ballad, she must have thought I’d finally succumbed to the stress of it all. The resulting Why Oh Why, sung by Phil Daniels as fifities crooner Larry B Cool, never fails to remind me of that Sunday night in July 1998 when all strands of the project finally seemed to be coming together. Ultimately, I think Sex, Chips and Rock ‘n’ Roll does manage to nail "I want doesn’t get" once and for all. It’s a long way from girl groups, but the sisters do deliver a great version of Just One Look!

With a HUGE thank you to Janine for typing this all up!!

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