As a follow-on from my article about why it’s so hard to create things that look like they were made in the past, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to create things (art, comics, writing etc..) that are set in 1990s Britain. This is mostly because a lot of the most easily-available online research material, pop culture nostalgia etc… about the 1990s tends to come from America.
Of course, although there were probably some similarities, 1990s Britain was a very different place in terms of culture, attitude etc.. to 1990s America. Although I remember 1990s Britain, I was fairly young at the time (so, my memories are a little vague and I can remember the mid-late 1990s far better than the early 1990s). Still, I’ve probably seen more things from and about 1990s Britain than I probably think I have.
So, for the benefit of my international readers, I thought that I’d give a few pointers about creating things set in 1990s Britain.
1) The attitude: If there’s one thing that sets 1990s Britain (especially mid-late 1990s Britain) apart from 1990s America – it is the attitude. Generally speaking, 1990s Britain tended to be a bit more cynical, a bit more rebellious and a bit more hedonistic than 1990s America.
This attitude is surprisingly difficult to describe, but it is one of the things that makes 1990s Britain so cool (in comparison to miserable modern Britain). The best way I can think to sum it up is that it was a decade where even a manufactured pop band like the Spice Girls still had a slightly “punk” attitude. It was a decade where British game developers created controversial game franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Carmageddon“. It was also a decade where slightly less controversial games like “Tomb Raider” were being made too.
It was a decade where a TV show like “Bits” could be made. This was a wonderfully sarcastic and surprisingly “punk” TV show about computer and video games that was mostly presented by Emily Booth, Aleks Krotoski and Emily Newton Dunn. It was eccentric, random, hilarious, low-budget and cynical… and a perfect distillation of everything cool about late 1990s/early 2000s Britain.
Although this show is impossible to find on DVD or video, there are thankfully still some clips of it on Youtube and an in-depth, if somewhat cynical, documentary video about it too [slightly NSFW].
It was also a decade where artists could actually be rockstars! I mean, whatever you think about the quality or sophistication of Tracey Emin‘s art, there’s no denying that she is one of the coolest art-related celebrities in British history. During the 90s, she was controversial, outspoken, hedonistic etc…. and just generally cool. By comparison, the most “rockstar”-like artist in present-day Britain is probably Banksy. A mysterious anonymous graffiti artist who paints political cartoons on buildings.
It was a decade where comedy on the TV tended to be a lot funnier, quirkier and more cynical than many of the more “mainstream” comedy offerings from across the pond (except the animated ones like “The Simpsons” and “South Park”).
This was the heyday of shows like “Harry Enfield & Chums“, “Goodness Gracious Me!“, “Spaced“, “Absolutely Fabulous“, “The Thin Blue Line“, “Red Dwarf“, “Brass Eye“, “Men Behaving Badly“, “Bottom” etc… These were cynical, slightly rebellious comedy shows that tried to make a point – now, compare them to something like “Friends“….
Even nerd culture in 1990s Britain seems to be different from it’s American equivalent. For starters, it didn’t really seem to be a mythologised “culture” in the way that traditional American “nerd culture” seems to be presented these days. Yes, there were probably some things in common, but there also seem to have been quite a few differences – for example, in southern England in the 1990s, someone who was into tabletop games was probably more likely to play “Warhammer 40K” than “Dungeons & Dragons”.
2) The crappiness: If there’s one thing to be said for 1990s Britain, it’s that it was possibly the last decade where Britain was still “crap” in a more traditional way. This is not to say that modern Britain isn’t crap, but the crappiness of 1990 Britain was a different kind of crappiness to the crappiness of present day Britain (or even the crappiness of Tony Blair’s mid-late years in office), and it’s kind of difficult to describe concisely.
This cynical attitude about Britain has been a part of British culture for at least a few decades and, surprisingly, it’s actually a good thing. Not only is it a source of everyday humour, but it also serves as something of a bulwark against aggressive nationalism too (or it used to before all of this Brexit stuff, anyway). Likewise, going back to the 1990s, it also meant that a lot of really cool stuff (food, films, music etc..) from abroad started to become a lot more popular during the 90s because it was, well, better.
Even so, 90s Britian was slightly more limited in some ways. For example, unless you were rich enough to afford satellite TV or lucky enough to live somewhere where Channel 5 was a terrestrial channel, you literally only had four TV channels available to you (BBC 1 &2, ITV and Channel 4). The pubs still all closed at 11pm sharp. The trains were being privatised, but still maintained their reputation for lateness and general crappiness. Some discriminatory laws about LGBT people were still on the statute books. We got films and games later than people in the states did. The film censors tended to be a lot stricter about action movies and horror movies etc…
That stuff aside, being slightly “backwards” when compared to America also had it’s advantages. For example, I was shocked to read that CD singles weren’t really a thing in the US during the late 90s, whereas they were a key part of my childhood musical memories of late 1990s/early 2000s Britain.
But, whilst a lot of popular media from 1990s America often seems really optimistic, trendy and futuristic, this is a million miles away from 1990s Britain. This is a really difficult quality to describe, but it’s a far cry from the more stylish “aren’t we awesome!” portrayal of America in culture from the period. Many creative works made here during the 1990s knew that Britain was crap and derived affectionate humour and/or gritty drama from it.
The best TV show for research into this is probably the earlier series of “Jonathan Creek“. Likewise, even a “super-cool gadget filled spy show” from the time, called “Bugs“, contains some of it in terms of the humour and the nature of the storylines. But, of course, classic BBC sitcoms from the 1990s are the best place to see examples of the “crappiness” of 1990s Britain pointed out to you. Plus, if you’re into computer games, try to track down an old game by Gremlin Interactive called “Normality” for a slightly stylised example of this. Or, if you have less time and/or money, check out a freeware game called “Beneath A Steel Sky“.
3) The fashions: For the most part, fashions in 1990s Britain were fairly dull and understated. Whether it was ordinary businesswear or jeans and a T-shirt, 90s fashion in Britain was mostly fairly “ordinary”. Yet, when it wasn’t, it is at least mildly different from 90s fashion in America.
The most famous example of 1990s British fashion has to be Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress. But, unlike America where things like grunge fashion were more popular in the 1990s, the slightly more “distinctive” parts of British 1990s fashion tended to include things like sportswear, wrapping a jumper around your waist like a belt, formal floral dresses, crop tops, cargo clothing etc…
It isn’t really as distinctive or eccentric as American fashion during the 90s was, but this kind of fits into the “crappiness” thing that I mentioned in the second segment of this article.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂