Eighties nostalgia is arbitrary and peculiar. It must mystify millennials.
A particularly peculiar emanation has just arrived here via the BBC and Netflix. Pining for the days of Thatcher's Britain and all the angst of that period? This thing has all of that but with the added ingredient of vicious humour.
White Gold, a BBC comedy now streaming on Netflix, is the creation of Damon Beesley, who was responsible for the cult favourite The Inbetweeners. If British TV of a certain era and comedic style is your bag, you will adore this strange and often savage show.
It's set in 1983. Margaret Thatcher is prime minister, changing Britain with coldly furious dedication. People who once lived in social housing can now buy their own homes. And improve those homes at their own expense.
Making a mint from this development is one Vincent Swan (Ed Westwick), who sells double-glazed windows for a living – the "white gold" of the title. He's good at it and happy to say why when he regularly addresses the camera and explains his life and work. At one point he says, "I finally found a job where being considered a self-aggrandizing ponce is also considered a plus."
Much of White Gold can't be quoted in this newspaper. There is a torrent of swearing and even small children use unprintable language with glee. In this sense, the series may be an homage to the early work of Guy Ritchie, specifically Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Neither is an eighties movie, but both use constant swearing to add an almost musical rhythm. And, by the way, here in White Gold, eighties pop music is as much a presence as the swearing – you'll be reminded of every Britpop song you've forgotten, if you are of a certain age.
Vincent is more than just a smart, ruthless salesman, of course. He's a skirt-chasing scoundrel who has a wife and kids, but mainly keeps them in one small compartment of his very complicated, busy life. Much of that life involves supervising his two main sales associates, Brian Fitzpatrick and Martin Lavender (played by James Buckley and Joe Thomas, both from The Inbetweeners), who compete with each other in an endless round of insults and sales. Lavender is, inevitably, called "lavatory" by the other blokes.
It is very hard to tell at times what White Gold is up to. It satirizes Thatcher-era Britain as a place where shallow, slick con men could take advantage of people and feel they were, somehow, following Margaret Thatcher's orders. There is racism and sexism, too, much of which is shocking because you realize it was rampant as recently as the mid-1980s.
One review of White Gold in Britain said it was about "Thatcher's most odious children." That's accurate, but one suspects some viewers will celebrate what it mocks and asks you to laugh at.
Certainly, it is often funny in a very British way. "There are three types of wanker in this world," Vincent says in the first episode, then goes on to explain how the three differ. He's happy to report that he is on the list and has no problem with that. It's a funny monologue.
What is particularly striking about the show is that it often seems entirely plausible. One can easily believe that Vincent and his cohorts made a fortune selling double-glazed windows to customers who fell for their patter and promises. One can also believe that women were treated the way the female characters are depicted in White Gold – with affectionate contempt.
It's the plausibility of White Gold that makes it as unnerving as it is weirdly funny.