December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

What was life like before digital?

7 min read
What was it like to grow up in the world before digital? Late Boomer Tony McMahon reveals all!

It’s a question that Gen-Zers often pose to their elders. How on earth did we live before the smartphone? Let me make it clear at the outset, this Boomer (born 1963) is both an enthusiast and advocate for digital and wouldn’t want to return to my analogue past. But how we got to where we are today is fascinating. And as a late Boomer, I’ve lived through the whole damned process. So, join me to discover how we transitioned from the old world to the new. What was life like before digital?

TV, pop music, and movies

I don’t want to just list old and new technologies because the change in our lives was far more fundamental than that. As young people in the 1970s and 1980s, three things dominated our lives in the pre-digital world: TV, pop music, and movies at the cinema.

We lived in a three (and after 1982, four) TV channel world. It was basically the BBC versus ITV. TV schedulers regulated our lives with broadcast news bulletins punctuating the day at lunchtime, early evening, and then 9pm for the BBC and 10pm for ITV. Children’s TV came immediately before the early evening news on BBC1. Welsh language TV came mid-afternoon on the same channel. We scanned TV listings in newspapers and magazines like the Radio Times and TV Times to see what was being served up to us and when.

This was the heyday of sofa-based viewing where we were passive recipients of content created for us – and not by us. Dad had his beer. Kids had their Coca-Cola. The whole family was in front of the box most evenings. In some ways, TV was taking over from the music halls and bawdy theatres of the past. Those places had transformed into Bingo venues or were being demolished in the 1970s.

The upside of this BBC/ITV duopoly was that the two channels were under huge pressure to serve up new and original content all the time. In our multi-channel world today, repeats are not the sin they were back in the 1970s. Saturday night saw the nation sit down and expect to be entertained. The tabloid newspapers would then adjudicate on whether the BBC or ITV had won the ratings and entertainment battle.

With our TVs, mounted on four legs, there was no remote control, no satellite dishes, and no cable until the 1990s for most people. Instead, there was an aerial on the roof or sometimes right on top of the TV. Most family homes would have one main TV and maybe portable tellies in other rooms. Broadcasting stopped at around midnight with the BBC playing the National Anthem.

Pop music consumption before digital

Imagine a world with no music downloads or Spotify. Sends a shiver down your spin eh? But in this pre-digital world, we enjoyed a greater proximity to our pop and rock gods. Every week, we spent the school mid-morning break reading broadsheet sized music newspapers like the NME, Melody Maker, or Sounds – depending on your musical preference. The views and even philosophy of the likes of David Bowie or Morrissey had earth shattering significance. At the weekend, we’d pay under a fiver to be right up against the stage at a venue like the Hammersmith Odeon and ogle at the likes of Iggy Pop.

We bought vinyl records, often with beautifully designed sleeves. These would be albums, 12 inch records, and singles. The singles consisted of an A-side song and a B-side, which we’d take to parties to play. They would normally come back home badly scratched. There was an endless battle to diminish the sound of crackling on our vinyl with special sprays and buffing. These cleaning kits were ultimately pretty useless.

The only other audio technology before CDs in the 1980s was tape. I tended to buy the TDK brand with either 60 or 120 minutes of tape. The longer tapes were more prone to snarl inside your recorder and you’d need to deploy a pencil and a massive amount of patience to save your tape. The main upside of this medium was that it allowed us to create mixes for friends and share our latest taste in music around.

Movies before digital

As Quentin Tarantino has so wisely observed, the 1970s were actually an amazing time for movies. Every genre excelled and we got an incredible choice from Star Wars to The Exorcist to The Godfather, etc. We would watch Film 71, 72, 73, etc (name changed every year obviously) to hear veteran movie critic Barry Norman tell us what was worth watching. Video took off in the 1980s when the price of the bulky player slotted under your TV lowered, but before that you had to traipse down to the cinema to catch a new release or wait for it to appear on TV, which might take some time.

There was no streaming and the era of high production value Netflix drama series was way in the future. Movies did have sequels and prequels and the early naughties reached a high point for cinema when I remember being down the local multiplex every other week to catch the latest Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings instalment. Those sequels and spin-offs are still being churned out but now you download at home at the flick of a button.

DISCOVER: Punk and Ska movies of the 1980s

Before digital there was no social media

How did we survive without Tik Tok? Watching the first season of Strange Evidence, where the kids are always charging around on their bikes, reminded me of childhood in the 1970s. Our lives were an adventure on two wheels. Leaving the house was liberation. We met our friends outdoors and out of sight of our parents. We arranged to meet by phone or by knocking on a mate’s front door and urging them to “come out to play”.

Before social media, it was very easy to lose contact with friends. Of course that was sad in some ways but it also created a degree of forward momentum. You left the past behind and when a friendship had run its course, it just disappeared. With social media, it does feel like you carry your entire past with you all the time. I remember when Friends Reunited first appeared at the turn of the millennium, I was contacted by people I hadn’t seen since the 1980s. In all honesty, I refused to respond and shut my account down. Let sleeping dogs lie.

I guess the biggest difference with social media today is the sense that you are constantly performing and broadcasting. And creating ‘content’. In the pre-digital world, if you wanted to make your view known or ‘perform’ publicly in any way, your only hope was a letter or article in the local newspaper about something you’d done or said.

FIND OUT MORE: Pen Pals – making friends overseas before digital

No smartphone before digital

It’s easy to forget that the iPhone has only been with us since 2007. To speak to friends in the 1970s and 1980s, you used the landline at home. If you were out and about, then the payphone inserting either 2p or 10p coins. If you were in a pub, there might be a phone you could use normally kept under the bar and brought out on request.

Payphones, thankfully, were cleaned in those days and I recall at college in Liverpool, half the street might be queueing to use the payphone as many lower income families didn’t have a landline. People weren’t shy about banging on the window and asking you to get a move on. Outside the Dominion Theatre in London, there used to be a row of phoneboxes that were always busy.

The absence of smartphones meant that we killed dead time travelling on public transport by reading. Books, comics or newspapers were an essential for alleviating periods of boredom. If we turned up at our destination and a friend hadn’t arrived and was very late, making contact could be a real pain. You couldn’t coerce somebody into talking to you in the way you can now.

And finally – writing letters

Clearing out my parents’ attic after my father’s death, I found letters from friends written forty years ago. Some friends would write regularly while others felt the need to put pen to paper once every so often as the mood seized them. I was forever writing letters and never sending them because I couldn’t be bothered to buy the stamp and envelope. We would normally have a Basildon Bond writing pad and leaky biro to hand but most of the time, you picked up the phone to make contact. If you were on holiday, you’d send postcards.

What I did notice from these old letters is that the prose was more formal and often verged on the pretentious. We did like to quote our latest philosophical muse at each other. Really thought we were Jean-Paul Sartre sharing our deepest thoughts with Simone de Beauvoir. Email has allowed us to write more often though in a less considered way. Not necessarily a disaster given that our letters in the past were not the literary gems we kidded ourselves they were.

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