Rolling Thunder: Bullets, bikinis, badasses and black Trans-Ams. One: Introduction and Prologue

Do we really need a series of articles about all of those cheesy 80’s action TV shows featuring Trans-Am-driving, jeep-flipping, helicopter-dangling, one dimensional heroes? Yes we do. Find out why…

In a new series of articles entitled Rolling Thunder, Mike from Chin Stroker VS Punter takes a nostalgic look back at shows like The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Street Hawk, Knight Rider, The Dukes of Hazzard, Airwolf and more. Sharing memories and thoughts on key episodes, vehicles, theme tunes and larger than life characters, to explore a world of bullets, bikinis, badasses and black Trans-Ams.

Growing up in Birmingham England in the 1970s and 80s meant your imagination and dreams were split between two worlds. On the one hand we had the (to a 7-year-old) gritty realism of Grange Hill and Brookside, accompanied by the (albeit filtered) documentary prism of John Craven’s Newsround and Blue Peter. We also had the grimly portentous kiddie-horror of safety videos that would be sombrely marched out on the otherwise welcome and benign television on wheels, warning us not to piss about on train tracks or near power lines. Our world was one of parka jackets, milk-floats and freezing playgrounds. But there was another world. A dream world. An American world.

Through the portals of our televisions, cinema screens, radios and (later) video recorders we were offered a tantalising glimpse of glamour, bloodless and consequence-free danger and clear-cut morality. It was a world, for the most part, inhabited by adults: fast talkers, who were even faster with their fists. But fastest of all were their rides. Sports cars, helicopters, speed boats, space ships and sometimes, all of the above.

I was born in 1973 and my earliest memories of this came though music and the toys of some of the older kids. Most American TV shows at the time would have been a little too mature for me, or on a little too late, but every now and then I’d get to hear the distinctively shrill Mike Post and Pete Carpenter Rockford Files theme tune or (if I was very lucky) the melancholy of the M.A.S.H. opening theme or Rockwellian ruralism of The Walton’s. The first time I would get to experience this more fully would be with The Six Million Dollar Man, specifically through its unforgettable opening credit sequence and (as would increasingly be the case later) the show’s associated toys.

Ancillary materials like comics and toys should never be underestimated in their importance when it comes to the solidifying of our the nostalgia for this period. The room to dream they afforded was immeasurable, and the pleasure to be derived from rolling back the condom-like rubber sheaf on his forearm to reveal the ‘bionics’ behind Steve Austin (aka the titular Six Million Dollar Man) cannot be understated.

The ubiquity of television advertising for these products meant they were ever present, with older franchises like Planet of the Apes also managing to be part of that landscape. The series, created on the back of the success of the original films, had enjoyed a small renaissance as a staple of Sunday afternoon TV, but it had always struck me as something for the ‘tough’ or ‘older kids’ simply because it was so weird and anarchic. School fairs and fetes were also a dreamland for this kind of stuff too, with franchises like The Man From UNCLE, Star Trek and Starsky and Hutch making regular appearances in second-hand toy and hard-back annual form among the tombolas, raffles, bagged goldfish and partly dressed (and in many cases limbed) Action Man’s (Men?). And it wasn’t unusual for us to have to look to the past for our entertainment. I remember being glued to the repeats on Saturday mornings of King of the Rocketmen, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, themselves already several generations removed. But it would be these plucky serials that ultimately inspired the first seismic shift in our popular culture – Star Wars.

I’ll try not digress too much into discussion about Star Wars, but suffice to say the influence of that franchise can’t be underestimated, especially when it comes to how it taught us to play. Back in the mid-seventies, we played with our toys in broader, more conceptual terms like ‘army’ and ‘cowboys and Indians’. But Star Wars gave us environments, characters, rules and a universe to contextualise our play. And the volume of nostalgia 40+ geeks have for those original films is, I believe, not tied to the films – but to that play. In the pre-VCR age, it was the only way to re-experience the film (try convincing your 1970’s mom to take you to the cinema to see Star Wars a second time). Sure, there was the soundtrack album, comics and (if you were my spoilt next-door-but one neighbour David) the Super 8mm highlights reel. But that was it. When I get misty eyed about the original Star Wars it’s not even the film I am pining for, it’s the summer holidays and pure joy of being picked to be Han Solo, loading figures into my AT-AT walker or finding a stick that made a perfect blaster or light-sabre.

Star Wars also made everything that came before it seem DULL AS SHIT. BBC2 had Star Trek on weeknights, but to paraphrase JJ Abrams, Star Trek was classical music… Star Wars was rock ‘n’ roll. Throw in the toys and forget about it. By 1978, when the film finally made it to the UK and the crowds had died down enough for my parents to take me, my imagination had truly been fired. BJ and The Bear, Starsky and Hutch, Bionic men and women, Kojak and Hawaii Five-O – they just didn’t cut it any more. That world of parkas, milkmen and freezing playgrounds was gone.

Sadly, television was slow to respond. We lived in a world free of restrictions, yet TV seemed to be all about them. Whether it was budget, effects or just ambition, everything just felt more diminutive on television, and while we did get Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers (both shows I loved) neither was really built to last. Galactica was successful enough to get its three hour opening ‘event’ released theatrically in Europe (where I saw it as a five year old, not even realising it was a TV show) but its ‘space opera’ aesthetic called for a budget that was too much for even for the mighty Glen Larson. And, once it was cancelled, the sets were quickly repurposed for Larson’s even campier space disco Buck Rogers and the risible sequel series Galactica 80.

If Star Wars really was the poster movie for the post-Nixon/Vietnam/Auteur Hollywood era of escapism, we needed a TV equivalent. If it really did use the reliable tropes of the western like people said it did, then it made sense for TV to do something similar. Something that promised escapism, danger, romance and freedom – just on a television budget. George Lucas had replaced saloons with space ports and horses with speeder bikes and Tauntauns. And with the early 1980s upon us, kids like me would need to put away our horses and get ready to saddle up a very different kind of Mustang.

Next Time: But first a movie: Smokey & the Bandit.

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