There can’t be many of us that haven’t indulged in one of those “Who remembers… (insert ancient tuck-shop favourite of your choice)” discussions. It’s a trusty old chestnut usually rolled out when everyone’s too blitzed to sustain a proper conversation. Frustratingly, it always tends to yield the same old familiar examples: Texan bars, sweet cigarettes, and Spangles (assuming you happen to socialise with 40-something geriatrics like me). Occasionally though, some genius will mention something more obscure, some mid-Seventies delicacy that’s remained buried in your sub-conscious for decades, eliciting that warm glow of nostalgia and unleashing a chain of rose-tinted memories.
Robert Opie’s documentary In Search Of Our Throwaway History taps into that bittersweet sensation interspersing reminiscences from a generational cross-section of the British public with countless images of the fondly remembered groceries under discussion. But it’s so much more than a dewy-eyed 120-minute wallow in some idealised past. Opie’s film takes us right back to the origins of consumer culture, covering the birth and development of an extensive range of goods that have become household essentials. Along the way, numerous nuggets of historical fact accompany a ceaseless parade of immaculately preserved packaging from the Victorian age onwards. From the amusingly trivial (the UK’s failed 1950’s attempt to compete with the US cola giants in the form of Kitty Kola, and the ghastly sounding “Penny Licks”, a pre-wafer method of serving ice cream to Edwardian street urchins) to the socially significant (the demise of the domestic servant due to the introduction of labour-saving cleaning products, and the alarming popularity of quack medicines that – with no scientific basis whatsoever – promised to cure every ailment from “sour belchings” to chest pains). I dare say that Bile Beans and Dr Williams Pink Pills for Pale People had a negligible effect on the nation’s well-being.
Opie starts by describing of the circumstances that led to the advent of the “pack-age” (as he terms it). It’s fascinating to discover that before manufacturers supplied their goods in bespoke containers, unscrupulous shopkeepers would ‘cut’ tea leaves with whatever dark powdery substance came to hand including broom dust! Concerns over product reputation (more so than public health, I’d suggest) forced the manufacturer’s hand, meaning that the days of grocers selling loose goods became a distant memory, opening the way for a new, highly potent method of advertising – the package – and the eventual monopoly by supermarket chains. Opie then considers different types of product in turn, balancing snippets of social / manufacturing history with heart-warming personal anecdotes from his interviewees, illustrated by an array of relevant products. A middle-aged woman takes guilty pleasure in recounting how she would sneakily gorge on Lyons Individual Fruit Pies at her office desk. Another recalls how transforming a box of Vesta’s dehydrated husk into an enticingly exotic culinary experience made her feel “rebellious”. A couple of 40-something men barely retain composure as they reminisce about KP’s Skydivers and Football Crazy snacks, and the free gifts given away with breakfast cereal (illustrated by an eye-popping display of those much-coveted plastic treasures, normally unearthed after an elbow-deep decent into a sticky mass of Sugar Puffs with a filthy hand).
Inevitably, depending on your age and the extent to which you’re interested the history of packaging per se, some sections will prove more arresting than others. The sequences devoted to promotional items such as collectible cigarette cards and coupons are necessary but perhaps a little too protracted compared to those celebrating beloved products of universal nostalgic appeal (crisps, chocolate, biscuits etc). But even then, most will enjoy being reminded of the mysterious allure of Green Shield stamps and the heady aroma of PG Tips as they ripped through the empty container to reach a tiny, cellophane-wrapped card depicting a blue tit feeding its young.
In common with Opie’s excellent Notting Hill museum, In Search… is a colour-saturated cavalcade of both eternally popular goods and those that time forgot. Studying the on-screen displays for obscure products is a huge part of the fun. Vaguely remembered, fly-by-night comestibles (butter-flavoured Ready Brek, Bacon & Mushroom Kung Fuey snacks, Cabana chocolate bar) provide those tingles of nostalgia while more aged examples hold an alluring historical charm being strongly evocative of their era (Diana Dors-approved Golden Godwin ‘champagne’, intriguingly named instant coffee Quofty, the elegant femme fatales that adorn beautiful 1930’s cocktail adverts).
As a low-budget video production, In Search… relies on ‘talking head’ material and stills. Clips from television adverts and more archive footage may have enlivened the presentation but would no doubt have proved costly. In any event, as the emphasis is on packaging, the extensive use of static images is clearly the most appropriate way of illustrating the charmingly upbeat script, subtly accompanied by era-relevant music. Robert Opie makes a warm, engaging host whose great enthusiasm for the subject shines through. The tone is light-hearted throughout, with Opie even serenading us with a bygone Heinz jingle at one point. More seriously, he makes a compelling case for this aspect of modern history deserving more much attention, bravely arguing that the evolution of mass-produced goods has resulted in a levelling effect across the class system.
The extras on the 2-disc collectors edition consist of a trailer, two short interviews with Robert Opie (respectively concentrating on his research methods and his motivations); a brief look at the typical shopping basket decade-by-decade; a deleted scene; and footage of the 1940’s-style theme Take Me Back studio recording. A generous collection of supplements for a low-budget niche* release with the Opie interviews providing some fascinating background detail to what has driven the maverick historian. The set also contains an informative 16 page booklet.
As an easily digested history lesson and a heartfelt reflection on the numerous brands that have touched and changed our lives, In Search… is certainly far more illuminating and rewarding than bemoaning the demise of Spangles with your drunken friends. Highly recommended.
* Unfortunately, the DVD is unlikely to sell in huge quantities but the subject at hand is certainly far being from a niche interest.