Culture in 1984

To help set the scene, we asked current student Eleanor Metcalf (2012, English) to explore the cultural highlights of 1984, the year that women students arrived at Pembroke.

Before writing this article I conducted extensive and thorough research by emailing my parents and asking them about their memories of what British culture was like in 1984.

‘It was a golden year,’ my dad replied wistfully – perhaps because at that point his life was still blissfully child-free. He was referring specifically to the music of that year; but in fact 1984 seems to have been a golden year for all aspects of British culture.


The year’s literature was overshadowed by the presence of Orwell’s novel 1984, and the relief that Britain had evaded the dystopian future it described. Nevertheless there were other notable highlights. The Booker Prize that year was won by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, although Julian Barnes’ shortlisted novel Flaubert’s Parrot is doubtless the better-known to today’s readers. Elsewhere, the British writer Angela Carter’s penultimate novel, Nights at the Circus, went on sale, and overseas Milan Kundera’s postmodern masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published.

The charts in 1984 were graced by many songs which are still favourites on the Cambridge club scene 30 years on, with It’s Raining Men and Girls Just Want To Have Fun being just two examples. It was also a bumper year for Christmas classics, as Wham’s Last Christmas and Band Aid’s inaugural single Do They Know It’s Christ mas? were both released. The Smiths put out their first, eponymous album (doubtless the soundtrack to many a Cambridge student’s late-night musings), while by contrast Madonna gave her infamous performance of Like A Virgin across the pond at the MTV awards.


It was also a stellar year for TV in terms of old favourites; 1984 saw the first airing of shows which are still popular today (albeit amongst very different audiences): Crimewatch and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. David Attenborough’s documentary The Living Planet was also aired, paving the way for him to become the national treasure that he is today.

It was America, though, who dominated the cinema that year, with films such as Footloose, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom leading at the box office while the John Hughes cult kicked off with the release of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Terms of Endearment cleared up at the Oscars, although the British film Educating Rita garnered 3 nominations. Interestingly for PemWomen@30 and our focus on milestones for women, that year Linda Hunt became the first actor to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite sex (Billy Kawn in The Year of Living Dangerously).

Talking of living dangerously, 1984 heralded the debut collection of John Galliano, the enfant terrible of fashion – yet his aesthetic didn’t quite extend to the mainstream.


My mum – a doyenne of fashion, of course – tells me that high-waisted jeans with a shirt tucked in would have been de riguer for students of the time, while for hairstyles one need apparently only ‘look at Princess Diana in 1984’. (In fact, looking at what Princess Diana wore is probably a fairly accurate guide for mainstream British fashion throughout the eighties).

It seems appropriate that the barometer for fashion was female in a year when women were admitted to Pembroke for the first time. While we still recognise some old favourites in the cultural highlights of the eighties, a lot has fallen out of fashion since then as well – not least of all the residual opposition to women joining the college. I leave you with a final anthem from 1984, once that celebrates the enthusiastic inclusion and participation of women: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun.