White Gold, a new sitcom from one of the creators of The Inbetweeners, transports viewers back to the big hair and brash attitudes of 1980s Essex. The county, now infamous for its clichéd stereotypes, once embodied the social mobility and individualism of that dynamic decade. Why is its image so enduring more than 30 years on?
The sound of 80s classics by the likes of Hall and Oates, Joe Jackson and Kim Carnes pepper White Gold – which refers to the double glazing the three central characters peddle for hugely inflated prices to naive customers.
Set in Basildon in 1983, the show uses music, costumes and other period touches to evoke the dynamic decade which witnessed a huge amount of social and cultural change.
For written and director by Damon Beesley who grew up in Stanford-le-Hope, near Basildon, there was only one choice when it came to where his new show should be set.
“It had to be Essex. It couldn’t have been anywhere else,” said Beesley – one half of the team behind the hugely popular Channel 4 comedy series The Inbetweeners.
“I remember when we were in the time of the miners’ strikes, the country was in disarray, we were polarised in our politics.
“But where I lived, we experienced the benefits of Margaret Thatcher’s policies: social mobility was occurring and people were making money.”
The show’s main character, Vincent Swan, is a cocky, charismatic young family man who lands a job as a double glazing salesman after getting fired from his position at an oil refinery.
It’s also here where Beesley has taken inspiration from real life: his father worked at Coryton oil refinery before moving into the world of double glazing when he was laid off.
“He used to say if the flare on top of one of the stacks at the refinery went out, we’d all be blown to smithereens,” Beesley remembers.
“I used to look at it every night before I went to bed to see if it was still alight.”
And the refinery – which closed in 2012 and is now decommissioned – proved a memorable backdrop for Beesley’s trips to film White Gold on location in Stanford-le-Hope, Corringham and elsewhere in Thurrock.
“We’d drive in early every morning, and we’d get to that area of Essex just as the sun was rising,” he said.
“The skyline is dominated by the industry there, old and new, and there’s something about the physical side of the landscape and industry that has always stayed with me.
“It can be hard to get film crews to come outside of the M25, but for me it was important to get them out to Essex. They became a bit Essex when they got there – it imbued them with a sense of the county and what we were trying to get across with White Gold.
“Essex has also got really funny, quick-witted people. It reminds me of The Sopranos, which was set in New Jersey. There are a lot of parallels – they’re working-class areas where the jobs dried up.”
In the first episode of the show, Vincent’s move into double glazing sees him raking in cash from selling uPVC windows – which were very cheap to make and could be sold for huge profits.
Beesley says the character is a metaphor for move towards individualism in the 1980s – and the subsequent “erosion of the fabric of society”.
The Conservatives’ Right To Buy policy meant swathes of people had bought their council homes and were then keen to individualise with innovations like uPVC windows.
“Progress was happening, and with that came rampant individualism,” he said.
“Vincent takes shortcuts, and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake under the justification of ambition and pulling himself up.
“We could have made it a story about Newcastle during that time, but that’s a story which has already been told.
“This era and area hadn’t been explored yet. And, of course, I write from what I know.”
Historian Sean Lang, a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, said Essex in the 1980s perfectly represented the way the whole country changed over the course of the decade.
Margaret Thatcher’s election ushered in a new era, he said, changing the country’s power base from heavy industry to new types of work: “office-based, service industries, lighter industry like computer construction”.
“Places like Essex had a head start with that,” Dr Lang said. “It had long been known as working class, but it was a working class that pulled away from the image that had dominated the 1970s.”
Dr Lang said the county also showed the “contradiction of the working-class voting Conservative” was, indeed, a real possibility.
He said Thatcher had often spoken of a “property-owning democracy” – a sense of opportunity that had formerly been closed off to working-class people, and one that encouraged them to develop an “I’m as good as you” attitude.
“Essex ticked all the boxes for that – it had the right social demographic – a strong working class that had its roots in London. They were given a confidence not really seen elsewhere outside the South East,” he said.
“Eventually, Essex became a shorthand term for the changes affecting the whole country.
“That’s why the 1980s developed the idea of ‘Essex Man’, with Basildon at the heart of that. It’s where the clichés and stereotypes we still see today were created.”
Essex’s cultural contribution
- The county, home to exiled Londoners, farmers and fisherman alike, has long been a source of inspiration for creative types
- Artist Grayson Perry, from Chelmsford, celebrated his home county with an artwork called House for Essex, a conceptual holiday home inspired by a mythical woman called Julie
- Waterstones Book of the Year, The Essex Serpent, was written by Chelmsford-born Sarah Perry and is inspired by the myth of a sea serpent on the Blackwater estuary
- Bands including Depeche Mode, Blur, The Prodigy and Dr Feelgood all originated in Essex
During the making of the show, the cast were told to forget about everything they thought they knew about the county from The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) and other shows.
Two of the stars, Joe Thomas and James Buckley, are from the county and have family there.
The pair, who played Simon and Jay in The Inbetweeners, take on the roles of salesmen Martin Lavender and Brian Fitzpatrick.
Those who don’t know the county well, however, might come to the show with different perceptions of what Essex was, and still is.
As Dr Lang says, the “difficult legacy” from the 1980s was the “image problem for the whole county depicted in programmes like TOWIE”.
Beesley says his show is about a “different Essex” – a time when the groundwork for the stereotypes was being laid, but before the clichés had taken hold.
“These are people with ambition who want to better themselves,” he says. “Vincent is constantly trying to be better than he is.
“The perception of Essex as a place with perma-tanned, vain people with no ambition beyond looking good and making money, what we wanted to do was create an Essex in our show that pre-dated that.
“But they feel like they’re from the same family as that – just a previous generation.”
White Gold airs on BBC Two at 22:00 BST on Wednesdays from 23 May.