Friday night brought a metric tonne of canapés and troughs of fizz on Friday night as the Pargetter and Archer families gathered at Lower Loxley for Elizabeth’s 50th birthday shindig. Earlier in the week, Liz told Shula that Lily had hinted at a music heavy night, but nothing could prepare us for what that actually entailed. I’m sure I can’t have been the only one willing the party to be just like Abigail’s Party – how I longed for Lilian to glide up to Lower Loxley, layered in boundless orange chiffon and all to a waft of of Demis Roussos. But alas, there was to be no soft Greek balladry and no Fag Ash shimmying in the moonlight.
Instead, Lily’s playlist was an interesting blend of pop which chronologically swung through the years with each minute of Friday’s episode. Abba, Marc Almond and Dexy’s Midnight Runners took care of the 70s and 80s, while Madonna, Take That and Lou Bega represented the hits of the 90s. But the feuding Archer family are becoming increasingly fractured in the wake of an outbreak of IBR amongst various herds in the village (we’re still not entirely sure what IBR actually is but that doesn’t seem to matter). Yes, it’s been all ailing beasts and feeble fencing of late – might a spot of muzak be the perfect thing save the village?
As that iconic piano glissando kicked in, it looked as though Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ might just start a chain reaction of hatchet burying across Ambridge as Kenton and Elizabeth let their rift fizzle away just as the Swedish quartet sang ‘you’re in the mood for a dance…’. This is a song which comes pre-loaded with nostalgia – we’re invited to either identify with, or wanting to be with, the carefree seventeen year-old dancer.
Yes, that’s all of us in that song – we’re dancing, jiving, we’re having. the. time. of. our. lives. I’m exhausted even thinking about it. And that’s because this is a song that tells us to dance like no one’s watching – which is a terrible idea. It’s asking us to recall an earlier time, when life was simple. Remember those days? No, neither do we.
Suffice to say, within the opening three minutes, the dialogue and the disco suggest that reconciliation might be the theme for the entire episode. But while the party music optimistically supports Kenton and Elizabeth’s rebuilding, each song carries a darker side too. Over the course of the next few blogs we’ll be taking a walk with a couple of the pairs of conversations that we were privy to that night because while Lily’s playlist might well begin with a song about not caring about whether you’re being watched, the fact is that the ‘dancing queen‘ is always under surveillance and Lily’s careful curation underscores measured monitoring by all in attendance at the party.
So, rather than go through a song by song analysis – we’re interested in how various partnerships crackle against the musical ‘interference’ in the background. Having said that, as ‘Dancing Queen’ fades away, Soft Cell’s dark new-wave, cover version of Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ howls across the awkward familial forum. It is from here that I start by taking a look at one of Ambridge’s most troubled partnerships at present: Pip and Ruth.
As avid listeners to DumTeeDum and pottering away as we do on Twitter, I know it’s not a popular opinion to say this but poor old Pip. She’s a young woman in a relationship with an oik who is at best, thoughtless and stupid in a Tim-Nice-But-Dim kind of a way and at worst is manipulative in a Titchener-lite kind of a way. Toby certainly measures somewhere on the narcissistic personality disorder scale. I fear the latter and for that reason he needs a dunking in the sheep dip and should be sent on his merry way.
Either way, Pip is so captivated by Toby’s bullshittery that I do worry that her side of the Archers clan is in danger of watching her gradually drift away in the same way Helen did. We’ve seen (or rather heard) Pip become increasingly isolated, and meaningful relationships fractured, after Toby encouraged her to withhold the truth about fences, cows, that IBR thing and let’s not forget the £5k she foolishly gave him for his gin enterprise. To her credit, she has been trying to confess and last week, finally got a word in edgeways between her parents who were devastated with disappointment. Pip has been trying her hand at bridge-building ever since. As ‘Tainted Love’ pings awkwardly across the room, Pip approaches her Mother:
‘I got you a drink Mum’ (2mins 54secs)
The pair exchange small talk but look away from each other and toward the gestures and movements of the other guests. Looking out at the party serves means they don’t have to look in at each other; avoiding eye contact publicly helps in distracting from their private inner turmoil. The twisting strands of dialogue, intonation, musical setting and lyric all wrap around each other here.
As Marc Almond sings ‘…seems to go nowhere’, Pip attempts an optimistic tone by saying how well she thinks the party is going. But as she surveils the room, the backdrop of the squelching synths of Soft Cell, accompanied by a drum machine pattern that doesn’t quite shuffle along in time speak of something different. Accordingly, Ruth’s response is more downbeat and positions Pat and Tony well out of view, while commenting on what she perceives as ‘iciness’ from Brian and Jennifer. More tension is wrung out of the scene with the lyric ‘…once I ran to you, now I run from you…’ takes on familial resonance that speaks for both Pip and Ruth. It is a changed relationship, a complicated one that is in danger of breaking altogether. The complexities of love is, of course at the heart of Soft Cell’s interpretation of the song – an 80s gay anthem and so it is interesting that the next time we hear from Ruth and Pip is framed by another queer moment in pop music history.
If the sound effect of a toilet flushing (7mins 29secs) isn’t a sonic cue that all is a bit…well…toilet…then I’m not sure what is. It transpires that Pip has followed her Mum to the loo to finally confront her about the awkwardness between them. Pip wants to flush away…oh never mind…but let’s just say the toilet is the perfect place for this chat and even Madonna agrees as she sings ‘so use it that’s what it’s for…’ from her 90s classic ‘Vogue’.
The scene is relatively short, with Pip pleading for honesty and transparency while Ruth suggests her thoughts and feelings are best locked away, for Pip’s sake. The majority of this dialogue takes place over the pre-chorus of the song, the moment Madonna explains the universality of ‘Vogue’ – that ‘it makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl…’. And so at a surface level, ‘Vogue’ can be perceived as speaking on behalf of Pip’s longing for openness with Ruth.
But if you’ve seen the extraordinarily important and compelling documentary ‘Paris is burning’ , you’ll know that Vogueing isn’t just about a particular dancing style or merely the action of striking a pose. Rather, it is the dance component of the ball scene in New York, a space made by and for queer, people of colour in the late 80s. In post-Stonewall NYC, this was a highly political and poignant moment in queer history. While vogueing is understood as a kind of posturing, Willy Ninja beautifully explains here that the moves are the manifestation of the practice of ‘throwing shade’ – a kind of dance argument of sorts. As Pip and Ruth arrange to secretly meet in another quiet space in the party, it becomes clear that Ruth is preparing to throw some serious Ambridge shade at her daughter (we’ll file that one under ‘things I never thought I’d type’). And so at 10mins 22secs Pip says it can’t be worse than she’s imagining. In other words, she already thinking badly of herself and is ready for a shady dressing down.
As the scene unwinds, Lou Bega’s interpretation of Perez Prado’s ‘Mambo no.5’ gradually comes into auditory focus. Bega’s monotone voice and sporadic raspy trumpet fanfare occasionally catches our attention, as an anchor point for Ruth’s list home truths. But Pip doesn’t retaliate in the way that ‘Vogue’ or rather, ‘Paris is burning’ suggested she might, instead she is full of apology and sadness. Set against the ubiquitous, light, sort of ridiculous tone of ‘Mambo No.5’, Ruth’s anger is made all the more dramatic by its contrast; a combination of four jabs at Pip with a list of faceless women with nice old lady names;
‘Ruth: You’ve made a fool of me…I’ve been your champion…I kept your secrets…I’m ashamed of you’.
‘Bega: A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica by my side, a little bit of Rita is all I need…’
Poor Pip. Don’t you think?