‘Mum, what’s a phone box?’: watching 80s films with my kids has become a history lesson | Hadley Freeman


“There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production.” So begins Andrew Solomon’s brilliant book Far From The Tree, about parents learning to accept their children’s differences, which I read during my first pregnancy. I get it, I thought. Parents shouldn’t narcissistically expect their children to be the same as them. But just because my kids aren’t the same as me, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be forced to have exactly the same childhood as me.

My parents very much did not make me watch Howdy Doody, or whatever shows they grew up with, but while other modern children are raised on CBeebies and Paw Patrol, mine get 1980s TV shows and movies poured down their gullets. This allows them to enjoy wholesome classics such as Dogtanian and The Princess Bride, and allows me to relive my peak years. Everybody wins! Except, possibly, my children, who, on seeing a little boy dressed as Harry Potter on Halloween, asked if he was the witch in The Wizard Of Oz. They’re like the Amish kid in Witness, bemused by the modern world.

But they’re also bemused by the past. I expected to have to explain some things to them, mainly from the American shows – Mister Rogers, Reading Rainbow – that I have merrily forced on them. You know, educating them in the exotic linguistic differences: “zee” for “zed” and so on. But I didn’t anticipate that I would be explaining actual ancient history.

This started when we watched Back To The Future, which is one of those rare 1980s films I watched as a kid that is just about suitable for kids. (On that subject, Police Academy is way racier than my memories of Mahoney suggested.) My children, naturally, loved Marty McFly (they didn’t fall that far from the tree) and they grasped the concept of time travel. But something else threw them. It’s in the scene when Marty’s in the diner in 1955 … what is that weird box he’s walking into?

“That’s a phone box. It’s what people used to make calls in before they had mobiles,” I said. They stared at me, as if I spoke of a time before people had oxygen (which doesn’t say great things about how much they see me with my phone, but let’s ignore that). It got worse: what is that book Marty’s looking in?

“That’s a phone book. It’s how people found out other people’s numbers,” I said, suddenly understanding how my grandfather felt that time he told me about growing up without indoor plumbing.

Now, let’s take this apart. Back To The Future is about a teenager who travels back in time 30 years. Sure, people in 1955 don’t know about diet sodas, or padded jackets, or reruns, and Chuck Berry songs don’t exist yet. But, overall, the world in 1955 is recognisable to a kid from 1985. He knows what a phone box and phone book are, for a start.

To kids born in 2015, however, as my twins were, both worlds are completely baffling. Why look up someone’s phone number in a book instead of on the phone itself? (Thank heavens Marty didn’t then use a phone card, surely the most baffling phone-accessory-from-the-past of all.) It’s the same thing with Sesame Street (if Bert can’t find Ernie, why doesn’t he just call him?); with The Muppet Show (why can’t Kermit just ask Google where he could find a new theatre?); with The Karate Kid (why doesn’t Daniel just take an Uber instead of always riding his bike?).

Times change, technology changes: this has always been a source of comedy for time-travel movies (although Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure dates itself now, given Bill and Ted travel in a bloody phone box). But the changes over the past 40 years, not just in our daily lives but in how we think, have been so vast and fast that the past is another solar system. This explains the rise of micro-generations, such as the latest one, dubbed “geriatric millennials”, referring to anyone born between 1980 and 1985, meaning those who remember life pre-Facebook, but not pre-Myspace. I’m even more geriatric and am a “xennial”, between generation X and (geriatric) millennials, which is defined as “neither as disaffected as gen X-ers nor as optimistic as millennials”, or, as I define it, “a little too obsessed with My So-Called Life”.

Mainly, this is down to the rise of the internet and mobile phones, both of which have obliterated things kids in particular relied on for decades, from Encyclopedia Britannicas to actual phone calls, which have been replaced by likes and emojis. How to explain all the Walkmans in 80s movies? The Discmans in 90s movies? And – soon – iPods in 2000s movies? (A phone that doesn’t phone? Genius!) Life moves pretty fast, as an 80s movie once said. It certainly seems to for me, because while my kids are still five, I now sound like an 85-year-old: “Gather close, children, as I tell you about something called the PalmPilot…”

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