Forty years on from the party from hell, we’re just as toe-curling as they were!
Abigail’s Party — with its cheese and pineapple sticks and shagpile — was a biting satire on social pretention. But, says MATTHEW BELL...
WE’RE about to hit a great cultural landmark: the 40th anniversary of the most excruciating drinks party in history. April 1977 saw the stage debut of Mike Leigh’s depiction of the agonies of the suburban soiree in Abigail’s Party, later turned into a BBC TV Play For Today.
Set in the front room of an Essex couple’s home, the hostess plies guests with cheese and pineapple nibbles, frets over the lack of sherry and dances across the shagpile.
It’s a biting satire about the tensions and pretensions of having to keep up with the Joneses. The dreadful hostess, Beverly Moss, is desperate to impress new neighbours Tony and Angela, and another guest, Sue, who’s worried about a party her teenage daughter, Abigail, is holding next door. Needless to say, both parties descend into mayhem.
In 1977, prawn cocktail was the height of elegance and avocado was such an exotic food that bathroom firms manufactured suites in that particular shade of green.
How tastes have changed. But are we any less pretentious than Beverly and her husband Laurence? And isn’t the social angst about getting it right still as deeply felt?
Here, we compare the typical Seventies’ drinks party with today’s gatherings, that we persuade ourselves are oh-so-sophisticated...
GOODBYE TWIGLETS, HELLO TRENDY TAPAS
BEVERLY serves little cubes of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks, laid out in a fan on porcelain plates, along with salted peanuts and crisps in a two-compartment steel snack dish.
Laurence insists on offering olives, but none of the guests likes them (‘They’re horrible, aren’t they?’ sneers Beverly).
Today, there wouldn’t be a cocktail stick in sight — so fiddly and unenvironmentally friendly! Instead, she’d be serving chunks of focaccia on a wooden board with bowls of hummus and extra virgin olive oil for dipping.
Crisps have survived through the decades as a party food, though cheese and onion flavour wouldn’t be served today because everyone knows they give you bad breath. Balsamic vinegar or sea salt are quite punchy enough.
Here are typical party nibbles from the Seventies and their modern equivalents. THEN: Twiglets (pictured). NOW: Grissini (Italian breadsticks). THEN: Quiche Lorraine. NOW: Caramelised onion and goat’s cheese tartlets. THEN: Defrosted prawn vol-au-vents. NOW: Smoked salmon and soured cream blinis. THEN: Cocktail sausages on sticks. NOW: Nigella Lawson’s honey and soy glazed cocktail sausages, eaten with your fingers. THEN: Pickled onions. NOW: Fresh radishes. THEN: Primula cheese on Jacob’s Cream Crackers. NOW: Beetroot, parsnip and sweet potato crisps. THEN: Salted peanuts. NOW: Cashews, pistachioes or mixed macadamias and almonds. THEN: They’d be called nibbles. NOW: Hors d’oeuvres or tapas.
FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT, LESS IS NOW MORE
BEVERLY looks magnificent in an orange maxi dress with a plunging neckline and bare back, accessorised with turquoise eyeshadow and plenty of jangling jewellery.
‘Were we meant to wear long?’ asks Ange nervously, glancing down at her frumpy blue outfit. ‘No, no, it’s just informal,’ Beverly reassures her. But, of course, the hostess has scored the point in the one-upmanship stakes.
These days, less is more, and a simple but expensive looking outfit would trump a cocktail dress. Unless, of course, you’re channeling the Seventies look — in which case go all out to ape Beverly.
WAXING IS IN, HAIRY CHESTS ARE OUT
THEN: Tight-fitting three-piece brown suit and knitted tie. NOW: A crisp blue shirt, with the top one or two buttons undone, and chinos. Definitely no tie. THEN: Hairy chest. NOW: Shaved or waxed chest. THEN: A medallion. NOW: A collection of ‘man bracelets’ — silver and ethnic leather or beaded bands to show you’ve travelled the world and are in touch with your spiritual side.
CHITCHAT THAT NEVER CHANGES …
INEVITABLY, Ange brings up that perennial dinner party staple — house prices. They also discuss cars. Ange and Tony drive a yellow Ford Escort. Estate agent Laurence says he gets a new Mini every year. (Today, he’d drive a flash Audi.)
Today, Ange and Tony might still own a Ford but it would be white.
In the Seventies, people prided themselves on having paid for their motor outright. Now the trend is for buying cars on one of a variety of loan schemes. THEN: Boast about your caravan. NOW: Bang on about how much you love ‘glamping’ or staying in your camper-van at Glastonbury. THEN: Plan a group holiday to Corfu. NOW Plan a group holiday to Bali. THEN: Discussion about TV drama Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, with themes of incest and sexual jealousy. NOW: Talk about Game Of Thrones, with themes of incest and sexual jealousy.
WILD WALLPAPER TO PALE GREY WALLS
ANGE is wowed by Beverly’s brown leather three-piece suite. ‘Ooh, that’s nice!’ she exclaims. Today, it’s cool to have one huge L-shaped sofa, rather than individual pieces. That’s because we spend more time watching TV than
entertaining guests, so there’s no need to face each other. And it’s vital that everyone has a good view of the 48 in telly. THEN: Bold patterned wallpaper. NOW: Pale grey painted walls. THEN: A rubber plant. NOW: Spiky-leaved succulents. THEN: Shagpile carpet. NOW: Lime-washed oak flooring. THEN: Candelabra. NOW: Jo Malone Lime Basil & Mandarin multi-wicked candles. THEN: Valpolicella raffia-covered bottles as lamp bases. NOW: Fairy lights strung jauntily round a plant or halogen spot lights set into the ceiling. THEN: Wicker peacock chair. NOW: Leather recliner. THEN: Scratchy Izal toilet paper. NOW: Aloe vera-infused quilts.
THEN: Unread books on coffee table — Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent Of Man.
NOW: Unread coffee table books of Scandinavian interior design.
BLUE NUN VERSUS A DRY SAUVIGNON
WE ALL think we know a Pinot Noir from a Chardonnay, but in 1977 wine was considered exotic.
When posh Sue brings a bottle of Beaujolais, Beverly commits the social faux pas of putting a red in the fridge.
However, fashion has come full circle — and today wine buffs recommend that light reds such as a Beaujolais should be chilled.
THEN: Beaujolais Nouveau, rushed to local shops in November just weeks after the grape is harvested.
NOW: Much classier Gigondas from the Rhone valley.
THEN: Blue Nun, the ubiquitous semi-sweet German white wine. NOW: Sauvignon Blanc, the dry-ish white. THEN: Mateus Rose in that ubiquitous oval bottle. NOW: Fancy rosé from Provence AND FOR AFTER DINNER: THEN: Irish coffee, topped with thick cream. NOW: Herbal teas (preferably with fresh mint): ‘They help me sleep’. WE’RE STILL CRAZY
ANGE is envious of Beverly’s peagreen-tiled kitchen and her rotisserie.
These days, the bigger and whiter the kitchen is, the better. And no self-respecting hostess is without a vegetable spiralizer, which turns courgettes and similar into a sorry-tasting spaghetti substitute. THEN: Individual avocado dishes. NOW: Irritatingly-shaped dinner plates; square or rectangular — anything but round. THEN: Giant pepper mill. NOW: Marble pot of pink Himalayan salt. THEN: Volcanic Orange Le Creuset. NOW: Coastal Blue Le Creuset. THEN: Teasmade machine. NOW: Cappuccino machine. THEN: Oven Rotisserie. NOW: Aga. THEN: Kenwood mixer. NOW: NutriBullet to make smoothies. THEN: Chest freezer. NOW: Upright American fridge-freezer. THEN: Hostess Trolley. NOW: Casual kitchen supper. THEN: Soda stream. NOW: Soda stream (they’re back!).
BOILED HAM’S NOW AIR-CURED JAMON
THEY never actually get round to eating in Abigail’s Party, but we can imagine what Bev would have served. Prawn cocktail followed by beef tournedos (little round steaks), then profiteroles. The richer the menu, the better, with lots of heavy sauces. Even salads were slathered in salad cream.
Now a dinner party menu is all about freshness and fancy ingredients — pomegranate and chia seeds — and exotic dishes from around the world. THEN: Consommé. NOW: Bone broth. THEN: Salmon en gelée. NOW: Salmon en croûte. THEN: Black forest gateau. NOW: Passion fruit soufflé. THEN: Thousand Island Dressing. NOW: Balsamic glaze. THEN: Iceberg lettuce. NOW: Rocket leaves, pre-washed in spring water. THEN: Nescafe Instant. NOW: Nespresso capsules. THEN: Waiting for prawns to thaw. NOW: Waiting for Ocado delivery. THEN: Boiled ham. NOW: Air-cured jamon. THEN: Trifle. NOW: Fresh fruit platter. THEN: Celery sticks in a glass. NOW: Spiralized vegetables.
FLIRTY IN THE KITCHEN ... AND ON FACEBOOK
IT ALL goes horribly wrong in Abigail’s Party, as Beverly gets more and more drunk and flirts outrageously with neighbour Tony. Then husband Laurence has a heart attack. In panic, she shrieks at him while blowing smoke in his face. These days, the fact anyone was smoking indoors would be considered outrageous. THEN: Park on Tarmac drive. NOW: Park on block paving that’s replaced the front grass to avoid having to pay for parking permits.
THEN: Get barked at by the Alsatian.
NOW: Get slobbered on by the over-friendly Cockapoo. THEN: Everyone smokes indoors. NOW: All guests are non-smokers apart from one guilty vaper. THEN: Flirting in the kitchen with someone inappropriate. NOW: Flirting afterwards via inappropriate ‘friending’ on Facebook.
Horror of a hostess: Alison Steadman (second left) as Beverly