The Weather is a strange thing. Not weather itself, though it can feel so in the alternating cloud-breaks and scorching sun of Edinburgh, but TV weather forecasts. Nestled after the day’s bulletins, they present a kind of arbitrary looping news, though one loaded with significance for the British national character. We famously talk about the weather when we have nothing else to talk about, or nothing else we want to talk about. This discourse of meteorology offers the frequency for Little Bulb’s latest broadcast, which shrouds a state-of-the-nation satire in a fog bank of 1980s kitsch.
On its surface Squally Showers is an evocation of a decade, of Pebble Mill mornings and test card afternoons. Fred Talbot’s floating weather map makes elusive appearances, and the language of Pan Pipes, pastel-power dressing and ITV regional idents is beautifully enunciated. Any sense of nostalgia, however, is broken up by the stilted and stylised register of the performances and dialogue. This is a mediated version of the recent past, at times as fuzzy as a fifth generation VHS copy, and at others enacted in wildly exaggerated cliches that are the 1980s equivalent of Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy. It forces us to consider the past directly through the lens of the present, collapsing the attitudes and accidents we view into our own immediate frame of reference.
As usual with Little Bulb, the plot swims somewhere beneath the aesthetic, emerging in vignettes of hiring, firing, promotion and demotion within the organisation. There are also snatches of characters’ domestic lives: a work hard/play hard society where men are men and women negotiate the twisted version of gender equality bequeathed by Thatcherism.
The economic crisis is its most obvious theme, and the sense of despair or aimlessness a depression can create. The vocabulary of the weather forecast, of storms growing and passing, suggests a hopeful outlook, but the naivety of this is also undercut. The figure of a rubber-masked Thatcher cavorting in a whirlwind of banknotes is almost too weird to feel as thuddingly blunt as it sounds, and when performers begin to maraud the stage in wolf and zombie masks, the political symbology becomes harder to take home with you. We’re reminded that tooth and claw capitalism creeps cult-like into every aspect of the characters’ lives, and offered the image of a confused unicorn as a beacon of optimism. Whether the beast is intended as a symbol of true hope or the fantastical great white hope of a self-regulating market is unclear.
That self-belief that everything will turn out alright in the end, that storms can be weathered and sunny days will soon be here again feels pretty deflated by the collision between the then and now which Little Bulb have arranged. Squally Showers iconic moment may be one of its smallest, where weather girl Peg reaches her hand to the projected image of a weather system and caresses and cups its high and low pressure fronts like the curves of a lover’s body. There’s such tenderness and faith in something so arbitrary, as arbitrary and unbiddable as the stock market. No wonder it all went wrong.
Darker in tone and richer in content than Little Bulb’s earlier work, it’s also less complete, and while there’s a definite pleasure in letting go in their constantly suggestive cloud of bubbles, strands such as the prospect of amorous extraterrestrial contact feel under-explored. There are sections that could be tightened and others that could stand to be cut entirely. Squally Showers also struggles to end, and the point it makes about repetition itself becomes repetitive before the forecast is over.
When the ending finally arrives, its message is only ambiguously uplifting. It suggests that, for all of its evident greed and callousness, perhaps there was a bright side to the radical individualism and self-definition of the 1980s. Maybe its outward confidence and optimism offered something to shelter us against the storms that are currently overhead? History is cyclical, tyrants rise and fall, Thatcher dies, money showers down then dries like an August puddle. If you can’t change the weather, you can at least put up an umbrella.