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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Profits reunited
Britain's latest boom industry is nostalgia. We can't get enough of the businesses that help us relive our past. We're dancing to hits from the 1980s and dressing up as school children. The Money Programme investigates the nostalgia industry.

At the heart of it all is the multi-million pound online phenomenon that brings old school mates back together - Friends Reunited.

Steve Pankhurst lives in a typical street in north London - but he has an extraordinary business story to tell. It all started three years ago when Steve and his wife Julie were expecting their first child. Julie's mind turned back to her school days: "I was three months pregnant with Amber - and just started to wonder what my old school mates were up to now. "

Julie's idea was to create a website which brought old friends back together. It was the peak of the online explosion with investors pouring billions into start-ups.

Steve was already in the business, working as a computer programmer. "I remember sitting down one day when dotcoms were booming and we just looked at each other and said if we can't make money out of this I don't know who can," he says.

The site was very simple - it listed every school in the country and allowed fellow classmates to leave a message on the site. Friends Reunited went live in July 2000 and to begin with was only receiving a measly 20 hits a day.

Everything changed in January when the site was named as 'pick of the day' on BBC Radio 2's Steve Wright show. Britain was smitten and within six months half a million people had joined up.

The site had been free but as the membership avalanched, running costs rose and Steve and Julie decided to charge 5. Just two months later when the membership broke through the one million mark, they knew this was more than a temporary fad.

School Disco

The Pankhursts tapped into our nostalgia for schooldays and the music that went with it. A time of innocent fun when anything seems possible. A rose tinted vision of our days in short trousers and pleated skirts is at the heart of the nostalgia boom.

Every week thousands of grown-ups are dressing up in ties, white socks and pleated skirts and going to school discos. DJ Bobby Sanchez came up with the idea three years ago after being sacked for playing a Shakin' Stevens record. "I used to live near my own school and driving past it the idea came to me - let's invent a club where you can wear school uniform, helping us to go back to our past with the music."

Sanchez borrowed 200 to hire his first venue - a small restaurant in Mayfair. But the crowd of 50 soon turned into 500 and within six months School Disco had outgrown the premises. Sanchez found a permanent home at the former Hammersmith Palais where he now gets a crowd of 2,500 people every night - making it the biggest club in Britain.

SchoolDisco.com has become a multi-million pound business. As well as the club nights in London, Sanchez holds discos in Manchester and Bristol. Last summer he turned over 1.2m in a single day when 40,000 people attended School Fields, a giant musical sports day on Clapham Common. Here and now

School Disco has helped 80s music become hip again. Music promoter Tony Denton is satisfying that demand by taking bands that were top of the pops 20 years ago back on the road.

Denton's headline act is Dollar - David Van Day and Thereza Bazar - who had a string of hits in the 80s like Oh L'Amour and Give Me Back My Heart. "It's 1m just to put it out on the road," says Denton, "that's even before any expenses are taken in to consideration."

But like Friends Reunited and School Disco, Denton has grossed millions of pounds from the 80s revival.

Cosy and rosy

So why are people so keen to buy into the naffness of the past? Business expert Charlie Leadbeater believes the appeal of nostalgia is that it allows people to remain young. "You can wear the same clothes you wore when you were young, you listen to the same music, watch the same films, even drive the same cars - so it's a sort of anti ageing process."

The advertising world is drawing on 80s' nostalgia in increasingly blatant ways. Our yearning for the past is being used to sell cars, fashion and even furniture.

"Britain has always sold itself on heritage and nostalgia and a kind of quaint sense of history and in that sense these businesses are kind of straight in line with that very historic tendency," explains Leadbeater. "It's about Britain selling its history."

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 5 March 2003.




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