Perms for everyone! The 90s hairdressing documentary that’s one of TV’s finest shows

Perms for everyone! The 90s hairdressing documentary that’s one of TV’s finest shows

Sweet, funny and endlessly touching, re-released 1994 short film Three Salons at the Seaside is a tragicomic joy about pensioner-packed salons – and a hypnotic dispatch from a lost age

Three Salons at the Seaside - screengrab
Perms are non-negotiable … Three Salons at the Seaside. Photograph: BBC iPlayer

On Monday 29 August 1994, sandwiched between a repeat of the 70s sitcom Happy Ever After and a showing of the 1988 movie version of Dangerous Liaisons, BBC Two broadcast one of the finest documentaries ever made. And now, thanks to a sudden wave of renewed interest, Three Salons at the Seaside has returned to iPlayer.

Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, who most recently helmed a couple of episodes of the new Willow series on Disney+, Three Salons at the Seaside is a beautiful, delicate 40-minute film about (as you’d expect) three hairdressing salons in Blackpool, all of which appear to cater exclusively to women aged 70 or above. It feels like a dispatch from a lost age. Customers, no matter how loyal, are always addressed formally. Fishmongers pop in from time to time to take orders. All the phone numbers have five digits. Perms, in all three of the salons, appear to be violently non-negotiable.

This does all sound a bit “Who remembers proper binmen”, I know, but the appeal of Three Salons isn’t nostalgia. Instead, Lowthorpe was clever enough to let the women take centre stage – and it’s spending time in their company that makes for the real joy of this documentary. Although there’s an obvious class difference between the three establishments – one has its opening hours written on notepaper and taped to the door – the clientele have all very clearly clawed through mounds of life.

At the start of the film, conversation flits between casual gossip (a Coronation Street star who had plastic surgery and now looks “like a goldfish”) and how big a sofa needs to be when you only ever sit on the edge of the cushion, but after a while it all begins to coalesce around death. There are dead parents and dead relatives and, in one slightly tragicomic scene, a dead woman called Betty who has to be elaborately described because there were so many old women called Betty knocking around in Blackpool in the mid-90s.

But, overwhelmingly, it is a film about widows. Lowthorpe’s subjects all talk openly – in a bracingly no-nonsense, let’s-get-on-with-things way – about having lost their husbands, and their struggle to carve out a new identity in the world now that they find themselves alone. And, in need of something to gravitate towards, they have all been drawn to their hairdresser. These places have become integral hubs for their customers, all of whom have found community in routine.

This isn’t to say that Three Salons is a bummer, of course. Not only are the women all so fiercely indomitable that only a fool would try to mess with them, but the viewing experience is happily gauzy. Scenes pass by unruffled, interspersed with long, dreamy montages of white hair being combed, with a burbling synth soundtrack that could very easily have come from a Warp compilation. It’s Slow TV before Slow TV was a thing – made before the docusoap juggernaut swept in and tried to make all its participants famous. It is absolutely gorgeous, like a remake of Agnès Varda’s Daguerréotypes scripted by Victoria Wood.

The increased interest in Three Salons at the Seaside comes largely from the peerless (and too little watched! And too hard to find in the UK!) comedy Documentary Now! from US cable channel IFC, which has for years found rich pickings in beautifully recreated versions of old documentaries. In April, Seth Meyers wrote Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport, in which Harriet Walter and Cate Blanchett play two hairdressers who not only prise stories of increasingly absurd spousal death from their customers, but also put together the 1994 Blackpool hair salon equivalent of Vogue’s September issue.

Like all Documentary Now! episodes, Bagglyport is exquisitely done – at one point Blanchett matter-of-factly passes around a “ransom bucket” because “Mary’s been kidnapped again” – but its greatest achievement might have been reviving the source material. Three Salons at the Seaside is in turns sweetly funny and endlessly touching, but, in the years since its first broadcast, it has taken on a new patina. It has become a reminder of just how fast things move. The relationships of these women all ended. The shops are no longer there. We’re watching a way of life that has been utterly lost. And, before we know it, we are all likely to become variations of these women, broken and adrift, but battling through. What an incredible tribute this film turned out to be. I really cannot recommend it enough.

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