Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Dominic Sandbrook on the 1970s

I didn't get round to my review of Dominic Sandbrook's history of Britain in the 1970s last week, so here are my views on both last week and this week.

The first programme, with its emphasis on the new consumerism, and the advent of the package holiday brought back memories of such holidays - I remember a package holiday where the hotel venue was still being built; some of the radiators for the cabins had yet to be plugged in. The brochure of course showed a shopping centre and swimming pool, but the builders were still there. On the same holiday was the then Comptroller of Income Tax, who asked us please not to tell any other holiday makers what he did for a living!

The way in which such package holidays were often in half-completed buildings, and not planned terribly well comes across in Carry on Abroad, which is a conflation of all that could go wrong, and often did.

I'm not sure the affluent of the 1970s was quite as rapid here in Jersey as Sandbrook's presentation of the UK. We didn't get a colour TV until the 1980s, friends in Jersey got them earlier, in the late 1970s, but not the early part of the 1970s. All my friends an I  grew up watching Jon Pertwee's colour version of Dr Who in Black and White. In fact it wasn't until 1976 that colour was available in the Channel Islands because of the need to provide a stronger network feed from the UK, and upgraded studio facilities.

While Sandbrook mentioned the start of wine culture with what were later seen as terrible wines such as Blue Nun (he forgot Liebfraumilch), he didn't mention the rise of the dinner party, where women would arrive wearing thin diaphanous clothes that looked almost like night-dresses, and the fondu set came into its own. The distinctive meths smell of the heater, the way in which the metal prongs would get tangled, and cubes of meat fall into the sizzling oil, was all part of the 1970s experience. The dinner party, of course, was wonderfully satirised in Abigail's Party.

The Common Market was of course central, and very important as a milestone for the UK. Yet just as far reaching was decimalisation, which Heath brought about, but Sandbrook didn't mention. My memories of the 1960s are endless school exercises with pounds, shillings, and pence, to say nothing of guineas. Thankfully the 1970s brought a welcome release from possibly one of the most cumbersome currencies in the world - although as numbers go, long multiplication with Roman numerals is also not the simplest thing.

But that apart, it was an interesting program,. My son, watching, asked me how granny coped with the power cuts and the 3 days week. Jersey getting its fuel from France for its power stations was not in that position. I remember BBC closing early evening, perhaps 8.00 or thereabouts to save fuel. But Channel Television, the local station, put on ancient films starring a very young Stanley Baxter or Norman Wisdom to fill the gap, and there were some good films that I might have missed had it not been for the miners strike!

The second programme proved even better than the first,  as Dominic Sandbrook takes us down the culture and history of the 1970s when the oil crunch began to bite, the Green movement began, the miner's struck, inflation was spiraling out of control, and the sexual revolution really began.

There was a mention of Doomwatch, and a clip from Dr Who, when it was mirroring the miner's strike (The Monster of Peladon). Science fiction, in both Dr Who and Doomwatch, had a strong ecological and environmental slant - with Dr Who, Colony in Space, the Green Death and Invasion of the Dinosaurs stand out in particular. I watched both Dr Who and Doomwatch which had a strong influence on me.

'This planet,' said Ashe, 'has been classified as suitable for colonisation. That means farming, so far as we're concerned. But if the big mining companies move in they'll turn it into a galactic slag heap in no time.' 'Don't you have any rights?' asked the Doctor. 'The big mining companies don't bother about people's rights,' said Leeson, full of bitterness. 'They move in, rip the minerals out of a planet, and move on somewhere else. It happened to the planet we got our seed from!' (Colony in Space)

The literature of the time also had people like EF Schumacher in "Small is Beautiful" and John Taylor's "Enough is Enough" making a strong case against a runaway consumer society.

There is obviously no surer way of arousing the emotions of economists than to suggest that the highly developed countries of the West should deliberately stop the growth of capital investment, slow down industry's consumption of raw materials, and set about educating the citizens to expect a leveling-off of the standard of living. To say these things is to challenge the basic assumptions of the economic theory by which we have lived since the 1930S and, with rather less awareness, for far longer than that. (John V Taylor, "Enough is Enough")

It seemed strange to see Mike Yarwood's impressions of Edward Heath, very much a broad brush, and with the passing of time, not very convincing now.

Bruce Forsyth appeared looking much as he does now (he's got a kind of wrinkled face that never really ages) popped up with a topical joke about BBC closing down each night at 10.30 pm because of the fuel shortage - the studio lights were dimmed, and he said, "this is what you'll see now", struck a match, and said "match of the day" (cue groan).

The petrol queues and shortages must have struck a chord with anyone who has seen the panic buying in Britain recently, only then it was the Arabs restricting supply, now it is the threat of tanker drivers striking. It shows how we are still as vulnerable with respect to the energy that powers our kind of society.

With the sexual revolution, faces like Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse appeared, along with the Festival of Light. They seemed almost caricatures of themselves. I never agreed with them, and listening to clips of the "Mugg" pontificating, I can see why. This was the high point of Christian fundamentalism, but their strident self-righteousness is extremely unattractive now (as it was to me then).

One film that really aroused their dire condemnation was "Last Tango in Paris", and there were masses of letters, some in praise, but mostly from "an ordinary housewife" against what they saw as "the rising tide of filth". Apparently masses of people flocked to see "Last Tango", which did have an X certificate, after all, restricting who could see it to those of 18 or over. I suspect that had a lot to do with the fact that it was seen as "forbidden" and heavily publicised by the moral majority who had only drawn attention to it, otherwise it would have sunk without trace as a moody brutal but actually rather boring movie of the art house genre.

I explained to my son something of the historical background to the troubles in Northern Ireland, the last part of the documentary, and why the IRA took their fight to mainland Britain to attack ordinary people to get pressure on the UK government.

It was fascinating to see Dominic Sandbrook at archive records of the Wilson years, and the different scenarios that they considered, including the "nuclear option", just pulling out and leaving Northern Ireland to its fate. I wonder if that's an option somewhere in a locked filing cabinet for Afghanistan.

I think it wasn't so much the Peace Programme, though that laid the foundation for peace, that ended the "troubles"; it was the McCartney sisters, going to America, and exposing the hypocrisy of the IRA in murdering their brother Robert, who was, after all a Catholic. We underestimate how much funding came from Irish Americans, who saw the IRA as freedom fighters against British imperialist and Protestant designs. Once that ceased, and Gerry Adams suddenly became persona non gratia in Washington, matters were forced to change; the generous funding had tried up, the tap turned off.

This has been an interesting programme, charting the shifts between the sunny optimism of the early 1970s to the middle of the decade, when the dreams began to fracture, with blows to the sure confidence of a better world, and the idea of "progress". But we forget easily, and dreams of progress always return, until the next crunch, when we have to come to terms with falling standards in living once more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"We underestimate how much funding came from Irish Americans, who saw the IRA as freedom fighters against British imperialist and Protestant designs."

I once read an interview with a senior Army officer who claimed that were it not for that US funding the IRA would have been put out of business by the British before the 1970s ended.