As a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.
As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.
The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.
Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.
Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.
Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.
Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.
© The Editor