A culture that appears to have its best years behind it can often be defined by its anniversaries, and every twelve months now brings a glut of them, each serving to remind the observer of the present day’s cultural impoverishment. Take this year’s line-up: forty years since ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the snotty eruption of Punk; fifty since ‘Revolver’ and the genesis of Psychedelia; sixty since rock ‘n’ roll went over-ground with the chart debut of Elvis Presley. Perhaps 1956 stands as a more significant year than either 1966 or 1976 for it was, in many respects, the lift-off moment of the culture we are forever marking the respective anniversaries of today.
The impact of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre, debuting sixty years ago on this very day, was a bombshell that can easily be (and regularly has been) cited as the turning point away from Britain’s immediate post-war malaise, though its impact isn’t always put into context. Too often in an era that can only judge the past by contemporary standards that are irrelevant to it, Osborne’s ‘angry young man’ Jimmy Porter is portrayed as a ranting, nasty misogynist. That Porter takes no prisoners – particularly when the claustrophobia of his grubby rented flat transforms his wife into a manifestation of everything he regards as wrong with the state of the world outside his window – is today held up as something that dates the play, whereas to me there is a refreshing squeamish-free honesty to Porter’s vitriol. Any objections to it now say more about 2016 than 1956, highlighting the new limitations upon what can and can’t be said in polite society that have simply superseded the ones Osborne railed against.
The influence of ‘Look Back in Anger’ spread way beyond the cosseted confines of the theatre and acted as a lightning rod for other cultural earthquakes in a country that Osborne himself later remembered as akin to a sleepy village in the mid-50s. 1956 also saw both the last disastrous hurrah of the old Imperial Britain with the Suez debacle and the introduction of Premium Bonds, a pointer to a future Britain that chose consumerism over colonialism. Between 1950 and 1960, the average wage trebled to £14 10 /- a week, and by the end of the 50s, three-quarters of British homes had a television set. The retrospective rose-tinted memory of 1950s Britain as a quaint little Ambridge theme park, one nostalgically evoked by the likes of 1990s Prime Minister John Major, was certainly not the 1950s Britain of Harold Macmillan as the country’s first true consumer boom took hold.
The democratised affluence that appeared to be changing the country for the better required a neat sound-bite to summarise it, and in July 1957, Harold Macmillan made a speech that contained one of the most paraphrased political slogans of all time, one that served to encapsulate the mood of the moment in a way few politicians’ utterances have before or since.
‘Let us be frank about it,’ he puffed. ‘Most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country; go to the industrial towns; go to the farms; and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime, nor indeed ever in the history of this country.’
However, not everyone was impressed with this view of the country. There is a montage sequence in the 1962 film of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, in which the lead character’s mother embarks upon a spending spree when the insurance money following the death of her husband comes through. As she and her younger children excitedly blitz the shops, Tom Courtenay’s Colin looks on with thinly-veiled contempt. Indeed, when he is handed his own share of his father’s legacy, he proceeds to burn the money. When Arthur Seaton, the antihero of Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, was memorably brought to the screen in 1960 by Albert Finney, the character’s response to the superficial benefits of the consumer boom was sneering disdain, especially at how it had impacted on his own parents – ‘Me mam and dad have got a television set and a packet of fags,’ he snarled, ‘but they’re both dead from the neck up.’
That these observations on the zeitgeist emanated from the North of England was no coincidence; the new affluence of Macmillan’s Britain was not regionalised as Mrs Thatcher’s would be, but time-honoured traditions were more cherished and held dear in the old industrial towns, and any dramatic alteration in everyday habits could often be viewed with suspicion. The intellectual Left had a particular gripe with the way in which commercial television and the rampant consumerism it had inspired was changing the character of the country. The same year as Macmillan declared the nation had never had it so good, Leeds-born academic Richard Hoggart published ‘The Uses of Literacy’, a landmark study of how the authentic urban British culture that had defined each region of the country and given it its own unique identity – a culture that celebrated the dignity of labour, one in which financial security was a reward for a good day’s work and the Church still governed social morality in the best possible sense – was being eroded.
Hoggart viewed ‘Americanised’ popular culture as dictated by the likes of broadcasting newcomer ITV, or the elevation of acquisitiveness encouraged by Premium Bonds and Green Shield Stamps, to be a damaging dumbing-down process long before such a phrase had even been coined. Hoggart believed the imposition of a certain kind of popular culture on the public by the mass media was in danger of homogenising the nation, an opinion that was a remarkably visionary one to air as far back as 1957.
But Hoggart was not alone. Passionate architectural critic Ian Nairn published a scathing attack on the post-war British landscape in a 1955 edition of ‘The Architectural Review’, titled Outrage! Nairn invented ‘Subtopia’ as a derogatory description of the new urban town-planning he saw as robbing towns and cities of their individual identity, making every corner of the country resemble the other, a ‘massification’ of Britain’s visual makeup as corrosive as the new popular culture Richard Hoggart railed against. Both Nairn and Hoggart’s prophetic critiques were violently at odds with Harold Macmillan’s viewpoint; but more than half-a-century later, in an age of indistinguishable, identikit towns crammed with the same chain-stores and home to an enslaved populace whose tastes are dictated by a select few controlling the mass media as well as their creature comforts, these prescient warnings from the past have remained criminally unheeded.
1956 may be a long way from 2016, but the desperate need to make people sit up, open their eyes and think seems more important now than it did then. Where be the Osbornes, Sillitoes, Hoggarts and Nairns, though?
© The Editor