STATION TO STATION (1)

A week from today will mark half-a-century since the day the nation’s stations received the most comprehensive facelift in their history; and, lest we forget, fifty years ago we only had three national radio stations. Yes, there were the pirates, though they – bar Caroline – were poised to sail away into the sunset; officially, the country had just the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. There were no local BBC stations, and the Independent Local Radio network was still six years away. Once the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act sank the pirate ships, listeners were left with Luxembourg and its erratic reception if they sought an alternative to the BBC’s wireless output.

If one is to credit pirate radio with one thing it really should be giving the kiss of life to an ailing medium. From being very much the poor relation before the war, television had gathered pace with the arrival of ITV in 1955 and by the early 60s had usurped radio as the people’s choice. In response, all the BBC’s creative energies were directed towards TV and radio was left to its own devices, with only the Third Programme receiving special treatment courtesy of its high standing in the artistic community. Listening figures were plummeting and it didn’t help that, with Britain the epicentre of a pop revolution conquering the globe, BBC radio’s concession to the revolution was limited to the likes of ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’.

Belated recognition that the BBC needed to reflect the changing climate on the airwaves led to plans being hatched for a new addition to the existing trio of national stations. But it wasn’t simply a case of the Beeb replicating what the pirates had done so successfully since 1964; Musicians Union rules over needle time meant the in-house BBC orchestras that provided so much of the light ‘mood music’ that had soundtracked the daily chores of the housewife for a couple of decades were not going to be disbanded overnight. A BBC idea of a pirate radio station risked being the aural equivalent of a pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad dad dancing around the living room to The Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Light Programme in a kaftan. Live music was going to be as much a staple of what became Radio 1 as spinning discs, though the fact this ruling eventually gave birth to the legendary Peel Sessions was pure serendipity.

With the new law enforcing the illegality of the pirates, the entire staff of DJs that had become household names to anyone under 25 were about to made redundant; by happy coincidence, a new employer was looking for a workforce with their precise qualifications. So it was that the cream of the pirate crop sat alongside a handful of veteran broadcasting stalwarts to pose for a photo that used to be re-staged every ten years until the participants started dying or ended up in prison. Radio 1 had recruited almost all the pirate DJs, and when the new station went on air with Caroline’s Tony Blackburn on 30 September 1967 – preceded by heavy promotion in the Radio Times and its ‘swinging’ front cover for the week – the pirate model sufficed for the first ninety minutes. The second programme on Radio 1 was ‘Junior Choice’ with Leslie Crowther.

The wavelength sharing between Radio 1 and its new sibling Radio 2 was scattered throughout that opening day and this continued to be the case for more or less the whole first decade of the station. The recurring term ‘As Radio 2’ in the Radio Times listings for Radio 1 was a regular feature that meant any hip ‘n’ groovy listener either had to endure Light Programme leftovers for a couple of hours in the middle of the schedule or simply switch off. Mind you, it’s worth remembering that DJs we all associate with Radio 2 – such as Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young – were part of the Radio 1 line-up in the beginning.

The schizophrenic nature of the station, viewed by many as a pale imitation of the pirates at best and little short of a charlatan at worst, helped prompt 1969’s landmark in-house report, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, that sought to rectify the problems. By the early 70s, however, a generation too young to remember the pirates had taken to the station as it gradually grew into the familiar form those of us old enough can still recall, and listening figures reflected this.

The ‘star’ DJs such as Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Savile, Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis, Kenny Everett and ‘Emperor’ Rosko were all familiar faces as presenters of ‘Top of the Pops’, and the mutual appreciation society between BBC TV’s leading music show and Radio 1 benefitted both. In the 70s, the Radio 1 DJs were almost as famous as the pop stars whose careers they had the power to make or break – opening supermarkets, judging wet T-shirt contests, and drawing huge crowds when making prats of themselves on stage during the annual summer institution of the Radio 1 Roadshow. This was the heyday of the ‘Smashie and Nicey’ incarnation of Radio 1, though it also spanned the 80s; regardless of personnel changes, the mid-Atlantic accent, the bomber jacket and the cheesy persona had already been established as a mould, whether inhabited by Simon Bates or Bruno Brookes.

By the time of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s painfully accurate parody, the BBC was concerned that a radio station supposedly aimed at an audience in its teens and twenties had retained listeners of a much older age range that hadn’t followed the traditional migratory route to Radio 2. The call went out to Matthew Bannister and what followed was a traumatic period in which Radio 1 didn’t seem to know what it was (or who it was for) anymore. The old school were shown the door, and after the crash-and-burn era of Chris Evans, a semblance of stability returned to the station as it entered the 21st century.

I haven’t listened to Radio 1 for a good decade, so I can’t comment on its current state of health with any authority. Last time I tuned in, Chris Moyles was still the host of the breakfast show and Jo Whiley was still espousing all she regarded as ‘cool’ mid-morning. I stopped listening not necessarily because I found the music being played increasingly irritating, but because I simply couldn’t stand the prattling DJs. At the same time, I recognise this has always been a regular factor for the listener where Radio 1 is concerned, and probably always will be.

Over the next seven days, I intend to profile all four stations that arrived on our dials fifty years ago this week, so stay tuned for Radio 2…

© The Editor

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THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS

Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 2011 fantasy comedy, ‘Midnight in Paris’, features a lead character (played by Owen Wilson) resident in the here and now, whose holiday in the French capital takes a dreamlike turn when he gets lost in the backstreets one evening and finds himself stumbling into the Paris of the 1920s. Magically entering the time when Paris was the cultural epicentre of the western world, he encounters the likes of Cocteau, Dali, Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and various other creative luminaries of the decade. As a fan of the present they inhabit, the character attempts to convince them of the riches he sees in their era.

The cleverest moment in the movie comes when Picasso’s lover Adriana expresses her own personal opinion that the real era to be in was the so-called La Belle Époque period of the late nineteenth century; when she and the lead character somehow manage to travel back there, some of that period’s key figures they meet, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, are in agreement that the only age to have been alive was the Renaissance. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is not only one of Woody Allen’s finest recent cinematic outings; it also shrewdly points out that golden ages are retrospective labels tagged onto episodes of history after the event.

Unless we can look back on a particular phase of our own individual lifetimes and recognise we lived through a special period ourselves, many of us have a fascination with a specific era that took place before we were born. Personally, I would have enjoyed being a dandy during the Regency or perhaps a fashion photographer in Swinging London; but I don’t reflect on any time I’ve actually been resident in throughout my thirty years as an adult and hanker after it with rose-tinted nostalgia; I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed any of it. Whether I would have enjoyed the Regency or Swinging London any more isn’t an issue because I’ll never be there; however, it remains a felicitous fantasy.

Last week, a survey commissioned by the Resolution Foundation was published; the subjects of the survey were ‘Millennials’, i.e. anyone born between 1981 and 2000 (those born this century have their own hideous demographic nickname). The findings of the survey declared that one in three Millennials would rather have lived through the era their parents were young in, despite the fact that would mean they’d have been deprived of the electronic creature comforts life is apparently unimaginable without. Over 2,000 people were surveyed between the ages of 16 and 75 and the general agreement reached was that anyone young today will never achieve the same standard of life as that which their parents have enjoyed.

In this case, the yearning to have been alive thirty or forty years ago doesn’t stem from the obvious attractions of superior pop culture to participate in, but the more practical desires of being able to buy one’s home and having job security that can pay for one. In the survey, graduates were just as pessimistic about the future as those regarded as high-earners. 57% of the former were convinced the youth of today have a worse standard of living than their parents to look forward to; 55% of the latter (earning above £55,000 a year) agreed with them. When it came to lower earners (£20,000 or less), 44% shared the same belief. It would seem technological advances don’t add up to much more than expensive sedatives.

And yet – the supposed higher standard of living the parents of Millennials have attained didn’t land in their laps overnight. They had to work for it. Thrift is a word one doesn’t hear much these days, but it was employed by the young who wanted to get on in the 60s and 70s when they saw the doors to social mobility opening before them; there was an entrance fee, however. The heavy industry that existed on a nationwide scale for perhaps the first forty years after the end of the Second World War has been reduced to a small smattering of industrial outposts this century, but it was once one of the dominant employers of the country’s workforce; Millennials are spared that, at least; though maybe there was a greater sense of job satisfaction at the end of the working day when having emerged from a pit or a steel foundry than can be found in having cold-called strangers whilst sitting on one’s arse for eight hours.

Even if their parents’ generation received what seems to have been a greater reward for their endeavours, the hours were put in whatever colour the collar of the job; additional part-time work would augment the main wage along with night-school courses as a means of ascending the next rung of the ladder. Socialising would be rationed, with the occasional trip to the cinema or football enjoyed sparingly when money was being put aside for the long-term. If one had a car, chances were it would be a second (or third) hand banger; if one had a house, it would be fitted out with second (or third) hand furniture – and on HP at that; telephones were a relative luxury; television sets were rented; holidays, if taken at all, would invariably take place within the British Isles, erratic climate or no. If one wanted must-have household appliances, one had to save up for them; and other things were regarded as more important, anyway.

Make do and mend, making ends meet, living within one’s means – awful old phrases the credit card seemed to have magically banished from the nation’s vocabulary; consumerism has a lot to answer for, yes; but one could argue many of the disputes that crippled industry in the 70s and 80s were at times motivated by a craving for consumer goods that were being marketed more aggressively than ever before at that point. Today, there’s no need to strike for them; your flexible friend can get them for you and then you can show them off on social media. Debt, once such a shameful stigma, is commonplace below a certain age; and none of the money reserved for paying it off is going towards saving up for somewhere to live.

There’s no doubt the opportunities for social mobility have narrowed considerably, and many degrees now are not worth the paper they’re written on; working hours are long and pay is poor. But hardships are endured by all generations looking for a better life; whether or not that better life is there at the end of the hardship is another matter altogether. It might have been there in 1957, 1967 or 1977; is it in 2017?

© The Editor

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SECOND CITY SOUNDS

As the late, great Barry Norman might have said (or maybe he didn’t): ‘And why not?’ This post marks no anniversary and comments on no particular current affair; it’s merely a bit of musical meandering; and it’s a Sunday, so why not indeed? Well, it’s no great surprise that when it comes to the musical map of Britain that London, Liverpool and Manchester generally tend to take the lion’s share of the plaudits and are largely given credit for putting this nation on Pop’s international stage, a position it continues to occupy, even if most of its reputation is built upon pioneers from half-a-century ago. But spare a thought for a corner of the country that, for me, is an unsung creative hub of far more than most imagine; it remains an unfashionable area to evoke in discourse on Pop culture, yet has provided those tuning into the Global Village’s radio station with so many listening riches over the last few decades that it seems an apt time to make a case for the Midlands.

In the early 60s, Birmingham had perhaps the most active live music scene outside of Merseyside; there were hundreds of bands on the Second City’s thriving club circuit and it was only a matter of time before at least one of them hit the top spot. It finally happened at the beginning of 1965, when The Moody Blues reached No.1 with their emotive cover of the Bessie Banks ball-buster, ‘Go Now’. Although it bears little relation to the lush, symphonic Rock the band would later become more renowned for, ‘Go Now’ is one of the key records of an era in which it seemed every week brought a new, exciting twist on the Beat Boom formula.

Almost exactly a year later, another band from Brum followed the Moodies to the top of the charts when The Spencer Davis Group reached the summit with their dynamic cover of Jackie Edwards’ ‘Keep on Running’. The band was led by the prodigiously-gifted teenage Steve Winwood, whose soulful vocals sounded like they came from a far older man, and a black one at that. The Spencer Davis Group managed to follow-up their chart-topping debut more successfully than The Moody Blues had, releasing a string of top-tenners (including another No.1) over the next twelve months until Winwood left to form the Psychedelic Pop act Traffic.

The last band to emerge from the Birmingham Beat Boom of the 60s were The Move, effectively a Brum ‘Supergroup’ comprising musicians who had all been members of successful local live acts; they scored their first hit at the beginning of 1967 with ‘Night of Fear’, a track built around the main melody of the 1812 Overture, and soon blossomed into one of the finest purveyors of the unique British take on Psychedelia; they also possessed a manager who specialised in PR stunts characteristic of the age, being sued by the Prime Minister when they used Harold Wilson in a controversial cartoon to promote ‘Flowers in the Rain’, the first single ever played on Radio 1. Their secret weapon was the songwriting genius of Roy Wood, a man whose contribution to British Pop is today unfairly restricted to his association with one of the perennial Christmas hits of the 70s; Wood deserves belated recognition as one of those rare, gifted musicians who can bang out a good tune on any instrument they stumble upon.

By the late 60s, the regional aspect of the British music scene, in which every major city’s bands were grouped together under one umbrella label, had essentially dissipated as most headed towards the capital for fame and fortune, losing their local identity in the process. Acts such as Chicken Shack – featuring future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect – had a big hit without their Birmingham origins being a factor in their success, and Nick Drake hailing from the southern end of the Midlands, in Stratford-on-Avon, seemed incidental to his talent. Similarly, the fact that one half of Led Zeppelin comprised Midlands men (Robert Plant and John Bonham) had little bearing on their phenomenal success.

Hot on the heels of Led Zep’s radical reinvention of the Blues came Birmingham’s Black Sabbath, whose brutally brilliant approach to the genre laid the foundations for what was to become Heavy Metal, a musical style that had further Midlands exponents later in the 70s via Judas Priest. The top ten monster of ‘Paranoid’ aside, Sabbath’s success was album-based, whereas a band from a neighbouring neck of the woods (Wolverhampton and Walsall) went on to become Britain’s biggest singles act of the first half of the decade, Slade. Between 1971 and 1973, Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Dave Hill and Don Powell hit the top of the charts on six separate occasions, more than any other home-grown act in the 70s.

Vying for the top spot with Slade in the early 70s were Wizzard, the colourful new outfit led by The Move’s Roy Wood and responsible for the aforementioned Xmas standard, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’. Wizzard had appeared when Wood left the Move spin-off project, The Electric Light Orchestra, with whom he recorded one album; his sidekick in the band, Jeff Lynne, saw a long-term career in ELO and opted to take the helm before ironing out their experimental edges and honing them into one of the decade’s seminal singles acts. An immigrant from the West Indies who had made the West Midlands her home became the region’s main representative in the singer-songwriter genre, Joan Armatrading; hers wasn’t the only black voice in the neighbourhood, however, as Reggae act Steel Pulse proved. Birmingham also had a folk scene in the 70s, though the most notable graduate from it became better known as a comedian, Jasper Carrott.

No Punk band from the Midlands made much of an impression, but the post-Punk era was fruitful for the region, even if attention turned from the West Midlands to the East Midlands, when Coventry’s energetic hybrid of Punk and Jamaican Ska, reflecting the diverse melting pot of cultures courtesy of immigration, had a huge impact in the shape of the 2-Tone movement. The Specials were the front-runners, but Birmingham’s The Beat were also crucial to the scene; unrelated, but playing a similar blend of socially-conscious, mixed-race music (in the beginning, at least) were UB40. Concurrent with the rise of 2-Tone (and largely appealing to the same audience) were Dexy’s Midnight Runners, whose success was international rather than merely national. At the same time, Birmingham even spawned one of the few non-London mega-bands to emerge from the New Romantic movement, none other than Duran Duran; Birmingham also produced the short-lived (if briefly spectacular) career of Musical Youth.

By the end of the 80s, the likes of The Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Fuzzbox and Pop Will Eat Itself were Indie darlings and shortly crossed over to ‘Top of the Pops’, as did Brummies Ocean Colour Scene in the 90s, ensuring one of the country’s most overlooked musical hotbeds maintained a foothold in the charts. If one were to excise the Midlands from the UK’s Pop history, there would be some gaping holes in the story, so let’s acknowledge its role in that story. It’s quite a bostin’ one when all’s said and done.

© The Editor

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THE SWINGEING SIXTIES

A couple of anniversaries worth marking, I thought; a regular feature of this here blog, but always a welcome break from contemporary concerns, what with most of them being pretty grim. Today marks a decade since the UK smoking ban came into force; but firstly, fifty years ago today, the Times published an editorial that remains one of the few (if indeed the only one ever) to impact considerably on pop culture, as well as marking a significant turning point in the Us and Them battle that divided young and old in mid-60s Britain. The emergence of Teddy Boys, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Beatlemania and Mods Vs Rockers all gave rise to the belief amongst the generations that had fought in two World Wars and then ran the country that the country was falling apart at the seams.

None invoked such Blimp-ish rage in establishment circles as those shaggy-haired scruffs The Rolling Stones; their appearance alone was deemed offensive enough, but the thought that these 12-bar wonders might have any kind of influence over the young beyond simply cajoling them into buying their records seemed symbolic of the decline and fall of western civilisation. Things got worse as the Stones began to adopt a more erudite, cultured persona when the arty influence of girlfriends like Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg stretched their ambitions and aspirations beyond merely recycling the Blues. They appeared to be encroaching into the Highbrow, which was bad enough; and then they began extolling the virtues of chemical mind-expansion, something previously reserved for revered (and safely dead) intellectuals like Aldous Huxley.

Fining the band for peeing against a garage wall when the petrol pump attendant refused them access the loos was one thing; but in order to stop this repulsive revolution in its tracks, there needed to be something bigger that could bring about the desired effect. In 1967, the opportunity presented itself and the cohabitating coterie of press, police and judiciary seized upon it. The loose lips of Brian Jones in a London club, unknowingly endorsing LSD to an undercover journalist, led to said Stone being mistakenly identified in print as Mick Jagger; Jagger sued the News of the World but, like Oscar Wilde’s legal action against the Marquess of Queensbury, this response then provoked the enemy into making its move, which it did a week later.

The raid on Keith Richards’ Redlands home, interrupting the aftermath of a ‘drugs party’, has long been woven into both Stones and Rock mythology – with poor Marianne Faithfull still dogged by the utterly fabricated ‘Mars Bar’ rumour; but the outcome for Mick and Keith at the time wasn’t quite so entertaining, the former charged with possession of four amphetamine tablets and the latter with allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property. They were tried at the Chichester Assizes in June 1967 and were both found guilty, with Jagger sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and Richards to a year. They both immediately launched appeals and were released on bail after a night behind bars.

The severity of the sentences and the dubious collusion between Scotland Yard and the News of the World raised many questions. The Stones’ contemporaries reacted with a show of support, with The Who rush-releasing cover versions of ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘The Last Time’ as a single; but the most unexpected show of support came not from Us, but Them. Sensing an injustice had been done simply to teach these loutish upstarts a lesson, none other than William Rees-Mogg (yes, father of Jacob) intervened. Rees-Mogg was the editor of the Times – viewed as a bastion of the same establishment intent on persecution and punishment where the Swinging 60s were concerned – and he made an eloquent, passionate plea in the Times’ editorial on 1 July 1967, under the title ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’

‘If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism,’ wrote Rees-Mogg, ‘then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr Jagger is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr Jagger received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.’

Coupled with the widespread outrage amongst the young over the sentences, the Times editorial prompted the authorities to bring the appeal hearings forward and a month after being sentenced, the sentences were quashed. Mick and Keith walked away from court free men again and Jagger was more or less immediately flown by a helicopter hired by ambitious Granada producer John Birt to take part in a special ‘World in Action’ debate with three members of the establishment (chaired by Rees-Mogg), who seemed to look upon Jagger as elderly scientists would look upon a fascinating new species of butterfly. But Jagger’s easy-on-the-ear middle-class accent and reassuring, unthreatening demeanour charmed both his inquisitors and the television audience.

The intervention of William Rees-Mogg and the belated realisation by the Great British Public that maybe these demonised heroes of the young weren’t quite as great a threat to the future of mankind as the atom bomb marked a sea-change in the way the transforming society was perceived by its elder statesmen. The same year as the cause célèbre of the Mick & Keith trial, homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were decriminalised, abortion was legalised, and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was embraced by young and old alike as Art. The affair also gifted Keith Richards, previously overshadowed in the media spotlight by Jagger and Brian Jones, the outlaw image he’s maintained ever since as the ‘soul’ of the band. There were casualties, however.

Brian Jones, targeted by the drugs squad in a separate raid and increasingly isolated within the band, embarked upon a rapid downward slide that culminated in his mysterious premature death two years later; Marianne Faithfull, denounced from the pulpit as a harlot and mercilessly mocked over the Mars Bar myth, then embarked upon her own downward slide that led all the way to being a homeless heroin addict in the 70s. But the Times stepping back from the great divide to look at it with objective sagacity was the first step towards acceptance of youth culture as a valid and relevant force within society by those too old to participate. Bar the odd moral panic over Punk Rock and Acid House, it has been recognised as such ever since, as thousands of books, documentaries and humble little articles such as this will testify.

© The Editor

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A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor

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CLAD IN BLACK

I suppose there’s a genuinely valid point to be made about the manner in which Central London has descended into a shameless, superficial whore exclusively opening her legs for every disgustingly wealthy, greedy, grasping Oligarch and Arab to buy her favours and own her outright. Maybe. The appalling inferno that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the wee small hours has led to a loss of life that we’ve yet to be told the extent of; but the suggestion that the spread of the fire may have been caused by the cladding recently installed around the tower’s exterior in order to make a characteristically ugly 70s council block more aesthetically easy on the eyes of the building’s luxury apartment neighbours could be summarised as the story of our capital city over the last twenty-five years in a nutshell.

The shocking extent of the blaze, engulfing what appeared to be the entire building, was reminiscent of a similarly horrific fire that destroyed the Summerland entertainment centre on the Isle of Man in 1973. Summerland had been opened for just two years, boasting swimming pools, games rooms, restaurants and dance halls all under one roof; it was intended to increase tourism by appealing to families, but the untested modern materials used in the building’s design proved to be fatal for those trapped inside when a fire broke out on 2 August 1973. The fact the fire exits were locked and bolted to prevent people sneaking-in without paying exacerbated the tragedy that unfolded, one that eventually claimed up to 53 lives – at the time, the worst loss of life via fire since the Blitz.

Images of the gruesome Summerland carcass were echoed in North Kensington today; the charred remains of Grenfell Tower even resemble a hideous evocation of HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, whilst the horror of a tower block going so badly wrong is reminiscent of the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, East London, in 1968. And if the insulation wrapped around the building was indeed to blame for the speed with which flames swamped the building, there’s a hell of a lot of questions requiring answers.

Part of a social housing complex of the kind we will probably never see erected again – certainly not in Central London – Grenfell Tower has stood for 43 years. It was only last year that an £8.6 million refurbishment under the guise of ‘regeneration’ came to that corner of the capital, motivated in part by a desire to upgrade the appearance of the building, surrounded as it is by the architectural hallmarks of the mega-rich that have indulged in a ghastly game of Monopoly in recent decades. Planning documents for the regeneration of Grenfell Tower claimed the changes, little more than cheap cladding suggesting ‘gentrification’ of the shallowest order, was clearly intended to improve the view seen from apartments of a different nature in the nearby neighbourhoods.

It’s emerged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that residents had repeatedly aired fears of the block’s safety relating to fire, and it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the materials used to insulate the tower were not necessarily the expensive variety proven to be non-flammable; such cladding is apparently commonplace when it comes to representatives of an unfashionable architectural era and corners are undeniably cut, especially when the residents of such residences are amongst the poorest in London. Fires have broken out in other London tower blocks in the last few years, few of which actually contain sprinklers; but it would seem potential dangers have been overlooked and ignored. And look at where that has got us.

An early and somewhat unlikely story of the fire starting via a tenant’s exploding fridge appeared to be one of those that are usually circulated, especially in the 24/7 news age, before facts have been established. But it’s seeming more and more likely that the materials used for the cladding of the building played a large part in the terrible disaster that has reduced what was home to hundreds of people to a charcoal skeleton akin to those we’re familiar with seeing in archive film of the Blitz. An outsourced private company running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council had been criticised by residents associations online long before what happened last night, but ears have been deaf to such protests until now. And now it’s too late.

ANITA PALLENBERG (1944-2017)

A Swinging 60s It Girl and one of many women whose immersion in the unhealthy circle of The Rolling Stones both made her and came close to claiming her, Anita Pallenberg was one of her era’s most exotic and alluring butterflies. Of Italian and German descent, she’d been amongst the hangers-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory until leaving New York for London; she then became the woman on the arm of the Stones’ most stylish member, Brian Jones, with the couple morphing into the stunning Siamese Twins of what Twiggy’s mentor and manager Justin de Villeneuve referred to as ‘the new social aristocracy’.

However, Jones was a troubled soul and it would seem the pair weren’t exactly well-suited; an ill-fated trip to Morocco with Brian and Keith in 1968 saw Pallenberg swap partners; she and Keith were partners in both the romantic and narcotic sense for the best part of a decade, though she bore him three children. Early on in their relationship, she played one of Mick Jagger’s two female companions in the sublimely dark ‘Performance’, a part that Keith remains convinced wasn’t entirely acted.

Anita Pallenberg had a few more notable movie roles, including a deliciously sexy villainess in Roger Vadim’s ‘Barbarella’, but her reputation as a Swinging 60s survivor in the decades thereafter was largely based on ‘Performance’. I pen this brief obituary because that film, as disturbing as it occasionally is, remains one of the most unforgettable and irresistible cinematic temptations I’ve ever been seduced by. Part of me still wants to be Turner Purple and still wants to inhabit that malevolently erotic household; Anita Pallenberg sold a dream that was also a nightmare, but I can’t see anyone today opening such a lascivious portal to such a divinely decadent world; and our world is all the blander for it.

© The Editor

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THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor

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THE ANNIVERSARY WALTZER

With one especially grim event dominating the headlines at the expense of everything else this week (an event that has already been covered in three out of the last four posts), I am actively seeking alternative subjects to lift the spirits a little and serve as a necessary distraction. A good anniversary ordinarily suffices, so why not? Long-term readers may recall a post from last summer in which I marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, so it seems only fitting I should follow suit with the half-century of that landmark LP’s sequel. The actual anniversary fell yesterday (May 26), but what’s in a day? And what can I add to all the endless column inches that have been written about ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’? Well, I’ll give it my best shot.

As I was born the year the album was released, I am of the generation that grew up in its shadow; as a tiny tot watching Slade and Sweet on ‘Top of the Pops’, this curious, rather quaint relic of another era resting in my parents’ LP collection hardly seemed relevant and yet it remained the yardstick by which innovative pop music was measured throughout the 1970s – or at least until a new generation temporarily usurped the reverential millstone it seemed to have become around the necks of anyone seeking to take pop forward with the same hunger The Beatles themselves had achieved a decade earlier.

It was hard for an eleven-year-old viewing ‘Are Friends Electric?’ on TOTP and rightly seeing it as the defining cutting-edge sound of the fast-moving moment to appreciate the impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the listening public twelve years previously. It seemed to have no bearing on what I was hearing. After all, I had been raised in a pop culture in which there were clear demarcation lines – Serious Rock ala Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis in the album charts/Pop ala Abba, 10cc and ELO in the singles charts; it mattered not that both camps were capable of matching the other when it came to their respective musical merits; the way the divisions were sold to the record-buying public was a direct result of the late 60s split ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ indirectly led to.

Earlier in the same year that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was released, the last pop package tour of any real note took place; coming to a theatre near you for the princely sum of a few shillings, it was possible to see a bill featuring The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Move – and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If it seems an inconceivable line-up now, it began to dawn on those who attended the tour that it was pretty inconceivable even then. But it’s not hard to see why some enterprising promoter put the bill together. There was no ‘Rock Circuit’ then and no festival schedule of the kind we take for granted today.

The Beatles, The Stones and everyone who had made a mark in the mid-60s had all trod the boards with multiple showbiz crooners on such packages; that was the way things had been done since Rock ‘n’ Roll had been imported into the UK in the mid-50s. It was only when it became obvious that very different audiences were buying records that had all been labelled ‘Pop’ that the error of the promoter’s ways became apparent.

As late as 1968, in the BBC TV presentation of Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall, the band are constantly referred to by the narrator throughout as ‘Pop’. ‘Rock’ as a term that drew a distinction between King Crimson and Clodagh Rodgers appears to have come in shortly afterwards. But the release of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the eve of ‘The Summer of Love’ marked the beginning of this division; the breadth of ambition and refusal to be constricted by what could and couldn’t be done saw the Fab Four blur boundaries and serve 1967 up in one all-encompassing Psychedelic soufflé. There was so much to choose from on there that other artists took separate snippets from it that they could build careers around without needing to acknowledge what they didn’t get.

For everyone who enjoyed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ or ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, there were just as many who opted for ‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. After ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, few attempted to present such a wide canvas again. Sub-genres abounded in its wake and there was no unifying force drawing all those disparate elements together once John, Paul, George and Ringo had abdicated.

The effective ‘trailer’ for what The Beatles had up their sleeves had come at the beginning of 1967 when, amidst rumours that their retirement from the stage meant they were finished, they released the double A-sided single, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. The initial idea for a concept album on the theme of childhood that these two tracks were the intended starting pistol for meant they never made it to ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ when the concept was abandoned. McCartney’s breezy, optimistic ode to a nondescript Liverpool street possessed the same uplifting suburban sing-a-long spirit as The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ from the year before, whereas Lennon’s dreamy, druggy, surrealistic reimagining of a childhood haunt adhered to no previous formula on 45. It was telling the single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert’s ‘Release Me’; but as a taster for what was to come, it suggested The Beatles were far from finished.

When the long-awaited follow-up to ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks at the end of May 1967, it seems ridiculous now that the gap between the two albums was less than ten months; but the industry as it had been up to that point demanded two LPs a year and perhaps three or four stand-alone singles in addition. The Beatles yet again refused to bow to convention; they didn’t need to; they were imbued with such confidence and, yes, arrogance, that they could do whatever the hell they liked. The sleeve of the album, so instantly recognisable that it has been parodied more times than I care to mention, reflected this attitude; as did the fact they printed the lyrics on the back of it and that they didn’t release any of its songs as singles. They didn’t need to. The album sold as many copies as any single would have and in turn transformed the LP into what would become the premier art form of the next decade.

What’s easy to forget in the glut of anniversary waffle that will no doubt swamp the media over the next week or so is that this was a record release categorised as ‘Pop’ that was produced by four young men, none of whom were yet thirty, and yet was as adventurous a recording as any emanating from fields the critics had previously praised, such as Avant-Garde Classical or Jazz. It demonstrated Pop could outdo any other genre, however fragmented Pop itself would soon become as a result of the dazzling variety The Beatles were offering.

In an age when the Tin Pan Alley sensibilities The Beatles helped overthrow have been reinstated with little in the way of resistance, it’s somewhat sad to realise that half-a-century ago, the Svengali had been shown the door and the creative lunatics had taken over the musical asylum. To be an inmate there remains preferable to Care in Cowell’s Community.

© The Editor

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BACKSTREET STORIES

vera-drakeTo be frank, I don’t really want to write about screeching millennial cry babies with pink hair stamping their feet and unable to comprehend you can’t always get what you want; and I don’t want to write about bloody Trump or bloody Brexit again. So, where does that leave me? Well, loath as I am to devote this blog to endless anniversaries – the last post, in case you missed it, marked fifty years since the arrival of Milton Keynes on the Buckinghamshire landscape – I couldn’t help but notice the same year in which the biggest New Town of them all appeared, a piece of legislation was introduced that eventually changed the lives of women in this country in a way that few pieces of legislation ever have.

The 1967 Abortion Act brought to an end (on the British mainland at least) the grim scenarios that were frequently fictionalised in British cinema during the years leading up to the Act. The sole moment in archetypal mid-60s Brit-flick ‘Alfie’ that Michael Caine’s title character loses his arrogant cocksure swagger is when, having impregnated the wife of a friend, he gazes at the aborted foetus ‘delivered’ by a loathsome backstreet abortionist and bursts into tears. By eavesdropping upon Alfie confronted by the consequences of his reckless actions, we see the male realisation of abortion’s ugly realities, just as the female perspective was graphically portrayed in the BBC TV play, ‘Up the Junction’, a year earlier.

As with the imprisonment of male homosexuals and the death penalty, the laws surrounding abortion immediately prior to the 1967 Act were in dire and urgent need of reform. Ineffective DIY remedies involving hot baths, knitting needles and a bottle of gin had been familiar means of attempting to induce miscarriages for years, along with more extreme practices such as engineering a fall down a flight of stairs. If all else failed, the ‘Vera Drake’ amateur abortionist was a familiar figure amongst women in the know throughout working-class neighbourhoods, whereas those with enough money could procure an illegal operation on Harley Street.

Although the contraceptive pill had been introduced in the early 60s, fears of encouraging unmarried promiscuity meant that it was only available to women with a ring on the third finger of their left hand; but even abstinence from pre-marital sex or avoiding embarking upon an affair couldn’t prevent the occasional unwanted pregnancy within a monogamous marriage, especially if social and financial circumstances meant the prospect of another mouth to feed filled the mother-to-be with horror.

The backstreet abortionist – often a qualified doctor who had either been struck off the medical register or one who greedily supplemented his income with an operation he knew could land him in prison – was an odious urban shadow haunting the netherworld of British society as much as the blackmailer of homosexuals in the first half of the twentieth century. At best, he could leave the women who went to him because they had nowhere else to go with permanent physical damage; at worst, he could kill them.

The grisly truth of the dearth of choice women had in this period was brought home to listeners on ‘Woman’s Hour’ yesterday, when an archive interview from the mid-60s was broadcast; in it, a working-class woman from Tyneside spoke candidly of her own experience of a backstreet abortion. That her account was told bereft of the tearful emotion that would probably accompany such a confession today somehow made that account all the more chilling, as did the juxtaposition of its grimness with the jolly chimes of an ice-cream van that could be detected in the distance as she recalled what had happened to her. It was far-from being an easy listen, but as an eye-opener of what women had to endure prior to 1967, it was a remarkable piece of radio.

Future Liberal leader David Steel, then a little-known backbencher, was the MP who introduced the Private Member’s Bill to legalise the termination of pregnancy, though he was supported by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government; it appointed Sir John Peel (President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the man who had delivered both Prince Andrew and Prince Edward) to chair a committee that recommended the Bill become law. After a debate in Parliament in which passionate opinions on both sides of the argument were aired, a free vote saw the proposal passed and it gained Royal Assent on 27 October 1967, becoming law as of 27 April 1968.

With the exception of Northern Ireland, the new law legalised abortion throughout Great Britain with a gestation cut-off point of 24 weeks. After the Act was passed, deaths as a result of abortions plummeted and the hideous spectre of the backstreet abortionist faded into history. The moral objections that accompanied the passage of the legislation through Parliament resurfaced as fanatical pressure groups, often of a religious bent; but fewer unwanted children were being born as a result, and fewer women were prematurely dying.

Yes, there is an irony that the anniversary of this British legislation’s introduction should coincide with the new tenant of the White House reviving Ronald Reagan’s old policy of cutting US funding for non-governmental organisations that offer advice on (or include) abortions in their overseas portfolios. As with promoting contraception in the developing world, such a service is one of the few ways in which the planet’s swelling population can be reduced; Christopher Hitchens made that point when justifying his campaign against Mother Theresa. But, while pro and anti camps will probably never be reconciled on this issue, the rights British women acquired half-a-century ago at least gave them something far more emancipating than tax-free tampons – actual control of their own bodies.

© The Editor

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BRAVE NEW WORLD

cowsNewtown was not only the name of the fictitious Merseyside metropolis in which ‘Z-Cars’ was set; it was also the name of a track on ‘Cut’, the debut album by reggae-fied punkettes The Slits. In the case of the former, the backdrop was supposed to reflect the Utopian housing developments of the early 60s (despite the apparently high crime-rate); whereas the latter chronicled the dull urban deserts such idealistic schemes had descended into by the late 70s – a cultural vacuum where everything was closed, boarded-up and abandoned as the populace stayed indoors and watched the telly.

The New Town was an innovative solution to Britain’s post-war housing crisis that spanned the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the New Jerusalem envisaged in the wake of the 1945 General Election; and it’s telling how quickly the powers-that-be got on with it. Stevenage in Hertfordshire was the first designated New Town in 1946, swiftly followed by the likes of Crawley, Corby, Basildon, Cwmbran, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride and numerous others up to 1970.

One of the final pieces in the New Town jigsaw was designated as such half-a-century ago today, a shiny space-age settlement occupying what had previously consisted of several small towns, villages and farmland in rural Buckinghamshire. It was named after one of the old villages it swallowed-up: Milton Keynes.

It’s interesting to recall that the last time the country experienced a housing crisis (courtesy of Adolf), the Government actually tried to do something about it by embarking on an unprecedented building programme that not only swept away both slum housing and bombed-out neighbourhoods in existing towns and cities but also created fresh hamlets from scratch, many of which would house the overspill population from densely-populated areas. Taking their cue from the pre-war ‘garden cities’, on the drawing board these New Towns embodied the optimistic determination of the Attlee administration to provide homes for heroes.

Shopping centres and workplaces were distanced from housing, with wide open spaces to compensate for the loss of the Greenbelt land as well as offering those relocated from cramped urban environments a facsimile of the country. The design faults in the original housing that was constructed with haste and inevitably led to corners being cut wasn’t evident to begin with; most of the citizens of the New Towns had come from overcrowded Victorian tenements and felt as though their new homes, with indoor bathrooms and all mod cons, were little palaces. Cinema newsreels of the time, acting almost as PR for the New Town scheme, extolled the benefits of these residential Nirvanas and painted a bright picture of a nation looking forward rather than back.

By the late 60s, the project was close to winding down, but experienced one great last hurrah with Milton Keynes. 21,850 acres were set aside for Buckinghamshire’s very own Brasilia, with a target population of 250,000; the aim was for Milton Keynes to be the biggest New Town of them all and architects were allowed to let their imaginations run riot in the distinct Modernist design of the buildings, viewing the town as a unique opportunity for an experiment on a grand scale that the limited space in existing cities prevented.

A revolutionary grid system for the plans was imported from the US to add a further alien sheen to the ambitious operation, and though skyscrapers were initially opposed, tall buildings eventually rose in the central business district. Milton Keynes, above all its New Town predecessors, eschewed the traditional layout of British towns and accurately anticipated an increase in car ownership as the motorway network gradually began to link-up the major cities.

Milton Keynes was an ongoing work-in-progress throughout the 70s and 80s; eager to acquire culture, it opened its first music venue, The Stables, sponsored by the premier couple of British Jazz, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, in 1970; but perhaps the most well-known addition was very much out-of-doors – what was originally known as the Milton Keynes Bowl, opening in 1979. The national sport belatedly came to Milton Keynes in 2004 with the controversial formation of Milton Keynes Dons FC; by putting the town on the pools coupon, it seemed as if it was finally accepted by outsiders as a ‘proper town’, though for a location that was the culmination of Labour’s New Jerusalem vision, as soon as Milton Keynes became a Parliamentary constituency in 1983 it ironically voted Tory.

By the 80s, Milton Keynes was widely derided for its somewhat sterile and faceless ambience; The Style Council famously mocked it in their 1985 hit ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, and the factors that for many make the best British cities so special – the mix of old and new, the sense of history and character, seemingly random accidents such as narrow side-streets veering off on a tangent, the Medieval dirt beneath the manicured fingernails, if you like – are utterly absent from Milton Keynes.

Yet, for such a daring break with the characteristic British town, the aesthetic elements of Milton Keynes have proven to be the blueprint for virtually every redevelopment and extension of major towns and cities across the UK ever since. The Lego-like add-ons that spring up like a bland barrier encircling today’s metropolis are undoubtedly created in the Milton Keynes image.

For all its faults, however, the concept of the New Town was an ingenious and effective means of solving an acute crisis in housing; and what have we done on such a scale since? Considering how acute the current crisis in housing really is, bugger all.

© The Editor

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