The Fifties are often remembered as a serene and peaceful, even slightly boring time, but as David Kynaston’s book reminds us, it wasn’t all like that.
The Notting Hill riots of 1958, for example, were amongst the most serious racial disturbances of the century. British football reeled from news of the Munich air disaster which seemed to have robbed English football of the talented names that had seemed set to dominate the Sixties. The Wolfenden Report, meanwhile, recommended decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. This wouldn’t actually happen until 1967.
The beauty of David Kynsaton’s book, the first of two making up Modernity Britain covering 1957-1962 (his previous volumes Austerity Britain and Family Britain detailed the period from 1945 to Suez) is how they seem to cover nearly everything that happened in the UK at the time. On the one hand, we get the big, obvious events: Macmillan pulling the Tories back after the disaster of Suez to a landslide victory in 1959, the emergence of CND, the moves towards the major town planning projects which would dominate the Sixties.
But we also get welcome snippets of popular culture. Paddington Bear made his first steps onto the literary scene, Nigel Pargetter is born in The Archers and Pete Murray introduced the first episode of Six-Five Special in the following manner:
“We’ve got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us a gas, so just get with it and have a ball”.
Elsewhere, almost sixty years’ perspective enables us to identify the national institutions of the future, making their first cautious steps into public life. Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench graduate from Drama College although the latter’s Ophelia is poorly received by some. Thirty year old Bruce Forsyth took over hosting of Sunday Night At The London Palladium after Tommy Trinder is sacked. Meanwhile, rising Labour star Anthony Wedgewood Benn (still quite moderate at this point) helps with an early Party Political Broadcast and the young Margaret Thatcher secures the Tory candidacy for Finchley and ultimately wins the seat. A teenager called Cliff Richard also started making waves threatening the musical domination of Tommy Steele.
We know now which buds will grow and prosper and which will wither away, making this fascinating stuff. Roll on the second half of Modernity Britain which will doubtless feature the emergence of the satire boom, the end of National Service and perhaps a little more about the promising teenaged Liverpool skiffle band, The Quarrymen, mentioned fleetingly once or twice here.