Sunday, 14 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 32 (That Was Fifties Britain That Was)


You can find out more about the the Britain in which John Lennon, Alan Klein and so many others grew up in Humphrey Carpenter's book That Was Satire That WasIt's actually about the satire boom which began with Beyond the Fringe in 1960, but there's a prologue describing the decade which led to that moment of release.


Staid as fifties Britain may have been, Carpenter dates the impulse for social change back to the forties. The need for everyone to pull together during wartime temporarily created a "comparatively classless" society, he says, and the mantra of Other Ranks (ie the non-officer class) was that "things are going to be different after the war."

Sure enough, a Labour government was elected in 1945, despite outgoing prime minister Winston Churchill's warnings about incipient Communism. But when this led to an era of austerity - the country had been "virtually bankrupted" by the war - the electorate got cold feet, voted the Conservatives back into power in 1951, and British society reverted to its "pre-war heirarchichal norm."

So what eventually caused that structure to buckle?
Carpenter cites National Service as one of the factors. As in wartime, it encouraged wider social mixing. But in addition to that, many young Britons of whatever origins couldn't see the point of what they were doing. The war had been a fight against obvious injustice; the campaigns in which this new generation were being forced to participate seemed to them to be more to do with the safeguarding of British interests than about concern for a greater good. And a new mood of cynicism, along with with an increased political awareness, began to spread among the young.


This doesn't mean that they weren't still cowed in the presence of authority. Dennis Potter (pictured in 1958), recalled working as a clerk at Whitehall as part of his National Service and
having to bawl "Permission to speak - SAH!" every time he wanted to ask one of his superiors something. "That little phrase seemed to me to sum up the whole of English life at that time."
The Suez crisis - in 1956, the year rock'n'roll hit the charts, as reflected in Potter's series - played a major part in this change of attitude. Carpenter notes that some ex-National Servicemen who received recall papers sent them back with the word "boll*cks" scrawled over them, and Suez ultimately put an end to National Service, abolished the following year.

An article by Paul Reynolds on the BBC News website, here, is the simplest and clearest account I have found of the crisis, and there are links to more detailed information.

As discussed earlier (post 27), the shadow cast by the bomb also served to erode trust in one's elders and notional betters:
No longer could teacher, magistrate, politician, don or even loving parent guide the young. Their membership of the H-bomb society automatically cancelled anything they might have to say on questions of right or wrong. [Jeff Nuttall]

 Fear of the bomb and a sense of the pointlessness of recent military campaigns were combined in John Osborne's groundbreaking 1956 play Look Back in Anger, where Jimmy Porter proclaims:
There aren't any good, brave causes left. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off [...] It'll be [..] About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.

Ken Tynan's original review of the play is available in full on the Guardian website here. He opens with a little smack at one of the theatrical old guard, who had himself attacked a recent novel by one of the so-called Angry Young Men, Kingsley Amis (above):
'They are scum', was Mr Maugham's famous verdict on the class of State-aided university students to which Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim belongs; and since Mr Maugham seldom says anything controversial or uncertain of wise acceptance, his opinion must clearly be that of many. Those who share it had better stay well away from John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (Royal Court) which is all scum and a mile wide.
Tynan is referring to a new breed of graduate, not from Oxford or Cambridge - associated with the upper classes and their behavioural codes - but one of the "redbrick" universities which had been founded in the early years of the twentieth century and were more representative of the nation's youth as a whole, including working class and the various gradations of middle class.

 Talking of which, he may have gone to art school rather than university, but Tynan's description of Jimmy Porter could double as a portrait of the young Lennon portrayed in Nowhere Boy:
Look Back in Anger presents post-war youth as it really is, with special emphasis on the non-U intelligentisia who live in bed-sitters and divide the Sunday papers into two groups, 'posh' and 'wet'. [...]

All the qualities are there, qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage - the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of 'official' attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour (Jimmy describes a pansy friend as 'a female Emily Bronte'), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned.
Actually, the Guardian site misprints it as "no one who does shall go unmourned" but even that typo contains a truth about Osborne's play: whatever Maugham and his kind may think of the matter, the charladies of this world (ie those who go out and "do," like ITMA's Mrs Mopp) are as worthy of attention as anyone else. Osborne's play anticipates a new era where the working class would be represented on stage and screen as more than mere comic servants.

Meanwhile, even though things were improving economically - Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan said in 1957 that "most of our people have never had it so good" - Carpenter quotes undergraduate Dennis Potter's 1958 description of the "great greyness" of a country distracted by consumerism but with no real sense of purpose:
a diluted welfare state, a sense of shame and disillusion, contempt for authority, a widespread desire to emigrate or cheat ... a feeling of the flatness and bleakness of everyday England ... doesn't it all make you sick? Or does it make you certain of the need to be awake and articulate, pompous perhaps but alive?
Which allows Carpenter to lead ratherly neatly into a consideration of the four performers who effectively answered Potter's call.


One of the Beyond the Fringe sketches playfully alludes to the growing social mobility which has even allowed members of the working class to infiltrate Cambridge via scholarships: patrician Peter Cook, son of a diplomat, talks about how two members of the cast
have worked their way up from working class origins. And yet Jonathan and I are working together with them in the cast and treating them as equals, and I must say it's proving to be a most worthwhile, enjoyable and stimulating experience for both of us.
It's not too difficult to see another irreverent and liberating quartet as being interlinked with the Beyond the Fringe team - and while 1964's A Hard Day's Night may have been scripted, an scene on the train encapsulates how far things have come in a decade. An associate of Peter Cook's said of the early fifties:
Authority was everything: you disobeyed any form of it, from a schoolmaster to a doctor, at your peril. You didn't even think about it.
But take a look at the Fabs' response to an upper class commuter in who switches off Ringo's transistor radio without asking:
JOHNSON
An elementary knowledge of the Railway Acts
would tell you I'm perfectly within my rights.

He smiles frostily.

PAUL
Yeah, but we want to hear it and there's more
of us than you. We're a community, like, a
majority vote. Up the workers and all that
stuff!

JOHNSON
Then I suggest you take that damned thing into
the corridor or some other part of the train
where you obviously belong.

JOHN
(leaning forward to him)
Gie's a kiss!

PAUL
Shurrup! Look, Mister, we've paid for our seats
too, you know.

JOHNSON
I travel on this train regularly, twice a week.

JOHN
Knock it off, Paul, y' can't win with his sort.
After all, it's his train, isn't it, Mister?

JOHNSON
And don't you take that tone with me, young
man!

GEORGE
But...

JOHNSON
(accusingly)
I fought the war for your sort.

RINGO
Bet you're sorry you won!




Cementing the association with Beyond the Fringe, John Lennon appeared as a toilet attendant in Not Only But Also (top) ...





... Although what that boy's poor aunt must have thought of it I simply cannot imagine.

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