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Back to the Fifties

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 23rd February 2014

Here's a slightly different one - History question 5: "What was notable about the late 50s?" And your answer "My aunt who I live with used to have a parrot called Fifties who is now dead. The most notable thing about the late Fifties was his enormous appetite..."
Not the Nine O'Clock News, BBC2 1981

Whatever decade you live in, there is always an inherent nostalgia for past times. In the 1990s, with the "Cool Britannia" vibe the media looked back to 1960s for fashion, cars, music and film; I suppose the film Austin Powers is probably the embodiment of this spirit, or at least the 60s as remembered by a handful of Londoners living near Carnaby Street. Meanwhile on TV we had the popular cosy Yorkshire TV series Heartbeat with its nostalgic cars and period music.

Cherry-picking some of the programmes on TV in the last year or so; Agatha Christie’s Marple, The Tractate Middoth, The Hour, Call the Midwife, Father Brown and so forth, I’d be inclined to say that the current interest of television programme commissioners is the 1950s.

Certainly, all of the aforementioned programmes feature dramatic depictions of the 1950s, both in a semi-rose tinted and a full-on sepia toned one.

The 1950s are quite a nice era to set programmes in, I suspect. The rule for period dramas is usually the further back you go, the more expensive and difficult it is to make in terms of locations, set-dressing and costumes.

What's interesting is that of those programmes mentioned, quite a few have been reset by their adaptors into the 1950s when their source material dates from the 1930s or earlier (Father Brown being a case in point). The producer of that series said in a Q&A session that
We were advised that period shows work better if they are set within living memory, so that's why we updated it.
The 1930s are so far off that it seems like another planet now. I guess the 1940s are out because for a significant proportion of those Britain was at war, or at least tidying up from it, so that aspect would always have to feature in the background, a-la Foyle's War. By the 1960s we had something rather too much like our own world.

So it has to be the Fifties, a decade that seems an altogether different beast from our own, but still recognisable, perhaps more so than the 1960s, 70s or 80s. If you take away the obligatory hats, the fashions are actually more recognisable from our own times than those of the decades that followed; look at the advertisements for brands such as M&S and you can see the mono-colour long dresses and high-stepping elegance of that period. Even the Eleventh Doctor had a penchant for 1950s-style tweed jacket and bow tie combination.

The 1950s are just different enough to be appealing as well. Britain still ran on coal, which is great for TV; steam trains look good on screen, and there are lots of well-preserved heritage railways within 100 miles of London. The cars from the period are well represented by preservationists and have a certain elegance that machines before and after don't. Stories can also feature industries such as ship building, manufacturing and ports as plot devices (Call the Midwife).

They had a semblance of modern technology; televisions, telephones, radios, etc to advance the plots, but not to the extent that it rules the lives of those that inhabited that world. Computers were house-sized analogue walls of wheels, valves and cogs, and robots only inhabited the dreams of science fiction writers. I realised the other day we're living in their future. Simon, who co-writes this site recently bought a robotic vacuum cleaner, meanwhile my next door neighbour's cat was recently given a smartphone for its birthday.

That's not true, but the 1950s form a more relaxing antidote to the speed and technology of the modern age.

But why now? Was it the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 perhaps, looking back to when we all became the New Elizabethans in 1952? Perhaps the late 1940s government policy of austerity has brought to mind the current Coalition policy of austerity?

A slightly more sinister reading of it is that with equality in Society ever decreasing, with a huge pay void between those at the top and at the bottom, the 1950s are the last time that we had a distinct class system of comparable inequality and "know your place"-ism. The 1950s were the last time a government dared to present a mostly male, mostly Eton-educated cabinet with the ministries of Eden and MacMillan, for example.

I also detect 1950s gender politics hidden away on some of the most popular shows on TV. There’s the jolly checked-tablecloth tweeness of a programme like The Great British Bakeoff with its apparent nostalgia for the days when the best a woman could hope to achieve would be a Victoria sponge without a "soggy bottom". The whole tone and visual pallet of the show, with its knowing English country fête cheeriness seems to recollect the very spirit of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on BBC2 James May presents chappish shows like James May’s Toy Stories where James and his chums build a motorbike from quintessential 1950s toy Meccano, or his other show Man Lab which celebrates engineering pursuits which largely shun modern digital technology.

I wonder whether it’s because the 1950s seem like a more innocent age, before the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. As a country, we’ve become rather scared by the 1960s and 1970s and what they brought about culturally.

The other day I started watching Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked from 2009 which eulogised the pirate radio DJs of the 1960s. How big a change four years brings - now the only stories we hear involving famous disc jockeys of the 1960s are usually about something else altogether, making that film’s sex comedy subplots seem altogether more uncomfortable.

I don’t know, perhaps it’s just an age in which we somehow seemed more respectable, whether a true perception or a typical cherry-picking exercise in false nostalgia. Certainly, as highlighted by the Father Brown producer, the Fifties now look like a Goldilocks decade that's just far enough away to be different, but not so long ago that it's another world. And that makes it good TV.



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