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Ten iconic moments that capture 1960s Britain

19 September 2015 ( 20 September 2018 )

From politics and pirates to satire and the supersonic - ten clips that capture Britain in the 1960s

1963 Harold Macmillan resigns as PM

When did the 1950s really end? Probably in 1963, with the resignation of Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister. Supermac’s supreme self-confidence had finally ebbed away and ill-health caused him to vacate Downing Street.

Bookies immediately got their chalkboards out to make Rab Butler 4/5 red hot favourite, but it was Foreign Secretary Lord Home who made it over the No 10 threshold on October 19 at a not-very-generous 6/1. 

Home renounced his peerage four days later, stood for and won the vacant seat of Kinross and West Perthshire in a by-election and, as plain, simple Alec Douglas-Home took his seat in the Commons in November. Ten months later Harold Wilson took Labour and a brave new technological, egalitarian age back into power. So it seemed.

1963 JFK - TW3

That Was the Week That Was has never been bettered as a TV platform for satire and comment. This was a time when an urgent, crew-cut, middle-class  David Frost was new to TV (if you can imagine that). Leading a team of young Turks who had distain for the establishment oozing from every pore, they tore into the government and society with unbridled relish. No target was sacred.

So how would the team of Frost, a scathing Bernard Levin, and writers including Peter Cook, Keith Waterhouse, John Cleese and Dennis Potter handle the Dallas assassination of John Kennedy, just a day before?

With a brilliant aplomb and sensitivity, that’s how. The hurt and anger shone through the shortened (20 minute) show.

Millicent Martin sang a specially composed tribute, In the Summer of His Years and a nation was transfixed. She caught the mood in a perfect moment. It was so poignant, America’s NBC broadcast it the next day.

That was the last series of TW3. The BBC cancelled it for 1964 as it was an election year and there was a thick air of deference to politicans and authority at the time.

TW3 lit up British life with a phosphorescence rarely seen since. Much the same as JFK, one might say.

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1964 The Beatles

A measure of the incredible scale of Beatlemania was that Ringo Starr’s tonsils were considered a matter of national importance, with newsmen covering the tonsillectomy with all the diligence accorded to a royal birth. That showbiz personalities were now considered a ‘proper’ news item by broadsheets and the BBC signalled the irreversible expansion of what was deemed ‘topical’, sowing the seeds for the celebrity mags and culture of today.

That one of the four most important people in the showbiz  firmament would idly chat with journos on a London street is also a small wonder in these days of celeb PR control and security.

1966 Wembley

For the blue half of footballing Merseyside the summer of ’66 and Wembley meant only one thing: Everton’s  3-2 win FA Cup Final win over Sheffield Wednesday. And while the World Cup Final had as much drama, it lacked that ‘certain something’, which the FA Cup had provided just a few weeks before – a one-man pitch invasion.

Eddie Kavanagh was the man. So overcome with joy at the Toffees’ comeback from 0-2 down was Eddie that he ran onto the pitch to celebrate, followed in hottish pursuit by two PCs. In a wonderful mazy run he left one copper sprawled in his wake clutching Eddie’s jacket, with the other only managing to bring him down at the edge of the penalty area.

These days the cameras would turn away with a disapproving commentator muttering about ‘morons’. That afternoon, it captured one man’s unfettered joy, matched a few weeks later by a whole nation's – well, the English part of it at least.

1967 Pirate radio

The great thing about the sea-bound radio pirates, the Carolines and the Londons,was that you actually heard the all of the record, not just half or two-thirds as you did listening to Radio Luxemburg. Their 15-minute shows sacrificed 45s’ endings to the commercial needs of Horace Bachelor’s Infradraw Method ads  (‘that’s Keynsham. K…E… ‘etc). With London and Caroline et al you got the lot.

It was a world away, too, from the Light Programme and its Joe Loss pop cover shows.

The DJs were young, enthusiastic and fun. It was worth listening to Radio London for the jingles alone, which The Who Sell Out album brilliantly incorporated between tracks. They played The Byrds’ Mr Spaceman a lot. They gave the world John Peel. Then at 3pm on August 14 1967 the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act brought Radio London, the best and brightest, to an end.

We waited, listening to the sound of silence, hoping against hope that it would come back. It never did.

The day the music died? Yes, at least a little bit.

1967 Wilson’s devaluation speech

In the Sixties ‘Britain’s Balance of Trade’ was serious stuff. Any sign that we were heading into the red, even just for a month, would mean the evening news clearing the decks of anything else, so serious was the situation. Multi-billion debts and deficits and their nuances were yet to come. It was simple – the country was in the black or in the red. End of.

Harold Wilson went on air on November 19 to announce the devaluation of the pound by 14%. A pound was now worth a paltry $2.40, a drop of 40 cents. Can you imagine? The nation trembled, we were on the brink of the financial abyss.

Wilson was no mug in front of the camera, and he offered reassurance as all around him faltered. ‘It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued,’ he said.

Indeed, when you put your hand in your pocket or purse, the pound was still there. Same size, same colour. So that was alright then.

‘The pound in your pocket’ became a late-60s catchphrase, but it was Wilson’s canny observation that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ that has become enshrined in political folklore.

1967 Torrey Canyon

In March, a Liberian registered oil tanker got into difficulties off west Cornwall, near the Isles of Scilly, eventually wrecked with the result that some 32million tons of crude oil were spilt, causing untold havoc and destruction of marine and birdlife along the coast. ‘Detergents’ used to thin and disperse the oil slicks only contributed to the disaster.

PM Harold Wilson took personal charge (he was a Scilly Isle holiday regular) and the RAF was called in to bomb the Torrey Canyon and break it up. It was (Partially) Mission Accomplished - only about 75% of the bombs hit their stationery target.

It was the first globally televised eco-disaster and as such forced the international community to focus on the potential for more disasters on this scale. But it took the death of thousands of seabirds and the fracturing of a thriving tourist economy to do so.

1968 Mexico Olympics

In 1964 and Tokyo it was Lynn’ the Leap’ Davies who was our Olympic golden wonder. This time it was blond, aquiline David Hemery. Dozens of protesting students had been shot by the army just ten days before the opening ceremony but the Olympics had gone ahead.  

Hemery was the leading light in the 400m hurdles. GB was strong in this event. Hemery dutifully made the final and in a blaze of speed shattered the world record. The BBC’s David Coleman was in his pomp then, too. You sensed he also was going for glory, as in the nearest thing you’ll hear to controlled stiff upper lip teetering on adulatory hysteria as Hemery ciamed gold. Coleman added, almost as an afterthought, ‘and who cares who’s third…’.

Well, GB’s second-ranked hurdler John Sherwood, for one, as he proudly stood on the rostrum to accept his bronze medal.

1969 Concorde’s inaugural British flight

Was it a bird? Was it a plane? If the latter, then Concorde was unlike any plane seen before. It was a sweeping, sophisticated double-delta design; it would break the speed of sound barrier; and it was British. Well, half of it. At least.

We might grudgingly accept that the wine list was predominantly French but the rest was surely British. Ok, so Concorde 001 was French and their plane test flew a month before ours, but our pilot was Brian Trubshaw, and you don’t get a more British name than that.

Concorde, which lost and regained its ‘e’ along the way, took off for its first UK test flight on 9 April to hurrahs all round, and just seven years later went into commercial operation. Seven years: pretty good for an Anglo-French project. Both parties could, however, smile with relief that at least it wasn’t part-American.

1969 Investiture

1960s Britain witnessed amazing social, political and cultural change, upheaval even. The abolition of capital punishment, the abortion laws, the decriminalising of homosexuality, the Pill, the imprint of youth culture, technological advance and radical improvement in domestic comfort, a consumer-inspired economic boom, political protest – it seemed change would never end.

On July 9, in a small North Wales town, one Charles, Phillip, Arthur, George Windsor, aged 20, an undergraduate from London, was crowned Prince of Wales.

Change and continuity, continuity and change. A hallmark of the decade it would seem.


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