From the Archive: A Quiet Revolution Begins
History Today was launched in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain. Barry Turner challenges Arthur Marwick’s impressions, first published in 1991, of the year that austerity Britain glimpsed a brighter future.
Arthur Marwick (1936-2006) was not a historian to harbour doubts. His judgements were forthright and bold. But looking back on the 1950s from his vantage point in 1991 he was uncharacteristically ambivalent. ‘Not a golden age’, he opined, ‘but not leaden either’, an airy dismissal that might apply to any postwar period.
To start on a basis we can all accept, the 1950s was a bleak decade. The Labour government, elected with a thumping majority in 1945, had laid the foundations of a welfare state but the benefits had still to feed through to a generation weaned on austerity.
Everything was in short supply. Rationing was still in force. Twenty million Britons lived in homes without baths and nearly a fifth of London’s housing was classified as slums. The brightest sights in the capital were the red buses. All else was black or sooty grey. Restaurant food was disgusting and service was a forgotten concept. The customer always came last. A repetitive refrain was heard throughout the land: ‘It can’t be done, Gov.’
If Britain was still a major industrial nation most of what was produced went abroad to pay off enormous war debts while a large chunk of any surplus went to the armed forces. Trying to keep up the appearance of a world power, Britain spent seven per cent of its GDP on defence; second only to the Soviet Union.
The general mood of cynicism and lethargy born of having to make do is well reflected in Marwick’s survey of 1951 and beyond. But, while detecting a few green shoots that were soon to transform the social landscape, he is begrudging in giving credit where it is due. This shows most obviously in his coverage of the Festival of Britain.
While he accepts that the Festival ‘cut a slice into the assumptions, attitudes and conceptions of style of the time’, he conveys nothing of the exhilaration created by this wonderland on the South Bank of the Thames.
Memories are of buildings like the Dome of Discovery, the largest construction of its kind in the world; or the Skylon, 300ft of slender steel and aluminium. But the Festival was, above all, a showcase for Modernism. The space, light and colour of contemporary design came as a shock of delight to those brought up in the narrow terraces in grime encrusted streets. Displays of household items, now commonplace but then beyond the average family budget – washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners – promised a domestic revolution. As one observer put it: ‘The Festival served notice on the days of varnish, brown paint and porridge wallpaper.’ Among those who were inspired to strike out on their own were Mary Quant, Terence Conran and David Mellor, soon to be Britain’s leading designer of cutlery.
This seems to have made little impact on Marwick, who could not resist a token leftist dig at the Festival: ‘It was essentially run by members of the upper class’; as if working-class designers and architects had been deliberately excluded. Yes, of course, Gerald Barry, the former newspaper editor turned Festival impresario, Hugh Casson, director of architecture, and most of their colleagues were from privileged backgrounds, but they recognised that their responsibility was to all people. For the most part they succeeded, as witnessed by the party spirit that extended from the South Bank to every town and village in the country, all of them presenting their own mini-Festival celebrations.
On the broader cultural front Marwick’s dismissal of the popular music of the 1950s – American inspired, soggy sentimentality – is hard to fault, but he is on shakier ground with his contempt for British movies. He failed to spot the subversive message of The Man in the White Suit (not, as Marwick assumed, a typical Ealing comedy), while praising as ‘outstanding’ The Outcast of the Islands, a heavyweight drama that now hardly bears watching. In fairness, the cinema did not have a big role in the Festival, popular attention being focused on television and its soon to be dominant place in the home.
A word that crops up frequently in Marwick’s essay is ‘parochialism’ and he is right in suggesting that Britain suffered from a narrowness of vision. But the hurricane of creative energy that swept the country in the following decade did not happen spontaneously. Its origins are to be seen in the bubbling frustration of the 1950s that found an outlet in the Festival with its energetic, idealistic pursuit of a better life.
For Marwick the Festival veered unsteadily between what was truly original and the ‘cosy kitsch’. But of such tensions are revolutions made.
Barry Turner is the author of Beacon for Change: How the Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age (Aurum, 2011).
Read Arthur Marwick's article Britain 1951.
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