Postwar Britain: Between Progress and Tradition

Postwar Britain’s relationship with its past was laid bare in a long-running television show, argues Tim Stanley.

[video: width: 612px]

It sometimes feels like everything was better in the past, even nostalgia. I’ve become addicted to The Good Old Days, a BBC variety show that was broadcast for 30 years from 1953 and can now be found archived on YouTube. It was staged in Leeds City Varieties theatre and was an attempt to revive the Edwardian music hall tradition. On stage were clowns and ventriloquists, pearly kings and pub-class singers. Every episode ended with a chorus of Down At The Old Bull and Bush. Even the audience, ordinary members of the public dressed up in period costume, seemed to know all the words. It was basically Britain’s Got Talent, with a bit more talent and relocated to the 1900s.

The show raises all sorts of interesting postmodern questions about how people in the past remembered the past. As we approach the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, there’s a big debate going on about how best to mark it: as a triumphant victory of democracy over militarism or as a tragic waste of life? Twenty-first century attitudes towards the era are dominated by the Lions Led By Donkeys motif, by the view that the Great War was the natural extension of imperial ambition and aristocratic folly. But The Good Old Days’ audience doesn’t seem to share our angry grief. To them the 1900s were literally the good old days, an age of song, patriotism and (relatively) clean jokes. Given that the show was broadcast during the strike-ridden, class war of the 1970s, the Edwardian era must have seemed like a lost Eden of British greatness. Of course they were indulging in a myth (regardless of inflation, working-class quality of life was far higher in the 1970s than in 1914), but it’s still fascinating to see how that myth shifts from decade to decade.

One of the repeat star performers is Danny La Rue and his transgressive naughtiness gives the nostalgia strange depths. La Rue was a popular drag act who would sing songs that were already innuendo-heavy when sung by a woman; when performed by a man in a frock they are simply outrageous. In one broadcast, dressed as an Edwardian lady, he sang a First World War recruiting song called I’ll Make a Man of You. Playing the part of a gal boasting about ways of getting boys to join the army, he sings: ‘On Sunday I walk out with a Soldier/ On Monday I’m taken by a Tar/ On Tuesday I’m out with a baby Boy Scout/ On Wednesday a Hussar!/ On Thursday a gang oot wi’ a Scottie/ On Friday, the Captain of the crew;/ But on Saturday I’m willing, if you’ll only take the shilling/ To make a man of any one of you!’

The response of La Rue’s audience is fascinating. Watching it today it’s striking just how cruelly ironic the lyrics are; we all know that whoever ‘took the shilling’ was likely to wind up dead in No Man’s Land. But to this 1970s audience it’s pure entertainment. There’s a far more complex negotiation going on around La Rue’s indeterminate sexuality. He is a man dressed as a woman in an era when homosexuality had just been legalised. But he is also playing a character from a time in which homosexuality could land a man in prison and he makes no obvious attempt to subvert that old prejudice. Ergo, the performance is both liberating and conservative at the same time. Equally peculiar is a moment when John Inman, famous for playing the hyper-camp Mr Humphries in the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?, sings I Was Born a Bachelor. Did the audience understand that bachelor could be a synonym for gay? Or did they suspend modernity and, like good Edwardians, accept his plea that he just hasn’t met the right woman yet? It is genuinely hard to tell.

Although The Good Old Days tells us little about the Edwardian Era, it does say a lot about the nostalgic character of Britain in the postwar years. It was trapped between progress and tradition, both of which became fused together in popular entertainment. It is proof that attitudes don’t change overnight. They evolve messily over time.

Tim Stanley is associate fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University.