18 September 2015

Before the Teds

The other day I caught Simon Heffer's televised essay on British war films of the 1950s. Although originally from 2013, it had been rebroadcast in August and showed up on the BBC's iPlayer for about a month. In the way of these televised essays about culture, it was a bit superficial in that Heffer would show us a clip from a film, followed by an interview with a personage associated with it, and then would lead us to his conclusion. There was no attempt to explore alternative interpretations. This is fair enough given an hour to play with, and a requirement to cover the whole of an era running from about 1951 until 1961. (I did think he could have made a bit more of Jack Hawkins and The League of Gentlemen.)

I would like to pick on one point Heffer made. He introduces the idea that from 1951 (perhaps not so coincidentally the year the Conservatives returned to power) to about 1955, the British war film reigned supreme over a country that was 'at ease with itself', as Sir John Major put it. Then came the scourge of American rock 'n' roll, which unleashed the barbarous Teds, who liked nothing better than to rip up cinema seats to a rock 'n' roll soundtrack of films like Blackboard Jungle The British war film reinvented itself somewhat in the face of this threat, but the great dams of British culture had been breached, and the hedonistic Sixties spoiled much that was good. (For some reason, partisan columnists like Heffer always overlook the hedonistic Eighties, made possible by their beloved Mrs Thatcher.)

The problem for this aspect of Heffer's thesis is that the pass may have already been sold to American culture before Bill Haley rocked around the blackboard jungle. When reading a book like Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had It So Good, one is regularly reminded that the guardians of British culture stood constant watch against the threat posed by America. (Another interesting book on this topic is Adrian Horn's Juke Box Britain, which starts the story of the American threat during the years of the Attlee government.)

The history of the influence of American pop before 1953 is the absence of 'pop chart' information. But have a listen to The Stargazer's 1953 #1 'Broken Wings'. I would suggest it isn't so far removed in character from American hits like Jo Stafford's 'You Belong to Me' or Les Paul's and Mary Ford's 'Vaya Con Dios'. One of the two founders of The Stargazers was Dick James, whose short American obituaries did not go far enough in explaining how he was a key figure in British music, with a performance lineage going back to Henry Hall. The Stargazers were founded in 1949 (or maybe 1950), a half-decade before Heffer's arrival of Americanisation.

And let's leave the trad jazz fad of the postwar period with just a mention, or this post will get far too long.

The sort of popular 'historiography' on display in Heffer's programme is simplistic, and arguably reflects more of a focus on a kind of 'living memory'. Heffer's parents will certainly have remembered the 1950s scaremongering about the Teds. He and I were born a matter of weeks apart, and Teds were still a bit of a 'thing' in the 1970s and 1980s. It might be more interesting to think about the fears of Americanism in 1950s Britain in the context of the American presence from 1942 until 1944. Are we seeing a fear of allies turning into occupiers? Or are people like Heffer and myself projecting into the past concerns about the way globalisation is destroying the local, at least how it is viewed through the kind of mass culture distributed by major corporations?

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