A fit of nostalgia grips the nation...
...Despite the warm glow of affection felt for other eras, however, there was never any real doubt about the nation’s finest hour. The Second World War was still very much within living memory for the majority of the population, and its presence loomed large throughout the decade.
In a 1973 episode of the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?, the staff of Grace Brothers department store are caught up in a transport strike and decide to stay the night in the shop, where they set up tents and spend the evening gathered round an ersatz campfire, singing old songs and reminiscing about the war. ‘Some people seem to forget,’ laments Mr Rumbold (Nicholas Smith), ‘that men like Captain Peacock and myself were instrumental in making this a country fit for heroes to live in.’ And Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) can only agree: ‘These youngsters seem to forget what we went through.’
A couple of years later in Coronation Street, Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth) and Stan Ogden (Bernard Youens) manage to get themselves locked into the cellar of the Rovers Return overnight, and celebrate by getting riotously drunk and rivalling each other with songs from the First and Second World Wars respectively.
So ubiquitous did this basic situation become as a dramatic shorthand that it even turned up in an episode of the ITV sitcom Mind Your Language, where an evening class of mature foreign students, supposedly being taught English, find themselves locked in the classroom and settle in for the weekend; again they respond with a singsong, starting with Vera Lynn’s wartime classic ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Given that the characters here included a German and an Italian, it’s not entirely clear how relevant this supposedly shared culture might really be.
Elsewhere the wartime sitcom Dad’s Army, which had debuted in 1968, ran for a further six series in the ’70s, while even the middle-brow quiz show Mastermind originated in creator Bill Wright’s experience of being interrogated by the Gestapo during the war: a single, isolating light was trained pitilessly on the contestant as Magnus Magnusson demanded not name, rank and serial number, but name, occupation and specialist subject. And the final show in the original series of Howard Schuman’s music drama Rock Follies (1976) took the theme to a new height. Arguing that ‘the English have been nostalgic for World War II ever since it ended’, the episode titled ‘The Blitz’ sees the launching of a club designed to resemble an air-raid shelter, complete with a ration-book menu, while the Little Ladies (the band whose lack of fortunes we have been following) dress in Andrews Sisters outfits and sing songs like ‘Glenn Miller Is Missing’ and ‘War Brides’.
‘World War II has turned from history into myth,’ commented Gerald Glaister, the producer of TV series Colditz and Secret Army. ‘It is our last frontier, the English equivalent of the western.’ At a time of national unease, with social conflict everywhere in evidence, the appeal of a period when the whole country seemed to be pulling in a single direction was obvious, though such national self-indulgence was also, of course, an invitation to mock.
There were sporadic parodies of the obsession with the Second World War, from the Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Germans’ to the down-at-heel detective series Hazell, which featured in one storyline Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch, veteran of the wartime hit Band Waggon, as a character named Dornford casting a sad eye over modern society: ‘Corruption, laziness, cynicism – I often ask myself: if we had to fight the Battle of Britain all over again . . .’ he sighs. ‘Oh, these long-haired layabouts! When I think of all the top-class chaps dying round me in the desert, a great nation spilling its blood.’ The kick is that Dornford is a seedy insurance salesman trying to wheedle his way out of a legitimate debt, a thoroughly unheroic figure who one suspects managed to resist his country’s call to arms in 1940.
The most devastating assault on the mythology of the Blitz spirit came in Jack Rosenthal’s 1974 TV play There’ll Almost Always Be an England. Here the inhabitants of a typical suburban road, Quigley Street, are evacuated for the night because of a gas leak, and those who can’t get into hotels end up bedding down in the village hall. As jealousies, rivalries and passions are magnified by the enforced proximity, one man rises to the occasion. Bernard Hepton plays Mr Joyce (a name, we are reminded, which he shares with Lord Haw Haw), who sees this as an opportunity to display his natural leadership qualities, and to bring together the community in a re-creation of the old days. But he’s fighting an uphill battle; no one else cares about such wallowing in the past, this microcosmic society having long since fractured. When he proposes a spot of community singing in the approved manner (‘Bless ’Em All’, ‘There’ll Always Be an England’), Alec Shankly, played by Norman Rossington, finally cracks: ‘You’re in your bloody element, aren’t you?’ he explodes. ‘The dark days of 1940 were in 1940, Mr Joyce. Oppo, TTFN, grin and bear it, stiff upper lip, island sodding race, careless talk costs lives, is your journey really necessary – yours was, wasn’t it, eh? You wouldn’t have missed this for anything. You’re loving it, it’s the greatest night of your life. It’s better than a George Formby picture at the Regal and a spam sandwich when you got home.’
The ubiquity of wartime imagery was such that when Alec Guinness staged a photo shoot in a West London street, dressed in full uniform and make-up for his title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a passing policeman was entirely unfazed, and simply pointed out that Guinness had parked his car on a double yellow line. ‘I won’t give you a ticket this time,’ the officer added wearily. ‘I have no desire to spend the rest of my life in a concentration camp...’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008