In preparation for an up-coming author talk, I’ve been giving much thought to that time between 1954 and 1960 when a momentous change seemed to be taking place.
It was a time between the post-war austerity and a growing affluence.
Up till then we were little more than an extension of our parents, almost but not quite expected to be seen and not heard. We didn’t question authority, instead we were taught to respect it. We were still expected to do what our parents told us. If we were working, we were expected to ‘tip’ up our wages to our parents and be allocated spending money. This didn’t change for me until I was about 20 and started paying ‘board.’
Even the clothes we wore were similar to those worn by our parents, including hats and gloves. Because of the severe rationing in the early 1950s, there wasn’t much choice either, or much money to buy goods. Make-up was very basic and limited to Pond’s Vanishing Cream, Max Factor Panstik, blue or green eye-shadow and red lipstick. Perfume was either ‘Evening in Paris’ or ‘California Poppy’.
Despite the impact the television coverage of the Coronation on the nation, most people still stuck to their trusted wirelesses, as radios were known then. The latter had played such a vital part in people’s lives during the war informing the nation what was going on. In the late Forties and early Fifties, the wireless, especially the Light Programme, became the main source of entertainment for nearly everyone.
I was brought up on a listening diet of Children’s Hour while Dick Barton, Special Agent, and Paul Temple brought excitement into our living rooms. Housewives’ Choice meant Ann Zeigler and Webster Booth as well as Victor Silvester and his strict tempo dance band. On Saturday mornings, we had Children’s Choice with songs like ‘Sparky and His Magic Piano’ while on Saturday nights, we had In Town Tonight, following by Saturday Night Theatre. Sunday lunchtimes were marked forever by Forces’ Favourites later to become Family Favourites, followed by The Billy Cotton Band Show with its clarion call, ‘Wakey, wakey.’
We were all influenced, during the war and just after, by ITMA, It’s That Man Again, Tommy Handley, with the blurred-with-whisky tones of Colonel Chinstrap, ‘I don’t mind if I do, sir,’ and the doleful Mrs Mopp with her catch phrase, ‘Can I do you now, sir?’ This led the way later to wonderful comedy programmes such as, ‘Much Binding in the Marsh,’ ‘Take It From Here,’ and ‘Educating Archie.’
Who can forget, either, the deep rumbling tones of the Radio Doctor, whom we later discovered to be Dr Charles Hill, one-time Postmaster General. He came on at breakfast time and for some reason, seemed to talk more about the need for ‘keeping regular’ than anything else.
In the early 1950’s, music was still very much influenced by the music our parents liked, big bands and dance band singers like Anne Shelton and Dickie Valentine. Dickie had almost as much of a following as any of today’s pop stars and there were scenes of near riot when he married his wife at Caxton Hall in 1954. The prevailing influence of music can be seen in the choice of records Dad bought with a new radiogram (on the ‘never-never’, of course). They were Dickie Valentine’s ‘No Such Luck’, Eddie Calvert and his Golden Trumpet with ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, Ruby Murray’s ‘Softly, Softly’, and Mitch Miller’s ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’.
In the later 1950s, Sunday evenings were marked with the ritual of desperately searching for Radio Luxemburg and the Hit Parade, which was then based on the sales of sheet music not records. How delighted we were to find the measured tones of the so-called football expert who would spell out ‘K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M’ for we knew then that we’d found the right station.
We were so innocent too. Nor surprising, really, when one considers that film stars, one of the biggest influences of the time, were merely allowed discreet kisses and the only passion was in the accompanying music. The newspapers, too, were guarded, the only references to anything sexual were the scanty underwear of the Daily Mirror’s ‘Jane’ cartoon or a mention of ‘disarrayed clothing’ in the News of the World.
We were unknowledgeable about the wider world too. The main source of what was going on in the world came in the form of Pathé Newsreels at the cinema, very often weeks behind the times. The fiasco that was the Suez Crisis in 1956 did impinge on our consciousness a little, largely because there was so much debate about it. Of course, everyone thought the gun-boats should go in to snatch the Canal back from the Egyptians. When they didn’t, it seemed only right and proper that Anthony Eden, the then Prime Minister, should resign. It took some time to realise that this was the point at which the once-glorious British Empire began to expire. It wasn’t until the late Fifties, when more people started getting television sets, that the immediacy of the news brought graphic details of events into our living rooms, making us less insular.
Then,the mid-Fifties, in a sudden burst of primeval energy, Rock n’ Roll burst upon us young people in the form of Bill Hayley and The Comets from the United States. We first heard his vibrant sound in the film ‘Blackboard Jungle’, a film so violent that it attracted an X rating from the censors but young people who heard it went wild, causing an uproar in the usually sedate cinemas. The following year, the film ‘Rock Around The Clock, featuring Bill Haley and The Comets had us going wild and dancing in the aisles. Providing you could find a cinema that would show it, so great had been reaction to it. It was a phenomenon that had our parents clucking their tongues in disgust and forbidding their offspring (me included) to go.
Ca 1960, Imitating Holly Golightly!
Bill Haley was closely followed by the gyrating hips and the sultry looks of Elvis Presley which shocked our parents even more. They shook their heads in despair at the haunting ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
Meanwhile, in a Soho coffee bar called the Two I’s, a lively young lad called Tommy Steele was discovered and within a year had become big enough to star in a film of his own life story. We all thought, if a 19-year-old ex-cabin boy can do it, so can we, and we all wanted guitars. Even I could strum a few chords to the tune of Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’. Commercial television came in with the mid-Fifties and, by the late Fifties, advertising had really taken off. The jingles of certain adverts became as well known to us as the Hit Parade – ‘John Collier, John Collier, the window to watch’; ‘Murraymints, the too good to hurry mint’; ‘You can be sure of Shell’; ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.’ The advertising agencies quickly came to the realisation that we teenagers, a new word imported from America, had more money to spend than our parents and overnight, it appeared, we were a market to be targeted.
This was reflected in the ascendancy of such programmes on television as ‘6.5 Special’ and later ‘Ready, Steady, Go’. Browsing through record shops became a favourite Saturday pastime, especially being able to listen to them in sound-proof booths before buying.
The late Fifties, with more money and more choice available, saw the boys dressed in sharp Italienate style suits with winkle-picker shoes. We girls followed suit by changing from tight bodices and full skirts with starched petticoats to sack-like dresses worn with masses of beads and bouffant hairdos.
We really thought we were ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ might be. Yet, though we were on the doorstep of the Sixties, we were still hemmed in and conditioned by our up-bringing. If ever a generation was ripe for the liberation which came with the Sixties, it was us children of the Fifties.
Lead image is of me, late 50s, note the gloves!!