Historian Dominic Sandbrook has gone from being a well-respected academic historian to one of the country's most popular writers on recent British history, with four epic sociopolitical surveys (Never Had it So Good, White Heat, State of Emergency, Seasons In the Sun) which cover Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1956 up to 1979. They include a motley collection of historical characters-- Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, Enoch Powell and Mary Whitehouse--indeed, anyone who was anyone. His thorough research and accessible style make his books the ideal introduction to modern history, and he recently presented the highly acclaimed BBC2 documentary The Seventies, re-inspecting and re-evaluating that much-maligned decade, and indicating parallels with the current state of the UK. I recently spoke to Dominic about this and many other aspects of contemporary history.
Why do these particular eras of history appeal to you?
There's not much written about British history post-1945, and I wanted, as an historian, to look at the day before yesterday, get beneath the old clichés and find the parallels that make sense of our changing role in the world and the shift towards the affluent society--what the lessons of this period tell us about our society today.
Why, out of all the periods covered in your books, did you choose to make the Seventies the focus of a TV documentary?
The Seventies was actually pitched by the BBC: they felt that as a decade it had been lost, and they wanted to--not rehabilitate it, exactly--but explain why it matters to us now, and this was something that I wanted to do too. I was nervous about approaching it, as I've never presented a TV show before, but I found it fantastic working with the BBC. There's not as much depth [in it] as in the books, because one documentary script is shorter than one of my chapters in the latest book. As is the nature of television, you can only squeeze so much out of it.
It was heavily promoted on BBC2 as well.
I loved the trailers, the old BBC2 logos--they were excellent at wrapping it up and bringing the whole project to life.
I suppose, with a four-part documentary, there isn't always room to cover everything.
I would have liked to look much more at Northern Ireland. It was such a huge issue throughout the decade and I think we gave it eight minutes in the series. In the format that we were using, it would have been so difficult to do it justice. In fact it's worthy of its own series. When putting it together we had to think about the balance of light and dark, and that was really difficult with the Northern Ireland issue. We didn't cover all the politics in blow-by-blow detail, and again we only focused on football and didn't look at other sports. We also didn't focus on that many public figures, because we felt like we'd then be missing stuff out. One of the things that we had to leave out, which was a shame, was a huge piece on Gay Liberation. We had to touch on topics: if they had said "take ten episodes" we could have looked at so much more. The four episodes that we got were great. We spent over nine months working on the project, and with the four hours we could introduce the Seventies and give people a taster, if you like. If it whets people's appetites, there's so much out there that they can read to find out more.
My take on the books is that they are a very different medium, and if the TV show gets people to read the books then great--if not, it's a fun way to introduce them to the Seventies. Rather than start with the Seventies clichés, I wanted to emphasise how they shaped the now, the rise of the affluent society. I was struck by the parallels between the early Seventies and today, and was keen to show the tipping point. Things like credit cards, owning your own home, foreign holidays, wine drinking, etc., all became a daily reality for millions of people, and this was a way to start the series on an upbeat tone. We wanted to show that there was more to the early Seventies than Slade, shopping by candlelight, and the three day week--of course this all happened, and it was a conflict driven by what people wanted and what the economy could afford. I find that the Seventies has such a richness. The contrast between light and dark is so marked, and there was so much going on culturally: glam rock to punk, great TV and Hollywood films. I love the whole doom and gloom theme from that era. It was the last time that the people, as a nation, have been so pessimistic about the future.
So which other period that you have written about do you also feel is ripe for rehabilitation?
The most maligned period of history is the 1950s. People think it's dull, buttoned- down and threadbare, yet it's optimistic by 1959. There was tons of change that happened to ordinary people, and this gave birth to affluence. I used to love the 1960s until I studied them, and now I think that they aren't as important. Many of the changes attributed to the Sixties didn't actually impact ordinary people until the 1970s. In the Sixties, 1 in 10 people went to university and it was for these people that the Sixties were exciting--as they progressed in society, becoming the voices of the media, they took on a cultural role out of all proportion to their numbers. Most people weren't in this group, and this minority appropriated the Sixties and claimed that it was the UK's great day in the sun for pop culture, when you could argue that the Sixties cultural revolution had its roots in the late Fifties.
Why did you decide to become a popular historian rather than staying in academia?
I stayed in academia until 2004. One of the great difficulties is to hold down a job and write, and I wanted to communicate with something that thousands of people might read. Not that I have anything against academic texts, but I was much more interested in ordinary readers, so I jacked in the job to concentrate on the writing. It's a totally different kind of job: it brings a lot of freedom, but there's obviously not the security.
Current wisdom has it that modern attention spans are short. Are you surprised at the success of your well-researched and lengthy books?
The idea that people have short attention spans is OK for TV, but if you look at the sales of fiction and hardback non-fiction, they are thriving. Some people will be put off by the length, but for others the level of detail in the books is why they like them: for younger readers, it immerses them in things that they don't know about. People consider history to be old events, they never think about anything happening in their lifetimes, but anything that happens in the past is history, and I find making sense of recent history is important.
How do you manage to so successfully evoke the atmosphere of particular eras in your books?
By reading the books and the newspapers of the time, particularly the tabloids, you get a sense of what preoccupied people's minds then, and of course by watching TV of that period. TV is a cultural touchstone, and it's astonishing how much of Seventies TV is about World War 2 and the long shadow that it casts. The fact that something isn't considered important now doesn't mean that it wasn't important then. You immerse yourself in the culture, and realise that Love Thy Neighbour was one of the most popular shows on TV--but I don't like to look back and be a hanging judge or prejudge the culture of the period. We have interests and values now that people looking back on us could find hard to understand, and we can't apply our standards to other generations' cultures.
As we're talking TV shows, you mention Doctor Who several times.
Doctor Who is overtly political, particularly during the Jon Pertwee era. Due to its longevity there are very few programmes that provide that level of continuity across the decades. Sarah-Jane Smith (portrayed by the brilliant Lis Sladen and introduced in 1974) was conceived as an overtly feminist companion, and then you have the savage Leela (Louise Jamieson, 1976) who was unimaginable in 1963 but was very much of her time, like all the Bond girls, who always presented a more liberated version than the last one, and yet always ended up in bed with Bond. Doctor Who still reflects current political concerns, with a focus on topics like aliens in Downing Street and weapons of mass destruction (Aliens of London/World War Three, BBC 2005). The current series has a lot of concerns with technology and what it means to be human, and the 1960's Cyberman concept, which is still valid now. The programme is much hipper these days and much less Reithian. The character of the Doctor throughout the Sixties and Seventies was very middle class and stuffy, which is totally different now. I find it a source of constant fascination and it has an endearing appeal. In fact both Doctor Who and the Beatles draw on that 1950s model of playfulness, and a willingness to mix both seriousness and silliness. The surrealism is distinctly British and the whimsy goes directly back to the music hall. Lots of whimsy in something serious, a mixture of dark and then very light, is something that our culture does well, a juxtaposition of the really dark like Tony Hancock or The Office and finding a comedy in it. It is a comedy of failiure, and you find it more resonant after World War II because our place in the world wasn't what it had been.
You've also deplored the widening class divide in the UK. What do you think has caused this?
The death of manufacturing, and education not providing the skills that people need. People used to be able to leave school, get a job, and then work up through the company. There should be more done to encourage apprenticeships. If you give people the work/opportunities you get more of a chance. If schools don't give you the tools then you can't compete.
And what about criticism of your books from the generations that you've written about? You cover emotive subjects.
If you write about periods in living memory, people have strong opinions and criticism is inevitable. I have never written with an axe to grind or an agenda: I try to be guided by the events that happened rather than impose my view on them. I find that people have strong opinions and it's better to provoke opinion than to be ignored. The closer to the 1980's, the stronger people's opinions are. In fact I'm about to start writing on the 1980's, and there's a distinct possibility of a BBC TV series as well. I always said that I'd never write beyond 1990, because that's when I became politically conscious.
And would you say on balance that the country has improved in the post-war era?
Internationally we are less important, materially the standard of living is much improved, our houses are comfortable, we have central heating, inside bathrooms, electricity. There are two things that are sad: crime is much higher, and there is so much unemployment, with no opportunities for people at the bottom. In the next half century we need to make good on things that are not sorted in our society.
Interview conducted by James R. Turner. Many thanks to Dominic Sandbrook for his time.
BBC2 original broadcast, April 16th 2012 to 7th May 2012.
We all know about Seventies Britain: strikes, three day weeks, British Leyland, the IRA, and a succession of ineffective political leaders that led to the inexorable rise of Margaret Thatcher. Right?
Well, yes and no. Renowned historian Dominic Sandbrook (interviewed above) has written two highly acclaimed books--State of Emergency (1970-1974) and Seasons in the Sun (1974-1979)-- which together form the most accessible social history of Britain in this period. His main argument is that the Sixties were liberating for people in London and in the media, whilst the wider transformation occurred in the 1970s as change filtered down into mainstream society.
Similarly, Episode One of his associated television series discusses the rise of the affluent society, with Sandbrook drawing connections between 1970s Britain and the nation that we are today. Credit restrictions were eased, giving rise to the consumer society, and plenty of private houses were built, with an associated boom in mortgage lending. More people were going abroad, so that the British palate became increasingly sophisticated, and wine grew in popularity. These cultural and social changes took place against the backdrop of a shifting economic landscape which saw the decline of the UK's traditional manufacturing base: the country fell behind overseas competition, with nothing meaningful to fill the industrial void.
This is Sandbrook's first television programme but, it is to be hoped, not his last. He has an excellent manner, with a presentation style reminiscent of his books: knowledgeable, intimate, and engrossed in the subject. Obviously, with only four episodes (covering the rise in consumerism, the change in sex discrimination laws, the Silver Jubilee, and the collapse of the unions before Thatcher came to power) there is so much more that could have been investigated. Sadly, given the state of today's BBC, where cuts are prevalent, this series can only provide an introduction to the period.
This decade now seems extremely close to us, economically and politically (it even had a mammoth Jubilee celebration bang in the middle of it). The series re-examines enormous social change, a huge political swift from left to right, decimalisation, and deregulation of the banks, all of which irreversibly shaped today's society. With superb introductions by the BBC, using the relevant old BBC2 logos to introduce each episode, and archive footage galore, this is social history at its finest. The 70s succeeds admirably in its aim to stimulate curiosity about an often-neglected corner of the recent past.--James R. Turner