Never Had It So Good, BBC4

by | Dec 9, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A fine documentary that shed light on the myths of the 1950s, which were trumpeted as an era when Britons “had never had it so good”, a proclamation Colin Shindler challenged through research and the views of experts while blending in his own experiences.

What was good about it?

• Colin Shindler cleverly weaved together many of the distinct elements of 50s society without ever alighting on one topic long enough for it to become dull. He swept, for example, economically through the school system that split asunder working class kids and middle class kids between grammar schools and secondary moderns; and probed how the NHS had given the masses security as they no longer had to pay a weekly fee to remain on a doctor’s list, while the NHS also cut back on cases of fatal and debilitating illnesses with scarlet fever and diphtheria both brought under control.

• Perhaps most interestingly, he explained the root causes of Britain’s traditional apathy towards Europe, recalling how as a child his teacher had announced to the class that the Gold Coast had gained independence and was now renamed Ghana. While the young Colin bemoaned the problematic spelling of this new nation, his teacher spouted the establishment propaganda of how Ghana was independent because Britain had been protecting it and had benevolently granted its freedom now that it no longer needed protecting.

• Contrastingly, the formation of the EEC brought nothing but imperialistic scorn from Colin’s teacher even though it was much closer to home geographically. All of which suggested that the Europhobia so celebrated by the tabloid media and football thugs whenever England are eliminated (the best thing about the failure to qualify for Euro 2008, else there’d be pyres of expensive chocolates and skis ablaze in Trafalgar Square come next June) has its roots in the hand-me-down “shame” invoked by the collapse of the empire. • The programme also managed to capture that post-war sense of euphoria that became even more thrilling with the abolition of rationing in 1954,

meaning children could savour the sugary sensation of chocolate bars kick-starting in the process the nation’s dental hygiene industry.

• But as 1957 saw the lighting of the warming hearth of the modern consumer society that so flourishes today, it inevitably brought with it the back-breaking coal sacks of indolence, spendthriftiness, avarice and commercials. We saw women wasting money on mink coats in a chilling echo of the urban streets at this time of year when women (and now men) are swindled into parting with large amounts of cash for garments whose primary function should be to keep them smart and warm –we look forward to

a society that is forced to wear anonymous boiler suits and four haircuts per year maximum.

• Historian Dominic Sandbrook noted: “Under rationing the daily shop was easier – there was no choice.” To help consumers cope with this whole new concept of “choice”, Which? was launched.

• And in a spicy antidote to the hysterical delusions that British society is forever one act of unclean buggery away from the wrath of God delivering a similar judgement to that which befell Sodom and Gomorrah, Colin explained that an increase in choice led to a increase in crime and other degenerate behaviour essentially concluding that Britain can either have bleak austerity and crime free streets or consumer choice and

liberated depravity.

• Although there was a consensus among the historians that one of the reasons for crime rising in more recent times was that in the 50s – with the threat of capital punishment and the birch – the fear of the law loomed large over Britain’s potential miscreants, deterring them from criminality.

• The intolerance of the era was also highlighted with the publication of the Wolfenden Report on the legalisation of homosexuality that unleashed a torrent of virulent hate from the front pages of the newspapers with the Daily Mirror accusing the report of being “a pansy’s charter”.

• Colin colouring in the grainy black and white film of Blackpool pleasure beach with his own evocative memories such as, “I still feel guilty buying that Blackpool rock because of my mother’s disapproval.”

• The wonderful clip of the 50s version of those time-filling late night TV shows -an old bloke meditatively smoking a pipe and grabbing his viewers by their collective throats with the alluring introduction of, “Here I am again, and another little chat on hats.”

What was bad about it?

• The archive film footage that seems to have been lazily assembled from “Images to horrify and embed false impressions of 20th century life”, which contained such stereotypes as a little girl hauling her doll up the steps, boys riding through bomb-wrecked streets on rusty bicycles and old women either scrubbing their front door steps or nattering on street corners. None of which emboldened the lucid vision of 50s Britain conjured up elsewhere.

• Two of the historians appear to have insisted on that juvenile emblem of juvenile intellect of having a bookcase sagging under the weight of some scholarly tomes as a facile flag of erudition, inertly semaphoring the contributor’s pretentious credentials.

• Colin fell into the bear trap of vilifying today’s footballers for being distant and alien to the fans while in the 50s “men like Bert (Trautmann) seemed like flesh and blood, not the distant celebrities of today”. Dominic Sandbrook compounded this error with: “You could conceivably travel to a match on a tram with the people who were going to play in that match.” Without getting bogged down in the debate of modern footballers’ salaries, one of the main reasons footballers seemed so normal was that they were grossly underpaid and so travelling to the match by tram was probably all they could afford.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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