It wasn’t just kids who got lectures from the government about the correct behaviour. In the post-war years they liked to nag at grown ups too via posters that gave advice and instruction on the correct personal habits that were required if we were going to work together to build the New Jerusalem of happy, healthy people.
A lot of the posters are about health and hygiene as this was an era when most people only had one bath a week (I think we had two as kids), smoked like chimneys, cooked with lard, caught diseases like Tuberculosis, and a lot of homes still had outside toilets. There is even a poster in the book telling people to change their underwear more often. Life was grim back then kids, everything was covered in soot, even the people.
Though the tone of the posters is mostly benevolent they do occasionally take on a more sinister Big Brother vibe like the giant finger below, and that Watch Out! There’s a Thief About poster from the late 60s seems like the beginning of the paranoia about crime that I mentioned in the previous post, and the government taking a more sensationalist, scare-mongering approach which was seen in those scary public information films aimed at kids.
Nowadays this might all seem very Orwellian, but the British have a love/hate attitude towards this sort of authoritarian maternalism. We gave the much-loved BBC the cozy nickname “Auntie” because of its we-know-best elitism, and Maggie Thatcher built her career on lecturing voters about how we’d been naughty and immoral. But in the past I don’t think we ever took the government and civil servants seriously enough to feel threatened by them, they were just old duffers telling us to brush our teeth more often.
They really did try their best to scare the shit out of us kids in the 1970s. If we weren’t being warned about getting locked in old fridges, drowned in dirty canals, crushed by farm machinery, blinded by fireworks, or catching Rabies, we were being told not to talk to strangers.
That last one seemed to be the most deathly important of all — for reasons we didn’t quite understand as kids – and clearly no expense was spared in the making of “Never Go With Strangers” a 1971 film that was shown in schools. It’s an epic of the scary safety film genre complete with animation, special effects, and a huge cast of creepy-looking men.
Though it is a well-meaning attempt to talk to young children about a difficult subject, some of the script is almost surreally funny (even in context) with lines like “People like this might be a bit odd in the head”, “That’s a lovely cape you’re wearing” and “There’s not even a baby donkey in the field” — personally I’d have run a mile if some strange man had complimented my cape and offered to show me a baby donkey.
With all these apparent dangers you’d think we lived in a state of perpetual terror locked in our bedrooms, but like most parents my mother let us go out on our own unsupervised and out of contact with her from quite a young age (no cell phones then either of course). I don’t know when or why that changed but you couldn’t make “Never Go With Strangers” in the same way now because those kids wouldn’t be out on their own. One very sad statistic in this article is that in 1971 80% of 9-year-olds in the UK walked to school alone, by 1990 that number had dropped to only 9% and now it’s even lower, despite there being no rise in the number of child abductions — though you wouldn’t know that from the pitchfork-waving hysteria about paedos, predators, and kiddie-fiddlers in the British tabloid press these days. Even the smiling old man who winked at you in the street when you were a kid would be suspect now.
Despite my mother’s apparently laissez faire attitude to our safety she still had her moments of terror. I can vividly remember an instance of her “losing” me for a few minutes in a crowd of shoppers on Kensington High Street one Saturday afternoon, and the panicky, tearfully relieved tone in her voice when she found me made it clear how awful those few minutes must have been for her (a feeling I know myself now with my own kids.) Then she spanked me and said “DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!!!” — that’s 70s parenting for you.
I doubt if the designers of this poster intended to make “new town” Milton Keynes look like some post-apocalyptic dystopia populated by creepy zombie families living in concrete bunkers, but that’s what they ended up with.
No, I’m not going to post that Style Council record because I don’t like it much. This 1987 club classic (that they covered), however, is brilliant.
In Brief Encounter the emotionally-crushed Laura is told by her gossipy friend that she looks “a bit peaked” which struck me as being the posh version of “a bit peaky” which is how I’ve always said it coz I’m common.
For my American friends it means to look pale, wan, or sick. The internets seem a little unsure of the origin of the phrase but I assume it has something to do with having hit some sort of peak and crashed.
There are few better illustrations of how the utopianism of post-war urban planning and architecture came crashing down than this photo of the Ronan Point tower block in East London which partially collapsed in 1968, killing four people. Though it was caused by a gas explosion, the fact that one whole side of the building fell down was blamed on shoddy design and cheap materials, and high-rise tower blocks soon stopped being seen as visionary modernist systems for living in the clouds, but instead dehumanizing and brutalist concrete boxes — usually with the attendant problems of drugs, crime, and lifts that stink of piss.
It wasn’t always like that, I remember my Gran telling me that when new tower blocks were built down the end of her road in the 1950s people couldn’t wait to move into them because they thought they were clean, bright, and modern compared to the dingy, back-to-back Victorian terraced houses they were living in.
The estate I grew up on was fairly human-sized — each building was only two levels and every flat had a garden or balcony — but when I was a kid we loved playing on the bigger estates and tower blocks with their walkways, ramps, endless stairwells, underground car parks, and playgrounds that were like abstract concrete and steel sculpture parks. Through our eyes they were futuristic places designed for adventure but to others they were Ballardian nightmares and a scary backdrop for pop records.
When I first saw this I thought for a minute that it must be a parody of 1970s awfulness because every element — the song, the hair, the cap-sleeve t-shirts, the trousers, the starburst lighting — is so perfectly, dreadfully naff. But sadly it’s all too real. I remember New Edition dancing on Seaside Special but I must have blocked this from my memory for the sake of my sanity.
I know that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, and that supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony, but this does get me all misty-eyed and patriotically-roused every single time.
Given the recent news I tried to squeeze a Richard III joke into this post but came up blank.