Golden Jubilee: We Never Had It So Good; the Explosion of Consumerism Combined with the Fear of Nuclear War, Meant the 1950s Was a Period of Great Change. Though the Country Still Maintained Conformist and Deferential National Characteristics, a New Generation Was Beginning to Establish Itself

The Birmingham Post (England), June 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Golden Jubilee: We Never Had It So Good; the Explosion of Consumerism Combined with the Fear of Nuclear War, Meant the 1950s Was a Period of Great Change. Though the Country Still Maintained Conformist and Deferential National Characteristics, a New Generation Was Beginning to Establish Itself


Sir William Walton's march Orb and Sceptre, written for the Coronation in 1953, is a masterly pastiche of Elgarian pomp and circumstance.

Its clear message is that imperial business will continue as usual during the reign of the new queen. To borrow the title of Walton's first big hit, it is a brilliant facade - but a facade, nevertheless.

The reality is that Britain had emerged from the Second World War with its industrial economy exhausted and vulnerable to foreign competition, and that the empire would soon disappear like snow in August.

Here were the roots of that national selfdoubt which has been a thread throughout the 50 years of Elizabeth II's reign, throwing into relief periodic rallying points of patriotic fervour like Carnaby Street, the Falklands War and the 1966 World Cup.

But initially, at least, it was possible to take a more optimistic view. The myth of a second Elizabethan age was swept forward by pride in Britain's still-recent heroic stand in the war and by steadily increasing prosperity. Towards the end of the decade this was summed up in Harold Macmillan's famous, if slightly misquoted, phrase: 'Never had it so good.'

Consumerism was beginning to roll as never before. Though the young Elizabeth was on the throne, the real heroine of this brave new land was the British housewife, with her dazzling new range of laboursaving household gadgets.

In this respect, Britain was following in the footsteps of its rich relation, the United States, whose affluence many Britons had seen close-up for the first time when American servicemen invaded the country ('overpaid, oversexed and over here') during the war.

The fine art world also shifted its gaze from Paris to New York. A new generation of abstract painters, particularly associated with the St Ives school, was responding to American abstract expressionism, albeit linking it to a recognisably English tradition of romantic landscape.

At London's Institute of Contemporary Arts a small group of intellectuals, also fascinated by American consumerism, was beginning to talk about something they called 'Pop Art', laying the foundations for a 1960s explosion.

At the beginning of Elizabeth's reign the variety theatre was still alive, though only just - John Osborne's play The Entertainer (1957) would officially mark its passing. Its assassin was television, which was given a huge boost by the Coronation itself, the first major public event to be broadcast live.

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Golden Jubilee: We Never Had It So Good; the Explosion of Consumerism Combined with the Fear of Nuclear War, Meant the 1950s Was a Period of Great Change. Though the Country Still Maintained Conformist and Deferential National Characteristics, a New Generation Was Beginning to Establish Itself
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