Fifty Years of British Popular Culture

By Karwowski, Michael | Contemporary Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Fifty Years of British Popular Culture


Karwowski, Michael, Contemporary Review


QUEEN Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee celebrations in June this year began with a nostalgic rendition of The Beatles' All You Need Is Love. The song recalled its recording exactly 35 years earlier as part of the first worldwide satellite television link-up. As such, its use could not have been more appropriate as an introduction to 50 years of Elizabethan popular culture, whose two outstanding expressions have been TV and popular music. As if to drive home the point, the celebrations concluded with the televised Party at the Palace, attended by the Queen herself, with former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney singing his comic love song to the Queen, Her Majesty.

In one respect, the central role played by TV in the Queen's Jubilee celebrations nicely rounded a circle. It was the Queen's Coronation, after all, that ushered in the television age, with half the adult population viewing the ceremony 'live'. Most of those watching did not own a television at the time. In 1951, BBC TV, the only available channel, had just 600,000 viewers. By the end of the century, watching TV was the most popular leisure activity everywhere. In Britain, around 94 per cent of homes now have at least one colour TV and 66 per cent a video cassette recorder. British people spend an average 25.5 hours a week watching TV, with, on a typical day, 80 per cent of the population tuning in. Moreover, when it comes to TV programmes made in this country, the UK is second only to the US in terms of worldwide exports, with sales amounting in 2001 to around two-thirds of a billion dollars.

Perhaps the best statistic to bring home the ubiquitous nature of TV at the turn of the century, and of British TV in particular, is the fact that the internationally televised funeral of Princess Diana from London in September 1997 was watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people, that's 2,500,000,000 viewers!

If the Queen's Coronation was the beginning of the television age, however, BBC Radio remained the pre-eminent form of popular culture throughout the 1950s, with The Goon Show, a favourite of Prince Charles, providing a highlight. The 'Goons' ran from June 1952 to January 1960, capturing a pre-eminent British characteristic of the last 50 years: a surreal form of humour that lampooned all forms of pomposity and hypocrisy.

The 'Goons' gone, TV quickly adopted the same theme through situation comedies such as Till Death Us Do Part, with its working-class bigot Aif Garnett, which, for a time in the 60s, was the most popular programme in Britain with 18 million viewers. (It was then adapted into a new version with Aif Garnett becoming Archie Bunker.)

More cerebral TV comedy in the 60s came in the form of contemporary satire such as That Was The Week That Was and the accessible absurdity of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which, surprisingly, perhaps, in view of the fact that British comedy is so typically British, has been viewed in every country in the world.

In the meantime, Independent TV (ITV), funded, in contrast to the BBC's licence fee, through televised advertising in the form of commercials, began broadcasting in 1955. The number of TV channels grew to three with the start-up of BBC 2 in 1964, to four with Channel 4 in 1982, and five with Channel 5 in 1997, while colour TV was available from 1968.

Throughout this period, Britain led the world in certain kinds of programme. One of the most notable is the 'costume' or historical drama, with English novelists such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh becoming as familiar in Beijing as in Bagshot (Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, filmed by Granada in 1979, proved popular in China).

Educational documentaries such as Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969), Dr Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973) and Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth (1979) also provided instructive entertainment. The close of the Millennium brought a landmark BBC series that broke all viewing records for documentaries and has so far been exported to more than 70 countries. …

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