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"The Halls Of Montezuma"

I read an article in the newspaper today which made me stop and reflect. It was the latest bit of research by some new health watchdog about the effects of passive smoking on babies. To cut a long story short, if your parents smoke within fifteen feet of you before you are one year old, book yourself a funeral plan.

Now that's perfectly possible, but they seem to have reckoned without many of the older generation who may well have survived the death clouds of nineteen forties and nineteen fifties Britain, when if you DIDN'T smoke, you were classed as some sort of strange and unsociable weirdy.

I know many of us have already stated that their parents smoked and I for one was a victim. On my left my father stoked up many a Woodbine as he showed me how to play dominoes or somesuch, whilst on my right my mother would assault my lung tissues with an occasional Player as she taught me how to read.

Just look at any old newsreel film or television panel game of the time and even the high and mighty are puffing away as though the cigarette is a tube of lifesaving oxygen. Most of us have given it up now, at least, those of us who have survived. Of course, ways have been changed along with the times and many a light has now been seen by us old codgers. However, while I reflected on my incredible luck to be one of the one percent or thereabouts of infants , according to these latest experts, who managed to survive, I thought to myself, hang on - there's a load of us who survived it. Isn't that a little surprising? Then I reflected that perhaps a little exposure at an early age is a good thing which can build up a certain amount of immunity? But perhaps it doesn't work like that. Anyway, I digress.

Now before you all start wondering what the hell I'm wittering about, I'm going to give you a very surprising theory. You may abhor the aroma of the dreaded weed. You may do a twenty yard detour to avoid a casual smoker in the street and you may have thrown out every ashtray, if you ever had one, more than thirty years ago. However, my theory is that if it hadn't been for cigarettes you wouldn't have been reading this article now. There would in fact be no such site as "Whirligig" and no fifties television nostalgia.

How so?, I hear you ask. Well here for what it's worth is my little theory. You may care to dwell on it a little.

Turn the clock back to February 1952 and Princess Elizabeth staying in the Treetops Hotel in Kenya with Prince Phillip. She is shocked by the news of the death of her father King George the Sixth and has to return to Britain immediately as heir to the throne. King George had died after already having had one lung removed after contracting lung cancer. Cause? Almost certainly heavy cigarette smoking.

Now lets assume that if the old King hadn't been a smoker he would have survived say another ten years? That would have meant Elizabeth not succeeding and being crowned until 1963. Now it's a known fact that the prime reason for the sudden upsurge of television viewing in Britain in 1953 was the Coronation, because most people, like my own parents, went out and begged, stole or borrowed a set to watch this specific event. To be able to view live the crowning of the new young Queen was something everyone in the land wanted to witness.

There were a privileged few who had television sets before that date but they were prohibitively expensive. There were many who didn't obtain one until a few years after the Coronation, but the main driver for the sale of the new fangled telelevision set at the time was undisputedly in order to watch the Coronation as a live and possibly once in a lifetime event.

But what if King George had not been a smoker, had not contracted lung cancer and had survived those extra years or perhaps even longer? Would everyone have rushed out and plunged themselves into debt for what was still an inessential novelty at the time? I dont think so. My opinion is that television would have caught on gradually in dribs and drabs and there would not have been the mass discussions of such momentous dramas as "Quatermass", "1984", etc. . "What's My Line?" would not have been essential Sunday night viewing and the media would not have created such overnight celebrities such as Gilbert Harding and Barbara Kelly. In fact the popularity of much of early and mid fifties television would not have happened as it did and the whole history of television as a shared mass cultural medium may have been very different. But the Coronation was shaped by the hand of history and the history of television was shaped by the Coronation.

Just a few more years of survival of King George the Sixth and the delay of television as a mass popular medium might have meant that all television programmes of importance would have been preserved in the archives in the knowledge of their cultural importance to future historians.

So why have I titled this post as "The Halls Of Montezuma"?

Well, it's long been my opinion that although some of us may be regarded as a bunch of obsessed nostalgia freaks, its a nostalgic interest in what is no longer there that is is the main driver for the curious who have a desire to recapture the memory of what they know they once saw but no longer exists. In this respect it is the early fifties television programmes which are the equivalent of those lost cities and overgrown jungles of the Aztecs. We know the civilisation existed but for reasons unaccountable the pieces of the jigsaw which made up that civilisation have been lost for eternity. Why nobody had the foresight to realise the value to a future generation of the art of a whole medium and to sacrifice it for a mess of pottage in the shape of the cost of film is a tragedy. So many great writers, so many great actors, lost as surely in the mists of time as the great cities and civilisation of the Aztecs and the palaces of Montezuma beneath the verdant jungles of Mexico. Of course, that may be taking things to fanciful extremes but the principle is the same. A sizeable part of the art of a civilisation has been lost, lost, lost!

It is for this very reason that every little scintilla of distant memory or small detail remembered and recaptured on this board adds a little value in the restoration of that which has been lost or forgotten by the masses. If we can do that and serve a useful purpose whilst having a little fun, enjoying it, and learning a little, then the efforts of all of us will not have been in vain.

So now that you've got this far, pass me the Ronson table lighter. I may just have a little smoke!

William Brown

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