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"A Background to the Fifties"

The reforming Atlee government of 1945 had promised prosperity, endeavour and a socialist Utopia. And to be fair they almost succeeded in delivering. Spectacular new house building targets had very nearly been met and we now had a shiny, new reforming and functioning National Health Service, which famously provided its services free a the point of need, additionally we had Nationalised Utilities, transport and the UK enjoyed almost full employment. However, six years after the Labour Party’s return the UK retained grinding austerity and rationing too remained a fact. By 1951, the electorate had grown tired of this status quo and demanded an end to what seemed like eternal purgatory and deprivation. Clement Atlee’s problem was that although he was a driven, passionate politician - he was about as charismatic as Virol. Atlee had assembled a brilliant cabinet which delivered. But for all his foresight and altruism, Clement was a crushingly dull man. And remember the UK was in hock to the reactionary communist fixated USA. The sinister Marshall Plan was the US’s reaction to curb the greater excesses of a socialist UK.

Late 1951 at the second attempt the Tories were returned to Government. The new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill - though a war hero was deeply distrusted by the Left. The First World War remained for many a bitter memory and Churchill’s part in the incompetent, pitiful carnage that was Gallipoli had not been forgotten or for that matter, forgiven.

Wars although destructive are also creative; as we devise ever more ingenious and imaginative techniques of killing our neighbour simultaneously, we innovate. WW2 embraced the nascent electronics industry and at Bletchley Park early computers evolved.

Communications improved, the BBC developed and although it remained stuffy and restrictive, it allowed its young producers’ and writers’ a little extra latitude.

In the theatre, the Lord Chancellor remained the arbiter of all things moral, honest, decent and proper. Meanwhile the contemporary theatre was ran by a cabal of upper class homosexuals, in the forefront ’Binky’ Beaumont, who’s vice like grip on the West End was legendary, and playwrights too were also members of this cabal, with Rattigan, Coward in the vanguard. It was all so middle class, white and cosy.

Enter Joan Littlewood, Humphrey Lyttelton, Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Charles Chilton, Ken Colyer, Sandy Brown, Chris Barber and a number of wraith like participants, Ewan MacColl (Jimmy Miller) had been eternally politically active - Joan Littlewood and Ewan in the middle thirties had founded the ’Red Megaphones’ Theatre Group - a radical ’agit prop’ troupe of actors - and in a cynical move the Manchester Council had proscribed them. Joan believed that in order to raise the Theatre’s profile and influence - a move to London was essential. When in 1953, a run down Theatre Royal in the East End of London was offered and she leaped at the opportunity.

Stratford East was to become the still point in the spinning socialist universe and a focus for the Left; be it Folk Music, Jazz or radical theatre or any combination of all three.

Meanwhile Youth - as always was in revolt. The Old Guard was in charge. And when the Tories allowed the USA to use Holy Loch as a nuclear base, it provided the catalyst for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. 1956 was also the year of the Suez crisis, when France, Britain and Israel conspired against Egypt - who had recently annexed and nationalised the Suez canal. In a thinly disguised intrigue, quite simply the British Prime Minister, the hitherto Teflon Anthony Eden lied… Subsequently his career was in ruins and he was forced to fall on his sword. As today, the war was deeply unpopular, it lead to many desertions and reservists’ failing to report for action or refusing to travel to the conflict.

When in 1956 Shelagh Dellaney submitted the play ’A Taste of Honey’ to Joan Littlewood the mould was about to be shattered, irrevocably. Tennis and cocktails or men loosing their trousers theatre it was not. The play was about Single Teenage pregnancy, benign homosexuality - and in addition, it all ended distressingly ambiguously.

The Left hung around in coffee bars listened to ’skiffle’ and ’Dirty Jazz’ and fomented a profound hatred of the establishment. Ewan MacColl established the ’Singers’ Club’ and insisted that performers’ sang songs of their own industrial heritage. In Jazz, Ken Colyer played authentic New Orleans music and often Ewan and Ken appeared on the same bill, in their ’Ballads and Blues’ concerts. MacColl also began the quest to wrest the Folk Song movement from the censorious and establishment EFSDS (the English Folk Song and Dance Society) additionally, the Left Wing toffs’ devised ’Beyond the Fringe’.

We view the sixties as a time when Youth completed the job of ’breaking down the barriers’… however… it is my contention that more attention and research is required into those supposedly grey, crepuscular Post War years.

Alex Balmforth

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