Look Back With…. Relief

Theatre Museum (small) CIMG0748.JPG There is a nostalgia in the cultural calendar at present. Memories of the 50s and 60s are to be found in both drama (The Liverpool Playhouse) and museums (the national Theatre Museum). Interesting to look at, without doubt. But perhaps much less fun to have had to live in.
We’ve been to two very striking performing arts events in the past week or so. The first was the national Theatre Museum’s Unleashing Britain: 10 Years that Shaped the Nation 1955-1964 and the other one was the Liverpool Playhouse’s Billy Liar.
Both these cultural offerings remind us of how very much things have changed over the past fifty years.
Cultural change as well as economic
Theatre Museum Unleashing Britain CIMG0744.JPG The period which followed World War II (and yes, my recollections before the swinging sixties are hazy) was stultifying for most people. There were many painful adaptations to be made in peacetime, alongside the relief that it was all over. Most people were simply intent on establishing a ‘proper’ homelife and on getting a civilian job. There was little scope for imagination and flair in the daily struggle to earn a crust and keep a roof over one’s head.
And of course there were all those children – the ‘bulge’ – who arrived as the soldiers came back home. The Welfare State could not have been more timely, but it was also pretty thinly spread.
So how did the shift to the so-called Swinging Sixties happen? Whilst for most of us this era was nowhere near as exciting as it’s now made out to be (living in Birmingham probably didn’t help…) it was certainly a time when great cultural shifts occurred.
More money, more young people, more education
By the mid-fifties rationing had finished, and schools and health systems were fully in place, as the peace-time economy settled down; and this meant that a decade later, by the mid-sixties, there were quite significant numbers of young people (though only a few percent of them all – maybe 5% maximum) who were relishing the freedom of student life.
For first generation grammar school children going to university was a huge breakthrough (just as, we must always remember, not going to grammar school and univesity was for some of their siblings and friends a huge heartbreak). I doubt many young people now could understand how important it was to save up for the big striped university scarf which denoted you a Proper Student.
Along with this came a new freedom – to do one’s own thing, to find new ways to be artistic, literary, creative. It isn’t surprising therefore that the ‘new reality’, the kitchen sink drama, came into being. For the first time there were significant numbers of young people with higher education who knew for themselves what working class life was like… and who produced, through theatre and writing and film, a record of realities which is now a legacy for us all.
A legacy we remember but didn’t enjoy
It’s salutory to look back, through the cultural events on offer now, and remember just how constraining and difficult those years were. Given the freedoms of today, or the restrictions of then, I don’t think many would turn the clock back.
Life isn’t easy for everyone even now, but the numbers of families where the frost has to be scraped off the inside of the bedroom window every chilly Winter morning is without doubt lower – and could indeed with proper organisation of support be reduced to none.
There’s not much nostalgia in my mind for the good old days… they are a fascinating time to examine and learn about, but they weren’t I suspect that much fun for most folk to live in.
Read more articles on the National Theatre Museum.

Posted on February 7, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Education, Health And Welfare, Liverpool And Merseyside, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You’re right that The National Theatre Museum is a treasure.
    However, accessible it may be – welcoming it is not! They keep the front door closed and you can’t tell if it’s open or not from the outside.
    Are the V&A Trustees threatening to sell because there aren’t enough punters? If so, perhaps turning the lights on would help?

  2. Today (23 March 2006) I read in The Guardian that the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which owns the national Theatre Museum, are to meet on this very date to decide whether it may continue, or will be sold.
    How strongly can one say that this is an extreme example of what not to do? The Museum is hugely accessible, being right in the middle of one of the most visited places in London (which I suppose is why its sale would produce lots of money), and it is unique in the U.K., if not beyond.
    This proposal is about selling the family silver big-style. Please, don’t do it!!!

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