I felt quite perky at the start of Dominic Sandbrook’s new series, Let Us Entertain You (Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC2), in which he posits his insular and slightly flimsy theory that Britain is in possession of an “empire of the mind” (he means that our culture is our greatest export, which I guess it might be – although, given the influence of, say, the US it’s a bit much to suggest this is unique).
Sandbrook opened with the story of heavy metal, born in the West Midlands at the end of the Sixties just as its manufacturing industry began to disappear. A little band called Black Sabbath, whose members would ordinarily have left school and headed straight for the forge without passing go, began instead to make music inspired by the sound of heavy machinery (their guitarist, Tony Iommi, incidentally, lost two of the fingers on his fretting hands on his last day at work in a sheet metal factory). Four decades on, people like to bang their heads all the world over, dear things that they are.
I’m interested in the effect of Britain’s industrial past on our popular culture. I’m a daughter of Sheffield, and there seems to me to be a great deal still to be said about it; the artist Jeremy Deller made a fine start with his 2014 show “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”, an exhibition that encompassed rock family trees and an old clocking-off machine. But my hopes, cruelly raised, were dashed in about as much time as it would have taken me to listen to Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, which comes in at around three minutes. For one thing, I couldn’t help clenching my buttocks as Sandbrook, in his public-school uniform of navy blazer and turd-coloured moleskins, toddled through poor old Birmingham talking about what its white working class might once have expected from life. For another, the rest of his film was a festival of clichés, the Beatles arriving home from America giving way eventually to Damien Hirst’s tedious old shark. At one point, a red Mini appeared. Oh, he’s not going to do that, is he? I thought. But yes, he was. Having addressed us semi-perkily from its driving seat, Sandbrook put it smartly in gear and zipped off. Vroom!
Sandbrook doesn’t own his material the way Simon Schama does – mainly, though not exclusively, because he will state the bleeding obvious. Is there a human being alive who doesn’t grasp that in the Sixties most people in Britain didn’t swing at all, or even gently wobble from side to side? Sandbrook noted that when the Sunday Times colour supplement launched in 1962, its cover star was Jean Shrimpton. But, he cautioned, the decade wasn’t all David Bailey and Mary Quant. Well, of course it wasn’t – and it’s not as if you need to swallow a whole David Kynaston hardback to know so. The big movies of 1962 included The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The L-Shaped Room (these can be filed under “gritty”) and among the novels was John Braine’s Life at the Top (ditto). Even the Sunday Times colour supplement did gritty. Think of its other star photographers: John Bulmer, for instance, who worked there from the start, and whose greatest subjects included miners and mill girls. (Sandbrook must know of Bulmer: one of his photographs graces the cover of his book State of Emergency.) Why, I wonder, don’t people in television try to tell us things we might not know rather than things we already do?
Oh, well. Here’s one cultural export that PBS in the US must already be panting for: the BBC’s straight-through production of The Dresser (31 October, 10pm, BBC2), Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play about a failing repertory actor during the war, and the man who makes his tea and washes his wig and generally loves him. It starred – in case you’ve been stuck on Mars with Matt Damon – Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins. Crikey. It was just like being in a theatre – and yet it wasn’t. I could hear every word, see every twitch and didn’t have to listen to the morons in the row behind rattling their Maltesers. It remains to be seen whether this triumph will improve the fortunes of theatre on TV, however. My guess is that the BBC, still ratings-driven even as the Tory vultures circle, doesn’t have the pluck to produce such slow burns regularly.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe