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1959 - a Panorama guide

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Eamonn Walsh | 15:32 UK time, Monday, 30 March 2009

Maybe the British people just don't like change.

On the cusp of the 1960s - the decade that saw huge swathes of the old, established Britain swept away - the year 1959 can make claim to be the start of much of that excitement.

Certainly, that's evident in the output of the BBC's Panorama programme during that year. Yet no-one really seems to have told the British people.

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1959 - A Panorama Guide - tells the story of that year through the eyes of Panorama. As television set ownership boomed, Panorama - now firmly established in the schedules - took it upon itself to document the birth of modern Britain.

The programme shows how Britain finally realised that the old world was fast disappearing. There was no longer the will to keep the Empire - either financially or politically in the light of pan-African independence movements and attitudes to class, race and gender were also beginning to change.

Yet, the ordinary Britons Panorama spoke to seemed fairly happy with the status quo. Indeed, the 1959 general election was characterised by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's phrase "you've never had it so good". A Panorama film on Harlow New Town highlighted the paradox.

The programme revisited Harlow in Essex - one of the first New Towns created by the 1947 Planning Act - to see if the brave social experiment of creating a new town was working.

1959 - a Panorama Guide - spoke to historian Dominic Sandbrooke who said such town planning was an attempt to create "a new Jerusalem". The plan offered people the opportunity to move from war-torn cities to green fields, fresh air and modern housing.

Unfortunately, out of keeping with the spirit of the social experiment, the inhabitants of Harlow New Town carried with them those old attitudes of class and division. Many that Panorama spoke to advocated the working class and the middle class live in separate areas of Harlow. Nothing like knowing one's place.

Many of the subjects Panorama covered in 1959 continued to illustrate the clash between changing Britain and its people - Panorama coverage of perennial hot topics like race; namely West Indian immigration - proved this. The White Defence League had formed in 1958 and was vehemently opposed to non-white immigration, as Panorama found when they interviewed its leadership.

Panorama saw visions of the future in its coverage of gang culture in the US and its possible effects of British youth, the rise of new spiritualism in the guise of health foods and popular protest with the growth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The sixties are often cited as the birth of women's liberation. Panorama found attitudes rather different in 1959 when it looked at the lack of women in UK politics. Interviews with members of the public showed a lack of desire for female politicians in general. Several scoffed at the notion of a female prime minister. Rather ironic in the year that the future first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, entered Parliament as the Member for Finchley.

That election returned the Tories to power.

However, the party was to be brushed aside in the 1960s, with the Profumo affair, satire, and the breaking-down of many establishment barriers ending their dominance.

Indeed, the party would enjoy only one more election victory after 1959, until 1979 and the coming of that first female prime minister. So maybe the British weren't quite so averse to change after all.



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