When Channel 4 started in 1982 one of its earliest ( and greatest ) achievements was 'The Sixties', a sober and thoughtful look back at an event-packed decade. Since then, retro programmes have tended to lean towards contempt for their subject matter. Dominic Sandbrook's 'The 70's' ties in with a new book 'Seasons In The Sun, The Battle For Britain 74-79', and promised to take a fresh look at a much-derided era, but after an interesting first episode, quickly deteriorated into hoary clichés about strikes and power cuts. The impression given was that the strikers were more interested in changing the government from Tory to Labour than trying to improve their pay and working conditions. We should, of course, expect this sort of thing from a right-wing historian who writes a column for The Daily Mail. But surely, the first duty of a historian is impartiality. How then is the viewer to know when Dominic is telling the truth or merely pushing a distorted point of view?
I suppose I should nail my own colours to the mast at this point. I was eight years old in 1970, and have nothing but happy memories of the decade. Dominic, on the other hand, was not born until 1974 and his memories probably go no further than potty training, 'The Muppet Show', and Farley's Rusks. Yet he is being promoted as an all-knowing, all-seeing commentator on the decade. As Alison Graham of 'The Radio Times' has pointed out, Dominic treats the 70's as though it was The Stone Age: "Look at those people! Didn't they look silly in their flared trousers? Ha-ha! What about that long hair, eh? Hee, hee!". The end result looks like the old 'Cadbury's Smash' mashed potato advert where aliens roar with laughter because humans are still using potato peelers. Much of what Dominic had to say is based on generalisations e.g. 'in the 70's, we all did this and we all drank that and we all went there on holiday!". Millions did not do half the things he describes. He alleged that 'Jason King' was a milestone in 70's popular culture, in fact it was far less of a viewers' favourite than 'Van Der Valk'. There was no late-night shopping in those days, so where did the clip of people pushing trolleys by candlelight come from? He says that 'Confessions Of A Window Cleaner' was a 'low point in British cinema'. If he'd been to the cinema in recent years, he'd have seen 'masterpieces' such as 'Lesbian Vampire Killers'.
I agree with Graham when she says 'we didn't all like and do the same things in the 70's'. Dominic takes a contrary view. There was no mention whatever of the arrival of decimalisation, or the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act or any of the many positives from the era. He infers that the Royal Jubilee in 1977 was the decade's highpoint. In fact it was - like this year's up and coming event - a waste of public money.
If people think the 70's was the worst decade in human history, it is largely down to people like Dominic. The 30's was far worse, with its mass unemployment and the threat of fascism, and so was the 80's, with its mass unemployment and the terrifying threat of nuclear war. Five's 2005 series 'The 70's: The Decade That Was' told us far more about the era than Dominic's limp, patronising effort. The station really ought to repeat it.
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