The 1970s have had a bad press. Those 10 years have been written off as a grim decade of terrorist carnage, strikes and inflation. That’s before the critics move on to popular culture: the years that taste forgot, with flares, garish colours, Gary Glitter and the Austin Allegro.
Tonight’s BBC series The 70s is sure to prompt a debate about whether the decade has been wrongly maligned. As presenter and historian Dominic Sandbrook explains on BBC News‘ online magazine, the decade has been overshadowed by the Sixties, a period whose vibrant reputation doesn’t match the reality of that iconic era for most people in Britain.
Back in 1970, the mood was optimistic. Cadbury’s ran a television advert about the ‘supersonic seventies’ – sadly missing from YouTube – which reflected an era of technological advancement. Concorde was a symbol of that excitement, along with the moon landings that continued until 1972. (People of a certain age will remember space dust sweets, which made your tongue tingle.) Family holidays featured Benidorm rather than Bognor or Barry Island.
Yet the mood changed quickly. The evening news chronicled a descent into chaos and violence, from picket line battles at Grunwick and Saltley to bomb and bullet-scarred Northern Ireland. (Forty years on, I can still picture the BBC’s Northern Ireland reporter WD Flackes, who was on our screen every night to record the latest horrors.) British political leaders of all parties seemed to have no idea how to tackle the country’s troubles. I vividly remember my father Bob Skinner proclaiming the country was going to the dogs on reading of the latest destructive strike. (Aptly, we were on holiday in Benidorm at the time, on our first ever package holiday.)
Yet it’s too easy to write off the Seventies as a time of hopelessness. Growing up in Cardiff, I enjoyed a happy, secure childhood. My parents, like so many, had more spare cash than in the Sixties, and we got our first colour television and automatic washing machine. (A contrast to the primitive machines we had before – I even remember one with a mangle on top!) And the glorious summer of 1976 and the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977 lightened the mood during the growing economic crisis.
The decade saw positive developments in society. The Labour government outlawed race and sex discrimination, and passed an equal pay act. The moves were symbolic – it would take years for attitudes to change – but important. Britain was changing for the better in many ways.
The BBC has already examined the Seventies. Its millennium year series We Love the Seventies was a nostalgic look back at life in that maligned decade. Author Andy Beckett brilliantly told the story of those years in When the lights went out.
Finally, a decade in which Wales dominated European rugby in scintillating style has to be honoured!