Last night's viewing - The 70s, BBC2; Ceramics: How They Work, BBC4

 

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The Independent Culture

I got a bit worried about The 70s when Dominic Sandbrook started talking about that period "shattering the cosy post-war consensus". What cosy post-war consensus would that have been then? The one that united the entire country behind the government during the Suez Crisis? Or the one that meant that the satire boom of the Sixties fell on such stony ground? If he was going to be this wildly broadbrush about the Fifties and Sixties, I thought, then we're in trouble. It's true of course that all history is a trade-off between generalisation and mere transcription. And also true that television history much prefers the former to the latter, and has an almost morbid fear of detailed evidence. But even so, this seemed to be pushing things.

It wasn't the last occasion that I wriggled a little uncomfortably at a simplification. Sandbrook's script for this survey of a period sometimes neglected in favour of its more glamorous neighbours, the Sixties and the Eighties, reached too often for arresting over-statement. "One pop star above all" captured the new flamboyance of the time, we were told – Marc Bolan – who apparently also represented the "biggest single change in masculine identity in a generation". But just a little later he was sharing top spot on the podium with another style pioneer: "nobody symbolised" the new male flirtation with colour and glamour "better", we learned, "than Jason King". More seriously, Ted Heath's capitulation to the 1972 miners' strike was "the biggest humiliation for a British government in living memory". That one is at least arguable, I suppose, but forgoing the superlative surely wouldn't have done any harm.

On the other hand, there were also phrases that were quotable because they neatly distilled a line of argument. "We often think Margaret Thatcher created this," Sandbrook said, talking of the property boom of the Seventies. "But she didn't. It created her." That, in essence, was his thesis – that the Seventies saw the replacement of old collectivist Britain with a new acquisitive society, changed by gentrification, foreign holidays and the unions' determination that their members shouldn't be excluded from the party. And we did get the kind of specific details on which any generalisation must rest. It was in 1971, Sandbrook pointed out, that a minor change in financial regulations meant that high street banks could get into the mortgage business alongside local building societies, triggering a 70 per cent rise in property prices in just a few years. And in 1970, for the first time, British holiday-makers could legally take more than £50 out of the country with them on a foreign trip. Before long, the bullfight poster had conquered British homes.

The archive is great fun too – not just the stuff we've seen before, such as Ted Heath straining the French language through the colander of his Home Counties diction, but also the clips from British sitcoms, a genuinely rich resource for a cultural historian. I'm not sure that anything could have so neatly captured the early astonishment at rocketing house prices than the sequence in which the Goodies examine an estate agent's window, each property detail sitting above a rapidly ticking taximeter. Or better caught the aspirational snobbery that attached to a wine bottle than Bob from The Likely Lads explaining to Thelma that he isn't drinking but expanding his knowledge. Some surprises too. Did you know that Thomas Cook and Lunn Poly were state-owned enterprises in 1970? Different time, different country, different planet almost.

Mark Miodownik's series on material sciences concluded with Ceramics: How They Work, a programme that began with aerogel – one of the lightest materials ever created – and ended with ceramic electrical cables, which promise improved power transmission. Whether you enjoyed it rather depended on how you react to an introduction such as "Dr Phil Purnell has been studying concrete for over 15 years." I thought it was a treat.

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