'We said we wouldn't look back ...'

Kit Hesketh-Harvey rejoices in the return of Salad Days
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Truly this is the Des O'Connor of musicals. It is permatanned. Of gossamer substance. Lampooned from the day it appeared, by the intimate revues at the Gate Theatre, and 20 years later, in Monty Python's memorable punk chainsaw version. And yet, like Des, Salad Days has proved bafflingly enduring. Like Des, all those who have actually seen it in live performance agree that it is hilarious.

Des and Salad Days both started out, of course, in the Fifties. If nostalgia is our national disease, then the Fifties are its casualty department. Today, its style-pointers are everywhere: the schlock B-movie ads for the Alliance and Leicester; those kitsch postcards of American suburbanites, with their pearls and their killer fridges; young Hollywood has become an invasion of Jimmy Deans and Grace Kellys.

As for the West End, it is the decade that inspired The Rocky Horror Show, Grease and Return to the Forbidden Planet. The radiant innocence of the epoch has been seized hostage by the arch wink of post-modern camp. Hell, Jonathan Ross has made a career of it.

Salad Days ran for ages, at the Vaudeville Theatre: the Cats of its generation. All our parents courted to it. One socialite tells me that she saw it eight times, with eight different admirers. In order not to appear a slut, she was forced to pretend ignorance of what was coming up next. (Not that the show is so predictable. The flying saucer that tips up in Act 2 is as surreal as anything in Python.) And afterwards, supper across the road, in the days when the Savoy was the Savoy, rather than the Granada Drive- Thru Carvery.

But is it true? Can we really never have had it so good? There does seem to have been a breezy confidence about things back then. Bananas in the shops, the Royal Festival Hall and (despite the foreboding lines in Salad Days - "Don't ever ask where the Empire's gone/Don't ever ask what the War was for..."), a summery faith in an enduring England. All that a young gel was required to do was to find a husband by the end of the Season. A young chap down from the Varsity need not fear unemployment: "Your uncles will help you, there's no need to worry." Those Ealing comedy uncles depict an Establishment - Whitehall, the Army, the House of Commons - that, yes, seemed unassailable.

If musicals are about escapism, that generation can now take its grandchildren on a flying-saucer ride back into Harold Macmillan's Arcadia. They can watch a (pre-Fumo) cabinet minister who, when caught with a night-club singer, actually cries out "Fair cop". They can see an MI5, with the Cold War at its nippiest, secure at least in the knowledge of who the enemy was. They can be reassured by a UFO as preposterous as one of Ed Wood's mock-ups. And everybody's prize at the end of the story? To be invited to a Garden Party, by Royals who in those days knew how to grit their teeth and shut up.

It's back at the Vaudeville, for the Season. (The Sixties did for that, too). And like Papa and Mama, we can dance along the Strand, past Sunset Boulevard and Buddy. Fifties musicals, all.

n Kit Hesketh-Harvey is appearing in 'Salad Days' at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2, to 27 July. Booking: 0171-836 9987