Rationing, smog, the Suez Crisis, the Cold War and the crushing conformity of the post-war consensus – the Fifties are all too easily perceived as the decade that was hanging around waiting for the Sixties to happen. But a forthcoming six-part BBC2 drama, The Hour, hopes to remind us that mid-century Britain was on the cusp of transformation, desperate to end the so-called age of deference that had stultified a society still recovering from war.
Written and created by Bafta award-winner Abi Morgan (Sex Traffic, White Girl and Brick Lane), and starring Dominic West (The Wire), Romola Garai (Vanity Fair, Emma) and Ben Whishaw (Perfume), The Hour revolves around a passionate love triangle, a murder investigation and the unbridled ambitions of a rising television news team as they attempt to bring a new hard-hitting current affairs show to the small, black-and-white screens of 1956 Britain.
In researching the series, executive producer Derek Wax said the creative team quickly realised the 1950s was the threshold of a volatile collision between a Britain still suffering a hangover from the Second World War and an imagined utopian future: "There was a drab, grey, post-war world where rationing had only ended two years before [in 1954], and this extraordinarily buccaneering, rebellious, vivid world that began to emerge like an exploding firework in the mid-1950s. You had this new type of journalism at the BBC, the beginning of current affairs, a new dynamism and a new sense of adventure to capture that transition between those two worlds."
The 1950s marked the move from newsreels filmed at Alexandra Palace in north London to Lime Grove, west London and from "staid, formal, unadventurous and establishment-oriented" editorial to the beginning of current affairs at the BBC. And churning away in the background was the advent of the "teenager" and the angry young men, and the demise of the officer class and the British Empire.
Inevitably, The Hour, with its media location and period setting, has excited viewers to anticipate a British Mad Men. We'll see. In the meantime, here are a few expert voices to remind you why late Fifties Britain really was rock'n'roll.
'The Hour' begins on BBC2 later this month
Fashion and popular culture
Pamela Church Gibson, cultural historian
Television becomes enormously important in the late Fifties, with the beginnings of programming for young people. The first music programme, Six-Five Special, started in 1957 and Juke Box Jury in 1959. Hollywood was beginning to cede ground to television, but it was still influential. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is one of the most significant films ever made, because it's about young people who do not get on with their parents and who dress differently and behave differently.
Jazz was enormously important to the young modernists who didn't listen to rock'n'roll. For them the black turtleneck sweater signified rebellion, but it was tidied up by Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 musical Funny Face. The year before, Brigitte Bardot starred in And God Created Woman. She had long, untidy hair as though she had just got out of bed, with lots of eye make-up and no lipstick. She ran around St Tropez in simple cotton frocks and bare feet; she also wore a bikini. That film was enormously important.
Fashion also took cues from rock'n'roll – there were full skirts with petticoats for jiving, instead of ballroom dancing. And there were subcultures such as the Teddy Boys, who were just getting going. Another important item for men was the white T-shirt – it was originally a vest that GIs wore under their combat dress. When they visited New York, James Dean and Marlon Brando both used to buy their clothes at the army surplus stores. They wore the vests on screen, and the white T-shirt look took off.
The actress and fashion pin-up Diana Dors was an antidote to the influence of Hollywood. She was often referred to as Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe.
Sir David Nicholas, former chief executive of ITN
ITN started in 1955 - I was a sub-editor on The Daily Telegraph and Observer then, and I remember handling some big stories and thinking, my God, television was a much more effective way of telling these stories. One of the big stories that really helped ITN was the Suez Crisis . Robin Day had managed to get an interview with President Nasser of Egypt that caused a lot of controversy – ITN and Robin, who was also a barrister, just about invented the hard-hitting, penetrating interview. Until then, interviews were characterised by that famous news footage of Anthony Eden returning from some UN conference and a BBC reporter asking "Do you have anything to say to the nation, sir?"
Until the mid-Fifties, television news was, in effect, cinema newsreel. ITN was very new in that sense: we used on-screen presenters and anchors who were journalists, such as Huw Thomas and Ludovic Kennedy, unlike the BBC, who used announcers (some of whom were very good). ITN also started covering by-elections, which no one else then did. And until the 14-day rule was abolished in 1957, broadcasters weren't allowed to deal with any subject up for debate in Parliament for 14 days afterwards – you had to cut interviews short if they broke that rule. ITN also pioneered the use of vox pops to get real people talking about issues on camera. Even so, when I joined in 1960, ITN's evening news programme was only nine minutes long. We increased it minute by minute, until we got a 12-week trial in the 10 o'clock slot on ITV. I was the producer on the first News at 10 – everyone thought we would fall on our faces.
Michael Czerwinski, design writer
In 1953 people bought television sets especially to watch the Coronation. The early sets had art-deco cabinets with enormous pieces of mahogany hiding their screens. It wasn't until the late 1950s that a pop-culture aesthetic started to establish itself. Televisions on spindly legs were suddenly in vogue in the late 1950s and quite mainstream by the Sixties. It was like a Jetson world to aspire to, full of futuristic, modern materials and utopian technologies.
Things were made to look as though they had the capability of super machines: cars were winged and curvaceous, implying speed and recklessness and made to look extraordinarily modern. The E-Type Jag was launched in 1958; the following year saw the Mini. Everyone wanted to drive in a space-age bubble.
High technology was being harnessed for everyday consumers. The advances in aircraft made during the Second World War were built on to allow planes to carry heavy loads of passengers. From there, commercial air flights and aircraft technology eventually evolved into the jumbo jet.
Dominic Sandbrook, historian
We always see the Fifties as an age of conformity, but British society was changing quickly, thanks to the "affluent society", geographical mobility and the expansion of education. Harold Macmillan in 1957 famously said people "had never had it so good". Many experienced comforts they never could have imagined. The car became a common badge of respectability. There was social mobility too: the social-realist novels of the time typically traced the narrative of a young working-class man leaving the North, the terraces, the mill, to carve out a niche for himself, often in London – you can see the beginnings of the Swinging Sixties in that story.
Television became a mass-audience phenomenon in the late Fifties – lots of working-class families had a television set, and by the decade's end the majority were entertained and informed by it and saw sights they'd never seen before. ITV, which began in 1955, introduced this democratic element, forcing the BBC to up its game. That horrified the highbrow, left-wing, Guardian-reading types – they thought television was a terrible thing and derided it.
The era marked the end of the age of deference. Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim established the template of the grammar school-educated young man cocking a snook at his superiors. The end of deference was generally seen as a healthy development.
* Suez Crisis: Anthony Eden resigns as PM.
* Prince Rainier of Monaco marries Grace Kelly.
* Hancock's Half Hour begins.
* Velcro-fasteners and TV remote controls invented and go on sale.
* The Soviet Union launches the Sputnik satellite, the first man-made capsule to orbit the earth.
* Common Market, forerunner of the European Union, established by the Treaty of Rome.
* Women allowed to become members of the House of Lords.
* Nasa, the US space agency, founded in Florida.
* Chinese leader Mao Zedong launches the Great Leap Forward.
* Blue Peter begins on children's television.
* First parking meters appear, in Mayfair.
* Notting Hill race riots.
* Barbie dolls appear.
* The microchip is invented.
* Mini launches its first car, the Austin 7.
* M1 motorway opens.
* Alfred Hitchcock's horror thriller Psycho released.
* Elvis visits the UK for first time officially, with a stopover at Prestwick Airport.
* Doc Martens boots make their debut.
* Lego comes to Britain.