LEADING ARTICLE: An angry watershed in British culture

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Noel Coward said of himself that he had "a talent to amuse". John Osborne, who died on Christmas Eve, had a talent to attack. He elevated vituperation into an art form. Latterly, his vitriol poured out in journalism and autobiography. But, as a p laywright, no one could ever take away his star part in the year of the greatest upheaval in recent British history: 1956.

That year saw the disastrous attempt, by a Conservative government, to reoccupy the British-owned Suez Canal, newly nationalised by Egypt. Withdrawal, under American pressure, ended our illusions of empire. Britain began its pursuit - not yet completed -of a new role in the world.

Osborne was the equivalent cultural milestone. Look Back in Anger opened in London in 1956, as confrontation simmered. The plot of his next play, The Entertainer, sprang straight from the Suez debacle. Without Osborne, journalists would never have attached the phrase "angry young man" to an entire generation. Almost inevitably, he contributed to a celebrated anti-Establishment invective, entitled Declaration. (Doris Lessing and the film-maker Lindsay Anderson also wrote.) It was early evidence of a new frame of mind that would, eventually, erode Conservative rule from inside and from out.

Without Jimmy Porter, the Midlands anti-hero of Look Back in Anger, no Harold Wilson. As opposition leader, Wilson promoted himself as the angry, no-nonsense man from the provinces, fighting against the fusty Edwardianism of Tory prime ministers.

Wilson's derisive rhetoric paralleled Porter's stage onslaughts against his upper-middle-class parents-in-law: "Don't let the Marquess of Queensberry manner fool you. They'll kick you in the groin while you're handing your hat to the maid." Or against his brother-in-law, Nigel, the "straight-backed, chinless wonder from Sandhurst ... the Platitude from Outer Space." Nigel would "end up in the Cabinet one day, make no mistake. But somewhere at the back of that mind is the vague knowledge that he and his pals have been plundering and fooling everybody for generations ..."

Osborne created a new language for the stage, demotic and undeferential. (Today, Viz echoes his anarchic mockery.) Through the door that he opened marched a phalanx of new dramatic talent, from Harold Pinter to David Hare. His language was also, of course, political. For bedside reading, Tony Blair should leaf through Osborne's early plays. To shake a power-loving, inbred Establishment, niceness is not enough.

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