Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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On the Road with Julie and Una
The culture which comes to be associated with a decade rarely coincides with its beginning. It takes a little while for changes to bed in. Viewed in retrospect the 1950s were probably still the 1940s until about 1955. Similarly, the 1960s didn't really get going until about halfway through 1963 – maybe even later.
Theories for the actual point at which the 1960s are perceived to have begun are abundant. During the Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (1962), for instance, there's a scene where a double-decker London bus hoves into shot. At the beginning of the scene, the film is in black and white. The skies are grey and rainy. Within 8 or 10 seconds, the film fades up into colour. This, at least according to my learned colleague, Andy Partridge of the band XTC, is when the 1950s become the 1960s.
I have a different theory. In summer of 1964, at the beginning of the Beatles song, A Hard Day's Night, a chord rings out. There's a pause before the song explodes into life. In that gap, the decade turns into the 1960s. In fact, the pointers to a big cultural change were all there: in films, in books and in the music.
In the 1963 film of Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar, the sense of a tide about to sweep in is almost unbearable. Billy Fisher who works as a clerk for a funeral director in the north of England concocts a wishful world of daydreams far removed from his own mundane life. The film's most intoxicating totem of the coming change however, appears in the form of Liz, played by Julie Christie. Liz is a free spirit, always hitching lifts to somewhere. She's a bird learning to fly. At the end of the film she decides to take a train to London and a new life, urging Billy to come with her. Find me a young man who ever watched this scene – Liz waiting in the carriage, whilst Billy prevaricates on the platform – who did not out of sheer frustration, yell at the screen,“Get on the train!” It's the beginning of the 1960s. You're young. You live in a dull province. Julie Christie is sitting on the London train waiting for you to join her. What are you going to do?
Over at Summer Holiday meanwhile, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Una Stubbs and the others are doing something which in its own way echoes the New Freedom: they're taking a London bus over the channel, right across Europe, across Marshall Tito's Yugslavia, almost to Asia Minor. Are you kidding? Until almost the 1970s, most British people hardly left the island.
Aged 13, I came back from Singapore in 1966, having been away for two years, and found that I was the only kid in my class who'd ever been abroad. Up until the era of the package holiday, the chief reason why a young man might leave England, was because someone on the near continent had got a bit above himself, and some help was needed with a bit of bother in Flanders. Summer Holiday which earned both its director and its leading man lifelong bans from Yugoslavia was far more subversive in its way than A Hard Day's Night ever was. But that's a story for later...