Wisdom from the East (End)
The musings of a simple London woman about the arrival of television to post-war Britain teaches Adam Brocklehurst the folly of trying to hold onto the past.
A few years ago, the algorithms that control so much of what we see on social media delivered to me a flash of brilliance straight from the British Broadcasting Company archives (known to all as the BBC). It arrived quite unexpectedly, from 1977, in the guise of an interview with a London housewife. (Watch it here.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint her exact age. She’s dressed neatly in a smart red leatherette mac, her hair is swept back and set, in a style that would perhaps place her as a contemporary of her fellow Londoner Queen Elizabeth II.
She keeps her coiffure tidy beneath an elegant silk scarf, neatly tied below her chin, decorated with what appear to be stylised caterpillars, the originality of which suggests she is a woman in possession of both humour and imagination. There is nothing exceptional about her appearance, perhaps only her sparkling eyes betray hidden depths.
Facing the camera directly she begins. Immediately she introduces herself, not with a name but with ‘people of my background, very poor East End people’. The East End is an area of East London, historically considered socially deprived, and close to the River Thames, areas of heavy industry and the docks.
That this is her opening statement makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be mistaken for anyone other than precisely who she is, or rather, what she is, and such candour takes the viewer by surprise. Her speech is articulate and clear, her accent soft, no ‘apples and pears’ cockney rhyming slang here.
She is recalling for the viewers of 44 years ago, the excitement of the arrival of television in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s.
TV had existed as a medium since the 1920s but hadn’t taken off until the years following World War Two. And Britain took to the new technology like no other country: for a while more domestic televisions sets were owned in the UK than in the United States.
The huge box with its tiny black and white screen sat in pride of place in the living room or drawing room of terraced house and mansion, the centre of a new familial culture within the home.
There was, at the time, only one channel in Britain (the perennial BBC) and programmes were carefully segregated. For the housewife there were cookery and ‘women’s interest’ programmes in the morning, and then children’s TV, such as Bill and Ben, for the kids returning home from school in the afternoon. Adult viewing in the evening might be a soap opera such as Coronation Street or a police drama like Dixon of Dock Green.
While the subject matter might not appear to be especially riveting, you quickly get caught up in her infectious zeitgeist. She smiles as she refers to television as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, and it is distant enough to feel old-fashioned and comforting, and therefore she draws us in.
She informs us, with a touch of very gentle schadenfreude, that even those who couldn’t afford a television set would put an aerial on their roof, ‘but nothing on the other end’.
Her account shows how in mid 20th century Britain being seen to keep up with the Jones’s was just as important in the poor districts of Bethnal Green and Poplar as it was in the affluent West London suburbs.
Her inherent understanding of the human condition is so striking. It’s the same vein tapped into by Charlie Chaplin, himself an Eastender, in the indomitable character of the Tramp, the bowler-hatted and cane-swinging young vagrant with nothing to his name but his sense of self and his humanity, who, with great pathos, somehow rises above the vagaries of life.
And like the Tramp she has a powerful sense of her place in the world. She directly confronts those who would be prejudiced against her and her community, those who believe her home turf, the East End, to be a place of disrepute, vice, the area synonymous with Jack the Ripper and organised crime.
Not so, she informs us. In her opinion Eastenders have a ‘high standard of morality’, and this is reflected in her viewing choices. She isn’t narrow-minded, she acknowledges that TV has widened her horizons, she now watches the ballet, she enjoys plays, even ones considered ‘highbrow’, she appreciates the unreal, horror and fantasy, but sex and violence on television are not for her, no thank you! Not because she’s squeamish; rather she wants to escape from that ‘kitchen sink’ life when she relaxes, and so isn’t interested in gritty realism. What she really likes are characters she can relate to.
And the frankness with which she speaks, without a hint of prudishness, suggests her views are informed. She has on her lips the names of the likes of Ken Russell, whose films still have the power to shock today, and the somewhat neglected playwright Johnny Speight, who satirised working class culture for middle-class laughs, and I imagine was rather despised by those people, like our nameless woman, who was intelligent enough to know it. Indeed, one realises this is a woman of intelligence, with a naturally analytical mind and enquiring outlook.
When she recalls the ‘clanger of all clangers’, the assertion that television destroyed the art of conversation, an accusation that has probably been made in one form or another since William Caxton introduced the printing press, she is having none of it. She tells us unequivocally ‘no, it brought us back together!’ And she brushes away any idea that there were lengthy in-depth family conversations being held around the fire hearth with, ‘what the bleeding hell we were talking about before television I don’t know. It was the conversation!’
And isn’t that the truth?
How we often get caught up in the grand narrative and propaganda of a partially imagined past, that somehow the olden days were better than today.
She shakes her head at this, and asserts, perhaps without realising it, that nothing is static, change is unavoidable and sometimes for the better. How rare is it for someone to look back at their own past and recount it as it actually was?
It’s possible to relate our heroine to Peggy, the doomed protagonist of Alan Bennett’s play A Woman of No Importance, first performed a few years later in 1982, with the English actress Patricia Rutledge in the lead role, and one wonders if Bennet was referencing the short clip here. Both women share an acute observer’s eye, but beneath the appearance of confidence, Peggy’s loneliness, envy and lack of confidence gnaw at her, her unhappiness is palpable, and we know (but she doesn’t) that her life teeters on the edge of disaster.
Like all great art this monologue leaves us wanting more, we desperately want this woman’s opinion on other things. What pearls of wisdom might she have shared regarding politics, or religion? What critiques she could have produced of our modern society.
It’s also a message of hope, it’s about living in the present, about pride, in the best sense of the term, of taking every single day as it comes and enjoying life to the fullest with those we love the most, even if we have very little. It’s a hymn to loyalty and familial love (how touching it is to hear that the elderly granny is there watching with the rest of the family), a message that resonates in the uncertainties of today.
Yet this interview is also profoundly sad, sad because that’s it… there will be no more. Those glorious few minutes are all we are ever going to get of our East End star. It has the same impact as finishing an enthralling book, the feeling of unfairness that no more is to come.
And strangely enough it taps into deeper rooted feelings regarding loss, into the futility of holding onto the past. Everything will eventually go this way, life is fleeting, and we leave little behind, and most of us will leave a footprint far smaller than this remarkable woman.
Still, if she has left nothing else, she has left us with this profound gift, a glimpse into her reality, and her spirit, and that is quite a testament to life!
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