Political historian Peter Hennessy reads from his new study of Britain in the early 1960s.
Peter grew up in Nympsfield in the Cotswolds and, apart from the excitements of new music from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, satirical TV in the form of That Was the Week that Was and the coming of the first motorways, those adolescent days were overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war. Not least in the form of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s top-secret nuclear-proof stronghold, code-named Stockwell, which was being built just a few miles away.
In the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, two great nightmare events stalked the early 1960s and the premiership of Macmillan. He called it The World Crisis which manifested itself first on the streets of the now divided pre-war German capital, Berlin. Following the end of the Second World War, the city was overseen by the Soviet Union, the USA, the British and the French. As tension flared across the line of division between east and west Berlin, tanks appeared on the streets and the infamous wall was erected to keep the sectors apart.
Shortly after the wall went up, Cuba became the focus of world tension as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sent vast quantities of weaponry to the Communist-ruled Caribbean island, targeting the nearby United States. A young and still relatively inexperienced US President, John F Kennedy, had to decide how to confront the new threat in his backyard.
Of the many crises to assail the Macmillan government , what came to be known as the Profumo Affair was the most lurid and most talked about among ordinary voters. John Profumo was Macmillan’s Secretary of State for War who became embroiled in a scandal involving Soviet spies, call-girls and wild society parties. Profumo was forced to resign and the scandal tainted the political fortunes of the Conservative party for years afterwards.
Meanwhile, Top of the Pops was one of a number of TV shows created to showcase the tsunami of new, exciting pop and rock music sweeping across the western world. And when heart throb Cliff Richard sang about going on a Summer Holiday as he drove his double-decker bus to France in the hit film of 1963, he was echoing another social phenomenon of the swinging sixties, the package holiday to Europe.
Omnibus written and read by Peter Hennessy
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4 first broadcast in five parts in 2019
Peter Hennessy's vivid new history of Britain in the early 1960s.