There’s more to the ’70s than sideburns and strikes

Dominic Sandbrook thinks its about time we reassessed the beleaguered decade

No decade in recent memory has had a worse press than the 1970s. In our collective memory, these were the years of strikes and blackouts, financial crises and terrorist atrocities, terrible wallpaper and undrinkable wine. 

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Compared with the Technicolor 1960s and the lurid 1980s, the decade inbetween often seems damp, drab and distant. We wince at Alf Garnett, Bernard Manning, the oil crisis, the three-day week and the sour taste of Watney’s Red Barrel. When, in Life on Mars, John Simm’s detective woke up in 1973, we shared his pain. 

The irony, though, is that the way we remember the 1970s could hardly be more wrong. As my new BBC2 series shows, for most ordinary families the Seventies was the decade when everything changed.

In 1970, people might have read about the sexual revolution in their daily papers, but most had never experienced it. Most still had black-and-white TV sets and went on holiday to Blackpool or Bognor. In the next ten years, their lives were to change in ways they could barely have imagined. 

Behind the apocalyptic headlines, what really characterised life in the surprisingly sexy Seventies was the search for new experiences. Young people were eager to travel abroad, to buy their own homes and to enjoy pleasures previously confined to the rich and famous. 

Millions of working-class families began going on holiday to Malta and Majorca and bought neat suburban homes. And rushing out to get their first colour TVs in readiness for Princess Anne’s wedding in 1973, many took out Access and Visa cards, pioneering a love affair with credit that is still with us today. 

This was a decade in which everything – from Britain’s European future and the survival of our economy to the traditional roles of men and women – seemed to be up for grabs. While Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith flew the flag for strong, articulate women on TV, Margaret Thatcher was transforming the Conservative Party and preparing her march on 10 Downing Street. 

And while David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King and Roger Moore’s James Bond were pushing the boundaries of male fashion, even ordinary working-class men experimented with shaggy hair, droopy moustaches and colourful ties. 

‘If I’ve been at all responsible for people finding more characters within themselves than they originally thought they’d had, then I’m pleased,’ Bowie remarked, ‘because that’s something I feel very strongly about. That one isn’t totally what one has been conditioned to think one is.’ 

In a way, these words sum up the spirit of the entire decade. Yes, in many ways these were desperately bleak years. Towering inflation, miners’ strikes, confused and dazed political parties and horrific IRA atrocities. 

Beneath the surface, however, this was a nation in the throes of radical change. From glam rock and gay rights to ready meals and cheap mortgages, the Seventies was the decade in which today’s Britain – ambitious, anxious, multi-cultural and materialistic – was born.

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The 70s is on BBC2 tonight at 9:00pm