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. Compared with the Technicolor 1960s and the lurid 1980s, the decade in between often seems damp, drab and distant.
We wince at the sight of Alf Garnett and Bernard Manning; we shudder to recall the oil crisis and the three-day week; we recoil at the very thought of Harold Wilson’s pipe, Larry Grayson’s patter 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.
What really characterised life in the surprisingly sexy Seventies was the search for new experiences and the desire, quite simply, for more
The irony, though, is that the way we remember the 1970s could hardly be more wrong. Just as the supposedly swinging Sixties were much duller and more conservative than we think, the years that followed were much more exciting. As The 70s (our new series for BBC2) shows, for most ordinary families it was actually 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 televisions, went on holiday to Blackpool or Bognor, and thought that having orange juice as a starter was the height of sophistication. 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 and the desire, quite simply, for more. Unwilling to be imprisoned by their class background, young people were eager to travel abroad, buy their own homes and enjoy pleasures previously confined to the rich and famous.
Millions of working-class families, for example, began going on holiday to Malta and Majorca. They bought neat suburban homes in places such as Peterborough, one of the decade’s great boomtowns. And rushing out to get their first colour televisions 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 our children’s education and even the traditional roles of men and women – seemed to be up for grabs. While Felicity Kendall and Penelope Keith flew the flag for strong, articulate women on television, Margaret Thatcher was transforming the Conservative Party and preparing her march on 10 Downing Street.
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 were experimenting with shaggy hair, droopy moustaches and explosively colourful ties. The old barriers, it seemed, were falling away.
Bowie said: “If I have been at all responsible for people finding more characters within themselves than they originally thought they’d had, then I’m pleased, 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 decade. Yes, in many ways these were desperately bleak years. Inflation hit 26 per cent, the miners twice walked out on strike, the political parties seemed dazed and confused, and almost every week there was another horrific IRA atrocity.
Beneath the surface, however, this was a nation in the throes of radical change. From glam rock and gay rights to ready meals and Rising Damp, from cheap mortgages to Clive Sinclair’s pioneering pocket calculators, the Seventies was the decade in which today’s Britain – ambitious, anxious, multicultural and materialistic – was born.
The 70s starts on Monday 16 April at 9pm on BBC2
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, by Dominic Sandbrook, is out on 19 April, published by Allen Lane