Whenever I write about nostalgia these days it tends to be with a degree of suspicion, since I feel that in the past five years or so this wistful, sentimental feeling has had a dramatic, self-destructive effect on world politics. People turn to the past in times of economic uncertainty. They pine for a simpler life, which they generally perceive to have exited when they were children, before the burden of responsibility had swept over them. Nostalgia allows them recall their youth in an overwhelmingly positive light—and so, for instance, white Americans who grew up in 1950s may feel that that period was synonymous with mini-skirts, Elvis Presley and economic dominance, rather than, say, brutally enforced racial segregation, the Korean War and McCarthyism.
Everybody indulges in nostalgia from time to time. It is a comforting feeling, though it can also be oddly bittersweet, being as it is triggered by yearning for something unattainable—a distorted, rose-tinted version of the past. As a result nostalgia can, for some, be a source of frustration, particularly when their fondness for the past becomes a passionate loathing for the present. In the last few years I have encountered this attitude a lot online. Whenever I watch a video of 1950s or ’60s London the comment section is full of reactionaries complaining about the present as if it’s an offensive betrayal of the era in which they grew up. Some of their comments are explicitly racist; others are simply charged with unrelenting fury—which always makes me wonder why, if they are apparently deriving such little pleasure from the video, these people have sought it out in the first place.
I personally love watching old films—not so much for sentimental reasons, but because I enjoy the unique insight into the past that they offer. The Look At Life series of films is particularly enlightening. These beautifully-shot documentaries, produced between 1959 and 1969 by the Rank Organisation, were first screened in Odeon and Gaumont cinemas before the main feature. Even a reasonably young person such as myself has to admit that they make the period seem tremendously exciting. They capture the world at time of immense social change, when Britain was still recovering from WWII. Tower blocks are being erected, cities being rebuilt; industrial and scientific developments are being made at a unprecedented rate; in response to national labour shortage foreign workers are moving to Britain; and abroad, countries are gaining their independence from their former colonial masters.
Class, undeniably, was a major part of British life back then. I think it still is to a large extent, though these days a person’s class is harder to determine purely from their accent or appearance. In Look At Life we see a simple world where working-class men wear flat caps, middle-class men wear suits and bowler hats and upper-class men live off inherited wealth in grand country estates. Everybody knew their place—except, perhaps, for a few jumped up youngsters, who were determined ignore the established rules of society and have a swinging good time! The films are presented by various narrators, only one of which, Tim Turner, endeavours to understand this emerging youth culture, rather than lampoon it. He was probably regarded as hip by audiences at the time, but these days sounds like an old Etonian trying to score ketamine at a music festival. Nevertheless he’s more insightful that the others, whose view on the matter amounts to little more than: “The Beatles? The Beatles? Why don’t these young people like Mahler instead?”
There are over 500 films in total, all focusing on transport, military, science, sport, cultural history, world affairs and business. One memorable film concerns the rise of the coffee bar, and features some beautiful colour footage of Soho illuminated by neon signs and energetic young people pulsating to the sound of British jazz. Other films focus not on emerging culture or social development, but on old British traditions: stuffy members clubs, London markets, hop picking, the Lord Mayor’s Parade. The future of these traditions is spoken of by the narrators with uncertainty. But over half a century later on few have disappeared completely.
The same of course cannot be said for Britain’s industry, which is the subject of several Look At Life films, notably Down London River, about a time when the Thames was lined with dockers, cranes and power stations. Other films examine everything from ship building and British steel to barrel making and bell forging. The building trade is featured multiple times. The late ’50s and early ’60s were, after all, a time of rapid development, when council flats, enormous office blocks and new towns were all being built in the name of social progress. Startlingly pristine-looking towns and cities, such as Coventry, Birmingham and brutalist Cumbernauld are regarded by the narrators with fondness, but also some degree of skepticism and a longing for the simple ways of the past.
An immense change, meanwhile, is sweeping across Africa and the Caribbean as Europe slowly loses its colonial power. The people of Morocco, Ghana, Jamaica and India are carving out a future for themselves, and Look At Life examines how they intend to go about it. The tone of these films, above all, is positive. There is a genuine sense that what is happening in these countries is for the best, though the narration at times does venture into dubious territory: black people, for instance, are described on more than one occasion as “fun-loving people”, as are South Americans and Indians (the suggestion, to my mind, being that white people bloody hate fun). But I don’t think the films are racist, simply dated by today’s standards.
In fact I suspect they were probably quite progressive for their time, despite their tendency to rhapsodise about stuffy aristocratic traditions and orders. The best films, to my mind, are full of excitement for the future; they examine new technology and new ways of thinking to create an impression of what the world may look like in years to come—an impression, it’s worth noting, that seldom resembles the world of today. Other films that I particularly enjoy in the series regard unusual trades or professions, such as bell making and nature preservation on the small island of Skomer.
Look At Life is an aptly broad title. Rank really did set out to cover every aspect of 1950s and ’60s life, and the results are fascinating, charming and never dull. I understand why some people would find these films comforting; they depict an era that values tradition and progress, simultaneously. In some respects, everything seems very old-fashioned, as if not much has really changed since the Victorian era: shots of London are grim and grotty; we see City gents ordering steaks in smokey Smithfield restaurants and mustachioed Italian with barrel organs. On the other hand, the world depicted in Look At Life is not wildly unlike our own. As I mentioned above, few traditions featured in the films have disappeared completely—including those that, even by 1950s and ’60s standards, must have struck the population at large as horribly archaic.
I often wonder what a contemporary Look At Life might be like. For me, the appeal of the series is its ability to shed light on the past, though it does so of course only in hindsight, since the objective of the series was always to examine the present. A Look At Life reboot, then, would have to reflect our age, the age of the internet and social media. It could work, though I suspect it would struggle to find an audience, given that nowadays anybody who wishes to can find out pretty much anything at any time. Things were different in the 1950s and ’60s. Back then, few people had travelled far, so films such as Look At Life must have been a revelation: for the first time a bloke in Barnsley, who had never left Yorkshire in his life, could get a fairly decent impression of life in India or Morocco or Brazil.
Of course that bloke from Barnsley wouldn’t have had much say in the matter either way. Look At Life films were played before feature films at the cinema, so the public had to sit through them, though I cannot imagine many cinema-goers complaining. Watching a film, any film, was an exciting novelty in those days—unlike now, when we are so spoilt for choice we can’t make up our minds what to watch. We are living not simply in the age of the internet, but the apathetic age, too, where most people have much patience for slow moving factual films any more. All the same, for those who are so inclined, at least we can watch Look At Life and enjoy, if only for a few minutes, a different way of life. Just try not to forget this when you’re enjoying footage of Coventry city centre or the brand-new Hartcliffe flats in Bristol: different doesn’t necessarily mean better, even if the films make it seem that way.