Sunday, 9 February 2014

TV History: Dominic Sandbrook and the Cold War

 From LSHG Newsletter 51 (Spring 2014)

If you examine the zeitgeist there is something of a mood at the moment to look back to the early 1960s. There has been an extensive celebration of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Just in time for Christmas the BBC has brought out a double CD comprising most of the Beatles live recordings for the Corporation which were done in the first half of the 1960s.
The BBC is also running a Cold War theme on TV and as part of that the right‐wing cultural historian Dominic Sandbrook presented a three part series on the Cold War on BBC2. Sandbrook has a written a number of histories of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They are entertaining reads, particularly for those, unlike Sandbrook, who are old enough to have lived through them and can remember those times.
His method is to look at the important events of history through the prism of popular culture , that is music, sport and what people were spending their money on. His conclusions however are unfailing right‐wing and Sandbrook’s opinion pieces appear in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.
His TV series, based around the books, are also highly watchable and while we may disagree with his judgements on history, Sandbrook’s interpretation of modern British history does represent a serious challenge for the left.
He is engaged in a project to bring the recent history of modern Britain to an audience who mostly don’t remember it, and to draw the conclusion that a reading of the post‐1945 decades is that the left were wrong and the right were right.
His Cold War series has drawn more criticism than his earlier efforts, perhaps because it is about quite a specific time and issue where a good number of the participants are still very much around.
Sandbrook’s general view across the three part series is that the West ‘won’ the Cold War not so much because it was able to effectively combat the East ideologically, but because post‐1945 Western posterity proved more attractive to people in Eastern Europe, ultimately, than the societies they actually lived in.
By that Sandbrook means that it was pop music and consumer goods that were the decisive Western weapons in ending Communism not armed might or cold war warriors detailing how the East was evil.
He devotes considerable time across the three programmes to detailing how he feels the West was rather weak in fighting the alleged red menace, by inviting Russian football teams and astronauts to the UK for example.
He does take the issue of nuclear war a little more seriously, discussing Peter Watkins’ The War Game, banned by the BBC in the 1960s for an all too realistic depiction of what a nuclear war would actually mean. However when it comes to CND, the biggest post Second World War protest movement in Britain until Stop the War, of which it is part, Sandbrook can only sneer that it was comprised of the ‘well meaning Guardian reading middle class’. Since there is published research on who actually did support CND in the 1960s, which was well beyond readers of the Guardian, it is a particularly sloppy piece of history from Sandbrook.
The final programme concludes with Sandbrook talking in some detail on how the Beatles didn’t play in Russia and how Phil Collins brought down the Berlin War by playing a pop concert in Berlin.
We may grimace but at the moment Sandbrook’s version is not being challenged by a better informed history from the left. It needs to be.

Keith Flett

1 comment:

  1. For a challenge from the left, see the start of a kicking of Sandbroork's effort in a number of pieces in the following link. I will be writing these up into a longer piece (probably about 12k words) that will attempt to examine how the Cold War really impacted on British culture in the next few weeks, and will ping it here when I am done.

    Matthew Cooper.