The Cold War in your living room

Dominic Sandbrook shows how the tensions between east and west influenced several areas of British cultural life...

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Fans send Margaret Thatcher a message from the Moscow Olympics, August 1980.

Fans send Margaret Thatcher a message from the Moscow Olympics, August 1980. The prime minister failed in her attempts to prevent British athletes from competing. © Getty Images

 

Even for those of us who remember it, the Cold War now feels like something from ancient history. Yet from the collapse of Hitler’s Germany in 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was the single abiding reality of the postwar world. To many people, the struggle between communism and capitalism seemed simply a fact of life, unchangeable and everlasting. Even in Britain, which seemed to be insulated from the terrible choices that faced millions of people across the world, nobody who grew up after 1945 could ignore the looming threat of a showdown between the nuclear superpowers.

But the implications of the Cold War went well beyond missile specifications and apocalyptic predictions of a nuclear winter. The global contest between east and west was a battle for hearts and minds, in which almost everybody – if only unwittingly – took part. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, even a mundane ritual like going to the supermarket or forking out for a new car had wider implications, because it meant buying into one of the two rival social and economic systems.

Not surprisingly, therefore, British popular culture was drenched in Cold War ideology. From big-screen blockbusters to episodes of Doctor Who, from the football field to the recording studio, from crusading BBC plays to chart-topping protest songs, this was a cultural conflict as much as a military or technological one. And though the Cold War itself may have joined the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history, the culture it created is still with us...

 

Sport: Pitch battles

During the Cold War, sporting success mattered enormously to both sides. In the autumn of 1945, the Soviet football champions, Dynamo Moscow, embarked on a groundbreaking British tour. For Soviet officials, this was a chance to advertise the teamwork and organisation that they believed made their system superior. Indeed, the sportswriter Brian Glanville, who watched their first match, against Chelsea, wrote later that “from first to last their football remained cogent and incisive, a triumph of socialism over individualism, for the ball was never held by one man, but transferred bewilderingly and immediately to another”. Cardiff’s manager, meanwhile, described them as a “machine, not a football team”.

Yet by the time the Russians left Britain, a month later, relations had badly degenerated, with accusations of foul play on both sides. Most thinking people, wrote George Orwell, would surely agree that “sport is an unfailing cause of ill will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them worse”.

A quarter of a century later, sport was once again making Cold War headlines. On Christmas Day 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, hoping to prop up its communist puppets against local tribal insurgents. In Washington, the Americans called for a boycott of the forthcoming Moscow Olympics. But although Britain’s new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, passionately supported the boycott, her nation’s athletes were rather less enthusiastic. A new golden generation was coming to the fore, spearheaded by Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson, and none of them wanted to miss the chance to compete.

The government piled on the pressure, and Coe’s father, Peter, was even called to a secret meeting with Conservative minister Douglas Hurd at the Foreign Office. But it was no good. Britain’s athletes went to Moscow, and Coe, Ovett and Thomps son all picked up memorable victories. Even the 100m had its first British winner since 1924: Allan Wells, who later said that he had been sent images of Soviet army atrocities in the post.

 

Books: Novels go nuclear

From heartfelt manifestos to children’s fantasies, it is easy to find literary reflections of the struggle between capitalism and communism. The most direct and powerful British Cold War novel, though, is surely George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), with
its bleak portrait of a dystopian future.

For a generation of readers, it was Orwell who defined the image of totalitarianism. His vision of a society ruled by Big Brother, the human spirit crushed under the heel of a one-party state, became almost synonymous with the popular view of the Soviet Union. But it is also telling that it was Orwell who first described Britain as ‘Airstrip One’ – an offshore appendage of an empire dominated by the United States.

By contrast, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, published between 1953 and 1966, presented a rather more cheerful picture of Britain’s role in the Cold War. Here was the British adventurer reborn for a nuclear age, each book a carefully drafted package of sex, violence and social snobbery. As The Times’s reviewer remarked of From Russia with Love, Bond “acts out our less reputable fantasies without ever going too far”.

Many real-life spies, however, scoffed at Bond’s fantastical exploits. One former intelligence agent, David Cornwell, even dismissed him as “the ultimate prostitute” and an “international gangster”. In his place, Cornwell – or John le Carré, as he called himself – offered readers a very different kind of secret agent, the shabby, careworn Alec Leamas, hero of his novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs?” Leamas remarks at one point. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

 

Music: Sound barriers

When the idealistic members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) marched against the bomb in the late 1950s, reporters often commented on the soundtrack they took with them. To many people, jazz and folk music were synonymous with dissent: indeed, the folk singer Ewan MacColl wrote ballads celebrating Ho Chi Minh and Josef Stalin, and was put under surveillance for a time by MI5.

Musical self-expression was far more dangerous, however, across the Iron Curtain. There most British popular music of the 1950s and 1960s, with its hedonistic celebration of youth, freedom and individualism, was regarded as dangerously subversive. Beatlemania, declared the newspaper Sovetskaya Kultura, was mere “idol worship”, born of the “spiritless atmosphere of bourgeois society”. But although the Beatles were effectively prohibited in the Soviet Union, their music did filter through, with underground studios cutting illicit bootleg tracks on old medical x-rays – earning them the nickname ‘Rock and Roll on Bones’.

Twenty years on, British musicians played their part in the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In June 1987, West Berlin welcomed some of the biggest names in western music – David Bowie, Eurythmics and Genesis – who played right next to the wall itself. Desperate to hear the music, hundreds of East German youngsters crowded into Unter den Linden, where they were beaten back by state police. These were the worst clashes the city had seen in two decades, and contemporary reporters heard the East Berliners shouting: “The Wall must go!” Two years later, it was gone. It is a sobering thought that the man who brought down the Berlin Wall may, in fact, have been Phil Collins.

 

Films: Hollywood vs the FBI

Historians have often been quick to see links between Hollywood and the Cold War, especially during the early 1950s, when actors, directors and screenwriters fell victim to the Red Scares. Perhaps the most celebrated target, though, was an Englishman – Charlie Chaplin, whose socialist sympathies had brought him to the attentions of the FBI. During the Second World War, Chaplin had even told a pro- Soviet dinner that “there is a great deal of good in communism. We can use the good and segregate the bad.” Those words came back to haunt him in 1952, when Chaplin left the United States for a brief trip to Europe. He was in the middle of the Atlantic when he was handed a cable with the news that he had been banned from returning to American shores. Not until 20 years later, when he was given a special Academy Award, did he come back.

At the same time, British studios were producing increasingly strident anti-communist pictures. The supreme example is High Treason (1951), which was inspired by a genuine sabotage attempt in Portsmouth Harbour. Critics at the time noted that the film’s villains contained a variety of deluded progressives and cynical communists drawn from the textbook of paranoid populism: they include a pacifist, a cat-loving and therefore clearly homosexual bachelor, two admirers of avant-garde music and a well-bred Labour MP with a taste for rare vases.

By contrast, the villains in the Bond films did not always have the same good taste. In From Russia with Love (1963), the Spectre agent Red Grant gives himself away by his failure to order the right thing at dinner. “Red wine with fish,” Sean Connery famously murmurs. “That should have told me something.”

 

Television: Apocalyptic viewing

Thanks to television, not even the humble living room was safe from the heightened passions of the nuclear age. In the popular early 1960s ITV series Danger Man, Patrick McGoohan played John Drake, a special agent working for Nato to foil a succession of dastardly communist plots, while Gerry Anderson’s popular series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is often seen as a futuristic take on the Cold War.

There were, however, more serious attempts to grapple with the geopolitical realities of the day. In his hauntingly brilliant docudrama The War Game (1966), Peter Watkins imagined what would happen if the worst happened and the bomb fell. In the event, the BBC pulled it from the schedule, insisting that it was “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. But the film was shown in cinemas around the country, and the Corporation was bombarded with letters denouncing their decision.

Almost 20 years later, the BBC returned to post-apocalyptic territory in Threads (1984), which traces the experiences of two Sheffield families as the Third World War breaks out. Even today, few television films have ever matched its wrenching emotional impact, from the terrifying scenes of looting and chaos to the horrific effects of radiation on Britain’s surviving population, many years later.

But the film that best captures the grim mood of the mid-1980s – the darkest hour before the dawn – was surely the cartoon When the Wind Blows (1986), based on Raymond Briggs’s book. We see a nuclear holocaust through the eyes of an elderly rural couple, James and Hilda Bloggs, who survive the initial blast but gradually succumb to radiation sickness. In the final scene, they pray quietly together while waiting for death – a moment nobody who sees it will ever forget.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, author and broadcaster. 

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