1966: when the swing turned sour

Fifty years ago, Britain was a pop culture powerhouse. But, says Alwyn W Turner, it was also a nation plagued by self-doubt and social unrest...

Men line the rails around Radio City, on an abandoned naval fort in the Thames Estuary. In June 1966, Radio City was at the centre of a murder enquiry that would lead to the closure of Britain’s pirate radio stations. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The setting could hardly have been more English. A summer evening, with a little light rain; a thatched, 17th-century cottage; a secluded country lane called Duck Street in the Essex village of Wendens Ambo. It was like something that the hit television series The Avengers might have made up as a parody of Olde England. Or perhaps the more appropriate cultural reference point would be the fictional world of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, as recently portrayed by Margaret Rutherford in a series of films. Because on Tuesday 21 June 1966, the Duck Street cottage became the scene of a murder investigation.

The men involved were 37-year-old Reg Calvert (pictured below) and Oliver Smedley, a retired army major nearly 20 years his senior, the owner of the cottage. There had been a business association between the two, for they were both involved in the pirate radio stations that were pumping out non-stop pop music from just outside British territorial waters: Calvert owned the struggling Radio City, while Smedley was part of the consortium behind the more successful Radio Atlanta.

But their relationship had been soured by a dispute over a transmitter, which Smedley had lent to Calvert and which, a few days earlier, he had forcibly repossessed, much to Calvert’s fury. Hearing Calvert’s voice at the door, Smedley had collected his shotgun from his bedroom and loaded it, before confronting his unwelcome visitor. “I knew he was a violent man,” Smedley told the police.

“He made a dive at me. I had no choice but to fire.” Calvert took the full force of the blast to his chest and stomach at a distance of less than a yard.

Smedley was charged with murder, but a magistrates’ court reduced this to manslaughter and, when he came to trial, he was acquitted of even that charge, the jury agreeing – without the need to retire – that he had acted in self-defence. Indeed Smedley’s account was accepted almost before he opened his mouth, with the judge, Melford Stevenson, announcing that, though there was a case to answer, it wouldn’t take very long to do so. To make his point clear, Stevenson told the jury in summing up that Calvert’s behaviour on the fatal night was “very much like the conduct of a lunatic”.

Some people claimed this was just class bias. Rumours swirled that the establishment had decided that the reputation of a dead pop promoter from Huddersfield counted for little against that of a decorated war hero who had once been vice president of the Liberal party and co-founder of the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. But the killing also had political repercussions, which made it seem extremely fortuitous for those who opposed pirate radio.

“Gangsterism has moved into the pirates,” raged Tony Benn in his diaries, “and the government’s failure to act is now an absolute disgrace.” He was writing of his colleagues, for he was then the Postmaster General, with responsibility for broadcasting. And for two years he had been unsuccessful in persuading the cabinet to introduce legislation to close down the popular pirate stations. The media outcry over the shooting of Reg Calvert transformed the public and political mood, and within a fortnight the Marine &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Bill had been published; the following year it was enacted and the era of the pirates passed. Shortly thereafter, the BBC restructured its network and created its own pop station, Radio 1 – “the swinging new radio service”, as it was billed in the Radio Times.

A heady rush

The sudden change of perception of the pirates, from carefree, colourful pop entrepreneurs to seedy criminality, reflected the slightly confused nature of British culture in 1966.

For the last three or four years, there had been a sense of a heady rush of exhilaration, as British music, movies, fashion, design and drama had enjoyed a spectacular renaissance, earning plaudits abroad as much as at home.

A persuasive myth had sprung up of a new nation: a young, classless, irreverent, vibrant country, one that celebrated its modernity and had a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards its imperial past. Even now, 50 years on, the period exerts a powerful grip on the popular imagination, an era regularly summed up in a journalistic checklist of names: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton; Mary Quant and Biba; Minis and mini-skirts; Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie; David Bailey, Harold Pinter and Peter Blake. It was a pop culture pantheon that came with the approval of Harold Wilson, the youngest prime minister of the century so far.

That excitement was still apparent in 1966, with much of the media revelling in the international recognition. When, in April, the American magazine Time famously ran a cover story on London, proclaiming it the Swinging City, the Daily Mirror referred to the coverage as “embarrassingly (but justifiably) complimentary”.

Four years earlier, the American statesman Dean Acheson had lamented: “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” The Time article rang with an optimistic reworking of that formulation. “Britain has lost an empire,” it argued. “In the process it has also recovered a lightness of heart lost during the weighty centuries of world leadership.” Or, as another cover story, in the New York magazine Status, put it: “There’ll Always Be an England, Baby.”

And, of course, the summer of ‘66 was to reach a glorious climax – for those, at least, who didn’t live north of Hadrian’s Wall, or west of Offa’s Dyke – with the England football team beating West Germany in the World Cup final at Wembley on 30 July.

But beyond the self-celebratory surface, more dangerous currents were becoming visible. In March, the long-running feud between the gangs of Charlie Richardson and the Kray twins had erupted into public consciousness with a series of violent encounters, culminating in the shooting dead of George Cornell by Ronnie Kray in the Blind Beggar, a pub in London’s East End.

On the very same day as England’s Wembley victory, the Metropolitan Police arrested Richardson and others on charges of torture, robbery with violence and demanding money with menaces. It would take another three years for the Krays themselves to be sentenced to life imprisonment (by Melford Stevenson, as it happened), but already the headlines – “Another killing by gang gunmen” – were suggesting that Swinging London was not the whole story of the capital, let alone the country.

Bored Beatles

It was the implied association with this underworld that made the killing of Reg Calvert so damaging to the image of pirate radio. Even without such scare stories, though, pop music was already experiencing something of a crisis. Three of the Beatles had recently moved out of London altogether, into big houses in Surrey, where John Lennon seemed jaded and discontented, unable to find solace in material possessions and at a loss to know quite what to do with himself. “We’ve never had time before to do anything but just be Beatles,” he explained. Ringo Starr echoed his sentiments: “I get bored like anyone else but instead of having three hours a night, I have all day to get bored in,” he said, yearning for the certainties of the past. “Sometimes I feel I’d like to stop being famous and get back to where I was in Liverpool.”

Reg Calvert
Reg Calvert in 1966. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Exhausted by the relentless promotional cycle, frustrated by audiences more intent on screaming than listening, the Beatles played their last ever concert in August 1966. The same month they released their most critically revered album, Revolver, which opened with ‘Taxman’, George Harrison’s denunciation of the high levels of taxation endured by the wealthy. Meanwhile the group’s closest rivals, the Rolling Stones, were addressing ever darker material in singles such as ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘Mother’s Little Helper’. The music was still breaking new ground, and still attracting mass audiences, but there was a definite sense of decadence setting in.

There was also a cynicism that hadn’t been there in the first rush of success. And that was to be seen too in hit films that year like Alfie and Georgy Girl. In these visions of modern mores, there was little joy to be found in the much vaunted sexual revolution that had accompanied and fuelled the explosion of youth culture. Similarly in April 1966, Julie Christie won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Darling as a shallow, money-grubbing social climber living in a moral vacuum. The movie was advertised in America, where it was more successful than in Britain, as being “made by adults – with adults – for adults”, but its defining feature was actually an immature petulance that was not uncharacteristic of the time. “To me, adult appearance was very unattractive, alarming and terrifying,” observed the country’s best-known fashion designer, Mary Quant. “I saw no reason why childhood should not last for ever.” The cultural excitement of the mid-1960s can be seen as an extended adolescence and 1966 as the year when that fantasy began to feel unsustainable.

Darling did at least have the superficial appearance of glamour. The same could hardly be said of the other great British success at the Oscars. Peter Watkins’ The War Game was an unremittingly grim account of Britain after a nuclear attack and won the award for Best Documentary. Commissioned and made by the BBC for the Wednesday Play strand, it was considered – following expressions of concern from the government – to be “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and wasn’t shown on television for 20 years.

The most celebrated Wednesday Play of the year, Ken Loach’s film of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home, proved almost as horrifying with its depiction of homelessness in contemporary London. And the most talked about new comedy series on the BBC, Till Death Us Do Part with Warren Mitchell as the bigoted docker Alf Garnett, was equally removed from the spirit of Swinging London.

If the cultural imagery was beginning to look increasingly pessimistic in 1966, the same was true politically. In March, Harold Wilson led the Labour party to an impressive election victory. In 1964 he had managed a parliamentary majority of just four: now he had nearly 100. Less than two months later, however, he was declaring a state of emergency in response to a strike by the National Union of Seamen. Worse still, he was denouncing in the Commons the “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” who, he claimed, lay behind the strike. It was the first national strike by seamen in more than half a century and the suggestion that it was simply the product of communist agitation succeeded only in alienating many members of the Labour party.

There was a further straw in the wind when Wilson went to the University of Sussex in July and was met by hundreds of students demonstrating against his supposed support for American intervention in Vietnam. Jeering and cries of “Wilson is a traitor!” were to be heard in some quarters, though protest organisers insisted that such rudeness was never their intention. They blamed the disturbances on “outside influences down from London for the occasion”.

Race, sex, disability

Yet this was to be a government largely remembered for supporting a raft of legislation that transformed the lives of virtually every family in the country: the legalisation of abortion and of male homosexuality (within limits); the prescription of oral contraceptives on the NHS, even to the unmarried; and the curbing of discrimination on grounds of race, sex and disability. It also created the Open University, the policy of which Wilson himself said he was most proud.

In retrospect, Wilson’s government has been seen as progressive and interventionist, charting a new direction for the left but at the time the divisions were more apparent than the achievements. And the splits of 1966 – distancing the government from militant unionists and from radical students – were to have far-reaching consequences. For those ‘tightly knit groups’ and the ‘outside influences’ turned out to be early manifestations of the more troubled times to come. The same could be said of the strange people encountered by the jazz singer and critic George Melly at an Aubrey Beardsley exhibition in the summer of 1966, an odd collection of youth who “gave the impression of belonging to a secret society which had not yet declared its aims or intentions”. It was only some months later that he realised it had been his first exposure to “the emerging underground”.

So the signs were there of a change in the social weather, of the fragmentation of the nation that was to follow, but it was still possible to see Britain in 1966 as a large, sprawling family. The younger generation might be getting a bit excitable and a bit cheeky, causing their elders and betters to tut and fret, but they hadn’t entirely run wild.

And anyway, the young weren’t so numerous that they couldn’t be outvoted. Even when it came to pop music, their chosen cultural territory, they didn’t have it all their own way: the biggest selling singles in Britain in 1966 were strictly middle-of-the-road records by ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reeves and

Frank Sinatra, while the year ended with Tom Jones’s ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ in the midst of a seven-week run at number 1 in the charts.

At the end of October 1966, viewers of the BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who witnessed – for the first time – the regeneration of the Doctor, the transition from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.

He didn’t look, sound or behave in the same way as he had previously but we were assured that he remained in essence the same being. As a symbol of a changing of the guard, it wasn’t a bad metaphor for the country as a whole that year.

Alwyn W Turner is an associate lecturer in the department of history and politics at the University of Chichester. His books include Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s (Aurum, 2013).

Timeline: events that made the news in ‘swinging’ 66

5 February: The end of an era

The last branches of the Boots lending libraries (like the one pictured below) close. The first had opened in 1899 and, at their peak, there were 440 branches

31 March: A bright new dawn

The first stirrings of colour television – the BBC transmits live colour coverage of the general election but only to America and to a handful of experimental sets at home

1 May: The Beatles bow out

The Fab Four make their final stage appearance in Britain at the NME Poll-Winners’ show at Wembley (below). Their last ever concert will be at Candlestick Park in San Francisco

6 May: Child killers held to account

The so-called Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (above), are found guilty on three and two counts of murder respectively. Both subsequently confess to killing two other children

21 May: Ali beats Britain’s best

World heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (above) defeats British champion Henry Cooper at Highbury stadium in London. Eleven weeks later he beats another British hopeful, Brian London, at Earl’s Court

23 June: Fleming’s final shot

Octopussy, Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book (above), is published posthumously. There is no Bond movie this year but plenty of spy parodies: Modesty Blaise, Our Man in Marrakesh, The Spy with a Cold Nose

14 July: A red letter day for Plaid Cymru

In a sensational by-election in Carmarthen, west Wales, Gwynfor Evans – shown below addressing his supporters – becomes the first Plaid Cymru MP

21 October: A tragic landslide

The village of Aberfan suffers one of the worst disasters in modern Britain when 144 are killed, including 116 children, after a colliery tip collapses and causes a landslide. The image above shows the rescue operation

29 November: Progressive policy

Home secretary Roy Jenkins (below) announces the end of flogging in English and Welsh jails. (It ended in Scotland in 1948)

England win, Wilson cashes in

“Have you ever noticed,” joked Harold Wilson, “how England wins the World Cup only under a Labour government?”

Sadly, it proved to be a very short winning streak. England were knocked out of the 1970 World Cup four days before Wilson was voted out of Downing Street and then failed to qualify for the next two tournaments, both held during a Labour government.

But the ensuing decades of disappointment have only made the 1966 triumph even sweeter in retrospect. The names have become part of English folklore, from the on-pitch heroes – Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst et al – to the peripheral figures: World Cup Willie, the Union Jack-wearing lion who served as mascot, and Pickles the dog, who found the trophy itself after it was stolen from a pre-tournament exhibition in London.

Never one to miss a PR opportunity, Wilson awarded a knighthood to the manager, Alf Ramsey, just as he was to do with Matt Busby, manager of Manchester United, when that club won the European Cup two years later. Jock Stein, on the other hand, who led Celtic to victory in the same competition in 1967, was not similarly recognised – fuelling a suspicion that Scottish football was not taken as seriously by the Westminster government.

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