More Britain In The 1970s

Trends in the decade …

As people yearned to get on the housing ladder, they also yearned for the latest furnishings and gadgets of the time. This was despite the fact that most people could not afford all the so-called luxury items becoming available but help was at hand in the form of the trusted credit card and as mentioned in the first part of this review, the decade saw a dramatic rise in debt. This was coupled with rampant inflation but the credit card was seen as a means of obtaining things at any cost.

The furnishings of the time were hardly going to stand out as design masterpieces or even stand the test of time. It was the beginning of the throwaway era which, sadly, is all too commonplace nowadays. Products were no longer being built to last generations but simply to last a few years in the anticipation that people would return to buy new replacements. One of the most expensive items adorning many people’s homes was the colour television, something that, in the UK, had only been around since 1969 and still commanded a premium price. Anyone reading who is old enough to remember early colour broadcasts will recall either garish resolutions or rather washy images. It seemed almost impossible to obtain a clearly defined picture on the screen, with some makes of tv displaying colours running into each other. Whilst my home did not benefit from colour television until 1974, I remember watching the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle on 1 July 1969, courtesy of a neighbour who had one of the first colour tv sets available. A snippet of the investiture can be found on YouTube which shows just how poor the pictures were compared with today!

The all-in-one compact music players of today, albeit now in rapid decline, were but a dream. Many people had fairly cumbersome gramophone players but the first combined record player, radio and cassette player was just around the corner. This was a decade long before the advent of the compact disc and even cassette tapes were relatively new, an innovation from Philips in the Netherlands. This company also introduced the boombox or ghetto blaster as it was affectionately known. This was essentially a portable device which fused the booming sound of home stereo systems with the convenience of cassette players … all in a small, black but heavy box. The youth of the era could be found roaming the streets with these heavy boxes held up to their heads! As the demand for deeper and louder base increased, so did the size of the ghetto blaster, rendering it almost anything but portable.

Although the first commercially available microwave oven was available as far back as 1947, the item we know today did not really enter domestic markets until the 1970s. Yet again, a microwave was an expensive luxury and actually took considerable time to be adopted as an everyday utensil.  Telephones were still connected by fixed wires to the exchange box inside houses so there was none of the hands-free portability we use today. All phones were the property of British Telecom so the availability of choice was very limited. In fact, the plug-in sockets in use today were only introduced in November 1981!

So what makes of car were people driving? Some of the current big names were obviously around such as Ford and Vauxhall (GM to overseas readers), but modern giants such as Volkswagen only had a limited share of the market. Other marques included Rootes Group products and those from the Austin Rover Group which was formerly British Leyland. Japanese manufacturers were only just beginning to make inroads into the UK domestic market so their popularity was yet to gain momentum. Top sellers of the decade based upon registrations were the Cortina, Escort, Capri and Granada from Ford, the Viva from Vauxhall, the Mini, Marina, Allegro and 1100/1300 range from Austin Rover, and the Avenger from Hillman, part of the Rootes Group. Looking back, many of these vehicles were extremely unreliable and badly made. Compared with the cars of today, most were only equipped with so-called basic levels of comfort.

Tobacco consumption was still very high and in 1971 the government introduced the first printed warning message on the left side of cigarette packets: “WARNING by H.M. Government, SMOKING CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH”. Over time, this began to have an impact and consumption has declined considerably since these first warnings. Nowadays, the warnings are far greater with graphic illustrations of what damage smoking can actually cause. Diametrically opposite this, people were beginning to adopt new eating habits and yoghurts became much more popular in the 1970s. We were still a nation of beer drinkers although lager was adopted by many younger adults. The consumption of wine, however, was low due mainly to an absence of choice and our insulation as an island. In other areas, sales of the tea bag escalated and duvets or continental quilts became the must-have for the bedroom. People began to embrace new technology, albeit on a far lower scale than today, as pocket calculators and digital watches swamped the market place.

The 1970s were certainly a decade of change and new ideas although technological advancements were very much in their infancy. The most compact camera one could use was the Instamatic from Kodak and users of modern day photo-editing apps will see just how poor images actually were. Televisions didn’t come with remote control so one actually had to exercise simply to change the tv channel. On the subject of channels, there were just three to watch … BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Even Channel 4 was not around as this was launched in November 1982. BBC local radio started as an experiment in the late 1960s but did not expand until the early 1970s at which point Independent Local Radio was also granted licences to broadcast. Despite some of the advances in the decade, it was a time of economic strife and Britain’s position amongst world powers diminished. Some things really don’t change …!

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Britain In The 1970s

A decade that is both derided and revered …

Despite all the bad things to be revealed about life in Britain during the 1970s, statistics actually show that living standards were at their best levels for most ordinary families in the decade. This is despite the fact that the years were very difficult for the country, both economically and politically. So what exactly happened in this period? It was a decade which saw four Prime Ministers, industrial unrest, horrendous IRA bombings, dubious fashion styles, a mixture of successful and disastrous motor cars, not to mention the coloured bathroom suites!

After years of Socialist rule, the Conservatives were returned to power under their new leadership of Edward Heath. Like all politicians, he made laughable promises that would effectively reinvent the wheel. This was at a time when Britain was resting on its laurels and enjoying post-war affluence, oblivious to the fact that other nations were becoming both more competitive and innovative. It was Edward Heath who sealed the UK membership of what was then the Common Market of Europe, but he would also reign supreme over a financial crash, a miner’s strike and an ensuing energy crisis. Amidst all this, more people were becoming home owners as lending rules were relaxed. New suburban homes were springing up offering the latest in modern design and that ubiquitous choice of coloured bathroom suite. How many readers will be familiar with the pink and lemon suites, not to mention the then popular avocado?

As is the trend in a buoyant building period, people were also splashing out on trendy 70s-style furnishings. Top of the list was a colour television, which although introduced in the late 1960s, was still very much a luxury item. Popular tv shows included Dad’s Army, The Liver Birds, Pebble Mill At One, and Love Thy Neighbour. Surprisingly, familiar titles such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, A Question Of Sport, and MasterMind still dominate our schedules nearly 40 years on! It was a time when normal working-class people could afford a few luxuries and the latest trend in toys for their children. How many remember the Raleigh Chopper bicycle and the ludicrous space hopper?

Another trend to take off in the 1970s was the package holiday abroad. The number of people flying off to Spain or similar increased by a staggering 200% as a fortnight in the sun became affordable to the masses. This did nothing for the domestic economy which was already suffering as a result of non-competitiveness. The decade also saw the Silver Jubilee of HM The Queen in 1977 and way back in February 1971,  our currency was finally decimalised. Gone were the 240 old pennies to the pound, to be replaced by 100 new pennies to the pound. Inevitably, people were suspicious that prices would rise as a result but in truth this was not generally the case although high inflation would soon contribute to higher prices.

In order to try and combat inflation, Edward Heath introduced a stringent incomes policy leading to a devastating miners’ strike. He went to the country in 1974 and lost the election to the former Labour PM Harold Wilson who managed to get the country back to work but inflation reached a staggering 30% and unemployment peaked at over a million. Eventually he resigned his leadership of his party and was succeeded by James Callaghan who failed to get unions to limit pay increases to 5% resulting in yet another bout of crippling strikes … the period from 1978-79 now known as The Winter of Discontent. Such was the state of the country at the time that more people actually emigrated than entered the country. Even Callaghan had previously voiced disdain at the state of our nation with our dominance in the world shrinking and the country lacking economic strength. Not surprisingly, the 1979 election returned power to the Conservative party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher who became the first, and to date, only woman Prime Minister of Britain. This was to herald a new era and decade, itself renowned for many dubious and life-affecting changes.

So the 1970s was a period of great political instability here in Britain. We had major union uprising, long power cuts and reduced working weeks, diabolical destruction of innocent lives, a huge surge in credit card debt as people were tempted by the latest household products, absurd fashion sense … the mini skirt, flared trousers, platform-soled shoes … and without doubt a major decline in moral standards, However, despite everything, some people look back on the decade with a weird affection. This will undoubtedly be the reaction of many no matter which is their defining decade.

A second article will look more closely at some of the other changes in the decade.