Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Age of Anglophilia Part Two

By the mid-Sixties, England once more possessed the kind of influence it had not had since the Victorian Era. The Beatles dominated the charts. Kings Road and Carnaby Street fashions were sold everywhere. British film was challenging Hollywood. England seemed to be the centre of the world. And the centre of English culture and pop culture was London. The mid-Sixties economic boom in England and England's new found influence resulted in the idea known as "Swinging London." Swinging London was a place where a girl could both drive a Mini (the tiny, but popular cars manufactured by BMC) or wear one (the mini-skirt, that is). It was the gathering place for rock stars and movie stars, writers and models. It was the heart of Mod culture. Whether such a place actually existed or not is perhaps besides the point. That the idea of "Swinging London" persists to this day demonstrates the clout that the city had achieved in the mid-Sixties.

Ironically, the idea of Swinging London may have first been voiced by an American. In the April 16, 1965 issue of the Weekend Telegraph entitled "London, The Most Exciting City In The World," American writer John Crosby portrayed London as, well, absoluely "swinging." Almost exactly a year later in America, in the April 15, 1966 issue of Time, an article appeared which portrayed London as, well, "swinging." If it had not been so before, London became the "Camelot" of the mid-Sixties and even American youths looked to the city for inspiration.

Whether or not Swinging London ever really existed, it is easy how the idea began, given both England and London's influence on pop culture worldwide. The most obvious example of England's new found clout is, of course, the British Invasion bands of the mid-Sixties. In 1964 The Beatles had a stranglehold on the American pop charts. In The Beatles' wake a number of other British bands followed, many of which also dominated the American pop charts. It would not be until 1966 that American artists would make significant inroads onto the music charts again.

But England's impact on American youth was not limited to music. In the late Fifties, London's fashion industry began to grow substantially. Eventually the designers there would not only extend their influence to America, but around the world. Indeed, both King's Road and Carnaby Steet in London were the fashion capitals of the world for a time. Perhaps no other British designer wielded the kind of influence possessed by a petite Welsh woman named Mary Quant. Quant is perhaps best known as the inventor of the mini-skirt. There are those who argue that French designer Andre Courreges actually developed the mini-skirt before she did, but there can be no doubt that it was Quant who popularised it. In 1965 the mini-skirt could be seen all over England. By 1966 it could be seen all over America too. Another significant designer was shirt maker Ben Sherman, clothing maker for the Mods. Sherman manufactured the button-down shirts popular with Mods in the Sixties, a fashion that would eventually become popular in America as well. Turtle necks, pant suits for women, flared pants, wide lapels, and "kipper" ties all had their origins on Kings Road and Carnaby Street. And all made their way to America. England even dominated hair styling, as Vidal Sassoon redefined the art of hairdressing.

It would perhaps be unfair to credit "Swinging London" entirely with the success of British film in the Sixties. The British film industry had been growing since the Fifties and had already found success in the American market while The Beatles were still in school. If anything, the growth of the British film industry was one of the causes of England's newfound influence in the Sixties. Regardless, British actors became household names in America in the mid-Sixties. Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, and the Redgrave sisters all found fame in America at this time. Because of the growth in the British film industry and England's new clout as a cultural centre, British films were more successful in America than they had been before. Lawerence of Arabia, From Sir With Love, and the Bond films all did very well at the American box office. Naturally, British film would eventually turn to the subject of Swinging London itself. The Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! were among the first, but others would follow. The Knack..And How To Get It took a light hearted view of Swinging London. Alfie, Darling, and particularly Blow-Up took a somewhat darker view.

Austin Powers aside, the spy craze should perhaps be regarded as a separate phenomenon from Swinging London, although the two are inteconnected by both time and place (England). It was primarily the spy craze that led to the success of British television shows on American televison. Today most British TV shows in America are aired on PBS or BBC America, but in the Sixties, the networks were importing British shows at a rate that they never have before or since. Danger Man aired briefly on CBS in the early Sixties. The hour long version, retitled Secret Agent for American audiences, later aired on the same network. The Avengers was picked up by ABC and ran for nearly three seasons in the United States. The Saint aired in syndication and then on ABC. Even The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan's decidely non-commercial, non-traditional "spy" series, aired on CBS in the late Sixties. The British spy series never grabbed huge ratings in America, although they did develop devoted followings. They still have fans in the United States to this day.

By the late Sixties, England's influence on America and the rest of the world began to decline. By 1966, American groups were beginning to retake the charts. Eventually psychedelia, emerging for the most part from California, would replace the Mersey Beat as the sound of the day. Psychedelia would also replace the fashions of Carnaby Street and King's Road, as afghan coats and beads replaced button down shirts and "kipper" ties. British film would keep much of the ground it had gained during the Sixties, although it would be gradually eroded as American independents and then American blockbusters dominated cinema in the Seventies. The spy craze pretty much ended in 1967, after which British TV series found themselves confined to PBS. Only a few shows in syndication, such as Monty Python and Are You Beiing Served would find success on commercial television. Regardless, the reverberations can still be felt from those years in the mid-Sixties when London was the pop culture capital of the world. Beatles albums still sell in huge numbers and musical tastes still swing back to groups that sound like the Fab Four from time to time. Mini-skirts come and go as fashoins do. British films of the era still air on American television and are available on DVD. The Avengers and The Prisoner also still air on American television and are also available on DVD. Although it lasted briefly, the influecne of the age of Anglophilia can still be felt.

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