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.

Friday, June 25, 2004

The Age of Anglophilia Part One

I have been an Anglophile nearly all of my life. Much of this is because I have known that I was English in descent on my mother's side almost from birth. Being aware of my heritage, I suppose I just naturally gravitate towards things English. Beyond knowledge of my ancestry, I think much of the reason for my Anglophilia is simply the era into which I was born. I was born in 1963. It was only be a little under a year that English pop culture would come to dominate American pop culture.

By the time I was old enough to remember much of anything, British groups dominated the American pop charts. Indeed, The Beatles had a virtual stranglehold on the upper reaches of the charts. British movies were fairly large at the box office. The American televisoin networks imported British TV series. Even fashions from London's Carnaby Street and King's Road could be found on the streets in American towns and cities.

Today I suppose it would seem curious that for a time the United Kingdom dominated American pop culture. Indeed, I would suppose that there were a number of factors which led to the situation. Perhaps the primary factor was Britain's economy in the mid-Sixties. World War II had destroyed large parts of London and Britain's other cities. For much of the Fifties and into the Sixties, then, England found itself in the process of rebuilding. With new construction taking place, the British economy naturaly grew.

I suppose another factor actually has its roots in America. In the United States of the Fifties, youth culture emerged, fueled largely by the music genre known as rock 'n' roll. This American youth culture found its way to Britain through rock 'n' roll records and movies. As a result, homegrown rock groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who emerged in the United Kingdom. At the same time, the British youth had more spending money than ever before. As a result, industries ranging from the fashion industry to the record industry began to market to the youth of Britain. Eventually, the British youth culture would make its way to America, led by The Beatles and other groups of the British Invasion.

Another factor that was probably a byproduct of the British economy was the growth in the British film industry. Beginning in the Fifties, British films began making inroads into American theatres as they never had before. Movies as diverse as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Mouse That Roared did well at the Americn box office. Naturally, once the British Invasion was under way, even more British movies performed well as the box office. Of course, this exposed American to even more British pop culture.

Another factor may or may not be related to the British economic boom. In 1960 two spy series debuted on British television, The Avengers and Danger Man. As a result the United Kingdom found itself in the midst of a spy craze. Perhaps due to the success of these and other spy series in the United Kingdom, and perhaps due to the novels' increased popularity in American (From Russia With Love numbered among JFK's favourite books), James Bond finally made it to the big screen in Dr. No . Dr. No was not only a success in Britain, but in America as well. Released only two years before The Beatles arrived in the United States, it could be argued that Bond actually led the way for other products of English pop culture in America.

Finally, another factor that may have led to America's love affair with things British in the mid-Sixties may have been a tragedy that shook the whole nation. In November of 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For a time the entire nation entered a period of mourning. As a result, many Americans may have been seeking something for which they could be happy again, something new and different. That something new and different may have been The Beatles and the other British groups that followed in their wake.

Whatever the reasons, in the mid-Sixties, England came to dominate American pop culture. Indeed, for a time London seemed to be the centre of the world. Music, movies, TV shows, fashion all emerged from London to conquer other parts of the world in a way nothing English had before or since.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs

Tuesday I watched AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs on CBS. I have mixed feelings about most of the American Film Institute's top 100 lists, but I think I have more mixed feelings about this list than any other. One thing that perturbs me is the fact that the list was restricted to American songs. Now I may be wrong, but I seem to recall that in previous years British films were allowed on the lists. At the very least I remember A Clockwork Orange, Bridge on the River Kwai, and other British films making various lists. Anyhow, in restricting the list to American songs, the AFI pretty much excluded the songs from The Beatles' movies, Lulu's "To Sir With Love (from the movie of the same name)," anything from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and many other British songs.

Of course, the exlusion of British songs from the list I suppose is ultimately not that important. After all, it is the American Film Institute. In my opinion, there were, however, some notable omissions on the list with regards to American songs: "Our Love is Here to Stay" and "S'Wonderful" from An American in Paris, "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, "I Get a Kick Out of You (first featured in High Sierra, I think)," "Night and Day (first featured in The Signin' Marine, I think), "Too Darn Hot" from Kiss Me Kate, and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady. And then there were those songs that, in my opinion, should never even made the list: all those awful 80's pop songs ("Footloose," "Flashdance-What a Feeling," "Up Where We Belong," "Wind Beneath My Wings," et. al.), "Summer Nights" from Grease, "People" from Funny Girl, and that horrible song from Titantic (I can't recall its name).

Despite the omissions and the songs that I think should not have been on the list (will "Footloose" really be remembered 50 years from now?), I have to say that over all I was happy with it. Some of my favourite songs made the list: "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Make 'Em Laugh," and "Mrs. Robinson," among others. And I am very happy with the top three, not that I think anyone can argue that they are not the three greatest movie songs of all time: "Singin' in the Rain," "As Time Goes By," and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." As I said, I do have mixed feelings about the list, but over all I don't think it is too bad. I can't complain given that top three!

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Remembering Chex Party Mix

Like most people I have fond memories of various foods from childhood. One of those is Chex Party Mix. My mother never made Chex Party Mix herself, although I had friends and relatives who did. I also seem to remember that, for a time in the Seventies, Ralston sold pre-made Chex Party Mix in boxes. We used to buy quite a bit. Either home made or store bought, I always loved Chex Party Mix myself.

Of course, the core of Chex Party Mix are the Chex cereals. The origins of Chex go all the way back to 1898 when Ralston-Purina entered the cereal business. In 1902 Ralston-Purina introduced Ralston Wheat Cereal, the precurssor of the modern day Chex cereals. By the mid-Thrities, Ralston Wheat Cereal was falling in sales. It was then decided to revamp the cereal. In 1937, Wheat Chex was introduced. It proved successful enough that in 1950 Ralston Purina added Rice Chex to the line. Corn Chex was introduced later.

Chex Party Mix was introduced in 1955 in recipes on the sides of Chex boxes. The traditional story is that the wife of one Ralton-Purina's executives made the mix for a party and it was a big hit. As a result Ralston Purina decided to use the recipe as a means of promoting their cereals. It was not the first party mix to involve cereal. I have read that the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook included a recipe for "Buttered or Cheese Kix (both Kix and the Betty Crocker products are owned by General Mills)."

Throughout the years, the recipe apparently changed. As a child I remember Chex Party Mix as having Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, and Corn Chex, little pretzel sticks, and mixed nuts. From what I have heard the original recipe from the Fifties did not include the pretzel sticks. In 1997 Ralston sold their Chex cereals to General Mills, along with Chex Party Mix. General Mills includes the Chex Party Mix on the sides of the boxes of Chex cereals and makes a variety of Party Mixes sold in bags, although it seems to me that they have changed the recipe. The current recipe includes pretzels (rather than pretzel sticks) and bagel chips. Curiously, they market this recipe as "the Original Chex Party Mix." The pre-made bags of Chex Mix contain no mixed nuts, but do include rye chips and bread twists.

Personally, I much prefer the Chex Party Mix I grew up with. To me, at least, it tasted much better. Of course, if it was up to me Chex would still be owned by Ralston-Purina. While I respect General Mills and I like many of their cereals, it just seems odd for them to own Chex, something like Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Inc. owing Coca-Cola. Too, I don't like the changes General Mills apparently made to the Party Mix recipe. Of course, the old Ralston Purina recipes are still floating around out there, so I can always make my own. (-:

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Appeal of The Addams Family

Last night I watched Addams Family Values. I have always liked both of the feature films, but then I have fond memories of the TV series. I was much too young to remember the original run of The Addams Family (it ran on ABC from 1964 to 1966), but I remember the syndicated reruns very well. It seems that I am not the only one. Since the show went off ABC in 1966, there has been television reunions, two animated series, two feature films, a TV movie, and a new series.

Of course, the Addams Family did not have their origins on television. They originated in the single panel cartoons of Charles Addams. The first Addams Family cartoon appeared in 1937. It featured Morticia and Lurch. Eventually, Gomez, Wednesday, Pugsley, and Grandmama would be added. In the comic strip the family was never given a name, although the general public termed them "the Addams Family" after their creator. The family did not earn first names until David Levy approached Addams about the TV series. It was then that Addams gave the characters the names we now know them by. Addams continued to draw the Addams Family cartoons until his death in 1988.

As to the appeal of both the comic strip and the subsequent TV series and movies, I think a large part of it lies in its macabre humour. The average American tends to fear death and injury. Even those who do not outright fear death and injury tend to be very uncomfortable about these subjects. The Addams Family cartoons, TV series, and movies allowed people to laugh about death and injury, thus overcoming their fear or discomfort, if only temporarily.

Another part of both the comic strip, TV series, and movies' appeal may lie in the fact that the Addamses are non-conformists. The Addams Family is a family in love with the macabre. They prefer the night to day, misery to happiness, dark colours to bright colours. In many ways, they were "Goth" long before the "Goth" movement ever began. As a family that refuses to conform to the rest of society, the Addams Family thus reinforces the idea of being oneself rather than conforming to someone else's expectations. The cartoons, the TV series, and the movies place importance on individuality over conformity.

With regards to the TV series and movies, another large part of the appeal of the Addams Family is the fact that they are a family. In a society where single parent homes are all too common, the Addams Family stick together. Indeed, it must be pointed out that not only the nuclear family lived in the Addams mansion, but the extended family as well--Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, Pugsley, Lurch, Grandmama, and Thing all under the same roof. Furthermore, other family members did visit, some often, most notably Cousin Itt and Morticia's sister Ophelia. And while Wednesday and Pugsley occasionally make a game of trying to kill each other, the Addamses never fail to come to the aid of one of its members when he or she is in trouble. Indeed, perhaps the closeness of the Addams Family is best demonstrated by the passion exhibited by Gomez and Morticia for each other. While other TV husbands and wives might simply kiss each other on the cheek, Gomez would kiss Morticia all over her arms! At any rate, while the Addams Family may not conform to most of society's mores, they are a highly traditional family, closely knit and very devoted to each other. In fact, I think that the closeness of the Addamses may be what appeals to me the most about the TV shows and movies.

I grew up watching the Addams Family as a child and as an adult I seem to have developed an even keener appreciation of the series (a lot of the humour in the show would be lost on an 8 year old). To this days it remains one of my favourite shows of all time.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Town and Country

For whatever reason, last night in Huntsville was hardly a quiet one. Several cars drove past the house. Even though the train tracks are literally blocks from my house, the trains sounded as if they were right across the street. And then at 2:00 AM sirens could be heard up and down Main Street. I suppose that there had been a fire or an accident somewhere. At any rate, last night I really missed living in the country.

I grew up on a farm about a mile north of town. We had 100 acres of land, through which the East Fork of the Chariton River ran. About 15 acres of our land were woodlands. I could go for a walk in the fields and woods without being distrubed by cars, trucks, or people. I could camp out any time I wanted. And depending upon the season, I could fish or hunt any time I wanted. Compared to Huntsville, our farm was relatively quiet. Not nearly as many trucks and cars went down the road there as do the streets on which I live in Huntsville. And there were no kids or other people making noise, just the occasional dog, coyote, or tractor.

I am not sure that it is the peace and quiet that I miss the most right now. I think it is the privacy. In Huntsville when I walk out of my house there are houses upon houses all around me. There are other people out and about. Even when I am in the house with the doors closed, I do not feel as if I am alone. I cannot play my stereo at full blast. I cannot walk outside simply to meditate in the great outdoors. I feel as if I cannot really have any time to myself. On the farm I could walk outside and not see a soul outside of our animals. If I wanted to do some thinking, I could simply take a walk through the pastures or woods. I did not have to go to the park to see trees or grass.

I think that if I ever won the lottery or some sweepstakes, the first thing I would do is buy a farm. Some nice place with woods and a creek running through it, far from town. Although I cannot say I am terribly unhappy living in town, I do think I would be a lot happier back on a farm.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation

Last night I watched Thirteen Days. For those of you who don't know, the movie covers the thirteen days of the Cuban Missle Crisis. It was based on The Kennedy Tapes - Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Cris by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. For me the film is absolutely terrifying. It is hard to believe how dangerously close we came to nuclear war.

Indeed, I grew up with the threat of nuclear annihilation. I was born only 17 years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and only a few months after the Cuban Missle Crisis. By the time I was born the craze for home fallout shelters of the Fifties were well over, but people still seemed braced for the advent of a nuclear attack. Growing up I can remember two places that had public fallout shelters. One was the municipal auditorium in Moberly. Another was in the county courthouse. As hard as it is to believe now, in school we were actually taught what to do in the event of nuclear war. Unlike when my sister was in school, I don't think we ever had a "nuclear attack" drill to go alongside the tornado drills and fire drills.

Indeed, I would suppose that most peope feared the eventuality of nuclear war when I was a child. It seems to me that it was prevalent enough that even politicians capitalised on it in ads. I was much too young to remember it, although I have seen it since it first aired, but a campaign ad for Lyndon B. Johnson did capitalise on the fear of nuclear war. Dubbed the "flower commercial," it featured a little girl pulling petals from a flower and counting. Her voice was replaced by that of a countdown, as one might hear when a rocket was being launched. The scene then shifted to that of a mushroom cloud--the sort caused by a nuclear explosion. Although neither Lyndon B. Johnson nor Barry Goldwater were mentioned in the ad, it effectively hinted that Goldwater's election could result in nuclear war. Needless to say, the Republicans were outraged, as were many others. For that reason the commercial aired only once, during NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies.

The fear of nuclear war was also prevalent enough that it became a part of pop culture. Movies such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail- Safe dealt with the subject of nuclear war itself. The post apocalyptic genre of science fiction was old by the time I was born. In fact, I rather suspect that the movies dealing with life after nuclear war probably number in the hundreds, Planet of the Apes and The Road Warror being two more famous examples.

Even with the demise of the U.S.S.R., I guess there is still the fear of a nuclear threat. While I am not certain that the average person worries about terrorist getting hold an atomic bomb, there is the concern that they might utilise "dirty bombs," bombs with radioactive material in them. And there are new fears as well, such as the fear of terrorists using germ warfare. Still, it seems to me that at least most people no longer worry about the entire planet being destroyed in a nuclear exchange. I know I don't.