YOU MIGHT SAY – ACTUALLY PHILIP LARKIN MORE OR less did – that the 1960s as they are popularly perceived didn’t start until 1963.
The 40th anniversary of that tumultuous year is being marked by exhibitions and other revisitings, including a new musical from Andrew Lloyd-Weber called Stephen Ward, The Scandal That Shook Society.
The scandal is the Profumo Affair, and Stephen Ward was one of the key figures in, and the main victim of, the affair which shook and changed the British establishment. Until this point, Britain was stuck in a never-ending 1950s, and social concepts we take for granted, such as youth culture, sexual freedom, social mobility and equality, were disturbing and threatening undercurrents whose power was about to be unleashed.
Paddy Roberts, a prolific singer, writer and performer of smart, funny, satirical songs is largely forgotten now. His commercial peak came in 1959 when his record, Strictly for Grown Ups, reached number 8 in the UK charts. There are a couple of songs on that EP which capture the nature of the British character of that period with the kind of mockery associated with Tom Lehrer (in fact, his first recording contract was a specific attempt to cash in on Lehrer’s success), the 1960s’ satire boom and later folk-satirists like Jake Thackray. Roberts’s songs take you back to a Britain which hardly knew it was hungry for change until change swept the old realities away.
To understand why the sexual and political shenanigans of the 1963 scandal made such an impact on the national psyche, listen to L’Anglais Avec Son Sang Froid. The title itself is a nice piece of wordplay, translated by Roberts as The Englishman With His Usual Bloody Cold. Then follows a light-hearted assassination of the English male, no stereotype of his social, personal or political status left unturned.
The Englishman, we are told, is content to be a pipe and slippers man, devoted to the missus and the nippers. His sex life is dull. He is unromantic, a ‘suet pud’, stodgy and humdrum. He leaves all that kind of thing to the French and the Italians (Roberts is generous with his racial stereotyping). Secretly he would like to be more adventurous, but he hasn’t got the guts. The only thing to arouse his passion is cricket.
He is buttoned-up, undemonstrative and reserved. He never talks to strangers and worries what the neighbours think. Underneath it all, though, he has a heart of gold and will proudly take his place in the queue on Judgement Day with his umbrella neatly furled. It’s all there, the reliance on order, on secure values, on a way of life in which everyone knows their place.
Love Isn’t What It Used To Be is a less affectionate song. It presents an attack on the sexual revolution before it had actually happened, for most people anyway. It might be something of a misogynist song, or it might be a bitter response to personal experience. Roberts mourns the disappearance of finesse and reticence in sexual behaviour. He regrets the rejection of love and romance in favour of sex. Why send a woman flowers? She’d rather have a cheque. The sour taste of the song foreshadows some of the atmosphere of the 1963 scandal.
Paddy Roberts mocks young people, adults, the working class, trade unions, the affluent society. He targets greed, selfishness, political unawareness, hypocrisy. But you’re hardly aware of being attacked because he delivers his barbs in such an urbane, relaxed style, reminiscent of Noel Coward or Flanders and Swann.
And there’s an accolade on Facebook for a one-man show, currently at the Edinburgh Festival, by the entertaining writer Terence Blacker, which offers the high praise: ‘Paddy Roberts reborn!’ Now that’s worth checking out.