Inside Story

What are the sixties trying to tell us?

With SBS viewers seeing 1960s America through the eyes of television and the ABC profiling four Australians who fled to London to join the decade’s ferment, the sixties don’t seem willing to stay in the past, writes Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall 30 September 2014 2160 words

Switching point: the Beatles arriving at New York’s Kennedy Airport on 7 February 1964 for their first US appearance. AP Photo

In the early days of television broadcasting, cynicism about the medium grew as intensely as its popularity. By 1955, half of all American households owned a television and pundits began to air their concerns about the number of hours a day spent by the average family in front of the “idiot box.” The fare on offer – an assortment of family comedies (typically featuring precocious kids being cute at the meal table), soap operas and cartoons – was not exactly idiotic, but it was terminally naive.

That began to change at the start of the 1960s. As one commentator put it, “television has grown faster than a teenager and now it is time to grow up.” But perhaps it was more the case that those well-groomed children around the kitchen table, now teenagers themselves, had become a more demanding audience. They had woken up to a changing world that seemed to be speaking to them directly, presenting them with entirely unforeseen prospects. Far from being an idiot box, as a very young Ralph Nader proclaimed, television was now “the most impressive medium of all.”

This transition is skilfully evoked in the first episode of the ten-part CNN series The Sixties, which began screening on SBS in mid September. For some reason, SBS has decided to show the episodes out of order, so the opening program, “TV Comes of Age,” has yet to go to air. It’s a perverse decision because one of the aims of the series is to explore the role of television in this turbulent and exhilarating period of cultural transition.

The production team gave themselves a formidable task by setting out to reassemble the decade as it was presented on the TV screens of the era, without any script or voiceover to create a narrative line. And because the first episode screened on SBS was “The Assassination of President Kennedy” (episode 3 in the original series), Australian viewers may not have picked up on what was distinctive about the perspective. Certainly my own reaction was “haven’t we seen all this before?” (and how many times?).

Watching that episode again, in sequence this time, with a sharpened alertness to how events on the street were relayed immediately through the studios of NBC and CBS, was a different experience. For four days, the major networks suspended advertising and went live with wall-to-wall coverage of the aftermath of the assassination. The spectacle of professionals trying to make sense of the unfolding chaos on behalf of the nation is unexpectedly moving.

“World on the Brink,” the episode screened second in CNN’s broadcast, shows how Kennedy himself was in a day-by-day battle to bring order out of chaos. “A supreme national effort will be needed to move this country safely through the 1960s,” he had said in his presidential acceptance speech. Within six months, he was to face the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the following year was overshadowed by the threat of imminent nuclear war. Kennedy had to steer his course with no spin-doctor in the White House and Walter Cronkite to reckon with on the nightly news. Roaming TV reporters spoke to people in the streets, tapping into the barely contained panic. “I think unless something is done humanity will destroy itself,” one man says. It’s a touchingly naive remark: what kind of something, and by whom? And yet, against all the odds, Kennedy did do the requisite something. In television terms, he won the stare-down with Khrushchev. It was the Soviet leader who blinked and took action to defuse the Cuban missile crisis.

By changing the order of the episodes, SBS has lost the overarching dramatic structure, and along with it a sense of the urgency and momentum of the decade whose darkest moods came first. Australian viewers didn’t get to the Bay of Pigs until episode 4.  The Kennedy assassination was followed immediately by “The British Invasion,” documenting the first US tour of the Beatles. This is a reasonable chronology, as Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and the Beatles made their internationally televised descent from the Pan Am jet at John F. Kennedy airport on 7 February 1964, but the tone is wrong. The shift in focus needs preparation.

Shown in the right order, the sequence of programs takes you to the gates of hell and back several times before you reach this bizarre switching point, where the cause of mass outbursts of screaming and crying is four madcap teenagers singing “I wanna hold your hand.” Certainly it was an era of bipolar phases, and these come through most strongly from the American perspective. The sixties cut a burning path through Britain and Europe, but it was in America that the syndrome was most pronounced.

The shuttling between anguish and exhilaration continued through the years of the Vietnam war, the moods converging in the great civil rights demonstrations. A clip of Fats Domino, singing “Blueberry Hill” with a smile that makes your own face light up as you watch, demonstrates that extraordinary gift of African-American musicians for bringing moments of sheer joy out of misery.

Among the most powerful episodes is “The Long March to Freedom,” which starts with Martin Luther King addressing a congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia. As we know, he excelled at a form of rhetorical projection that could magnetise a large crowd, but here the television camera moves to capture him speaking in the low, measured tone of a personal communication. “I don’t know what the future holds,” he says, and then, after a perfectly timed pause, “but I know who holds the future.” They are like word bombs, these quiet statements, and television releases their ever-widening impact.

Given that many of us already have sixties fatigue, ten hour-long programs is quite a claim on the viewing public. We’ve watched the assassination of JFK through countless movies, TV dramas and documentaries; the rock stars of the era keep resurrecting themselves for world tours; the mini-skirt is back on the high street. During the past month, SBS has also aired a series of Vietnam films (including Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) and the ABC has shown Brilliant Creatures, a two-part documentary about the early careers of Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and Barry Humphries.

It seems the sixties just won’t stay behind. Is there something they’re trying to tell us? An urgent need to tell you something was surely part of their ethos. “The times they are a’changin.” “Give peace a chance.” “I have a dream.” These are wake-up calls to the human psyche, and there are times in history when it seems there is a contagion abroad, a fever you must catch if you can, because it’s the fever of cellular renewal. Perhaps it’s this that we’re missing now, and we are haunted by its absence. Although it may be a curse to live in interesting times, there is a kind of blessing in being born to live through times of cultural renaissance. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth in his poem The French Revolution, “but to be young was very heaven!” The generation of 1789 was filled with a vision of an ever-widening defeat for “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute.” It was a vision that dissolved as the horrors of the next decade unfolded, yet the legacy of expanded mental horizons lives on in the arts and literature of the period. And, ultimately, we are beneficiaries of its political ambitions.

Any revocation of the spirit of the age raises questions about place as well as time. Howard Jacobson, narrator and presenter of Brilliant Creatures, begins his account on a personal note, recalling how when he sailed into Sydney Harbour in the Australian summer of 1965 “it was like a resurrection. Sydney made me feel I’d never previously been alive. This sense of Australia as an illumination of the spirits has never left me.”

Jacobson is perplexed at how his four charismatic Australian contemporaries – Greer, James, Hughes and Humphries – can have had the inverse experience of the Australia they grew up in. James acknowledges now that “we came from a blessed land at a blessed time” but, in the words of Thomas Keneally, “there was almost a willed torpor about Australia which these brilliant children wanted to escape.” Phillip Adams is likewise a proponent of the boredom theory, drawing an analogy with how the pressure of coal produces diamonds. In the case of Humphries this is demonstrated somewhat literally as the glittering dame Edna emerged from the bourgeois morass of Moonee Ponds.

But the boredom theory denies the extent to which Australian life was also undergoing a cultural transformation. The suburbs of the 1940s and 50s from which Humphries, James, Greer and Hughes emerged may have been suffocatingly “noice” but English suburbia was both suffocating and grim. There are other hackneyed theories in need of a shake-up, including the “tall poppy syndrome,” which Jacobson endorses in passing. Nonsense, I’d say. Australia has, if anything, a disproportionate love for its celebrity sons and daughters. We are not a nation given to denial about the achievements of our “winners” in any category.

If the famous four ran into a bit of biffo with the Australian media, it is because they were themselves pugnacious and hypercritical. They are not among the wisdom figures, or the inspirational musicians of the counterculture. They are something else, but what? Of course, they are fiercely individual and therefore sharply different in their orientations, and yet, as a foursome, they present a bizarre synchronicity in their talents and formative conditions.

They were all pre–baby boomers, scholars of literature and the arts, and drawn to anarchic forms of vaudeville. All are humourists and performers, whose primary gift is a genius for talking as writers and writing as talkers. They also share a propensity to be wrong-headed. Hughes was stylishly dismissive of American postmodernism, but also wilfully ignorant about it. Clive James’s politics, at their worst, seem to come straight out of the Daily Mail. Germaine Greer can be disconcertingly random in her assertions and Humphries parades some fairly crass opinions. But who cares? Anyone who makes us laugh is capable of a certain kind of accuracy, however laterally conveyed, and certain kinds of accuracy are devastating.

There’s a nice moment when Martin Amis is recalling Clive James’s views about humour: someone without a sense of humour is not to be trusted – not even to post a letter – because to be without humour is to be without common sense. James caps the insight with the “luminous remark” that “humour is common sense dancing.” Yes, well… in those terms, there’s not a lot of common sense dancing on the floor of parliament these days, and that’s a worry.

Brilliant Creatures returns to the sixties as a trigger phase, but it doesn’t stay there. Its four subjects are followed through middle age and (with the exception of Hughes, who died two years ago) into the present, with recent interviews inviting them to reflect on their charmed youth. Maturity had taken the gloss off them. Greer and Hughes, who were beauties, changed persona to suit a weightier middle-aged presence. They acquired gravitas. Humphries, consigned to the role of straight man by his increasingly out-of-control alter ego, Edna Everage, seems to have taken the demotion in good part.

And Clive James? He gave up his career as television host because he couldn’t stand the experience of being famous just for being famous, and went back to literary pursuits. He’s recently finished a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy – yes, the whole damn thing – and now, living with a terminal condition that has cruelly eroded his strength, has put himself on light duties, writing the occasional poem or review. The humour lights up his face as he talks, and he has one of those smiles that is a gift in itself. For an instant or two, it reminded me of the smile on the face of Fats Domino, singing “Blueberry Hill.” Those instants are not about nostalgia. They are the manifestations of a quality of energy and spirit, and when that becomes the spirit of the times, everyone’s dancing. For a while, at least. •