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50 years ago this year ~ that was when…

December 31, 2013

Christine Keeler

Bad times for a good-time girl: Christine Keeler poses for Lewis Morley’s iconic photo snapped at the height of 1963’s Profumo Affair in Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in London’s Soho

Too often, many dismiss the early ’60s as a continuation of the ’50s before the colourful, exuberant and blink-and-you’ll-miss it Swinging Sixties got underway in ’64, but that view does a great disservice to one of the most dynamic, surprising and eventful years of that – or frankly any – decade, yes, 1963.

So, in this third and final post of George’s Journal‘s trilogy of ‘retro reviews of the years’ to close 2013, join me in taking a look back at 1963 – the year when fascinatingly the ’60s began curling up the corners…

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CLICK on the entry titles for video clips

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December 26 1962-March 6 1963 ~ that was when…
Britain endured the worst winter in living memory

1963_winter_in_britain

Believe it or not, there’s one, single word that perfectly describes the start of Britain’s 1963: snow. Those who remember it recall it in much the same way as the seemingly unending summer of ’76, but for entirely the opposite reason, of course. It all started late on Boxing Day the previous year when – it must have seemed whimsically and cosily right on Christmas – the snow started to fall and heavily at that. By the turn of the year, the country was covered in snow drifts and, into January, the air temperature failed to rise above freezing (its average was -2.1°C), ensuring it was the coldest month of the entire 20th Century. Many waterways froze over, leading to a man driving a car across the Thames in Oxford and the Beeb speculating whether the Straits of Dover might freeze. In February, more snow piled up on that already frozen solid, ensuring in some parts the drifts were extraordinarily more than six metres deep. The biggest cultural effect of the astonishing winter (apart from more remote villages in the country stuggling against being totally cut off) was on the sporting calendar – some FA Cup football ties were rescheduled at least 10 times. But then come March, it was over as soon as it had started. On the sixth day of the month, Blighty experienced its first morning of the year without frost and the thaw verily began, ensuring the temperature rapidly rose to as high as 17°C. To say it was all snow joke is an enormous understatement – not to mention an exceedingly bad pun.

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February 11 1963 ~ that was when…
… The Beatles recorded their debut album in a day

1963_the_beatles_please_please_me

It’s rather hard to imagine in some ways, but once upon a time – and, relatively speaking, not that long ago – nobody outside of Liverpool (or Hamburg) had ever heard of The Beatles. Admittedly, you’ve got to go back 50 years now for when that was last the case because on this date in February ’63, John, Paul, George and Ringo recorded their very first album under the guidance of producer supremo George Martin at London’s Abbey Road Studios. It’s a mark of just how big they’d become that those studios would become synonymous with them (not least thanks to 1969’s Abbey Road album and its cover art), but back on that wintry day they were so definitely nobodies they were only allowed a single day-long sitting in which to record Please Please Me – between 10am and 11pm. After which the record was quickly mixed by engineers and released a couple of months later. The album then scaled the dizzy heights of the UK charts faster than you can say Mean Mr Mustard, eventually hitting the top spot like so many of its successors and The Fabs were on their fabulous way.

Read – and see and hear – more on The Beatles’ recording Please Please Me here

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June 12 1963 ~ that was when…
the world finally got to see Dick and Liz in Cleopatra

1963_cleopatra

It took three years to film; was the most expensive movie ever made for 25 years (inflation unadjusted; more than one seventh of its eventual budget of $44m was paid to star Taylor); was relocated for shooting twice (form Hollywood to London and then to Rome; the Carry On team didn’t mind its London sets had deteriorated – they filmed 1964’s Carry On Cleo on them); had several major casting changes (Burton and Rex Harrison replaced Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch) and saw its long-suffering, nay obsessed writer/ director Joseph L Mankiewicz fired and then re-hired to finish it (the studio 20th Century Fox realised nobody else could), all before it went on to become the only Number 1 box-office grosser of a year not to make an actual profit. Yet, although all these facts have rightly gone down in cinema lore and fascinate movie buffs, what really kept the punters of the day interested in the whole damn thing was its serving as the backdrop to the beginning of the stormy, extraordinary love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The glamorous Hollywood insider since childhood, Taylor (whom, before the production had shifted to Rome, had become life-threateningly ill, delaying filming further but aiding her a somewhat sympathetic Oscar win for 1960’s Butterfield 8) was arguably the world’s biggest star; the Welsh valley-boy-done-good, Burton was easily one of the greatest stage and screen actors – and boozers – of his generation. They weren’t exactly chalk and cheese, but to the outsider they may not have been far off, yet even before anyone got to see Cleopatra or the pair became a sort of life-imitates-art Scarlett and Rhett over the years to come, for a gripped public their controversial affair (Burton was still married) was extravagant and electric. In the end, their scenes together in the film (like much in the, from the beginning, artistically doomed  project) hardly set the world alight – but isn’t so often the thrill of the chase more fun than the eventual clinch?

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August 8 1963 ~ that was when…
the Great Train Robbery was committed

1963_the_great_train_robbery

A generation born in the ’70s and ’80s has grown up looking upon Ronnie Biggs as a cheeky-chappy ex-pat living the high life in South America, while believing Buster Edwards was a groovy kind of lover who looked and sounded a lot like Phil Collins. Yet, contrary to perceptions formed from whimsy, Biggs and – especially – Edwards were players in a smartly planned if far from perfectly orchestrated, occasionally violent and breathtakingly audacious armed robbery of a Royal Mail train bulging with banknotes. As detailed so finely in the BBC’s recent double-header dramatisation of the event (made to mark its 50th anniversary), the amount of loot the job’s architect Bruce Reynolds and his gang got away with was staggering – £2.6m (the equivalent of £46m today). Nobody had ever got close to pinching that amount of moolah before – let alone of effectively Her Maj’s stash – yet the British public, gawd bless ’em, in a sign that things were a-changin’ (look out Harold Macmillan’s patriarchal government), viewed the robbers more as rascally scamps, even rather illogically as Robin Hood-like figures, than the violent villains who’d ripped off the entire country that The Establishment tried to paint them as. For this reason (in addition to the first of them caught being handed unprecedentedly large stretches in the clink), the robbery and its perpetrators have become the stuff of folklore; a link to an old-fashioned Blighty in which Cockney ne’er-do-wells sometimes came up against the powers that be and won. Sort of. The truth, of course, is that the robbery was actually the sort of hard-nosed crime (albeit without guns) very familiar to us today from an era less bygone, more on the verge of becoming the near recognisable UK of the more socially liberated, wealthier 1960s.

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August 28 1963 ~ that was when…
… Martin Luther King declared he ‘had a dream’

martin_luther_king_i_have_a_dream_speech

Already looked upon as the de facto leader of the US civil rights movement, Atlanta-born baptist preacher Dr Martin Luther King journeyed that sunny summer’s day to Washington DC with the thousands of other like-minded Americans hoping for a fairer, better future and topped an already near extraordinary march to the Lincoln Memorial by delivering there his extraordinary ‘I have a dream’ speech. A piece of statesmanship that still to this day can’t fail to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, it proved to be not just one of the defining moments of its year, but also of its entire decade – and may just have been the game-changer in the long road to the passing of unprecedented civil rights legislation in the Land of the Free.

Read – and see – more on Martin Luther King’s momentous speech here

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September 5 1963 ~ that was when…
… the Profumo Affair reached it zenith

Mono Negative

Surely the most significant – certainly the most sensational – thing to happen over here in ’63 was the Profumo Affair. In many ways (as the ‘Affair’ highlighted) Britian was a very different place to today’s UK, in others it wasn’t – for instance, the press was just as voraciously eager to unearth and bleed dry any political scandal it could lay its hands on, especially if it also involved illegality and sex. The Profumo Affair had it all. In 1962, the press caught wind that John Profumo, Minister for War in Harold Macmillan’s sitting Tory Government, had had an extra-marital affair with a beautiful and incredibly sexy would-be actress, model and showgirl named Christine Keeler. As the story progressed into ’63, the dots were joined and it became suspected Keeler and Profumo had been introduced by a London osteopath to the stars and party planner for them, Stephen Ward. At one such – and maybe more than one – party held by Ward, it was also established that a senior naval attaché at London’s Soviet Embassy, Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov, was in attendance, and Keeler may have enjoyed a dalliance with him too. This being the height of the Cold War, the alarm bells rang for both the press and MI5 (whom questioned Keeler as to whether she may have been corralled into furnishing Ivanov with delicate information from Profumo, maybe even via Ward). In March, Profumo declared in Parliament that he was guilty of ‘no impropriety’, but just three months later he admitted he’d lied and resigned. Ward, who’d had a testimony filmed to defend the parties involved, was found guilty of apparently making earnings from prostitution (presumably involving Keeler, whom for a time had lived with him), but committed suicide before being sentenced. Then, on the date recorded above Keeler herself, to the unadulterated delight of the press, was questioned in court. The political fall-out was tremendous, in that it discredited Macmillan’s government (which was simultaneously being lampooned and ridiculed by the satiric likes of 1961-63’s That Was The Week That Was and the Beyond the Fringe performers), so much so that in October Macmillan resigned as PM and his party lost the following year’s General Election, which ushered in Harold Wilson’s more modern, progressive and unequivocally non-upper-class Labour government. Like with the Train Robbery, The Establishment had been rocked, but unlike with the latter, this time it had been – to some extent at least – knocked over.

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October 22 1963 ~ that was when…
Peter O’Toole played Hamlet in the National Theatre’s first ever performance

1963_peter_o'toole_hamlet_national_theatre

In 1948, the powers that be finally made good on British theatre’s ambitions to found an official National Theatre by giving the go-ahead for the, well, Royal National Theatre. Long before building actually started on the now universally acclaimed and adored bastion of UK arts on the South Bank, though, the thing finally got going in ’63 down the road at The Old Vic Theatre under the management of Laurence Olivier (who else?). And on this date the curtain rose on the Theatre’s opening production – a headline-grabbing version of Hamlet featuring in the lead Peter O’Toole (whom, straight after 1962’s Lawrence Of Arabia was the hottest thing since sliced bread). Yet, although great for publicity, O’Toole was generally considered far from a natural fit for the role, his blonde beauty and – especially – exuberant thesping a possible clash with the melancholia of the Bard’s greatest character. And that wasn’t to mention his boozing. Had Larry dropped a clanger? Well, following opening night, many critics were sniffy (Olivier himself had expected it), yet one was more than won over, for The Sunday Times‘ Harold Hobson wrote: ‘Great Britain may not yet have joined the Common Market, nor even adopted a system of decimal coinage, but at least in one respect … we are full and free in the main European tradition. The opening of our National Theatre … puts us side-by-side with at any rate France, Germany, Greece, Finland and Spain … If it is an equivocal thought that it has taken us well over a century to get level with Helsinki, it is comforting to reflect that we have in Hamlet a better play than any which these countries have written in the last thousand years’. Yes, the National Theatre was off-and-running, but surely nobody, least of all Olivier, could have envisaged the reverence in which it would be held half-a-century later.

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November 22 1963 ~ that was when…
… the world mourned the loss of JFK

1963_jfk

Tragically, of course, the already very memorable year that was 1963 had a sting in its tail – an event that would make it a momentous year; an event that would simply become infamous, the assassination of US President John F Kennedy. As practically anybody who’s switched on recalls or just knows, it occurred when he and First Lady Jackie were visiting Dallas, Texas, him dying within little more than minutes from gunshoot wounds sustained from a marksman’s rifle as they travelled in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza. To this day, it’s still far from clear, of course, whom the killer was – the smart money may still be on the man arrested for the crime (and murdered in full glare of the public and media just two days later), outcast Lee Harvey Oswald – thus conspiracy theories, including the likes of Soviet agents, the mafia and even the CIA and (ludicrously) Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B Johnson, rage to this day. What’s undeniable, though, is that just as it did when the civil rights legislation following Martin Luther King’s speech was eventually passed, America changed this sad, dark day. What’s also undeniable is that, astonishingly and far less well remembered, both towering British authors Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis died (from natural causes) on the same day.

Read – and see – more on the assassination of John F Kennedy here

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And finally…

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November 23 1963 ~ that was when…
… a sci-fi drama named Doctor Who was broadcast for the first time

1963_doctor_who_william_hartnell

The year didn’t entirely finish on a downer, though, for (remarkably when one looks back) just one day after JFK’s assassaination, surely the best loved of that select band of Blighty’s longest running TV shows began. Yes, it was at teatime (5.15pm) on this autumnal Saturday that the most legendary of the Time Lords made his bow in the guise of William Hartnell. It wasn’t an immediate success, believe it or not. In fact, it wasn’t until the debut in mid-December of those dastardly pepper pots from Skaro, the Daleks, that Doctor Who (1963-present) truly took off and became essential viewing for children up and down the land – and their parents. Indeed, had that second serial of the show not been an unadulterated hit, The Doc may’ve had to return his TARDIS to Gallifrey before he’d really got going. So, yes, that’s right, this was the very first – and so far definitely only – time The Doctor was saved by his most deadly enemy. Who’da thunk it?

Read – and see – more on the very first Doctor Who serial (An Unearthly Childhere, on the show’s 50th anniversary special (The Day Of The Doctor) and the drama based on its beginnings (An Adventure In Space In Time) here, and read this blog’s countdown of the show’s 10 greatest moments from its entire 50 years here

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US top 10 box-office

1. Cleopatra $57,777,778
2. How The West Was Won  $46,500,000
3. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World  $46,332,858
4. Tom Jones $37,600,000
5. Irma La Douce $25,246,588
6. The Sword In The Stone $22,182,353
7. Son Of Flubber $22,129,412
8. The Birds $18,500,900
9. Dr No $16,067,035
10. The V.I.P.s $15,000,000

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UK top 10 best-selling singles

1. She Loves You The Beatles
2. From Me To You The Beatles
3. How Do You It? Gerry and the Pacemakers
4. I Like It Gerry and the Pacemakers
5. Confessin’ Frank Ifield
6. You’ll Never Walk Alone Gerry and the Pacemakers
7. Summer Holiday Cliff Richard
8. From A Jack To A King Ned Miller
9. The Next Time/ Bachelor Boy Cliff Richard
10. Do You Love Me? Brian Poole and The Tremeloes

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In memoriam…

Robert Frost (March 26 1874–January 29 1963)
Sylvia Plath (October 27 1932–February 11 1963)
Patsy Cline (September 8 1932–March 5 1963)
Max Miller (November 21 1894–May 7 1963)
Pope John XIII (November 25 1881–June 2 1963)
Pedro Armendáriz (May 9 1912–June 18 1963)
Guy Burgess (April 16 1911–August 30 1963)
Édith Piaf (December 19 1915–October 10 1963
Jean Cocteau (July 5 1889 –October 11 1963)
John F Kennedy (May 29 1917–November 22 1963)
Aldous Huxley (July 26 1894–November 22 1963)
CS Lewis (November 29 1898–November 22 1963)
Lee Harvey Oswald (October 18 1939–November 24 1963)
Dinah Washington (August 29 1924–December 14 1963)

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