Friday, 3 December 2010

Turn back Time - The High Street: 1960 The slide into Hell

If you've been following the series from the first ep, there has been a certain amount of logic and historic follow through in dealing with individual merchants.  Only Simon had this far been given the odd transmogrification treatment , but now it's wholesale. I must protest in the strongest possible terms the strange changes visited on the Sharps , the Devlins and Gill the dressmaker. I appreciate the possibility the BBC had not the money to have more merchants, but it does not make for very good telly when we see rampant changes that don't reflect the historical change in the slightest bit.

Allow me to explain, I grew up in an ethnic area, there was also a well established English community that never gave up the high street amenities they had grown up with. So by the late 70's early 80's we still had the following. ( and all in the space of about a half mile )

A tailor, one of the best in town, complete with shirts, hats and accessories, for men and boys

A  seamstress, three in fact,
A hardware store
A shoe maker and key cutter
A bakery/pieshop Jewish Deli
A bakery
A butcher
A fishmonger
A general store with credit and delivery 
several large grocers
at least 5 bookshops
A fur coat and repair boutique
Off the rack dressshops
A posh candy  and chocolate shop
A regular candy shop with comics, annuals, games, cards, and all sorts of stationary.
And a Woolworth's complete with restaurant
A barber shop
Several hair salons.
There are several other businesses as well, but I assume you can fill in the rest with your imaginations

The death of the high street shown on the ep is so poorly done you wonder if they really knew what they were doing this time. Quite honestly the wheels seem to have come off the cart here and it affects the results in a bad way. I will however play along and accept the general assumptions and historical trends being shown.

In 1960 the advent of mass production from the 1950's onward and the creation of a leisure class know as teenagers with money, self service  and direct competition created new dynamics for merchants to adjust to. How does this apparently affect the families ?  The Devlins have stopped baking and are operating an American style soda shop, The Sharps are no longer butchers but have a corner store that is smaller but competes with the Sainsbury like Sergison run big box grocery store.  Because until 1964 prices are fixed by suppliers, it's all down to personality and service.  Gill Cockwell  the seamstress, interestingly turns to hair dressing?!?!? Sorry I really can't buy into this, but she does give it a good go.

Let's look at the battle of the grocers, Big Grocer Little Grocer.... The Sharps have delivery, credit and coupon books, we still have some hidden away from when we collected them. The first loyalty programme worked well  and it helped that the service included delivery. They hold off the Sergisons big store with self service that confuses old people and frankly feels cold and impersonal. Along comes 1964 and the law is changed and prices are now up for discounting. The loss leader is with us to stay. Which of course means Carl's plan to slash all prices by 20% is madness if he means to do this for longer than say a month. Very quickly he'd he needs to pay the suppliers and natural pricing levels would have to be expected. As it's telly and only a week , who cares about a little commercial hyperbole.  In the end there is  a bit of decrepitude that crops up with the delivery truck from the 1940s and the Sharps who are not natural General Store keepers, give up and sell the lot off before closing for good.  In real life , many such places fought on and survived by specialising in posh goods and ethnic foods  desired by locals that a large company would not want to carry. Furthermore, the service, were the pressure on pricing wasn't as intense, was assured by bicycle delivery and new trucks that weren't knackered. 

Carl Sergison as of 1964 also ramps up the pressure with continental goodies like pasta, spag sauce and olive oil among other items. His business model soon changes from the personal front of house style to being in the back out of reach of clients. Being a proper deli man in 2010 this doesn't go down well with him , but he does "win" the fight. In one of the few moments where the big grocer looks human, he is truly sad for his friend  when he learns of the closure. One of the best or worse moments in this regard is when the star OAP tells him " this is hell, now we have a dead high street" . You could tell he felt the same. I suspect the demise of the bakery would have been hard to represent as the cheap nasty white bread would have not moved well at all had they allowed the bakery to operate. In fact in a previous history of bread, within 5 years of the rise of the cheap white loaf, the first artisanal bakers sprung up. The Devlins, despite Caroline's limitations as a baker,could still make a loaf that was miles better than any white loaf from a factory and would have given the factory bread a run for it's money. 

And moving on to the Devlins, now stuck in serving a wide range of former teens and later on actual current teens, they do well enough creating a happy space where young people feel at home and safe from adult surroundings. The malt shop , soda shop , milk bar , call it what you like, is a resounding success for a few reasons some I will reserve for later on. Those I can discuss now are fairly easy to understand,. If you give young people a place of their own , a safe place inside that isn't some sort of pool hall funded by charity, they feel empowered and at home. Nowt like a bit of food and something to drink to get the dancing feet going as well. That's the other thing, even today, these teens would prefer to spend a like cash and stay inside than hang out under an bridge or near a dingy bus stop. The Devlins , because of the loss of their business, as well, choose to leave the street, hardly a surprise and a pity as there could have been a real complete circle with them.

Gill Cockwell the seamstress turned hair dresser,   gets an assistant name Naomi, who is   a trained hair dresser, and with her embarks on the adventure of the flip the bouffant and the bee hive. This is where something interesting happened , but was completely missed by the chamber of commerce. Before I go further,  please note that some of the teenage girls, earlier in the ep , despite trackies and trainers, were wearing faux pearls. Gill and Naomi get a quick rise in clientèle , ranging from older ladies who wanted the old do's to the young women from 25  and down who are taking on board the retro hair look.   It's almost as if the camera crew went out of it's way to ignore the young girls coming in, because they had to get the hair done somewhere.  Later in the Milk Bar as the teens are dancing the girls are all better dressed, wearing the retro hair styles and clearly loving it. More to the point , some of them were not exactly new to it.The  retro woman was on display and they missed it! They couldn't see the new girls for the forest. The producers had been looking for nostalgia but missed the very real change in this age group where not all girls are content to look like bags or listen to JLS. Not surprised this was missed by the social historians, they weren't looking for it and they frankly aren't aware of it now. Was talking to someone in London just the other day  who hadn't heard of Imelda May, and she's been all over the place and on the Rob Brydon show.  Interestingly, the person in question is supposed to be a follower and spotter of trends. I think a huge disservice was done to Gill and her dress shop, the 60'were a great time for clothes and especially women  if they could find the right outfits, she could have really prospered, but instead we're told  hats are out and hair is in so  no more dresses. As it is, the hair salon was still a place for the women to be girly in and they had a blast .

In the end, the lesson they wanted to show, was people chose cheap and convenient over loyalty and service . It was priceless to see Michael's girlfriends saying goodbye, even his dad got a few bottles  and hugs as well. This was truly the end of the old High Street as we knew it in this ep. The only problem , is where I lived, it never died . Even now should I decide to. I have a Halal butcher grocer, a tailor, two dress shops that do made to measure and mend, sadly no shoemaker, but he's just up from here in the farmers market or the little mall. We have a perfectly lovely pound shop and proper hardware store 10 minutes away on foot. We have an Italian bakery, cake shop, an Arab bakery , several in fact, and a really nice patisserie with a vast selection of continental cakes and breads.  I don't know how the rest of you lived without this, but I never had to. And no it's not Chelsea or the suburbs, people in my neighbourhood never stopped believing in service, quality and loyalty. We never lost touch with our community spirit, our identities deeply and firmly rooted in our merchants.

Next week the series wraps up with the 1970's , I hope it's better handled than the 60's were.

Watch this ep on the iPayer, or catch up the series here.

For more informatiom  visit the the programme's web page.

No comments: