Look at Life: The Swinging London of The 1960s
What sky-dining and London’s traffic wardens have to do with pre-modern hipsters.
By Maria Popova
During the 1960s, the Special Features Division of the Rank Organisation produced Look at Life — a fascinating British series of more than 500 short documentary segments exploring various aspets of life in Britain during the “swinging” era. From the rise of the supermarket to the tipping point of coffee culture to the emergence of the high-rise office, the series reveals the roots of many modern givens, alongside curioius era-specific fads and unique London fascinations like sky-dining and the culture of female traffic wardens.
They say London swings: It doesn’t. Not even the King’s Road, Chelsea. But here and there, among the conformist fat-cat crowds, is a lean cat or two, looking like it might swing, given some encouragement. And there among the chain stores and supermarkets is here and there a shop that may have something all its own to say. To the character who can send up a mass-production car. To people who can put living before a living.”
And the lollipop says what the toy car said: It’s all about that tiny colored womb, warm and gentle, in its way an escape from the H-bomb, television and other horrors of worker-day world.”
It’s particularly interesting to see the emergence of cultural phenomena we tend to see as nascent, from vintage revivalism to hipsterdom, in London’s “antique supermarkets,” predecessors of today’s vintage stores, and boutiques like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, an impressively more hipsterly-named then-version of Urban Outfitters. In fact, the program’s entire tone is oozing the same blend of genuine fascination, not-so-subtle condescendence and marginal mockery that you’d find in much of today’s media conversation on hipster culture.
One way of saying ‘no’ to authority is to parody it. Some of the young, with little to say ‘yes’ to, come to Soho — that pulsating heart of swinging London where girls join clubs to see old men strip… or is it vice-versa… and at the cutely named I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, buy uniforms of the past to affront the uniformity of the present.”
Filmed, narrated and scored with delightful cinematic retrostalgia, the series does for the history of cultural innovation what James Burke’s Connections did for the history of technological innovation.
For more on the subject, we highly recommend Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London — a sweeping review of the era that gave us mod, bob cuts, and a new paradigm for freedom of expression. From profiles of cultural icons like designer Mary Quant and photographer David Bailey to the sociology of Beatlemania to LSD, the book offers keen insight on a geotemporal phenomenon that crossed cultural borders and shaped the taste, style and sensibility of decades to come.
Published January 3, 2011