The decline of Britain's cosmopolitan culture In the 1960s, European
cultural influences were everywhere in Britain - from the pop charts to
television screens. Not any more

Neil Clark,
Saturday June 28, 2008

We've already read a lot on Comment is free about 1968 - the year of
the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Paris
riots and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. But there's one interesting
aspect of that most tumultuous of years - and of the late 1960s in
general - that has so far escaped attention. Namely, just how open we
were in Britain to European culture. It might seem paradoxical, but the
more Britain has integrated into the European Union, the less European
cultural influences there are in this country.

In the late 60s, the pop charts were full of great European music. In
the spring/summer of 1968, a regular play on Radio Caroline was the
hauntingly beautiful French orchestral hit Ame Câline (Soul Coaxing) by
Raymond Lefèvre (itself a cover of a song by French singer-songwriter
Michel Polnareff). Another big hit in 1968 was L'Amour Est Bleu (Love
is Blue) performed by Paul Mauriat and his orchestra, also from France.
The charts of the time were full of international acts, including
Esther and Abi Ofarim from Israel (who in February 1968 became the
first, and to date only, Israeli act to make it to No 1 in Britain),
Nana Mouskouri from Greece, Aphrodite's Child (with Demis Roussos),
Bert Kaempfert, Sacha Distel, Serge Gainsbourg and many others. The
music of Jacques Brel and Gilbert Becaud was hugely popular, being
covered by a whole host of British performers.

On television, BBC2 regularly showed foreign films on Saturday
evenings. Today, if you ask Britons to name a continental film star,
they'll probably only come up with just two: Juliette Binoche and Gérad
Depardieu. Back in the 60s, Simone Signoret, Melina Mercouri, Yves
Montand, Alain Delon, Fernandel, Catherine Deneuve, Romy Schneider,
Gert Fröbe and Maximilian Schell were household names.

A feature of the mid/late 1960s was the international film - a
production (sometimes co-produced) that featured actors from several
countries. In Ship of Fools, France's Simone Signoret played alongside
Austria's Oskar Werner, America's Lee Marvin and Britain's Vivien
Leigh. In Topkapi, Greece's Melina Mercouri starred with Austria's
Maximilian Schell, Armenian Akim Tamiroff and Peter Ustinov, a man
whose own cosmopolitanism seemed ideally suited to the age. There were
international comedies too: such as Monte Carlo or Bust: in which our
very own Peter Cook and Dudley Moore starred alongside legendary French
comedian Bourvil, Italy's Lando Buzzanca and Walter Chiari, and
Germany's Gert Fröbe.

Then there's television. Children's TV schedules in the late 1960s
abounded with excellent European imports from both western Europe: The
Magic Roundabout, Hector's House, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
(with its wonderful theme tune), Hergé's Adventures of Tintin, Belle
and Sebastian, The Flashing Blade, and, from communist eastern Europe,
The Mole, The Singing Ringing Tree and numerous animated features, as
well as programmes that were co-productions between east and west, such
as The White Horses, made by Radio Television Serbia and BR-TV of then
west Germany.

Today, you will struggle to find a single programme on terrestial
British television that has been made in continental Europe. There's
certainly no children's television series that tells the story of a
siege during the War of the Mantuan Succession, as The Flashing Blade
did, or relates the story of a riding stables in the Balkans (The White

The sad truth is that the era of turbo-globalisation hasn't led to a
greater cross-fertilisation of cultures as its supporters claimed it
would - but the overwhelming dominance of an introspective, bland and
dumbed-down transatlantic global culture that isn't a patch on the true
cosmopolitanism we had in the 1960s.

The political changes in eastern Europe in the late 1980s has led to
the slow death of the region's television and film industries: as
subsidies were withdrawn, many film studios closed or have been taken
over by western production companies. While in the west, media
liberalisation has led to the decline of state television, a
proliferation of privately owned satellite channels and a massive
lowering in quality. The domination of the music industry by a handful
of powerful multinational firms has led to a destruction of diversity:
there's little chance of a French orchestral number getting into the
higher echelons of the UK singles chart now.

Back in 1968, we faced currency restrictions whenever we travelled
abroad and there were no cheap Ryanair flights or Eurostar trains to
the continent. But while we may have found it harder to go to Europe,
European culture certainly found it a lot easier to come to us.