State of Emergency by Dominic Sandbrook


‘For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!’

Home secretary Reginald Maudling (who admittedly did not need much of an excuse) spluttered this after a 1970 visit to Northern Ireland. Such gossipy titbits are a major reason why Dominic Sandbrook’s books on Britain since the 1950s are so entertaining – and revealing. This one zeros in on a short period, 1970-74: Ted Heath, a successful miners’ strike, increasing bloodshed in Ulster, bad hair – this mini-era had it all, including a great deal of memorable popular culture. As Sandbrook comments in his preface: ‘It is a book with more than its fair share of strikes, car bombs and men in donkey jackets.’ Amid the politics, he also finds space for the Campaign for Real Ale, pornography, conservation, Lord of the Rings and Shoot magazine, plus the tabloids of the day, and juicy comment from diarists such as Kenneth Williams and James Lees-Milne. There is a very good section on the apocalyptic TV dramas which proliferated at the time, such as children’s programme The Changes°, which I recall as frankly terrifying. There is a brilliant chapter on the UK’s entry to what was then the EEC, in which Sandbrook seems to anticipate the Brexit vote: Britons have never been particularly enthusiastic Europeans. Sandbrook is no Guardianista but his political analysis is relatively even-handed: he appears to be on a mission to rehabilitate both the blunder-prone Heath (even if the former PM was ‘famous for his hilarious, world-class grumpiness’) and the early 1970s themselves; no mean feat. Given the subject matter, State of Emergency could have been unremittingly bleak but instead it is colourful, illuminating – and often makes you laugh out loud. A giant rat in Doctor Who was ‘one of the worst-realized monsters not merely in the show’s history, but in the history of human entertainment’. This is what you want from historians: incisive opinion on the issues that matter. Sandbrook is exhaustive in his research, although he warns: ‘Almost unbelievably, you can even buy boxed sets of Love Thy Neighbour, but it is probably best not to leave them lying around.’ Can’t wait to read book four, Seasons in the Sun.

º Actually broadcast in 1975. 

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