Have you seen Spectre, the latest Bond film? If not, the opening sequence is terrific. Lots of action and excitement. The whole film is full of stunts and thrills. But after watching it, I realised there was something missing: joy, or joie de vivre. Daniel Craig plays Bond like an android who has spent too much time muscle-building instead of having a good time.
Contrast Spectre with From Russia With Love, one of the early Bond films. The first scene in which we see Sean Connery as Bond, he is humorous and amorous as he snogs a beautiful woman in a punt moored at the side of a river. He lifts out a bottle of champagne which he has left cooling in the water, tied with a piece of string. He tests it to see if it is cool enough. He remarks, ‘Not quite’ before going back to canoodling.
When Bond eventually gets to the offices of his boss, M, he throws his hat from the doorway onto the hat stand. Why? Just for fun! So within the first few minutes of meeting Bond, we see a man who likes wine, women and joking around. His lust for life makes the Daniel Craig version look like a mortuary attendant.
I am tempted to think that the change in the Bond films reflects a change in the national psyche. British people have become less joyful and, in the old sense, gay. Recently I found myself watching a repeat of an old cookery programme by the late Keith Floyd. He was cooking some food on a barge as it chugged through the Burgundian countryside (probably his 1987 series). His unforced jollity was a shock because you see it so rarely on TV now. He teased the cameraman and the producer. He relished frequent sips from a glass of red wine and at one point he said, ‘This is a boring bit so I suggest you look out of the window at the countryside.’ So we did. Floyd was irreverent. He delighted in the food, the wine and every possible experience.
And what about the Morecambe and Wise TV shows which ran under various names from 1961 to 1983? They were anarchic and cheerful. They did pranks and loved whimsy. The theme song was ‘Bring Me Sunshine’. Contrast that with a current comedy programme, The Now Show on Radio 4. Like a lot of comedy now, it is dominated by sneering at and insulting people and institutions, especially those who are not of the same left-leaning, politically correct tendency as the comedians themselves. And this is perhaps one of the causes of the new grimness: angry, illiberal liberals who are unpleasant themselves and put others in fear that they may be found guilty of saying something out of line. These are the new puritans.
But there are other aspects to the change. People now spend an average of 25 hours a week watching TV. That is more than three and a half hours a day. For those who go out to work, that means a huge chunk of what remains of the day consists of sitting slumped on the sofa passively watching other people say and do things. It is not as if the TV watchers are groups of attractive friends all getting excited together gambling on a sporting event, as the betting company adverts suggest. They are more likely to be alone. That’s another change.
People used not to be so isolated. Michael Young and Peter Wilmott did a sociological study of families and behaviour in Bethnal Green in the late 1940s. They found an enormous amount of contact between members of extended families. For example, when interviewed, more than half the married women whose mothers were alive said they had seen their mothers in the past day. On Saturday afternoons or evenings, families would gather together. There would be sing-songs.
Personally, I never experienced a sing-song until quite recently when a friend returned from a traumatic experience in India. We all drank too much in celebration of the end of his ordeal and somehow ended up singing at the piano. Once you get past the embarrassment, it’s wonderful! Builders and window cleaners sometimes used to sing, too. People used to whistle in the street. Now they walk along hunched over mobile phones.
I’m sure there was not so much anger at the rich, too. If a glorious 1950s Rolls-Royce passed by, it was a cause for excitement. There was a popular song: ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ Despite the answer ‘I don’t — ’cause all I want is you!’ the song exulted in a delicious wealth. ‘Who wants to wallow in champagne?…Who wants to travel on a gigantic yacht?’ That sort of cheerfulness has been replaced by mean-spirited loathing in the guise of righteous indignation.
Top British movie stars of the past included charming David Niven, self-indulgent Errol Flynn and suave Cary Grant. Now one of our top actors, Mark Rylance, specialises in looking desolate and another, Benedict Cumberbatch, lectures his audience on what they ought to think, as though he were Elijah.
Why should there have been a bear market in cheerfulness over the past 50 years? It’s hard to disentangle all the possible causes. I suspect that one is that in the 30 or so years after the second world war, there were plenty of people who had lived in fear of imminent death in battle or in the Blitz. They probably had friends or relatives who had been killed, injured or been prisoners of war. They developed a kind of brave stoicism and a profound sense of perspective. Life was a short, precious thing to be enjoyed. They believed one should endure adversity and enjoy what happiness you can get, remembering one is lucky to have the chance. I remember someone of that generation once admonishing me with the words: ‘No self-pity!’
That kind of attitude has given way to an expectation that any problem must be someone else’s fault and needs to be complained about or else it is a terrible thing requiring an orgy of feeling sorry for oneself.
There is also the damaging fallacy — increasingly believed — that the world can be made perfect. The government should make it so and if it doesn’t, then it is shameful and we should get cross about it.
Regulation of everything has created a boom in officiousness. ‘Don’t allow your child to ride on a luggage trolley!’ Public space is now a world of don’ts. You have to fill in forms and answer identity questions on the phone to get anything done. As for flirting, or complimenting a woman on how she looks, you are risking your career. Technology has added to the joy deficit, creating entertainment which is instantly appealing but ultimately unsatisfying.
I would also add to the list of the accused the welfare state. It has led to ‘defamilisation’: a boom in lone mothers, lone men and lone elderly. The extended family has been squashed.
This is a much richer country than it was between the 1950s and the 1980s, but I suspect it is not as happy. It’s lonelier and less ready for a lark.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.