Strange Days part 3.

This post is an attempt at a real time live review of the third part of Dominic Sandbrook’s Strange Days: Cold War Britain – Two Tribes (BBC2, 2013). 

[This post has now been superseded by a full review here]

The first half-an-hour of this is pretty weak stuff, all fluff and hyperbole.  It is very much like the first few minutes of a Marvel Comic’s superhero film, with the superhero emerging.  So we are told (again) that what the West had on its side was consumerism, and that this was what brought the USSR down.

The USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan is mentioned, but only as the cause of the failed boycott Moscow Olympics by the Thatcher government (with some nice material on Douglas Hurd leaning on Sebastian Coe’s dad).  And apparently, detente was an illusion.  The truth is that this failed military mission, the Soviet’s Vietnam, was of huge importance to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But after this brief cameo, the war is not mentioned again.

And we then jump to Thatcher’s speech at Kennington Town Hall in January 1976 as a turning point, although it made little impact in Britain.  Then Reagan coming to Britain after he became president in 1982, again apparently “a manifesto” for ending the Cold War.  And then the release of Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes in 1984 (nice detail on the recording, but what is the point of that?)

We stay in 1984 for the broadcast of Threads.  Dominic tells us that we were better off than ever before, although those who had swelled the numbers of the unemployed to (by any reasonable count) 4 million by this stage might disagree.  Altering the trend of the post-war period, Britain was starting to become a more unequal society.

Dominic then tries to weave the 1984-85 miners’ strike into this narrative, as if this is the home front of the Cold War.  There is, however, plenty of truth in the idea that the USSR had stagnated and that Gorbachev needed to do something, but the Whiggish inevitably of this is rather undermined by China discovering that they could have the Perestroika (economic reform) with Glasnost (increasing openness in politics).

And again we have the idea that it was rock music that brought down the Berlin wall.  With a concert in West Berlin in June 1987 bringing down the Berlin wall in November 1989.

And what did we do with our victory?  The words George H. Bush, the Gulf War and the New World Order and the End of History could all have been mentioned.

This is very thin stuff indeed.


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11 Responses to Strange Days part 3.

  1. Iany says:

    I know this documentary focused on Britain but Thatcher’s veneration as an important player in the end of the Cold War was ludicrous. An useful European go-between with Washington but essentially a bit part player like every other British prime minister. The far more important story is where the Soviet Union went for investment and technology and that was West Germany who had been playing its Ostpolitik card since the 70s. The abandonment of East Germany in exchange for German funds was the only card a desperate Gorbachev had to left to play. Thatcher’s subsequent attempts to thwart German unification and reconstitute a 19th century triple alliance with France and the Soviet Union made her a laughable crank not only in the capitals of Europe but among her own government

    • wrinkled weasel says:

      The bit about “essentially a bit part player like every other British prime minister” has some credibility; Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill appears to back it up.

      Alas, i cannot let you have “The abandonment of East Germany in exchange for German funds was the only card a desperate Gorbachev had to left to play.”
      At the time – November, 1989, 5000 people marched through Moscow, demanding an end to a one-party state. At the end, 200,000 had left East Germany and demonstrations were massive. In all it was an act of self-determination by the people. Professor David Childs was convinced that it was the East Germans themselves who would decide their own fate. And they did. A Politburo member said, “On Nov 9, I was still a committed communist. The opening of the Wall wasn’t a humanitarian, but a tactical decision taken because of popular pressure.

      What makes you think East Germany was “abandoned”? What do you think the alternative was?

      • Iany says:

        The alternative was for Gorbachev to have listened to Erich Honecker and his own hardliners and send the tanks in as they did in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The game of course was up and West German money and expertise was a far more attractive option.

      • wrinkled weasel says:

        I get the impression you think that would have been a better solution. I hope I am wrong.

  2. Iany says:

    Yes you are wrong, the abandonment of the Warsaw Pact by Gorbachev was the most momentous and welcome political event of my lifetime.

    • Wrinkled Weasel says:

      Well, thank you for your reply.

      I was coincidentally in Bavaria in those days, attending a “Friends of the Third Reich” convention. The West Germans I met were shockingly scathing about their East German neighbours and took delight at pointing out the broken Trabants that lined the autobahn as we sped past in a Mercedes.

      Ok, the “Friends of the Third Reich” bit was made up, but it was not uncommon on my travels, earlier in the 80s to find older people, particularly Austrians, who were confirmed admirers of A Hitler and who were not at all shy about talking about it.

  3. wrinkled weasel says:

    I have just had a chance to watch the programme, since I do not have a TV. It opened with a surprise flourish. I was thinking, we are being shown The Bunker. So no, not The Bunker but Brent Cross shopping centre. I met Russians and Poles during the Seventies. These guys were sailors, allowed out in threes. I was allowed on board a Russian ship to drink vodka, on condition that I accepted a gift of literature from the Political Officer. So, what did Russians in the Seventies do when they got here, this temple of consumerism? They bought Surf. Washing Powder, in big industrial boxes. They did not want flashy consumer goods, just the basic necessities, of which Surf seemed to be one of them. We, on the other hand, were witnessing the beginning of super-sonic passenger flight, and, if the Brent Cross segment is to be believed, a choice of 25 different electric kettles.

    If you look at Russia today, which now has access to these things, including McDonalds, it is not consumerism that created the tension or lust for shiny electrical goods, but freedom. It has always been freedom. Most Russians had no idea what was going on here. What they did know was that people disappeared. They knew that certain authors were proscribed. They knew that the Church in Russia was undermined by placemen and that the detractors were persecuted. It was the era of the Samizdat.

    All in all, DS seems to be setting out his stall in a way which distils the entire epoch into a materialistic race to redress an imbalance of white goods.

    I can’t watch any more. I feel as if I am about to be sold an insurance policy I don’t want.

    • RedStarTrout says:

      Freedom from shortages was important too. In Riga in 1990/91 cigarettes were in such short supply that you could buy a jam jar of fag ends in the market for 3 Roubles, if you were desperate enough. There was also a market in Lada cars imported from Aberdeen on the decks of fishing boats – it was quicker and easier to buy them there than wait for for one on the regular market. Also the export models worked better.

      Sandbrook gives us the most trite and superficial view of history I’ve ever seen on television. You could probably get a better and more balanced idea of what really happened by reading selected front pages from the Sun.

      • wrinkled weasel says:

        Yes. That all rings true.

        “Sandbrook gives us the most trite and superficial view of history I’ve ever seen on television.”

        Yes. It is an indicator of the state of the BBC that the producers did not have the guts to can it.

  4. cormo says:

    Sandbrook is little more than a mouthpiece for the far-right. He takes a top-down, binarized approach to left vs right political history. And, of course, as with any binary, one side get privileged over the other. As the comments above me have shown, we need to ask WHY are the BBC promoting him? For, whatever his work is, is is not, repeat NOT, nuanced and balanced historical research. I feel there is a much more sinister agenda in play here.
    Please, please, BBC and Sandbrook’s publishers, we want scholarship, not symbolism.

  5. Pingback: Cold War Britain and the Public – Where do we go from here? | The British Cold War

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