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[This post has now been superseded by a full review here]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