chapter
6 Pages

The new consumerism

The great shift in consumption patterns that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century also has its origins in the 1950s as new opportunities that were radically different from those of pre-war society began to expand across the social spectrum. Although the immediate post-war years were undoubtedly ‘a time of continuing drabness and shortages’ (Morgan 1990, p 32), traditional sites of pleasure such as football matches, dance halls and cinemas were quickly reestablished. Indeed, Addison (1985) has suggested that spending on leisure was almost the only outlet for pent-up spending power in the early post-war years as rationing was still in force and most shops were short of goods to sell. In the mid and late 1940s ‘the leisure industry [was] a licence to print money’ (Addison 1985, p 114). 1946, for example, saw record attendance at cinemas: a staggering number of 1,635 million seats were purchased and about 30 million people in a population of 46 million were regular cinema-goers. As Morgan (1990, pp 32-33) noted, for example, ‘teenage girls ... would go to their local Gaumont, Odeon, Ritz or Regal three or four times a week’. Erna told me that the cinema also played an important part in the lives of young Latvian women in their first year in the Britain – ‘I went to the cinema several times a week, by myself as well as with the other girls at work. It was warm, good for learning English and I enjoyed it’. Hollywood films dominated the output and, as well as offering escapism, showed a world with no food rationing or shortages and a less hierarchical society in which ‘automobiles and refrigerators were as much a common culture as smoking cigarettes’ (Clarke 1996, p 249). This image of hedonistic pleasure, or at least domestic comfort, was countered by British films such as David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) in which social constraint and marital responsibility win out over an adulterous passion. In addition, the British film industry had to be encouraged as the US distributors were siphoning off millions of dollars from a dollar-starved Britain. In 1948 Harold Wilson set up the National Film Production Council and imposed a requirement that 45% of the films shown in future should be made in Britain (Hennessy 1992, p 326).