The extraordinary stories of 'ordinary' people

15th November 1996 at 00:00
PEOPLE'S CENTURY BBC1. A 1940s schoolboy in his long flannel shorts looks up from his homework at the kitchen table to ask, in a delightfully plummy voice, "Mummy, do you think American aid is a good thing?" "I've no idea," replies his mother, "I'm far too busy to worry about such things."

The French cinema's contribution to this important debate was equally typical: a group of wine-savouring paysans disdainfully spitting their first taste of le Coca Cola on to the floor. Thank you People's Century just for finding these wonderful images!

This second series, taking the story on from 1945, had all the strengths which made the first such a success. It was not the recounting of events which made it so successful but rather the testimony from an extraordinary range of "ordinary" people.

We met a priest who counselled migrants arriving in northern Italy in the 1950s; a Ghanaian ex-serviceman who first picked up ideas of independence while on wartime service in India; a Midlands car worker who remembered when Coventry was "where the money is"; even the American and the Russian soldier who were photographed in 1945 to symbolise the meeting of the allied forces in the heart of Germany.

The series was hot on propaganda - whether a staged communist takeover of a town in Wisconsin in the McCarthy era, or the casually benevolent tone of a British newsreel describing the government monopoly on cocoa prices in colonial Ghana.

Perhaps the most potent symbol which emerged from these programmes was the humble domestic appliance. More than any war and even more than the atom bomb, it was the washing machine and the refrigerator which changed the world since 1945. To see why you only had to listen to the Italian factory worker, whose disgust with the paintshop she worked in could not diminish her excitement at having a washing machine of her own.

The programmes' judicious use of oral history brought the main message across most potently - the universal nature of common experiences. The Russian who listened to Nat King Cole in secret because jazz was disapproved of had everything in common with the young Japanese who secretly wanted to be Elvis Presley.

History books often end with a picture of the world or a picture of the UN General Assembly as a symbol of global togetherness. But People's Century has shown that our everyday lives have a surprisingly powerful bond.

The series was accompanied by a strong collection of publications. Godfrey Hodgson's two-volume set makes good use of the interviewees who featured in the series. For schools, John D Clare has told the same story but in simple text which is illustrated with contemporary accounts from children.

People's Century:From the Dawn of the Century to the Start of the Cold War by Godfrey Hodgson, BBC Books Pounds 20;Growing Up in the People's Century by John D Clare, BBC Books Pounds 12.99; People's Century Activity Book by John D Clare, BBC Books Pounds 3.99

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