Ah the Sixties - we love the Sixties. Nostalgia, tumult, great music and the gelling of so much - youth quake, TV politicians, the counter culture, the New Right etc. No wonder we keep going back.
As a child in the Sixties I was fascinated by the whispers of change, as experienced via an older sister and an ever on black and white TV set. Later I produced one of Channel 4's first series - a six part history of the decade, with the totally original title - The Sixties. Now there is a new series called The Sixties on DVD that was shown on CNN in America and Yesterday in the UK. The subjects are what you'd expect - the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the 'British Invasion' focussing on music, civil rights, Vietnam, the coming of age of television, the Space Race, and, of course sex, drugs and rock and roll.
How does it stand up? Well it's first and foremost a good primer. There are good interviewees - historians like David McCullough and icons like Smokey Robinson, Carl Reiner and Dick Cavett. Plus Tom Hanks and he is one of the producers. There are some good ironies - you'll see, for example, Mick Jagger, two years into the Rolling Stones career, being asked how long he thinks he can continue to perform. He says probably only about another year...
In fact the best thing the series does is use the television of the time, particularly some rarely seen news reporting to give you a sense of what it was like to be there, or at least to be in your living room. This material is incredibly rich - studio stuff from the likes of Charles Collingwood and Walter Cronkite - who memorably teared up when announcing Kennedy's death. Plus reporters in the field, everywhere from Selma to Saigon. On occasion there's an heroic sense to this reporting when leaders and policies are directly questioned.
You see reporters, for example, call out the Eisenhower administration for lying about their involvement in the U2 spy plane fiasco. The best episode covers the assassination of President Kennedy, particularly because it shows how, despite the Warren Commission, a huge culture of conspiracy grew up based on the idea of a cover up. Was there ever a more influential piece of moving film than the home movie of the assassination shot by Abraham Zapruder?.
You felt you were there but in its grainy glimpsed fashion it also - like the iconic Sixties movie Blow Up - opened up endless possible interpretations about what 'really' took place. By contrast, in another episode, about the influence of television, we get the oft repeated but almost certainly untrue story about Richard Nixon's TV-light induced sweat losing him a presidential debate and therefore the 1960 Presidential election.
What's missing - a final sense of reckoning - what does it all mean? Was it really as revolutionary as we thought at the time? On reflection isn't the Eighties - with Reagan, Thatcher, the cell phone and the fall of communism the watershed post war decade? But maybe that's the sequel?
The Sixties out now on DVD on FremantleMedia International.