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In the last couple of weeks I have been craving modern history documentaries, particularly those concerned with British and American politics. The next few documentary posts contain a few good ones I’ve discovered during my browsing.

Blair: The Inside Story

Several documentaries were made in 2007, on the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister, including this one and The Blair Years. Both are on YouTube and are worth watching. I find this period very interesting as it is the only one I remember personally – my formative years were during Blair’s government. Blair: The Inside Story is presented by  award-winning political journalist Michael Cockerell and is a generally well-balanced look back at Blair’s time in office. It contains fascinating interviews with key players in government, as well as revealing footage of Tony Blair inside Number 10, filmed by Cockerell himself.

The NHS: A Difficult Beginning

This documentary explains how the National Health Service was created and the difficulties it overcame to get established. it was broadcast on BBC4 in 2009 to celebrate the 60th birthday of the NHS. It tells the story of Nye Bevan, Labour’s minister of health, who pushed the reforms through despite enormous opposition from the Tory Party, the press and most importantly the medical establishment. This is a fascinating insight into some often overlooked areas of modern history – definitely worth a watch.

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There is a fabulous exhibition currently running at the PM Gallery, which is part of Pitzhanger Manor House in Walpole park, Ealing. Entitled Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill, it displays the work of MacDonald Gill, illustrator, architect and mapmaker, who created some wonderful pictorial maps of London.

Gill has been hugely influential in the field of graphic design and some of his images are well-known. Most famous perhaps is the  ‘Wonderground’ map, made in 1914 for London Underground which shows a fantasy version of the Tube.

1924 Wonderground Map

There are many detailed and humorous maps of the London streets, as well as some interesting educational maps and posters depicting aspects of the British Empire, produced for various companies and government departments.

His professional success was also underpinned by major national commissions including the design of the alphabet for standard military headstones (for the Imperial War Graves Commission); the procession map and title page for the official programme for the Coronation of King George VI; a new logo and posters for the General Post Office.

The exhibition also contains more personal objects from Gill’s life and career as well as architectural drawings, letters and photographs. This is a small but very rewarding exhibition, a little off the beaten track for visitors to London, but should certainly be visited by everyone.

The only thing I wish they had was a gift shop or information about how to buy copies of the maps since I would love to have some of them as posters. Many of the objects on display have been loaned from the London Transport Museum and other archives so I am contacting them to find out. The exhibition lasts until 2 November and the nearest tube station is Ealing Broadway on the Central Line.

I went to the Design Museum on the South Bank to visit The Future is Here exhibition, which focuses on new design and manufacturing techniques. It  has a quick introduction to the breakthroughs of the industrial revolution before flagging the dawn of ‘a new industrial revolution’, with advances in robotics, new materials and 3D printing.

Design_Museum_London

We are in the midst of a transformation in the way we design, make and use the objects that we depend on. It is a transformation that will affect commerce, industry, and the way that we all live as profoundly as any previous Industrial Revolution. The exhibition explores how the boundaries between designer, manufacturer and consumer are becoming increasingly blurred. See some of these manufacturing techniques demonstrated in The Future is Here Factory and find out how they will change the designed world around you.

The exhibition had some fascinating objects showing new materials and new ways of designing products, but the best exhibits were the machines themselves in action. They have a 3D printer and woodworking machines as well as some robotic demonstrations and videos of products being designed and materials processed. They also have some examples of furniture which you can have manufactured to order online from downloadable designs, before assembling the parts at home. Even the exhibition itself was built from cardboard, stacked and carved to create light but solid tables.

The main collection exhibition is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, on display until 2015, which I actually found more interesting. The Design Museum have selected 150 objects from the collections to explore their history. It includes some fascinating examples of British design, including a feature on the design of road signs and the London telephone box. It’s also interesting to see some not-so-old examples of design, such as the Apple iMac, which look so dated now.

Six design stories offer a diverse look at design tracing the history and processes of contemporary design. The show includes furniture, product, fashion, transport and architecture alongside a selection of prototypes, models and specially commissioned films.

Another smaller section at the museum is Designers in Residence 2013, which to be honest I found a little pretentious, except for the very moving work of Chloe Meineck, who designs memory boxes for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

The Future is Here is on display until 29 October 2013 and is open daily between 10am and 5.45pm. The gift shop is also worth a visit, even if only to look at the products. There are some really interesting things there, but as you might expect everything’s very expensive.

Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain

This documentary was first broadcast in 2009 and cover the period in British history from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War. it was made as a follow-up to A History of Modern Britain which covered the period after the Second World War and is unfortunately not on YouTube. It covers a very interesting period which is often neglected in popular histories and Marr continually makes the point that the Britain of today is closely connected to the developments of this period. He’s a great documentary maker and keeps things light and entertaining even when dealing with depressing and controversial topics.

Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery

This is a brilliant set of five programmes which I missed when they were first broadcast in 2008. They are presented by Michael J. Mosley, a medical doctor and journalist, and he is a really engaging speaker who is never scared of getting involved in experiments to show us the old medical treatments of the past. The programmes cover some really fascinating topics such as brain and heart surgery, plastic surgery and transplants.  He has made many other programmes for TV and radio including Medical Mavericks, wchich explores the history of self-experimentation and The Making of Modern Medicine on BBC Radio 4. Other examples of his work can be found on Youtube.

Blackadder Rides Again

This is a fantastic run through of the history of the sitcom Blackadder, broadcast at Christmas 2008 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. For those who don’t know the programme, it covers in four series the medieval period, the Elizabethan period, the Regency and the First World War, with Edmund Blackadder as the protagonist.  It has become very influential in the historical knowledge of many British people – it’s even used in school lessons (it was in mine!). It’s also a great documentary with extra unseen material and interesting interviews with the key players.

A History of Britain

If you want to learn about British history, I think this is definitely the place to start. Simon Schama made 15 episodes in 3 series covering the entirety of British history, broadcast between 2000 and 2002. He also published three accompanying books. Of course it is a very broad overview, and some have complained at the overemphasis on the history of England at the expense of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but I would say Schama does cover these areas in quite a lot of depth compared to some historians! Schama is a very captivating presenter and the use of music and imagery in the doc make it a very relaxing watch.

Everything Stops for Tea is a song written by Maurice Sigler with lyrics by Al Goodheart and American Al Hoffman, for the 1935 musical Come Out Of The Pantry. It is about tea being England’s favourite drink, however both the composer and the musical were American. Jack Buchanan performed the song for the musical and recorded another version which you can watch here.

Despite tea rationing during the Second World War, the English were addicted to the drink throughout the following decades. The Ministry of Food used the song in its 1940 exhibition and workers expected 15 minute tea breaks twice a day in all British industries in the 1950s, much to the annoyance of managers aiming to boost productivity.

Everything stops for tea – Jack Buchanan

Every nation in creation has its favourite drink
France is famous for its wine, it’s beer in Germany
Turkey has its coffee and they serve it blacker than ink
Russians go for vodka and England loves its tea

Oh, the factories may be roaring
With a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee
But there isn’t any roar when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Oh, a lawyer in the courtroom
In the middle of an alimony plea
Has to stop and help ’em pour when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

It’s a very good English custom
Though the weather be cold or hot
When you need a little pick-up, you’ll find a little tea cup
Will always hit the spot

You remember Cleopatra
Had a date to meet Mark Anthony at three
When he came an hour late she said “You’ll have to wait”
For everything stops for tea

Oh, they may be playing football
And the crowd is yelling “Kill the referee!”
But no matter what the score, when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Oh, the golfer may be golfing
And is just about to make a hole-in-three
But it always gets them sore when the clock yells “four!”
Everything stops for tea

It’s a very good English custom
And a stimulant for the brain
When you feel a little weary, a cup’ll make you cheery
And it’s cheaper than champagne

Now I know just why Franz Schubert
Didn’t finish his unfinished symphony
He might have written more but the clock struck four
And everything stops for tea


This is a well-known wartime song Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, written by  Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It was originally recorded by Mercer with The Pied Pipers and Paul Weston’s orchestra, on 4th October 1944. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on January 4, 1945 and lasted 13 weeks on the chart, peaking at number 2.

It was then recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Kay Kyser and then  Artie Shaw, all within weeks of the original recorded. Another version was recorded by Johnny Green in the United Kingdom on April 6, 1945, and released by Parlophone Records. Despite the British version released during the war, the Bing Crosby version is the one most are familiar with now and it is known as a quintessentially American upbeat wartime song.

When I started reading about the song, I came across this video. It shows Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts performing the song in 1944 as part of the show Here Comes the Waves, performed at U. S. S. Traverse Bay Aircraft Carrier in a Pacific port. Crosby and Tufts are performing in blackface, which is shocking, but it’s a fascinating little window into Wartime American culture – the kind of footage that you rarely see these days.

People have always suffered from bad breath, and there have always been suggested remedies for it, such as wine mouthwashes, charcoal toothpaste and chewing herbs. However at the turn of the century, advertisers seized on the common problem of bad breath to sell Listerine as the world’s first marketed mouthwash.

Listerine advertisement

Listerine advertisement

Listerine was formulated in 1879 by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert in St. Louis, Missouri as a surgical antiseptic. It was used for a variety of purposes: cleaning wounds, a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. In 1895 it began to be marketed as a dental medicine, which dentists could use for oral care. Then in 1914 it was marketed for the first time as a mouthwash.

To help sell Listerine as a mouthwash to a population who did not consider bad breath to be a bad enough problem to start medicating, the company seized an obscure medical term for bad breath ‘halitosis’, to make people think they had an actual condition.

No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you – but it is an effort. Don’t fool yourself that you never have halitosis as do so many self-assured people who constantly offend this way.

Listerine bottle from the 1920s

Listerine bottle from the 1920s

Listerine’s advertising campaigns were aimed at young men and women, encouraging them to think that halitosis was what was ruining their love life and Listerine mouth wash could help them find a spouse. Ads claimed that ’68 hairdressers state that about every third woman, many of them from the wealthy class, is halitoxic.’

From the 1920s, this advertising formula was successful and Listerine’s revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million. Listerine was sold in a glass bottle with no changes to the brand until the 1990s, when new bottles and flavours were introduced.

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