The Sixties were sexist, racist, exciting and strange. How little times change

by Diana Wichtel / 06 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - The Sixties

Point blank: Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. Photo/Alamy

Change was in the air in the 1960s, but a CNN miniseries is a must-see reminder that no one really knows anything.

I Dream of Jeannie involved an under-clad escapee from a bottle who belongs to an astronaut she calls “Master”. The makers of Hogan’s Heroes successfully pitched a show involving a merry band of American prisoners humorously thwarting a bunch of harmless Nazi idiots in a cosy German POW camp. On Gilligan’s Island some randoms are shipwrecked. One is a scientist. Nevertheless, they fail to escape or be found for three seasons. All of this, plus a talking horse and a flying nun, counted as adult viewing. The 60s: what a time to be alive.

Television Comes of Age was intended as the first episode of CNN’s The Sixties, screening here on Prime. Instead, we got The Assassination of President Kennedy, possibly considered more relevant than a trawl through the crazy, infectious popular culture of 1960s America. Other episodes include The British Invasion, about the Beatles and co, The War in Vietnam, The Space Race and A Long March to Freedom, about the civil rights movement. In other words, the series is about television, the images beamed into the ether by the still-relatively-new medium that changed the world.

The greatest strength of the series is not analysis – there’s nothing particularly new here – but the raw, messy immediacy of the television footage. As one commentator put it, the contrast between the barking-mad nonsense that counted as entertainment and the images that were screening during the news was “planetary”. Here is a reminder that in 1963, it was considered a good idea to parade Lee Harvey Oswald, on his way from the Dallas police headquarters to jail, through a heaving throng of press with little apparent concern on the part of the authorities for security. “There is no doubt about it. Oswald has been shot at point-blank range, fired into his stomach!” reported a correspondent. I remember feeling just as gobsmacked watching that moment play out live in our Vancouver living room. As CBS’s Dan Rather said at the time, “The assassin is assassinated in a police station! What the hell is going on?”

What the hell is going on? It’s a prevailing subtext. There’s a moment in the British Invasion episode. The look on the face of Ed Sullivan, a man whose normal demeanour veered towards the lightly embalmed, when he introduced “these youngsters from Liverpool” before an audience of young women all but committing hara-kiri in their enthusiasm, is one of the defining images of the age. Things would never be the same.

Most terrifying is the second episode, The World on the Brink, which replays, in lucid style, events of the cold war – the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis – and the brinkmanship between Kennedy and Khrushchev that had Americans stocking the cupboards for World War III. The episode finishes with a shot of JFK, crisis averted, walking out of the Oval Office into the watery sun of posterity. There’s speculation about what a President less sceptical of the advice of his military leaders might have done. This series screened in the US in 2014. If it had been made after the election of the 45th President you imagine there might have been a less-sanguine ending to that episode.

The Sixties is proof of Sturgeon’s law – 90% of everything is crap – and a must-see reminder that no one really knows anything. Two years into the eternal run of the Rolling Stones, someone asks a young Mick Jagger about the future. “I think we’re pretty well set up for at least another year,” he says. Over half a century later, nuclear disaster still threatens. Racism in America is still a festering sore. Relations between the US and Russia are chilly. Conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK have never gone away. Neither has Mick Jagger. It’s like the 60s have never ended.

The Sixties, Prime, Tuesday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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