Tony Robinson looks at the history of Britain

Saturday:Tony Robinson’s History of Britain; (Channel 5, 7.30pm)

For some people, history means King and Queens, but the series Tony Robinson’s History of Britain offers us a different view.

It focuses on the lives of ordinary people and what they can tell us about their times – and in doing so it can sometimes challenge our received wisdom.

Tony, who has spent years changing the way we see history, whether it’s through starring in Blackadder or presenting Time Team, thinks this is a part of wider shift.

He recently told The Express: “We have this thing called history which we have grown to think of as being the only truth about what happened in the past, when in fact it’s very partial and only represents the lives of a very small number of people… But now, and I think this is to do with the fact there’s so much history on TV, we’ve come to understand there are as many histories as people in the world.”

The first in the current series took us back to the Roman era, and he second focused on the Edwardians. Now the latest episode takes us to an era that is very much within living memory – the 1950s. It’s a decade that many people (including some who weren’t even born then) think of as a simpler, happier time when Britain was enjoying an economic boom.

In 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously announced that most of the UK had ‘never had it so good’, a phrase it’s very hard to imagine any contemporary politician coming out with unless they were prepared for a major backlash.

Yet as Tony points, life could still be tough, even as those living though those days found ways to have fun. He finds proof in the story of immigrant Irish woman Mary Powell, who joined the NHS. It was her childhood dream to be a nurse, yet the job turned out to involve militaristic matrons and curmudgeonly consultants, as well as patients with distressing conditions. Yet Mary could escape the wards – and the nursing accommodation – on nights out.

Tony also recreates a day in the life of ‘Flash John’, a Manchester rag-and-bone man. His job could be difficult and anything but flash, but he also had a very happy home life with ‘the best wife in the world’.

Next, the presenter turns his focus to the consumer boom through the experiences of Doreen Turner, a working-class mother of five who ditched being a housewife in favour of getting a job so her family wouldn’t be left behind. She found that while modern life wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be, she did benefit from friendships with her colleagues.

Meanwhile, Roy Nightingale struggled with his job at the Ford Dagenham plant, despite his previous work experience including being nearly shot by the Nazis while toiling in one of their coal mines during the Second World War.

Jamaican Allan Wilmot and RAF veteran also experienced a less rosy side of the 1950s, facing hostility and rejection, but attitudes began to change when he joined a popular band.

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