A Taste of Honey and Hockney: The Sunday Telegraph presented the revolution to come

Rita Tushingham and Paul Danqua in A Taste of Honey
Rita Tushingham and Paul Danqua in A Taste of Honey Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Among the book reviews that were published in the first edition of The Sunday Telegraph in February 1961 (“some outstanding books noticed to-day”), was a reflection on the trial, the previous year, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The acquittal of Penguin books on charges of obscenity would prove a turning point, not only in lifting the curtain of censorship in the arts, but in the way Britain saw itself. “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecuting counsel, asked the jury, in one of the most famous utterances ever heard in an English court of law.

Within that simple question existed a whole social order, a way of thinking and being, that was about to be overturned.

Cultural revolutions are more clearly understood in retrospect. And superficially at least there was little in the arts coverage of the first Sunday Telegraph to indicate a Britain on the cusp of change. There were reviews of a new memoir by Field Marshal Montgomery, an essay by the theatre critic Alan Brien in defence of… theatre critics, and a report on classical music in schools. The prevailing tone was of high-minded seriousness.

In his book about the British establishment, Anatomy of Britain, that would soon be published, Anthony Sampson wrote of a nation struggling to come to terms with its diminishing power and status in the world, “living in a state of perpetual and perilous change”, with the arrival of “the new classless Americanised world”, as Sampson described it, of Wimpy bars, television, “mini-motors”, DA haircuts and instant dinners.

The old division between “high” and “popular” culture was beginning to dissolve, both reflecting and hastening the change in social mores and attitudes.

Today, as we reach the 3,000th edition of this paper, we continue to be a barometer of the nation’s constantly shifting culture.

The year 1961 saw the death of the painters Augustus John and Vanessa Bell, marking the passing of the old order – even as the Royal College of Art’s Young Contemporaries show was introducing a new generation of artists, under the rubric of “pop art”, among them Patrick Caulfield, RB Kitaj and a 24-year-old David Hockney, who later that same year would visit California for the first time, falling in love with blue skies and swimming pools.

John Osborne had written Look Back In Anger five years earlier, ushering in a new area of social realism, “the kitchen sink”, in both drama and film; working-class life, and provincial voices that would previously have been confined to the servants’ quarters in “well made plays” or the engine room in plucky war films, were, by 1961, taking centre stage.

Adam Faith with the papers

One of the most popular and lauded films of the year was an adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, about a teenage schoolgirl who becomes pregnant after an affair with a black sailor, and then moves in with a gay male friend (the play was the first to break the omerta against openly depicting homosexuality in the theatre).

Another film that year, Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde, about a gay barrister who becomes embroiled in a blackmail attempt, went even further, becoming the first British film to actually use the word “homosexual”, and was widely held to have contributed to a change in public and legal attitudes to homosexuality.

Britain was creeping slowly towards a more liberal society – but not without qualms. A Royal Commission on Broadcasting the previous year had expressed disquiet about the growing “Americanisation” of popular culture, and the way television was portraying behaviour that “will in time do much to worsen the moral climate of the country.”

Readers of the first Sunday Telegraph, willing to risk their moral wellbeing, could choose between just two TV channels that evening. The BBC was showing Showtime with David Nixon, and What’s My Line?, while London’s commercial channel, ITA, was offering Godfrey Winn, Danger Man and Sunday Night at the London Palladium, starring Adam Faith.

Faith was a significant figure of the day – two months earlier he had become the first pop artist to appear on the TV interview series Face to Face with John Freeman – one of the few British pop stars to prevail against the tide of American artists engulfing the music charts.

That week the charts were dominated by Elvis Presley, Duane Eddy, the Everly Brothers, and the “Bobbys”, Rydell and Vee – symptoms of an age of safe, innocuous pop music, following the rude outburst of rock and roll a handful of years earlier.

But deep in the provinces something was stirring.

On Feb 9, four days after the launch of The Sunday Telegraph, a young group from Liverpool made their first appearance at the Cavern Club. The following year, The Beatles would release their debut single Love Me Do – and the revolution would truly begin.