The Beatles, James Bond, and Britain Reborn

English: Paul McCartney, George Harrison and J...

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of two enduring British institutions. On October 5, 1962, The Beatles released their first single, “Love Me Do,” and on the same day the first James Bond film, Dr. No, hit theaters. Fifty years later, neither of these cultural juggernauts seems ready to slow down. Next month Skyfall opens in theaters with Daniel Craig reprising his role as Bond, and also next month Paul McCartney will tour North America, playing to sold-out stadiums.

In the video clip below, a British news show thinks through the legacy of this coincidence, as well as some of its implications for greater egalitarianism in Britain.

In the clip, they talk about 1962 as a turning point, and I think culturally, they might be right. I’m a big fan of British culture, from Beowulf to Doctor Who, but it’s fair to say that after the two world wars of the twentieth century, British culture and society underwent radical changes.

By 1962 the British people realized that a generation earlier they had lost their status as the world’s superpower. The British Empire was a fading memory. America had surpassed them both economically and militarily. But Britain still had a certain je ne sais quoi.

The crumbling and irrelevant empire casts an irresistible spell over its successors, culturally influencing them more than warranted by their dwindling economic and political strength. The Romans couldn’t resist the culture of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The Carolingians couldn’t resist the culture of Rome. And America, along with the rest of the world, couldn’t resist the culture of a dying Britain.

But 1962 marks the rebirth of Britain. It’s not the same world power that it was before. It’s a different kind of world power. The Beatles, James Bond, Monty Python, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Spice Girls, and J. K. Rowling have all left their mark on the world. These icons represent the new Britain.

The 2012 Olympics in London showcased this new Britain. Is it any coincidence that James Bond helped kickoff the opening ceremony and Paul McCartney closed it out? Some people criticized the opening ceremony because it was a bit decadent and emphasized pop culture. People complained that there was no Dickens or Shakespeare on display. (The irony is that both of these works were pop culture and Shakespeare’s stuff is more decadent than the Spice Girls.) These complaints, however, miss the point. Britain was shouting to the world that it’s still here. Though the empire is gone, post-war Britain continues to shape the world.

I’m finding Britain’s second act just as interesting as its first. I loved Harry Potter, and the best screen actors still come from across the pond. As a historian, I find it a bit awkward to predict the future, but I have a feeling that people will continue to read Shakespeare’s sonnets from now until domesday. But I also think that they’ll still be humming “Love Me Do.”

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