The Irresistible Appeal of the 1930s

Of all the periods of our past the 1930s stands out, delivering the perfect mix of tangibility and nostalgia – sliced through with grit, like Brighton Rock.
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The Irresistible Appeal of the 1930s

What is it about the 1930s that we find so irresistible? What is it about this decade that provides such constant inspiration to writers and filmmakers – not to mention our imaginations? Why can’t we get enough of the 1930s?

I expect part of the answer is its sheer familiarity. Depending on when you were born, there’s a chance almost anyone who was anyone when you were a boy or girl was in their pomp in the 1930s. I was born in 1975, so anything on telly for the first 10 years of my life was either a Second World War film (if you think Sunday before the internet was boring, you haven’t a clue) or it featured individuals – politicians, industrialists, poets or artists – who had emerged from the decade that foreshadowed it.

John Wayne, of course, found fame in 1939 with Stagecoach, his first John Ford western. The great David Niven – he with the self-effacing wit and one of the last great, unironic moustaches of cinema – was likewise a man who made his way in the 1930s. You may be familiar with The Charge of the Light Brigade of 1936. From the world of words, of course, the 1930s gives us Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Nancy Mitford, F. Scott Fitzgerald… in the world of words it’s the decade that just keeps on giving.

And I’ve not even mentioned James Bond yet – a 1930s creation if ever there was one. Don’t believe me? Well, Bond might have emerged from Ian Fleming’s pen in the early 1950s and be inspired by his wartime actions in the 1940s, but he is proof positive of the historian Peter Hennessy’s maxim that Britain was stuck in the Thirties until the Sixties. Don’t forget, either, that Bond’s original car was a 1930 Bentley Blower (as indeed it was in Dr No of 1963 too).

Even in the future the Thirties are present: notably in the form of two of the best actors in Star Wars, released in 1977. Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were both of 1930s vintage. (And 40 years on they still steal the show in my book.) And on the box right through the last three decades, if it wasn’t a lavish remake of Brideshead Revisited one week or The Pursuit of Love the next, it was Marple or Poirot in between.

Which is to say that in the Eighties, the Nineties, even to a degree in the early 2000s, the Thirties were everywhere. Don’t forget that the Routemaster bus, which though introduced in the 1950 wore its 1930s styling on its sleeve, was only withdrawn from service in 2005.

And in popular culture, whether it’s Jeeves and Wooster (courtesy of Hugh Lawrie and Stephen Fry) or Indiana Jones, or family favourites like Monopoly the Thirties endured, just like that other cultural analogue – newsprint, which had a sort of late twentieth century golden age every bit as golden as the 1930s with Rupert Murdoch instead of the buccaneering Lord Beaverbrook and free DVDs instead of sets of classical literature.

The legendary Bill Deedes

And this is all before we’ve got onto the really serious figures of the Eighties, the politicians and royals who came to prominence in the 1930s – whether it was the Queen Mother, Empress and Queen in 1936, don’t forget, and national presence until 2002, or her daughter, the late Queen, another child of the Thirties.

As a trainee reporter on the Daily Telegraph in 1998 I recall bumping into Bill Deedes, a former editor of the paper and peer of the realm no less, who still worked there in his nineties. Rather more importantly my mind, and I think everyone else’s, was the fact that he was the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s inept foreign correspondent William Boot in Scoop (published 1938) and he’d actually been to Abyssinia to cover the Italian invasion in 1936 (arriving with almost 600 lbs of luggage). Everyone knew this, too, but they also knew that Lord Deedes hated it, it was said so no one dared ask even though he was very friendly. I didn’t. Wish I had now.

Did you have a maiden aunt? Most of us did once. I had three of them living together in a world of polished wood, leather, tapestry and oil paintings in East Finchley. They were remnants of Vera Brittan’s lost generation (explored in her book of 1933, Testament of Youth) – women whose husbands-they-never-had were left for dead on the Flanders field. My great aunt Olive had a photograph of her older brother on the wall in the hall outside her bedroom. In it he wore his Great War uniform, with Empire and Allied Flags fanned behind. He never came back, and she never forgot.

Another reason to love the Thirties is the books, and here it is part of the reason that it continues to resonate because they’re so good. From 1915, when John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps was published (the last Richard Hannay, the fifth, book arrived in 1936), through to Geoffrey Household’s superb Rogue Male published in 1939, this is the golden era in suspense writing – and the 1930s was the apogee. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934, meanwhile, for straight thriller lovers, Greene’s Stamboul Train (same rail service, different story) thrilled the world in 1931. Greene described that novel it as one of his ‘entertainments’.

Lovers of transcontinental rail travel were also delighted by The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, of 1936. This became The Lady Vanishes in the hands of a young director and Leytonstone lad, Alfred Hitchcock – another figure who emerged in the 1930s and still leaves a huge shadow. His 1935 adaptation of The Thirty Nine Steps is still a cracker.

What we have in the Thirties is a prefect neither-here-nor-there period: yes it’s history, but it’s not Jurassic Victoriana with mutton chops, plague-ridden urchins and Dickensian workhouses (though workhouses were only abolished in 1930). It’s post-Great War, it’s post-universal suffrage, its post-women’s suffrage on equal terms even (that was 1928), and you’ve got cars, telephones and women in slacks. There’s pipe smoking, and bowler hats and ceramic crockery in frowsy dining cars. And it’s close enough to our consciousness to be the recent, too, even if fast vanishing. But it’s still proximate.

And, I suppose, that’s why if I could hop in a time machine to London in the 1930s then I would be there in a flash: to Fleet Street, to feel the vibrations in the pavement through my feet from the printing presses underground; to Soho, to the pubs, bars and clubs described in those booze-saturated writings of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, or Patrick Hamilton, whose Hangover Square, published in 1940 and set in the 1939, remains one of the best drinking novels of all time (though Afternoon MenMen Behaving Badly for the 1930s – by Anthony Powell comes in a close second).

It would be grand, would it not, to drop in to the Dog and Duck on the corner of Frith and Bateman Street and just smell it and hear the place. The fact is, the Thirties is where the mystery of history meets the just-vanished present. You can almost touch it. You can still see it in the curve of the Thomas Heatherwick London double-decker. And as well as the elegance of the design of the era – the cars, the planes, the fashions that people still adore – that’s part of what makes this decade quite so special. The 1930s are like the gap between floors when you’re in the lift; they’re a cultural and temporal mezzanine between the past and the present.

And of course the decade is book-ended by the megalith of the Second World War, which drenches everything in dramatic irony and brings a shuddering, final halt to the last vestiges of what you could still call the long nineteenth century – or those parts that have got away lightly in 1918 and slipped through unnoticed. It’s also the peak expression, if you like, of the analogue era, before the world started to go digital thanks to the Bombe and Alan Turing and the necessities of the war. And for those of us steeped in the age of the iPhone is undoubtedly freeing.

So that’s why the 1930s is still at the forefront of our minds, all these years on. It’s the gateway to the past, yet still culturally relevant and identifiably modern.


Alec Marsh is a journalist and writer and the author of Rule Britannia.