Eyewitness provides a rare and fascinating opportunity to hear the events of the century described by those who saw them happen. A wealth of BBC archive recordings, some never previously broadcast, is interwoven with an illuminating commentary by the historian Joanna Bourke. Published in ten volumes, Eyewitness examines the role and the life of the British people in each decade of the century.
'A wonderful idea and excellently executed... best possible use of the medium and a great narrator.' --- The Independent
From the Boer War to the Gulf War, from the funeral of Queen Victoria to the funeral of the Princess of Wales, the end of the century echoed its beginning. Yet the death of Diana signalled a startling shift in the British psyche. The extent and acceleration of social and political change also becomes apparent in the 1990s. Class was redefined, and the political parties transformed.
Violence and war remained constants; at home during the Poll Tax riots and abroad when British troops fought in the Middle East and in Bosnia. Terrorism in Northern Ireland continued, until the breakthrough Good Friday agreement in 1998. Voices of soldiers, politicians as well as men and women in the street complete the picture of this last decade of the last century of the millennium.
A Decade in Sound - The 1990s --- Mark Jones
Politics dominated the nineties, beginning with the unthinkable - Mrs. Thatcher thrown out by her own party - and ending with a seismic shift in the political landscape itself, as New Labour swept to a landslide victory at the polls. Mrs. Thatcher was undermined by her attitude to Europe and by the extraordinary public antipathy to the so-called poll tax, vividly heard here on London's streets. Rather quieter but more deadly was the elegant spite of her former Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe.
Mrs. Thatcher left Downing St. in tears and John Major emerged as the new man at No. 10. People were puzzled by Major and his background. It was said that he was the only boy to have run away from the circus to become an accountant. But he survived a mortar attack on Downing St., negotiated the Maastricht Treaty, ran the successful Gulf War campaign and saw off a determined effort by Labour in the 1992 election. The voting public didn't really buy the Kinnocks as a soft-focus First Couple, and the Sheffield rally was perhaps the final nail in Labour's campaign.
The Gulf War, when it came, was almost a relief from the seemingly endless round of hostage-taking and related terrorism which so frustrated the British public. Here at least was direct action. There were many dissenting voices. Most hated the loss of life but even supporters questioned the inconclusive ending of the war.
The so-called smart weapons of modern warfare seemed anything but, and most allied casualties were caused by 'friendly fire'. After the conflict the worrying health issues of Gulf War Syndrome became a major public debate which dragged on for years. In Europe, British troops were in action again in the former Yugoslavia, this time in a more familiar peace-keeping role. The fortitude and frustrations of the soldiers are evident, as is the good humour apparent in the 'Bosnia Blues'. This vicious set of ethnic wars demanded the highest levels of discipline and skill from British troops, learned perhaps on the streets of Derry and Belfast.
The governing Conservative Party seemed to be running out of steam, having been in office since 1979. John Major's so-called 'Back to Basics' campaign, to restore decency and values to public life, was misconceived as extra-marital affairs, corruption and sleaze among Tory MPs was gleefully hunted down by the tabloid press. The Labour Party, first under John Smith and then Tony Blair, sought the middle ground by working to lose the more doctrinaire and scarier elements of socialism - block voting and Clause 4. The youthful Blair and New Labour appealed to the electorate. His unashamed moralising tone, with its semi-biblical rhetoric, full of 'vows' and 'covenants', offered a sentimental view of the future. Major's own view of Britain, with his talk of 'warm beer, village greens and spinsters on bicycles' was equally sentimental, but inevitably backward-looking. Voters went for the new man and Labour won the 1997 election by a landslide.
The nineteen-nineties saw a society ill at ease with itself, with failings in public life - the police, the judicial system, politicians and the political process - co-existing with a nationwide obsession with people's private lives. Michael Portillo called cynicism 'the new British disease'. Celebrity and trivia dominated the media, and this trend rose to a crescendo with the lurid death of Diana, Princess of Wales, pursued to the end by the paparazzi. An atmosphere of semi-hysteria pervaded the country for a week. This orgy of public grief fascinated social commentators and seemed to have finally brought an end to the traditional British stiff upper lip. But there was good news in Northern Ireland at last, as first a ceasefire and then the Good Friday Agreement brought an uneasy but valid peace to the province.
This violent and tumultuous century closed with a whimper on December 31st 1999 as the country's Great and Good gathered in a large tent besides the Thames at Greenwich to sit through hours of numbingly mediocre 'entertainment', representing, in the government's view, 'the finest of Britain'. The entire evening might have been written by Beachcomber and seemed unlikely to represent Britain in anything, other than perhaps irony. Fears about the Millennium Bug bringing electronic chaos to Britain proved groundless and the End-of-the-Worlders went glumly back to their almanacs.
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