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Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Peyton Place and Top Deck Shandy

Top Deck shandy and the naughty bits in Peyton Place.
Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. 
“Why would anybody ever want to read or write such stupid nonsense?” was my fifteen year-old self’s first thought. But something in that luxuriant opening sentence and the sensuous description of New England’s “lovely womanly Indian summer” that follows enticed me to read just a little further, and by the end of the first few pages with their sprinkling of references to whores, peckers and venereal disease, I decided it might be prudent to study it more discreetly. I looked up the meaning of Indian summer and read on by torchlight under the bedclothes.

In those days, a child reading ‘Peyton Place’, even a fifteen year-old, would have been as shocking as the furore which followed its publication in 1956. The book was banned in Canada until 1958 and even longer for the more delicate Australians. In London, the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial took place as late as the end of 1960.

It is tame stuff compared to what children are exposed to now, but unlike today our innocence was well-protected. In contrast, our physical safety received little thought. We could wander off for hours to play near roads, rivers and railway lines, and climb trees and light fires, things now regulated to the point of paranoia. Our carefree freedoms have gone the same way as our childhood innocence. We now have heavy-handed supervision and oppressive health and safety at the same time as unrestrained consumerism and internet depravity.

One affair that illustrates these changes for me is the Top Deck Shandy Pan Books promotion of the 1960s.

It was when I had my first party. Hugo, my Belgian exchange partner, was staying with us, and something like fifty other Belgians and Germans were staying with others nearby. The party was subject to three parental conditions: (i) numbers were limited and by invitation only; (ii) the bedrooms were out of bounds, enforced by my mother’s washing line wound tightly round the door knobs; and (iii) there would be no alcohol. We were, however, allowed Top Deck Shandy, so we bought in several dozen cans.

Top Deck Shandy
1970s 2% Top Deck Shandy. In the 1960s it may have had paper labels.

What is incredible about Top Deck Shandy is that despite it being supposedly a low-alcohol drink marketed to children, it then had an alcohol content of 2% proof (about 1% by volume), equivalent to around one quarter the strength of beer. Nowadays, the 2003 Licensing Act would prohibit its sale to anyone under 18, along with any other alcoholic drink stronger than 0.5% by volume (see section 191 ‘meaning of alcohol’). Yet in the 1960s and 1970s, Top Deck Shandy could even be seen on school trips without any concerns at all being raised by teachers.

Things are now so very different. Children have been excluded from school for innocently taking in cans of ‘Shandy Bass’ or ‘Ben Shaw’s Bitter Shandy’ which, with an alcohol content of less than 0.5%, are not age-restricted, and often to be found among the soft drinks shelves in supermarkets.

The situation is still more ridiculous with ‘alcohol-free’ wines and lagers, which typically have an alcohol content of less than 0.05% (a tenth as strong as the legal shandy), and in some cases zero. Retailers will generally not sell these products to under-18s at all, and have been known to deny them to adults unable to furnish proof of age, despite in some cases being obviously well beyond their teens. The concern here seems to be that because alcohol-free wines and lagers are shelved and sold as alcoholic drinks, retailers who sell them to children could be accused of promoting under-age drinking. Similar misgivings led to the demise of liquorice smokers’ outfits and the replacement of sweet cigarettes by candy sticks (which are exactly the same as sweet cigarettes except for different packaging and the removal of the ‘burning’ red end).

In other words, children are protected so obsessively that they can’t even have perfectly legal ‘pretend alcohol’. Bearing in mind that standard sized cans of 0.5% shandy contain a measly 330ml, you would need to drink at least fifteen to consume the equivalent amount of alcohol to one can of beer or lager. You would probably be sick before you got there. I still say they should be banned, but not because of the alcohol content, because of the sugar.  

The party with the Belgians and Germans was brilliant. No one turned up uninvited, no one got drunk, and thanks to Hugo’s popularity with the girls, boys were hugely outnumbered. Nothing got out of control, unlike at a couple of other legendary parties around this time. There were just two consequences. One was that my young brother had to take the next morning off school because he was kept awake very late. The other was that I had several dozen Top Deck Shandy labels. At the time, Top Deck Shandy was running a Pan books promotion. For every six labels you sent off, you could select a free paperback book from a list. I had enough labels for nearly them all.

I know what I got because some are still in a box in the loft. My first choices were predictably macho: ‘The Dam Busters’ by Paul Brickhill, ‘Dr. No’ by Ian Fleming, ‘The Saint Goes On’ by Leslie Charteris and ‘The Satan Bug’ by Ian Stuart (a pseudonym of Alistair MacLean), books I would probably have bought or borrowed from the library anyway. Frank Edward’s bestseller ‘Stranger Than Science’ was another memorable selection, literally a fantastic collection of supposedly true accounts of strange events beyond scientific explanation. I’m not ashamed to say I devoured it uncritically. Then, beginning to run out of options, I decided that Nevil Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’ was likely to be all right because, after all, he had been the chief engineer building the R100 airship at nearby Howden. It turned out to be a soppy romance but enough of an adventure story to be enjoyable. Lastly, with hardly anything left to choose, I sent for ‘Peyton Place’ by Grace Metalious.

 Grace Metalious: Peyton Place

Peyton Place was published in America and sold 60,000 copies within the first ten days. It has been described as a depiction of the dark secrets of life in a small New England town, stark and crude in its search for realism. Of course, I knew none of this at the time. I thought the small New England town in which it was set might be interestingly like the small Yorkshire town where I lived. It wasn’t.

It goes on quite a lot about straining, such as when, observed from a distance by her husband, Ginny Stearns walks off with a stranger, “... her breasts and thighs straining through her dress to rest against the stranger’s side” (page 81). Then on page 108, when the thirteen year old Allison MacKenzie parades in front of a mirror wearing padded foundation garments “... the top of her new dress swelled magnificently, the fabric straining against her rubber breasts...”

The book is obsessed with breasts. One biographer of Grace Metalious suggests that defining women according to their breasts was only to be expected in an age when Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield filled the screens, but feminist ideologies escaped me then. I was simply fascinating that Betty Anderson’s nipples were “always rigid and exciting and the full, firm flesh around them always hot and throbbing” (page 203), and I paid close attention to the dangers explicit in the scene when Rodney Harrington, driving a speeding car, takes his hand off the wheel to reach for the hard exposed breasts of his female companion and drives straight under a brightly lit trailer truck (page 314).

I know the page numbers because I noted them down faintly, in pencil, just inside the back cover, so I could find them again quickly. I especially liked page 150 when Michael Kyros rips off Constance MacKenzie’s still wet bathing suit and “... she felt the first red gush of shamed pleasure that lifted her, lifted her, lifted her and then dropped her down into unconsciousness.”

Clive Anderson once pointed out that radio is like television but with better pictures. If this, by extension, applies to novels, it was surely true of Peyton Place. I’ve never seen either the film or television series it spawned, but I can’t image that five hundred episodes of the 1960s soap could sustain the same intensity, despite having Ryan O’Neal, Dorothy Malone and a very young Mia Farrow. On the 14th August, 1965, around a year after the author, Grace Metalious, drank herself to death at the age of thirty-nine, I noted in my diary it was one of the best books I’d ever read.

Today similarly scandalous tales of drunkenness, incest, rape, abortion, illegitimacy, high-school sex and patricide are everywhere, not least on pre-watershed mainstream television drama set in schools. They leave nothing to the imagination, and you are in no doubt that these things could easily occur even in small towns in Yorkshire. Still uglier things, obnoxious and amoral, are widespread on the internet. Peyton Place would not even count as soft porn now.

Am I mistaken in thinking the world a much kinder place, free and innocent, when you could feel grown-up drinking 2% shandy, and reading Peyton Place under the bedclothes was the height of wickedness? 


--- Here is an interesting article touching upon just how insidiously our health and safety culture and gender stereotyping were already beginning to change by the 1970s.

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