Max Hastings writes about Flanders and Swann’s “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear” in The Times today. He says . “I doubt that any entertainer today would perform a number about an ageing rake” – he’s probably right. Flanders and Swann held a mirror up to society and like all great satirists it distorted a little as it reflected, but not by much. Britain in the 1950s was a society riddled with male chauvinism, and worse. Employers hired women only as typists and secretaries and even in The Arts there were few female conductors, film directors or composers allowed prominence.
Flanders and Swann were part of the process of change as were the new novelists and playwrights. The Angry Young Men were all men, but at least the discrimination against women was one of the things they could be angry about. “Look Back in Anger” begins with a wife expected to know her place at an ironing board.
“Beyond the Fringe” was around the corner. It was gentle and very male satire. – but in many ways F&S were tougher. A target of both of them, and also of Osborne in “The Entertainer”, was English delusion and exceptionalism. How we could do with them today – there is no better portrayal of this dominant national character trait than in “The English, the English, the English are best”.
The pompous old fool in “Have some Madeira , M’Dear” was a man of his times but he didn’t go away quickly. Indeed he’s still around. Popular culture from the “Carry On” films to “The Navy Lark” and “Round the Horne” was full of ageing lechers pursuing innocents. It still goes on, even in Parliament it seems.
I grew up in the very hierarchical 1950s and through most of the decade we were all expected to know our place. Women were at best patronised and at worst abused. Many were seen as “Fair game”. Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield were certainly in your face, but their prominence was based solely on their allure, not their brainpower. Ruth Ellis was hanged as much for her promiscuity as for her crime.
I worked in a London office of a well known company in 1964. One of the quite senior managers could not keep his hands of his secretaries and they had regularly to be replaced. He kept his job and indeed rose to some prominence in other fields. He may not have used Madeira in his attempted seductions – but this ageing rake got away with it – as did thousands more.