1968: The Year that Was, Was many Things

By Tony Elliott


This year’s retrospectives have made out that 1968 was dominated by the Paris riots and the Grosvenor Square kind of anti-Vietnam demonstration. From these views it would be easy for younger readers to assume politics was the most dominant thread in our lives. It wasn’t. Assembling the first ever issues of Time Out in the last six months of 1968, a mass of ideas, people and projects vied for attention. Politics did have an important slot in the spectrum, but in seeing which events warranted coverage according to their value and worth to the general fabric of London life at the time, it became rapidly clear that we were in the middle of some kind of boom in ideas and the arts.

While we were sympathetic to, for example, the aims of the UK chapter of the White Panthers as some kind of ‘revolutionary’ phenomenon, we objectively knew that the founders of the drugs-help agency Release were contributing something of real long-term significance. London was full of such new ideas and initiatives. It’s fashionable to view the period in and around 1968 as being the short-lived heydays of a number of hippies and their dreams. My abiding memory of the period was just how well-organised and business-like so much of it was.


The incumbent Labour government appeared to be managing the economy (after a fashion) and we forgave many of its shortcomings: Labour was still a force for a good and progressive society; the Tories were something to be avoided at all costs. In this benevolent environment literally hundreds of new, often small, businesses flourished. Much was new because the content was fresh and simply did not fit into the establishment. A great enthusiasm for culture generally, and the USA’s in particular, was mixed with an appetite already stimulated by British and European New Wave films and plays of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Laced with the influence of the rock n’ roll years from Presley to the Beatles, we were ready to try virtually anything.


Clothes and fashion accessories, badges and posters formed a small part of the consumer explosion in arts and ideas. Books and publications found new readers – not only was it de rigeur to attend live poetry, but buying the printed version followed. Esoteric tastes in music resulted in a rash of independent record shops to go with the poster, magazine and book shops. These joined forces with other new ventures (like Kensington market) catering to the new consumers to provide an alternative to the traditional outlets, who were too slow to respond.

Some people still cling to the idea that there was some kind of ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ society. This gives rather too definite an identity to something that wasn’t that clearly defined. It was a mood, an attitude; above all, an interest in the content of things you did, supported and saw. The roots had been planted well before, so it was relatively easy to graduate from the art films of Godard, Antonioni, Fellini and the British cinema of Anderson, Reisz and Losey to the latest rough and robust ideas of Warhol, Brakhage, Dwoskin and Anger. Likewise, baptism in the work of Pinter, Beckett and Osborne provided a ready-made audience for the People Show and the Living Theatre.


Music, with its strong foundations in blues and jazz, proved an eclectic area. The new inquisitive audiences would try anything and often like it, provided a discernible quality was there to be appreciated. For Time Out, it was natural to give comprehensive listings to any venue showing good, progressive, interesting work. And we never hesitated to make selections from the West End cinemas and theatres when we thought their offerings were worthwhile.

We also constantly sought out items of interest for London’s new discerning consumers: from shops importing cheap Spanish kitchenware to a new experimental theatre group looking for actors. In doing this (and more) we too became something the consumers bought.

Tony Elliott is the Founder of Time Out and Chairman of the Time Out Group. This piece was written for the 20th Anniversary Issue of Time Out in 1988. Thanks to him for permission to reprint and for supporting the season. Time Out London is the season’s Media Partner.