The fading cultural memory of Britain’s most famous heatwave.
As Britain heads towards previously unheard-of temperatures of 40° (that’s 104° Fahrenheit for Americans and Daily Express readers) and the population flies into one of its perpetual weather-related panics that always seem even more extreme than the actual heat* (or lack of heat, depending on the time of year – ‘snowmaggedon’ is as exciting for the media as any heatwave), it’s traditional for the British press to make comparisons to a time that increasingly large parts of the population has no memory of – the legendary summer of 1976.
What are your memories of 1976? Probably bugger all if you are under 50, though countless documentaries – you’ll find one at the end of this piece – and eye-witness reports that all seem to be as much collective mythology as fact will fill you in to the fact that from mid-June to the end of August, Britain sweltered under an uninterrupted heatwave, including 15 consecutive days where the temperature reached ‘up to’ a whopping 32c – positive mild by current standards but back then, the sort of thing that would provoke tabloid headlines like “WHEW! What a scorcher!”, usually accompanied by a Page 3 stunner hosing herself off. Temperatures peaked on June 28th, when Southampton reached 35.6. The remarkable aspect of 1976’s heatwave was less the actual heat on any individual day and more its consistency – still the hottest summer we’ve had overall – and the lack of rain. In the south-west, the dry spell ran for 40 days, something unheard of in Britain, and lasted until the August Bank Holiday, when it was suddenly replaced with torrential downpours and flooding, and everything went back to normal.
As a result, everyone seemed to go a little bad. The UK was not prepared for this sort of thing and it all became a bit The Day The Earth Caught Fire, as bikini girls in the local park gave way to dried-up river beds, water rationing and plagues of ladybirds (ladybugs to American readers), driven to form vast swarms in search of food. This is one of the few memories I have of 1976 – going to a seaside resort and having to literally wade through ladybirds on the way to the beach. It was all rather exciting, at least until you discovered that ladybirds could actually bite you.
My other memories of 1976, as a young kid, are of a long, glorious summer – a time before we had to fret about the global implications of such extreme weather changes – with moments that remain embedded. The posters for The Omen in cinemas; going along with school chums to see At The Earth’s Core, our first cinema visit sans parents; staring at the pavement for hours with those cheap plastic sunglasses that made everything look warped and trippy; The Bionic Woman and Action and Captain Britain; the whole seaside-postcard suggestiveness of the ‘save water, bath with a friend’ campaign. Enjoying the last proper summer of childhood before the move to high school a year later. For kids, there was no downside to that summer, only the fun of days in the park hunting for frogs and caterpillars and grasshoppers. I’m not sure that most kids even registered that it was a heatwave beyond the joyous lack of days where rain cancelled play.
The interesting thing about the past is that we can never really relive it, not as it actually happened. Your 1976 was probably very different to mine, depending on age and experience. And making comparisons to today, or 1990 or another other hot year is pointless because other than dry facts, everything is subjective and based on fading memory and reputation. I think – subjectively and entirely age-based – that 1976 was a fantastic year and perhaps the last gasp of a certain age of innocence before the punks and the nationalists came long to battle it out in 1977 – the arrival of the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show in December ’76 signalled a changing of the guard.
* As there seems to have been some misunderstanding about this, let us be clear – we are not remotely denying climate change, we’re simply commenting on the propensity of the British to obsess over the weather at the best of times and how mass panic goes through the roof during these extreme times.
Summer 1976 – The British Meltdown:
1976 saw the launch of ‘Britain’s First Superhero’ (not actually true, but still), Captain Britain, a Marvel weekly that was in full(ish) colour and crafted by American writers and artists, riffing on Spider-Man and cliches about English culture. Despite that, it was great. More significantly, it also saw the debut of Action, Britain’s most notorious (and soon-to-be-banned) comic that delighted young boys and outraged their parents.
Elsewhere… Kiss toured the UK for the first time, the Brotherhood of Man won Eurovision, the Sex Pistols made their debut and Stevie Nicks did something or other to justify us including this image.
In cinemas, kids were astounded by At the Earth’s Core, Grizzly and Logan’s Run – Jenny Agutter’s nude scenes being quite the eye-opener for teenage boys. Adults could enjoy The Omen and Taxi Driver (and its British remake Adventures of a Taxi Driver), which probably put the hot weather into some sort of ‘could be worse’ perspective.
And of course, British disco act Heatwave had the right name at the right time for their hit single Boogie Nights.
And a BBC documentary about summer 1976 – predictably skewed towards what the BBC felt was important about the year – can be seen here:
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