Year of living dangerously — Frank McNally on the madness that was Britain in 1974

An era of plots and paranoia

Fans of the great BBC sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin will remember the character of Uncle Jimmy, Reggie’s brother-in-law, a paranoid British army officer.

His catchphrases included “bit of a cock-up on the catering front”, delivered as he arrived yet again in time to share family meals.

But he also talked obsessively about the need to prepare for “when the balloon goes up”: code for the military coup he and others were planning to save Britain from anarchy.

Challenged by Perrin once to say who exactly he would be fighting against, he was inclusive to a fault:


“Wreckers of law and order. Communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, neo-Trotskyists, crypto-Trotskyists, union leaders, communist union leaders, atheists, agnostics, long-haired weirdos, short-haired weirdos, vandals, hooligans, football supporters, namby-pamby probation officers, rapists, papists, papist rapists, foreign surgeons – headshrinkers, who ought to be locked up, [Tony] Wedgwood Benn, keg bitter, punk rock, glue sniffers, ‘Play for Today’, Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins, Up Jenkins, Up Everybody’s, Chinese restaurants . . .”

The list of public enemies may have been comically exaggerated, but as a recent series of The Rest is History podcast recalled, the perception of a descent into chaos in mid-1970s Britain was widely shared for a time and the prospect of army intervention did not seem implausible.

In a 50th anniversary special, the podcast presenters Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook devoted four whole episodes to the madness that was 1974 in the UK: a year of two elections, a three-day week, and widespread despair.

Real-life characters included Sir Walter Walker, a then-recently retired army general who had taken to giving television interviews on the state of the country.

Walker was shocked at the power of trade unions, wanted a harder line in Northern Ireland, and considered prime minister Harold Wilson a “proven communist”. Asked if he thought the army should run Britain, he said: “Perhaps the country might choose rule by the gun in preference to anarchy.”

As 1974 began, the UK slipped into its first recession since the war while Northern Ireland embarked on the doomed experiment that was the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement.

A February election failed to produce the outright majority sitting prime minister Edward Heath had gambled on, instead propelling a tired and reluctant Wilson back into Downing Street. There, the Labour leader sustained himself against his many problems with the help of at least as many large brandies.

Everybody was drunk back then, it seems. But Wilson’s drinking, which often happened before media appearances or parliamentary question time, was sufficiently concerning for an appalled aide to keep count in his diaries.

Also worrying Labour supporters was the nature of their leader’s relationship with his private and political secretary, Marcia Williams.

She wielded great power in Downing Street but had a disconcerting habit of tapping her handbag portentously on occasion and threatening to spill undisclosed secrets to the press that would bring Wilson’s government down.

Some disliked her enough, it has been claimed, that the possibility of murder arose in conversation among Wilson’s inner circle.

According to witnesses, a drastic plan involving sedatives was repeatedly suggested by the prime minister’s personal doctor, who said he could be make her death look natural.

Saner voices prevailed and Williams survived to – it was widely said – dictate who Wilson rewarded in his resignation honours: nicknamed the “lavender list” after her choice of notepaper.

In the meantime, actual violence was ubiquitous. As power-sharing in Belfast collapsed and the Troubles worsened, it was a year of no-warning bombs: in Dublin, Monaghan, Birmingham, Guildford, and elsewhere.

There was a rare moment of light relief when Abba won the Eurovision with Waterloo. But rather than celebrate famous British military victories past, Gen Walker obsessed about the UK’s modern decline.

So did Uncle Jimmy. Although the sitcom came later, the David Hobbs novel that inspired it was written in 1974.

That was originally called The Death of Reginald Perrin, in reference to the subplot – later filmed at the end of series 1 – in which the disillusioned hero fakes his death by drowning.

Even that had a strange echo in the real events of 1974, when an MP and former minister John Stonehouse left his clothes on a beach in Miami as part of a plan to escape fraud charges and bankruptcy.

He was presumed drowned, or eaten by sharks, even as he assumed a false identity and flew to Australia with his secretary. Nobbs’s novel was written but not yet published then, so the real and fictional events appear to have been coincidence.

Either way, Stonehouse was soon discovered and arrested in Melbourne. Adding to the general farce, he was at first mistaken for Lord Lucan, the Anglo-Irish rake and murder suspect who had also gone missing earlier that year and has not been seen since.