A Short History of Colour


A Short History of Colour by Chris Green

When I was growing up, life was grey. It was not just that the suburban landscape was dull, or that life on the Bleak View estate was mundane; life in those days actually was lived in black and white. The history that I was taught at school was about grey kings and queens, wars were fought on grey battlefields, and nations were black and white with grey flags. There was not even a word for colour My home town was grey, the street I lived in was grey and Greystone Grammar School for Boys which I went to was grey. The sky was grey, clouds were grey, even rainbows were grey.

I was twelve when I went with my elder brother, Frank, to see The Beatles play at the local Gaumont. It was November1963. The world was coming to terms with the assassination of John Kennedy by a grey bullet in his grey head fired by a grey marksman with a grey rifle. Not that I was particularly interested in politics. I liked pop music. I had never been to a live concert before and had been looking forward to it for weeks.

The black curtain opened and white spotlights flooded the stage. Four figures familiar from photos ran on and the audience leapt up and let out a tumultuous scream, which comprehensively drowned out the opening bars of From Me to You. The Beatles were dressed in black suits over white shirts. The first sign of what would become known as colour came from John’s non-grey Rickenbacker guitar. This was what would later be called red. Paul’s Hohner bass guitar was also not grey, but what would later be called brown. Small signs maybe, but when you have spent your entire life in monochrome, quite a revelation.

On the way home from the cinema, a Hillman Minx with a green stripe along its body passed by amongst the black cars, on the street. We were spooked. We exchanged expletives and assumed a faster pace.

What the hell is going on?’ Frank said, as a blue tinged bus passed us. Frank had paled visibly. The grey had drained from his face.

Don’t know. It’s a bit scary, but in a way it’s cool,’ I replied, strangely excited.

We moved on down Stevenson Street past the Kitchener Lamp and the War Memorial. Arcs of ghostly white light from the streetlamps pierced the grey relief as our eyes searched for further invasions of colour. We passed the Milk Bar. I thought I detected a trace of non-grey in the sign in the window advertising milkshakes. And the mannequins in the window display in Burtons’ seemed to have an unfamiliar hue. The hot dogs and ketchup from the hot dog van at the end of Straight Street were however still reassuringly grey. Or, I began to feel, as we moved along past the statue of Queen Victoria, savouring the onion tang, disappointingly grey.

When I mentioned the instances of colour to Pete, Pete, Dave, Dave, and John at school the next day, they laughed at me and thought that I was nuts.

‘Next, you’ll be telling us that the school bus isn’t grey,’ said Pete.

‘Or that the Black and White Minstrels aren’t black and white,’ laughed the other Pete.

I was crestfallen. No boy of twelve wants to be ridiculed. Or outcast. I had wanted them to share my excitement. Surely I could not be the only one tuned in to the chromatic awakening.

At lunchtime, I sought Frank out, but he seemed to be in denial. Perhaps he had mentioned the manifestations of colour to Geoff, or Jeff, or Bill and Will, or Billy even, and had had encountered similar derision. Whatever the reason, he made it clear he wanted no part in it. It felt like I was alone in a foreign land.

Over the weeks that followed, I encountered further discrete glimpses of the strange phenomenon. The traffic lights at the corner of Dark Road and Gloomy Place beamed red, orange and blue (or non-grey, non-grey, non-grey at the time, given the absence of a taxonomy of colour). The Belisha beacon opposite the ironmongers in Quiet Street flashed a bold new colour, and at night the streetlights down by the railway cutting gave off a phosphorescent glow. A red telephone box appeared outside the railway station, a blue milk vending machine outside Pitts’ Newsagents and a red and cream barbers’ pole outside Reg Oldman Gents’ Hairdressers.

One evening I mentioned my sightings to my father who as usual had his head buried in a grey Edgar Wallace thriller, but it seemed that he had not noticed any change.

‘You’re not on drugs are you?’ he asked, looking up briefly. He had read an article by Bernard Swelter in the Daily Mail about Indian hemp, or marijuana as it was sometimes called. Bernard described the devastating effect the drug had one’s perception and the dangers its use by the youth of today posed for society in Britain.

My mother did not seem to see anything non-grey about the oranges in the fruit bowl when I pointed them out, suggested I stopped reading so many comics and carried on reading her Woman’s Weekly. It was not that my parents still saw everything in black and white, so much as their dismissive attitude to my concerns that hurt me. They might have shown some interest in what I was trying to say to them. I made a decision there and then to do badly in my exams. That would teach them.

Although my memory is a little hazy, I recall an item on the news one night about a scientist from New Zealand, or perhaps it was Newfoundland, making the discovery of colour. The report was delivered with very little emphasis or ceremony, in much the same way as the observation of a new but small moon orbiting Pluto might be today, but it did come up with some new words to describe the phenomenon. This is more or less the taxonomy we use to identify colours today.

I noticed that sometimes during the summer months the sky took on a blue colour, with a pinky hue in the west towards sunset. One or two coloured flowers popped up around the garden and the lawn was flecked with green. Some of the bottles of Corona in the confectioners on the corner were coloured, the limeade, green and the cherryade, pinky-red. The sign outside The Brass Monkey public house appeared red and brown and the newsagents’s stall in the railway station had a poster with red letters advertising Titbits. Mostly though things from day to day were still grey.

Television back then was of course black and white. Even John Lennon’s red Rickenbacker was grey on television. And when Liverpool played Everton in the FA Cup, both teams had grey shirts. You could only distinguish the referee because he seemed to be the one nobody passed the ball to.

In January 1965, Winston Churchill died, aged 91, and millions of people including my parents watched his grey funeral on TV.

You can scoff,’ said my father, ‘but if it weren’t for Winston you would be speaking German.’

I judged there was little to be gained by pointing out that I did speak German, albeit badly, and French, and Latin. Or that the tune to the Greystone Grammar School Song bore a striking resemblance to that of Deutschland Uber Alles.

One night while Frank and I were lying in our beds listening to the whistles and hisses of late night Radio Luxemburg on our Philips transistor radio, Frank confided that he had seen an arc of multicoloured light in the sky which he had read was caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays by rain. You could tell that he was in the ‘A’ stream.

What are you on about?’ I replied. I was in the ‘B’ stream following bad end of term results. To me, it would have just been a rainbow.

His revelations continued.

Also, Jeff told me he’s been to a gallery and seen an exhibition of brilliant coloured paintings by an artist called David Hockney. They’re on public display. We could go and see them.’ I was tempted to say groovy, but resisted.

The transformation from monochrome to colour was a very gradual one. One or two items might stand out in an otherwise grey landscape. The next time you passed the same items might be grey again, but other items might display a different colour. You may have seen the commercials or football trailers today where all colours on the film print but one (usually red) are reduced to greyscale. This might give you some idea of how glimpses of colour appeared back then.

Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair,’ sang Donovan, in a hit song at the time.

In the morning,’ he added. He seemed to be describing the inconsistency. His true love’s hair was probably grey the rest of the day.

In the summer of 1965, Frank and I discovered a shop in Prospect Street that sold coloured clothes. Imagine, the Levi’s were not grey, they were blue.

We sorted excitedly through the sartorial cornucopia and came home dressed in our blue Levi’s and brightly coloured sweatshirts. Not that our parents noticed anything different in our appearance. Dad’s evening paper remained aloft and mum merely reprimanded us for being late for tea.

Maybe only people under a certain age, say thirty, could see colour,’ I thought. Perhaps that was why The Who sang, ‘hope I die before I get old,’ in My Generation which was climbing up the charts. I bought the LP, which I believe boasted the first-ever coloured album cover. On the group cover photo, bass guitarist, John Entwistle wore a red white and blue diagonal checked jacket. The cover was withdrawn hastily and replaced by a grey one, no reasons given by the record company, Brunswick, but Entwistle’s design later would become familiar to everyone as the Union Jack.

Dave and Dave Too went on a trip to London and came back with excited stories of models wearing multicoloured miniskirts on Kensington High Street, boutiques in Carnaby Street selling satin shirts in rainbow patterns, and flashing neon signs in Leicester Square and Marble Arch. Pete and Pete went on holiday with their parents to Cornwall and came back with animated tales of surfers with brilliantly coloured boards and bodysuits. And golden sands with red, yellow and blue deckchairs. When I challenged them about their earlier scepticism, they laughed it off.

You’re just jealous,’ said Pete.

Because you’re life is so dull,’ said Other Pete.

They were right. I did not have the same opportunities as Pete or Other Pete. The day trips on grey buses to towns of historical interest or to museums, or visits to ageing relatives were not by any means stimulating. I resolved to do even worse in my exams to spite my parents.

Every month new colours were reported, Prussian blue, vermillion, old gold and purple. You could now buy coloured paint sets with a huge variety of colours and grey paint sets began to be phased out. The new prismatic kaleidoscope sounded the death knell for the black and white kaleidoscope, which had amused children for decades. Some cinemas even began to show films in technicolour. The Pink Panther and Goldfinger are two that spring to mind.

I began going to Bleak View Youth Club with Pete and New Pete, or Dave, Dave and Mike. The youth club had the regulation grey coffee bar of course (serving grey coffee), a grey snooker table (with grey balls), and a black and white pinball machine. The dazzling new outfits that Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda wore on Friday nights when the club held a disco did, however, offer plenty of colour. Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda danced to Tamla Motown chart songs under red, gold and green flashing lights. This was the most concentrated display of colour that I had ever seen, and looking back I fear I may have flung myself about embarrassingly to the music of The Supremes and The Four Tops in an attempt to be part of the action.

Radio Caroline and Radio London began playing songs by Cream and Pink Floyd. The Beatles brought out a song called Strawberry Fields and Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze. A group called the Lemon Pipers had a hit with Green Tambourine and Donovan showed he was still on the case with Mellow Yellow. Even The Rolling Stones who had earlier wanted to Paint It Black caught on and brought out Ruby Tuesday.

Psychedelia took colour on a roller coaster ride. Suddenly everything around you sparkled with vivid radiant colours, mesmerising patterns and fantastic swirls. Things such as coal, the very essence of blackness, might now be turquoise or tangerine, coral or amber. Colours shifted and undulated, changing constantly. Surfaces appeared to ripple or breathe. An object that you were focussing on might go through the whole spectrum of colours before your very eyes. It was a frightening time for many, especially the elderly who might have had seventy or eighty years of achromatic life.

The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band encapsulated colour in musical form. It was really cool that EMI chose to release the album on June 1st, 1967, my sixteenth birthday. It was timely too that, my parents were away for a long weekend having won a Daily Mail competition to see the D-day landing sites, and convenient that Frank was away on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition in Snowdonia.

Sergeant Pepper was described by an eminent playwright of the time as ‘a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation.’

Just think how good life is going to be,’ I said to Jenny, as we lay under my green, purple, yellow and pink paisley quilt having just enjoyed our own historical moment.

Jenny and I played the album over and over again, oh boy, on my new stereo record player. That weekend we read the news, saw a film, woke up, got out of bed and read the news again, oh boy.

After the psychedelic years, which completely saw off the grey world of yesteryear, colours settled down to create a more or less regular palette. Television was now broadcast in colour and programme producers made the most of this. Presenters were obliged to wear yellow and pink jackets even for weather reports. Colours were solid and stable and reliably identifiable; red was red and blue was blue. There was no longer a mix up when Liverpool played Everton. Ford cars came in colours like Daytona yellow, radiant red and mistral blue. The British Standard Institution (BSI) colour standards were established. Paint colour cards became available in DIY shops. In the 1970s, colour became a precise science.

Had color in fact by its universality and precision become the new grey.

The filmmaker, Woody Allen, seemed to anticipate that something peculiar was about to happen when in 1979 he chose to make Manhattan, in black and white. No films had been made in black and white since the advent of colour. Martin Scorcese brought out the acclaimed black and white Raging Bull a few months later, along with David Lynch who filmed The Elephant Man in black and white. The Police, one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, began to film all their pop videos in monochrome. We Fade to Grey sang the New Romantic band, Visage, which became a big dance hall hit. I began to notice that objects became ever so slightly tinged with grey, and colours on the television began to flicker from colour to greyscale. Sometimes when I drove home, the streetlights along Kubrick Way shone a ghostly grey and some of the red-bricked houses on Issigonis Street appeared grey-bricked. The Conran Shopping Centre, which had been seen as the quintessence of colour, suddenly seemed a shadow of its former self. And once again the referee was difficult to spot when Liverpool played Everton.

The encroaching monochrome seemed to correlate with the upheaval in my private life. I had fallen out big time with Frank over the money I owed him and I was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from Mandy (Jenny’s sister) and was having problems over access arrangements to see our three daughters Magenta, Jade and Amber. My solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed, might be described as a half empty solicitor. He was not optimistic about my chances of securing favourable access while I lived in a bedsit in Ostler’s Yard. I suggested to Mr Shed that it was better than being homeless, which I probably would be if I had to continue to come up with the huge mortgage repayments on the family home in Diamond Drive. I had not spoken to Frank (now a successful chartered accountant) since he had slept with Mandy, so I could not even go to stay with him. Mr Shed then pointed out that the recent arrest for ‘possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply’ might not guarantee sympathy with the courts. I didn’t need to be reminded. As if this was not enough I owed my dealer, Razor, several hundred pounds. Things did not go better with coke. I was also in danger of losing his job as a sales representative for Spectrum Kaleidoscopes, as I had recently been charged with drink-driving. Had I sorted out my alcohol problems, Mr Shed asked?

Wait a minute,’ I thought. ‘Isn’t he supposed to be on my side?’

To add to this somewhat hopeless prognosis, when Mr Shed found out that Mandy’s solicitor was Mr Gunn of Cleese, Cleese and Formby, he became distinctly agitated.

We don’t stand a chance. Mr Gunn is the best divorce solicitor in the county. His performances are legendary,’ whimpered Mr Shed.

Following each visit to Mr Shed, I sunk further into the depths of despair.

Each time I went to see him, his office appeared greyer. Even the David Hockney prints which he had on the walls appeared drab. I asked him if he had noticed that the colour was draining out of his office.

Now you come to mention it, it does seem to become a bit greyer each time you come along to an appointment,’ Mr Shed replied.

In November 1980, the actor Ronald Reagan, veteran of a host of black and white films was elected President of the United States. Margaret Thatcher, with a black and white aspect and a grey agenda, was a year into her first term as Prime Minister. Between them they seemed determined to reverse all of the vibrant development of the previous twenty years, if not reduce the world to black ash. Was the reactionary political swing a sign of the bigger picture, or was the reappearance of grey symptomatic of peoples’ disenchantment with emancipation and self-expression? Was George Orwell in fact right? Was freedom slavery? Deep down was the world now rejecting colour? Were the physical demands of colour too much for nature to support? Perhaps it was a combination of these. Or maybe it was all in my head. Hallucinations, after all, can be a response to excessive mental stress.

It was December and for several days familiar features like panda cars, post boxes and pub signs had flickered from colour to grey, as if colour was dependent on one enormous light bulb and the bulb was on its way out. My red Cortina lacked its usual sparkle, but then it had been parked out in Ostler’s Yard through the gloomy autumn. I was on my way to an exhibition celebrating Twenty Years of Colour at the Royal Academy. Kaleidoscopes were one of the features of the exhibition and I had been invited to attend. Unable to sleep, I had started out early, driving through the night listening to Abbey Road to remind me of youthful innocence and better times.

I did not read too much significance into the mug of grey coffee at Watford Gap; they probably always served grey coffee. Or the black cabs that kept passing me as I approached Brent Cross; cabs had always been black, although it seemed that many of the other cars on the North Circular were black too, like a funeral cortege.

It was 7.30 in the morning as I walked around Piccadilly Circus. It was not quite dawn and the statue of Eros was still bathed in green light. Christmas lights, red, green, purple and gold were everywhere, although some of them here and there seemed to be flashing grey. I did not feel like celebrating Christmas at the best of times. This year, devoid of family, I wanted no part in Christmas. Jingle tills, jingle tills. Goodwill? Some hope! With my personal life in deep crisis, and the impending divorce and the forthcoming court case, I felt that things could not get any worse. It is always dangerous to think this way. I looked up at the circling neon display and ‘read the news today’ Oh Boy!’ Huge red capital letters announced BEATLE SHOT IN NEW YORK. It took a few moments to take this in. Which Beatle? Why? I had been listening to their music not half an hour ago. Suddenly all the Christmas displays and everything around me changed to black and white. The circling text changed and now in grey read JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD IN NEW YORK.

The 1980s were lived out almost entirely in black and white as the world lived with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Music and cinema were effectively outlawed and television showed endless repeats of seventies sitcoms (in black and white), cold war dramas, and post-apocalyptic documentaries. All the time I was in rehabilitation, and the years afterwards when I lived on the Rank Ditch council estate, life was grey. The flats were grey, the pubs were grey, the indiscriminate masses that populated the estate were grey, and the burned out cars on the waste ground behind the derelict garage were grey. The schools were grey, the graffiti was grey, the cellophane factory was grey, and the broken shutters on the neighbourhood charity shop were grey. The sky was grey, the sports field was grey, and the cannabis plants in the allotments at the back of the council offices were grey. The Asian stores were grey, the mosques were grey, and the hooded muggers who roamed the covered walkways were grey.

Towards the end of the decade occasional hints of colour began to appear, a roundabout in a children’s playground, a floral display in the civic gardens, the amber letters above Sainsbury’s supermarket. The new examples of colour were hesitant, discreet, almost apologetic. They did not have the promise or the conviction that colours had in the 1960s. Vauxhall tentatively brought out a new range of the Astra in midnight blue, dark blue, beige and brown. Dulux came up with a choice of pastel colours, which were effectively shades of off white. Cinema Paradiso and Wings of Desire, both shot in a mix of black and white and colour, were screened at the cinema. Colour became a little bolder in the spring of 1989. The New Labour rose on the billboards, a Happy Mondays t-shirt, a new age travellers’ bus in a lay-by; little signs were everywhere. B & Q reintroduced colour charts, and you could if you searched around buy glossy magazines. Liverpool playing in their red strip beat Everton in their blue shirts in the FA Cup Final in a thrilling encounter, which saw other clubs bringing in team colours. The London Underground map was once again displayed in colour, and the Tate Gallery reopened. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in November, television was being transmitted in colour and I was able to watch the celebrations with my new friend, Scarlett.

Since 1989 colour has been in the ascendant.

However in the last year or two, there do seem to be strong hints that grey might be returning. It has not been acknowledged in any formal way but in small but subtle ways, colour is disappearing. Electrical goods, phones and computers for instance are now only manufactured in black, grey or white. Black Keys and The White Stripes are the best selling bands. While car manufacturers classify the shades of their new models as steel blue, silver frost or desert mist, new cars in the showroom are all basically grey. Grey installations have almost eliminated paintings in the art world and colossal grey edifices have been springing up in capital cities to create dark silhouettes on skylines. Recently for weeks on end through the summer months, the sky has been covered by a thick blanket of grey cloud. If I run a search on google for green, it comes back with ‘did you mean greed?’ A story in one of the papers a week or so ago suggested that the Cameron government is planning to put a bill before parliament in the next session which will outlaw colour completely. I don’t believe everything I read in the papers, but the way things are going, you never know.

I spoke to Frank last week for the first time in nearly thirty years. We seemed to be able to bury our differences so I suggested we meet up for lunch, at The Yellow River Café maybe. ‘I don’t like Chinese food,’ he said. ‘What about the Black Horse?’

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved


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