With that title, the song could have been the relic of a Government campaign fronted by Forsyth. It sounds like the essence of Matt Monro’s “We’re Gonna Change the World” has been synthesised and condensed, with the satire removed, and I can’t imagine the British public went along with what was being asked of them. It turns out the campaign that mounted behind the slogan disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, in a matter of weeks.
“I’m Backing Britain” snowballed from the efforts of five company secretaries working for a heating and ventilation company in Surbiton: the Colt Group, whose headquarters are now based alongside their main factory in Waterlooville, were instrumental in the post-war rebuilding effort, designing and constructing ventilation systems for prefabricated houses that removed the need to build fireplaces. The secretaries - Christine French, Carol Ann Fry, Brenda Mumford, Joan Southwell and Valerie White – received a memo from the company’s marketing director, Fred Price, that gave them the idea of starting work half an hour early each day, to boost productivity. The Surbiton head office voted to begin on 29th December 1967, two days after the memo was written. The Waterlooville factory later decided to work their extra half hour at the end of the day. As other companies took up the idea after hearing about it over the following weekend, the five Colt secretaries, along with Alan O’Hea, the company’s managing director, created a slogan, “I’m Backing Britain,” and placed an order for a hundred thousand badges to hand out to other businesses. At this point, it had only just reached New Year’s Day 1968.
The single was pressed in different places, and Bruce
Forsyth's surname was spelt incorrectly on all of them.
If the Government weren’t planning a campaign to increase productivity, they needed one, and approved of the one served up for them. Fred Price’s 27th December memo, mainly a company progress report, also paraphrased a letter published in “The Times” two weeks earlier, in which the MP John Boyd-Carpenter suggested how the United Kingdom could reduce the massive deficit created by the gap between imports and exports, which had led to the devaluation of the Pound. Boyd-Carpenter’s solution was to suggest the first Saturday morning of the month could be used to set an example, using the equipment that would have remained idle over the weekend. Price modified this to suggest an extra half-day is added to the working week, before the Colt secretaries chose to make their existing work days longer instead. In response to the growing sentiment, a press conference attended by Britain’s three main political parties backed “I’m Backing Britain” on 5th January 1968, one week after Colt’s longer days began.
The campaign was a gift to the media, which spread it further. The “Daily Express” ran a story on the Colt secretaries on 30th December, while the “Daily Mirror” ran editorials welcoming the campaign from 3rd January, the same day an advertisement in “The Times” was run by an ad agency offering their spare time to create ads for the campaign. This was when Pye Records stepped in: the promotional record made by Tony Hatch, Jackie Trent and Bruce Forsyth, who reduced their usual fees to participate, was released on 8th January, costing two thirds of the usual cost of a seven-inch single. However, “I’m Backing Britain” never charted, selling fewer than eight thousand copies. The record was made so quickly the singer’s surname was misspelt as “Forsythe” on the label.
The campaign looked bizarre, as people suddenly began waving their flag for their country, often literally with flags supplied by the campaign’s office, but it became uncomfortable for some. It insinuated that people were not being as productive as they could be, and should work longer, without compensation, to make up for that fault. Unions were upset by this, but the fervour generated by the campaign meant they could be seen as obstructing patriotism. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had already criticised people who complained that others were not pulling their weight in a speech on 8th January, only three days after the Government became involved.
The campaign began to unravel during February. On 12th February, workers at Colt voted to return to their standard work schedule – the unions present there had been strained, and the Colt secretaries ironically had their work interrupted by their running the campaign. Only three days earlier, the Post Office had started using an “I’m Backing Britain” postmark on millions of letters, stopping on 29th February. Colt had passed on the running of the campaign to the Industrial Group (now the Work Foundation) during January, but when it was wound up, at the end of September, they were only sending out promotional material. The MP and book publisher Robert Maxwell attempted a concurrent “Buy Britain” campaign from the outset, later amended to “Sell British, Help Britain, Help Yourself,” but the protectionist campaign unravelled when it was discovered his promotional T-shirts were made in Portugal.
By 1969, “I’m Backing Britain” was forgotten as a campaign, leaving relics strewn about the place, especially the badges and the Bruce Forsyth song, which can be found on eBay. The Beatles song “Back in the USSR” originally began as a satire of the campaign, before being refocussed following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czecholslovakia. However, for a campaign later derided as an over-patriotic aberration, it has an ironic link to “Dad’s Army”: the first episode, filmed on 15th April 1968, and broadcast on 31st July, begins in “the present day,” with Captain Mainwaring as chairman of Walmington-on-Sea’s “I’m Backing Britain” campaign, reminding viewers of a time when everyone backed Britain. The studio audience then laughed loudly as the Nazi arrows in the opening titles moved Britain back home, puncturing the hubris.
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