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The Sixties

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

An extract from BOAC and the Golden Age of Flying

During the twentieth century there had been two decades, both of which came in the aftermath of world wars, in which sweeping economic and social change had led to new perceptions of almost everything. The first was the Jazz Age (or Roaring Twenties), and the second was the 1960s. They helped to define both Imperial Airways and BOAC.

As the 1960s unfolded so England, and Liverpool and London in particular, became the epicentre of social change. Liverpool had long been Britain’s North Atlantic port and in the 1950s merchant seamen had brought home records by new American artists which could not then be bought in British shops. Local groups began to produce a different kind of music strongly influenced by American greats including Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Since the Second World War British popular culture had largely followed that of the USA, but that was about to change. By 1964 the Beatles and Rolling Stones had exploded onto the music scene and the ‘British Invasion’ of the United States had begun. London was beginning to swing, and BOAC would reap huge rewards. Between 1960 and 1970 the number of passengers carried by BOAC almost quadrupled.

Twiggy and boyfriend Justin de Villeneuve departing from London in the 1960s.

As London became cooler, so it became a more popular destination, especially for Americans. In February 1964 the Beatles made their first tour of the United States. BOAC’s marketing department rarely missed out on these kinds of opportunities but, not for the first time, they were outpaced by a more agile Juan Trippe. It was Pan Am that flew the Fab Four to New York aboard their 707 Jet Clipper Defiance. They were met at Idlewild Airport by 4,000 fans plus 200 journalists and their two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were watched by 70 million, a record at the time. Their tour of America established them as the most popular music group of all time and changed cultural history on both sides of the Atlantic. When they returned to London at the end of the month, British Pathé News called it, ‘The greatest day that London Airport had ever known’ – 12,000 screaming fans filled every terrace and balcony of The Queen’s Building to welcome them home. This time, the Pan Am 707 had been christened (with a hastily added sticker) Jet Clipper Beatles. The group would later use BOAC for other tours including one to Australia, but nothing would eclipse the impact of the Beatles’ first American tour.

BOAC must have been stung by their failure to carry the Beatles, but they did not miss an opportunity to fly Frank Sinatra, the biggest international star of the pre-Beatles era. George Cleaver’s father, Terry Cleaver, was a public relations officer for BOAC in the Far East, stationed in Hong Kong. George recalls how it happened: ‘One day dad received a call at the office from his friend, a Pan Am public relations officer, inviting him and my mother to dinner with Frank Sinatra and Leo “Lippy” Durocher, the celebrated baseball player. They were passing through Hong Kong with their wives on their way back to New York, via London. During the dinner dad asked Frank if he’d ever flown BOAC to which he replied, “No, Terry, you guys don’t carry Jack Daniel's Green Label on your flights.” Dad responded, “Well, Frank, if we can find some of your favourite whiskey, would you consider giving us a try back to London?” When Sinatra agreed, Dad turned to his Pan Am friend and asked if he’d mind comping their tickets over to BOAC, to which he received a wink of approval. The next day dad arranged a plenitude of Jack Daniel's Green Label for the flight and was graciously received by the flight crew for putting such distinguished guests on their aircraft.’

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