Last Night’s TV – The Great British Foreign Holiday


The brilliantly funny Mark Benton narrated this equally brilliant and funny look back at how foreign travel has changed from being available only to the wealthy to then include us commoners, and it was hilarious viewing.

Mark introduced the programme saying, “Until the sixties, thrilling meant a ride on a donkey, exotic was a slice of lemon with your fish and chips and extreme sports means going to the beach without a windbreak.”

That set the tone for the rest of the show and with archive footage, very funny one liners and quotes from various poets, he took us by the hand on a trip through the history of the Brits on holiday abroad, and especially the discovery of Spain by the working classes, which, Mark told us was a bold move from the donkeys and tornado like conditions of Blackpool beach….

“We’ve decided the only way to really experience the richness and diversity of the globe is to make it as much like Essex as possible” he said, and how right he was…

There was footage of the first wave of package holiday Brits who ventured warily onto foreign soil with the ladies wearing fetching hats and lace gloves while the gentlemen ventured into the searing heat of Ibiza correctly dressed in tie and blazer, but all had one thing in common, the need for a nice cup of tea.

They wanted abroad to be more like home and as package holidays evolved and became within the grasp of the great unwashed, we not only wanted a decent cup of tea, we also wanted fry ups and toilets with seats and chips. To get it, we went to Spain, in our thousands…

In the sixties though – as more hilarious archive footage showed – there was no guarantee that the luxury hotel you’d booked with your package tour operator was actually going to be built. Among many laugh out loud moments in the programme there was an interview with a hotel owner whose hotel had actually, literally, broken in half and had had several floors fall down. When interviewed by a British journalist about his hotel, he was adamant there were no cracks or fallen through floors, just a little “expansion joint” problem. The fact that half the hotel was rubble seemed nothing more than a tiny detail to the man.

Mark told us how the package holiday had come about too; it was mainly down to one man, Vladimir Raitz, who, in 1950 and with 32 passengers, hired a plane and took the Brits off to a campsite in the scary ‘abroad’ of Corsica where they were housed in tents made out of US Army canvas and where the high point of the holiday was the chance to eat meat twice a day. As rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1954, eating meat not once but twice a day made it a holiday. It cost those folks £32 each back then which would be the equivalent of £650 today.

passenger jet

The idea soon took off and the price came down so that by the mid sixties, the frightening notion of venturing abroad was within ordinary people’s reach. During this explanation of the birth of the package holiday, there was some hilarious footage which showed someone’s Grandad demonstrating that even senile old codgers could book a package holiday with Gaytours; it was just that easy. And in 1964, going on holiday with a company called Gaytours, any mention of cottages meant nothing more than you’d stay in a cottage. It didn’t have any other connotation than that your trip would be a happy one. That said, the rep who sold granpa his ticket looked as if he might’ve enjoyed a Gaytour for entirely different reasons, but that was by the by.

sixties holiday brochure

Mark covered every aspect of the Great British Foreign Holiday from the posh traveller who enjoyed a cruise or a trip to St. Moritz to oiks who drank themselves insensible in Torremolinos, got sunburned, drank some more and eventually figured out that taking your bikini top off was in fact ok. Men went from wearing suits on the beach to wearing Speedos and hotels in Spain flew up to accommodate the British who wanted nothing more than third degree burns, a flash of boob, a disco and their own body weight in fried food and lager.

He explained how excursions were once an integral part of a British holiday abroad but for those who wanted to do everything on the cheap, camping was the way forward.

“Camping” Mark said, “was like going on holiday but without the pleasure” so us guilt ridden Brits didn’t need to feel bad that we might accidentally enjoy ourselves when our living quarters were so uncomfortable.

This really was one of the funniest trips down memory lane that I’ve ever watched, and Mark Benton’s Geordie tones made it all the better. If you missed it on BBC4 last night, you really should make time to watch it on iPlayer. You’ll be in for a real treat! In the meantime, here’s a clip from the show…

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.