"The Box That Changed Britain" on BBC TV

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I do not have much time for famed Liverpudlian Roger McGough. Not since 2006, anyways, when he bowed to the anti-war mob and boycotted a concert he originally agreed to compere in honour of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. On this particular occasion, however, the Mersey poet deserves praise for narrating what is a fascinating programme on containerization as part of Sea Fever – a major new season on BBC Four which looks at the crucial ways in which the sea has helped to shape modern Britain.

Historian Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World takes all the headlines, though. And deservedly so, viewers would agree. The four-part documentary tells the story of how the navy grew from a simple outfit into the most complex industrial enterprise on the face of earth; of how the need to manage it laid the foundations of the British civil service; and of how it transformed Britons’ sense of national identity and Britain’s democracy. It is, in short, the magnificent tale of a 400-year struggle fought at sea for mastery of the waves and how it drove Britain into the modern age and changed the world.

Little wonder, then, The Box That Changed Britain does not feature in the review pages. Yet the fact remains that this, too, explicates how Brits entered the modern age. The only difference being, of course, the entity in question. As hard as it might be to believe, though, but an hour’s viewing of Graeme McAulay’s programme leaves you wanting to know more about how a simple invention – the shipping container – changed the world forever and forced Britain into the modern era of globalisation.

With a mixture of archival footage and modern-day filming, the extraordinary impact of a metal box is told through the eyes of the dockers, historians and ship spotters. From quayside in vast container spaces to on board ships the size of an athletics track, the sixty-minute documentary reveals how the shipping container has transformed Britain’s communities as well as its coastline.

Heart-warming one minute, heart-rending the next – it is a must see for those interested in British (industrial) history. In fact, those interested in transatlantic history more generally would find it equally insightful. Modern containerisation, let us not forget, began with American entrepreneur Malcom McLean. Often referred to as ‘the father of containerisation’, we learn how, along with engineer Keith Tantlinger, they designed the container and decided to share the patent within the industry so as to encourage standardisation, meaning today any twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) can be handled by any of the globe’s leading ports without any problems of compatibility whatsoever.

The container revolution played a fundamental role in the (further) demise of the Port of Liverpool. In the twenty years after McLean’s inaugural transatlantic voyage in 1966, Liverpool slipped from second to sixth in the hierarchy of UK ports (handling roughly a quarter of Britain’s manufacturing exports in the late 1960s to dealing with less than 10 per cent within the space of a decade). The city’s prominence came from cargo liners and this radical approach to the transportation of goods by sea rendered obsolete these conventional ships.

An 11,000-ton container ship took just 500-odd working hours to load and unload, readers are told in John Belchem’s (ed.) Liverpool 800: Character, Culture and History, compared with 10,000-odd working hours for a cargo ship. It was, as McGough succinctly illustrates, “like going from sail to steam”. Notwithstanding the fact that container ships rapidly grew to carry the equivalent of six cargo liners, port turnaround times reduced quite significantly. As a result, the numbers of those working on the docks halved in the decade between the 1960s and 1970s, falling from 11,500 to 5,200.

It was not only waterfront employment per se, however, that felt the brunt of this revolution. The multiple effects of the container phenomenon were particularly far reaching in Liverpool. As well as those firms dotted around the docklands who serviced its traditional needs for sacks and slings and who found demand for their products evaporate, pubs and cafes that lined the Dock Road and Scotland Road were soon forced out of business. The vanishing of the connection between port and city, to be sure, is the most devastating fallout and one for which the documentary-makers deserve plaudits for illuminating.

The story is not all bad, though. Granted, the advent of containerisation ended the days of mass workforces loading and unloading ships. But Liverpool’s docks now handle more cargo than they ever did – and this despite the area missing out on the first generation of containerisation (McLean based the head of his British operations in the Port of Felixstowe, Norfolk, given Liverpool’s unionised workforce not to mention its antiquated dock system). The port adjusted and built a new set of container links with North America and northern Russia, operating in niches around the main global trading routes such as those incorporating New York and Rotterdam. The 500,000 increase in the TEU’s Liverpool’s Seaforth terminal handled in the two decades between the early 1980s and early 2000s is evidence enough of its rebirth.

While few on Merseyside celebrate the invention of the shipping container, Scousers should celebrate the work of those behind this prduction and commend them for what is an original take on the region’s past and present. After all, Liverpudlians are open-minded enough to know you cannot stop progress and that Liverpool’s bright future is thanks to the metal box’s victory over militant strikers. As McGough poignantly concludes, “The dockers may have gone from the docklands, but the cargo hasn’t.”

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