In the fifty or so years following 1937 Penguin published well over 300 ‘specials’, an endeavour which Allen Lane thought ‘perhaps the most interesting thing we did’. The series was defined by its crusading engagement with topical issues of the day and by its centre-left political stance and it is often cited as shifting public and political opinion.
In the thirties, for example, early specials took a strongly anti-fascist line and sold in extraordinary quantities. At this time, it was not uncommon for specials to sell over 100,000 copies, even on occasion more than 250,000, in their first month and they are seen as having had a significant impact on British culture and public opinion, and by extension on public policy before and during the war.
After 1945 the series was given a lower priority by Penguin but was resuscitated in 1960 under the editorship of Tony Godwin. In the early-1960s Specials such as Shanks’ Stagnant Society formed an important element of the so-called ‘state-of-the-nation’ literature and are commonly cited as having pushed both major parties towards the modernisation of Britain via ‘planning’.
Thereafter, specials had a crusading focus on broadly left-of-centre issues such as homelessness, regional deprivation, and the perceived failings of the postwar consensus. But in 1970s the focus shifted towards issues such as Northern Ireland, civil liberties, feminism, environmentalism, industrial relations, and worries about government ‘overstretch’ – both reflecting and helping to shape public opinion in this decade.
To date neither the political motivation of Allen Lane and his editors nor the nature and scale of the series’ cultural and political impact has been studied in depth.
Dean Blackburn, under the supervision of Dr Hugh Pemberton, is conducting doctoral research on the Penguin Specials that will make extensive use of the Penguin Archive and chart the impact on public opinion in published sources, in public and private records, and through oral history interviews.