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Nostalgia hangs heavy in the air. At the South Bank, they are passing the time during the Royal Festival Hall’s closure for refurbishment by asking members of the public to contribute their favourite memories. They are collected on the RFH website, and they give a striking indication of how our attitude to culture has changed over the past 50 years. Take, for example, the reminiscences of Fred Peskett, who was tasked as a schoolboy in 1950 to open a Festival of Britain scrapbook. He travelled to the building site that was to be the RFH, and tried taking some pictures.

It was far from straightforward: “The men with the bowler hats, they were foremen, and you had to steer clear of them. The men with trilby hats, and generally glasses and carrying bundles of paper, they were architects and designers. The ones I used to look for were the chaps with the handkerchiefs round their necks, and cloth caps - they were builders and labourers and they didn’t matter a damn if you were there or not.” If he was lucky, he would get to share a jug of Bovril with the workers. The sense of class differentiation in Mr Peskett’s remarks rivals that of The Frost Report’s famous sketches starring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, lined up in a sloping trajectory that summarised Britain’s not-yet-socially-mobile workforce.

Collating these various micro-histories is an admirable project, not least because they reveal events that have simply been forgotten. One that took the RFH management by surprise was the time that Marlene Dietrich shared a stage with Pete Seeger. Yes, the vamp of Old Europe getting down with the angry young man of American folk, who was soon to be overshadowed by a much angrier young man, who would become the most important singer-songwriter of the century. What on earth did they sing? It was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” we are informed by Miriam McLeod, who remembers Dietrich taking the stage for the encore of Seeger’s concert in the autumn of 1963. This was the pre-saturation television coverage age, so we rely on accounts such as these. McLeod found the occasion very moving. The mind frankly boggles.

At the Royal Opera House, a new Tosca finally opened last night (Friday), to replace the time-worn Franco Zeffirelli production that is forever associated with Maria Callas. Although the soprano was well past her prime in the early 1960s, London fell at her feet. Spectators recall that she took 27 curtain calls, milking 40 minutes of applause, at the end of one performance. At the risk of being prosaic, didn’t the audience have underground trains to catch? (At the risk of bringing the issue of class back into the equation, no, of course not.) Callas’s last UK appearance, incidentally, was back at the Royal Festival Hall in 1974, on a grimly pathetic tour with Giuseppe di Stefano, to which most people turned up out of sympathy and respect. I hope no one contributes a memory of this evening to the RFH Living History project. It must have been like watching a car crash.

Many more people take the tube to Covent Garden these days (I bet the management, hounded by the government to be ever more accountable, has precise figures), but there was a distinctly retro atmosphere to last week’s mixed bill, which featured a “Homage to the Queen” celebrating the monarch’s 80th birthday, and a curious programme of “Divertissements” that told the story of the Royal Ballet’s 75 years. The homage was a little cringe-worthy, ending on a note of stupendous kitsch as we all gazed at the royal crest and the dancers (who looked distinctly bored, I swear) spread themselves into a slightly demented synchronised swimming arrangement. The audience seemed to love it; can it have been for anything other than a hankering for a more innocent age?

At the National Theatre, there was nostalgia for a more recent time in David Eldridge’s Market Boy. The stage was dazzlingly transformed into Romford Market, a metaphor - rude, colourful, pulsating with violence - for Thatcher’s Britain. Amid the bustle, a young boy comes of age. Will he be part of the Thatcherite success story, or will he fall by the wayside? For all its fizz, whenever the play attempted to engage on a deeper emotional level, it failed. (Compare and contrast with Hanif Kureishi’s scathing, contemporaneous My Beautiful Laundrette.) But this is always a risk in art that tries so hard to recreate the recent past with due exactitude, that it loses the soul of the story. It was impossible not to admire the verve of Market Boy, but one longed for something more profound. Or is that, in fact, the perfect tone for a play about Thatcher’s Britain?

Expect a lot more on the 1980s. Nostalgia works in roughly 20-year cycles, not least because commentators and commissioners become obsessed with their youth as they settle into middle age. But that is a superficial nostalgia: its chief concerns are hairstyles, pop music, World Cup goals. It provides cheap broadcasting material. But how much more rewarding it is to delve a little further back, into eras that we barely understand. It is not strictly speaking nostalgia, if we can’t remember it, but I for one am transfixed by the image of that schoolboy on the South Bank, picking his way through all those hats on a building site, to find refuge in a mug of Bovril and watch a country begin to rebuild itself through culture.

peter.aspden@ft.com

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