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Sunday Post: The Rock 'n' Roll Years

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Pop music panel game Juke Box Jury was presided over by David Jacobs

I was on a suburban London railway platform the other day and thought I recognised one of the other people waiting for a train: I did, it was the actor Trevor Peacock, now best known for his appearances in The Vicar of Dibley. He has had a long career as an actor, and before that as a songwriter, and before that as a scriptwriter, for, among other things, the pioneering BBC pop show Six-Five Special.

Six-Five Special was one of the programmes brought in when the BBC ended its ‘Toddlers’ Truce’, when television closed down from around 6pm to 7pm, supposedly in order for parents to be able to put their children to bed. The ITV companies, who were obliged to have the same break by the Independent Television Authority, had objected as they were losing potential revenue, though the BBC actually saved money by not having to fill that time.

When the practice was abolished, on weekdays the BBC had the popular light current affairs series Tonight. On Saturdays it decided to present a show to appeal to the burgeoning teenage market. As it was to transmit at five past six, following the 6pm news, it was called Six-Five Special, and in line with the railway imagery the title sequence showed a steam train travelling at speed, with the signature tune performed by resident band, Don Lang and his Frantic Five. The hosts were Jo Douglas (who also co-produced) and Pete Murray.

The BBC had wanted a magazine programme that would feature topics other than music, so there were celebrity guests and a sports section presented by boxer Freddie Mills. But producer Jack Good knew that it was the music content that attracted his audience. After a year Good became disenchanted with the struggle to get his way and defected to ITV, where he started Oh Boy!. Six-Five Special carried on, but was eventually dropped when ratings struggled, in December 1958. (Quirky note, there was a special edition in the early hours of January 1st, 1958, called Twelve-Five Special, broadcast from a restaurant overlooking London Airport.)

Six-Five Special was of course not the first BBC programme that took an interest in popular music - it had been a feature of broadcasting both in sound and vision since the start of the two media. However it was perhaps the first show aimed at young people with music at the centre of its content. Other shows featured pop acts, including rock and roll – one long-running television show of the 50s was Off the Record presented by former bandleader Jack Payne, which included performances by many music acts of the time, including Buddy Holly and the Crickets, in the last episode of the show, in March 1958.

Legs and Co were one of the dance troupes who filled in the gaps on Top of the Pops

Rock and roll and other pop music was to gain another outlet in April 1959, when a new show Drumbeat was launched. This featured a regular roster of acts, including Bob Miller and the Millermen, and the John Barry Seven, as well as frequent appearances by Adam Faith, Vince Eager and other early British rock and rollers. Having made appearances in sketches in Six-Five Special as well as scripting it, Trevor Peacock became the presenter of Drumbeat after the first few episodes (the original host was Gus Goodwin). The show only lasted one series, finishing in August 1959.

In the meantime though, another much longer-running show had begun, based on a US format, the record review show Juke Box Jury. Presented by DJ David Jacobs, this ran from June 1959 until December 1967, with revivals in 1979 (with Noel Edmonds) and 1989-90 (with Jools Holland). The format was simple, a panel of four celebrities listened to newly released records and gave their opinions whether they would be a hit or a ‘miss’.

With no live performances, and only occasional personal appearances by the artists who made the records, it’s hard to understand the appeal other than the scarcity of pop music on television or radio at the time. The panel was not particularly young and trendy, though there was initially a ‘typical teenager’, one Susan Stranks, later to present the ITV children’s show Magpie. Pop artists would often be at least one of the line-up, but the majority seemed to be fairly middle-aged entertainers or ‘personalities’. There was the occasional attempt to be more relevant, as with special shows featuring groups, famously the Beatles on 7th December 1963, the same night as the BBC broadcast a concert of theirs from Liverpool. Later the Rolling Stones and one or two other bands repeated the trick (the Stones’ appearance being the only occasion where there were five panellists instead of four).

Towards the end of its initial run, DJs such as Pete Murray and Alan Freeman having been frequent guest panellists over the years, it was decided to have all-DJ panels for a while, but this too was dropped after a few months. The final edition on 27th December 1967 had Pete Murray and Susan Stranks (both of whom were in the first edition) along with Lulu and Eric Sykes.

Flagship of pop coverage

With the resurgence on interest in home grown rock and ‘beat’ music in the early 60s, the BBC decided to try its luck with a new regular programme featuring pop music, this time based on records that were making their way up the singles charts. With pop music on BBC radio still confined to a few shows on the Light Programme, this was to be a major new attraction – albeit a belated reaction to ITV shows Thank Your Lucky Stars which started in 1961, and Ready Steady Go which began in 1963.

Debuting on 1st January 1964, and initially broadcast from the BBC’s Manchester studio (a converted church in Dickenson Road), it was entitled Top of the Pops, and would become the flagship of BBC pop coverage. Lasting until 2006 in its regular format, with only Christmas specials, spin-offs like Top of the Pops 2 and archive repeats since, TOTP was a winning formula, especially in the first few decades of its existence, with live performances predominating - live in the sense of the artists being in the studio, only occasionally were they not miming to pre-recorded tracks.

For many years these were supposed to be specially recorded, but given the difficulty of replicating the carefully crafted sound of the original record, it is believed that this was not always adhered to. Over the years the amount of live performances decreased – even in the early years, acts like the Beatles (who only appeared in the TOTP studio once, to promote Paperback Writer/Rain in 1966) would be represented by film (either stock shots or specially made promos) or videotaped performances, as their schedules prevented them from making the studio recordings. In the early 70s some acts who could not turn up in person had their records ‘interpreted’ by specially made film clips. One or two acts also thought it beneath them to appear, and some records were banned by the BBC as not being suitable for a family audience.

By far the best-known replacement for artists though was having the show’s resident dance troupe perform a routine to accompany a song. The first of these was The Go-Jos, who were succeeded in 1968 by the most famous dancers, Pan’s People, choreographed by Flick Colby. In 1976 they were replaced briefly by Ruby Flipper, then within the same year by Legs & Co. The latter survived until they were phased out in autumn 1981, then in December that year the last in-house dance act, Zoo, started a run of just under two years. From October 1983 it was felt that pop videos made a dance troupe unnecessary, and the style of the whole show had moved on as well.

One edition of Six-Five Special featured Adam Faith and actor Jon Pertwee (foreground) performing a skiffle number

Concurrent with early Top of the Pops, BBC2 was not afraid to present its own take on the medium, in the form of The Beat Room, which favoured less chart-oriented fare, namely acts in the rhythm and blues genre, though it was advertised as ‘twenty-five minutes of non-stop beat and shake’, which sounds like someone cleaning a carpet. The first show featured Millie, The Animals and Lulu and the Luvvers, later episodes had Manfred Mann, The Hollies, The Kinks, Tom Jones, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and many more. One early act was Davy Jones and the King Bees, whose lead singer went on to greater things once he changed his name to Bowie.

The Beat Room finished at the end of January 1965, to be succeeded immediately by Gadzooks! It’s All Happening, which had many aspects in common (as well as, additionally, a silly title – which was changed to “Gadzooks! It’s the In Crowd” after a few months. Much better…)

Over on BBC1, late 1965 brought Stramash!, a pop show made in Glasgow which included some elements of Gadzooks, but the beat boom was losing its impetus. Pop acts had long been featured on children’s programmes such as Crackerjack and occasionally Blue Peter, and this continued with acts appearing on The Basil Brush Show when it began in 1968. Also that year The Animals’ former keyboard player Alan Price presented Price to Play, an educational children’s series about the evolution of rock and roll. The following year saw Price present a more straightforward music show Monster Music Mash, including performances by Fleetwood Mac (mark 1), The Moody Blues, and Slade in their early skinhead phase.

Sole survivor

BBC2 continued to promote ‘serious’ rock music, firstly through Late Night Line-Up occasionally featuring artists like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which developed into the spin-off programme Colour Me Pop in June 1968. As the title implies, it was in colour, and the few existing editions provide some of the earliest colour pop footage. The first edition featured Manfred Mann, with each show usually based around a single artist performing either their greatest hits, or sometimes tracks from a new album. This series lasted 18 months, and was succeeded at the start of 1970 by Disco 2, another Line-Up spin-off, presented at first by Tommy Vance, and later by Richard Williams. This had a more varied content, and started to feature commentary and reviews, as well as more adventurous types of music. When this ended in July 1971, the format was rejigged, though Williams continued to present.

The new version was named after the music industry story that new tunes would be tried out on doormen, cleaners etc, to see if they could whistle them after one hearing - this was called The Old Grey Whistle Test. After the first series Richard Williams left and was replaced by DJ Bob Harris, the best-remembered host of the programme, whose laconic style and garish tank tops defined an era – to a certain section of the population at least. Harris himself left the show as punk and new wave music began to be featured at the end of the 70s. Anne Nightingale, who had latterly been his co-host, took over, and the show survived into the late 80s under the stewardship of David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, and later Andy Kershaw – by which time the title had been curtailed to just Whistle Test.

Spin-offs from the series included Sight and Sound in Concert (which had stereo sound from Radio 1 to replace the tv sound, if you wanted) and Rock Goes to College though 'OGWT' did its own occasional special broadcasts of concerts – notably Queen, Rod Stewart and Elton John. As well as music performances, the show was known for in-depth interviews, and in the absence of actual film of bands, many early editions featured unrelated archive footage to go with album tracks. In those days, album tracks mattered…

At the end of the 70s the genre of youth programming began to emerge, and this naturally featured a lot of music. Shows like Something Else, which hailed from the BBC’s Community Programmes Unit, were succeeded by the likes of The Oxford Road Show and Riverside, which ironically were more like magazine programmes – shades of Six-Five…? At the end of the 80s came the dedicated youth strand Def II which featured shows like Behind the Beat and Dance Energy.

With the advent of dedicated music cable and satellite channels, was the death knell being sounded for a certain kind of music television? Perhaps the sole surviving serious music show is “Later… with Jools Holland” which has graced our screens since 1992, preserving something of the spirit of Whistle Test, even transmitting live as did the first Whistle Tests, and itself a spin-off from The Late Show’s music content. As for the rest, while there is now blanket coverage of music festivals, and various channels showing music videos to choose from, television coverage of pop and rock music seems dominated by talent shows, while the nostalgia market is catered for by repackaging archive material on BBC4.

I didn’t like to ask Trevor what he made of it all.

Andrew Martin will be your regular Sunday guide through the history of broadcasting by digging out archive gems and information from the BBC Genome listings.

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