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The Sunday Post: Juke Box Jury

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Host David Jacobs dings the bell for the next disc

The format of Juke Box Jury doesn’t sound very enticing to modern ears. 

New records played to a panel of four celebrities (who were not necessarily at the younger end of the age spectrum) who then gave their opinions of them, and at the end of each round voted whether they thought the disc would be a ‘hit’ or a ‘miss’. 

There were no videos, not even any live performances, and only occasional personal appearances by the artists concerned.  And yet it was a highly popular show for most of its original eight-year run from 1959 to 1967.

As with a large number of successful quiz and panel show formats, Juke Box Jury was an American concept.  Devised and hosted by the disc jockey Peter Potter, Jukebox Jury began in Los Angeles only in 1948, before having a network run in 1953-4.  The original version was a broader format than the BBC version, with more panellists per show, and features other than record reviews.

The BBC saw a recording of one of the shows and made their own untransmitted pilot version to try it out in early 1959.  This was deemed successful enough to be commissioned as a series, so the BBC negotiated to be allowed to make the programme in its own way, without interference – although Potter was always credited with devising it.  A deal was struck and the first programme was transmitted live on Monday 1 June 1959 at 7.30 pm.

BBC Light Programme disc jockey (and occasional actor) David Jacobs was hired as compere, and the first panel consisted of his colleague Pete Murray, singers Alma Cogan and Gary Miller, and ‘typical teenager’, Susan Stranks (who went on to present ITV children’s magazine series Magpie from 1968 to 1974). Jacobs did not feel the show had gone well, but BBC management thought otherwise.

A very British panel, 6 June 1964

The eight records played on the first programme included Personality by Anthony Newley (followed by another version of the same song by Lloyd Price and his Orchestra), Say One for Me by Bing Crosby and More, More, More Romancing by Jo Shelton.

The series’ original theme tune was Juke Box Fury by Ossie Warlock and the Wizards, but following a dispute with producer Russell Turner, it was replaced by Hit and Miss from the John Barry Seven.  This record was actually reviewed on the 6 February 1960 show, then adopted as the theme from the next edition.

The first shows were all broadcast live, but eventually one live and one videotaped show made on the same day became the norm. It was a relatively simple show which needed little rehearsal and this made good use of studio time.

Some shows were missed in the early months, as when Jacobs hosted the ‘Star’ Ballroom Championships. Given the show’s popularity and chances it would fall prey to the schedules, from from 5 September 1959 Juke Box Jury moved to Saturdays, which would be its regular day until late 1967.

Even when pre-recorded the videotapes of Juke Box Jury were  not kept for long after they were shown, partly because they were topical and were seen as having little use afterwards, and because tapes were expensive, and the fact that they could be reused was part of their advantage over filming.  There was no market for foreign sales of the series, and no prospect of a domestic repeat.  The only two complete examples of the show from its original run were some of the occasional editions recorded onto 35mm film telerecording, namely the editions from 29 October and 12 November 1960. 

Scandal and controversy

Very little information about the shows overall has survived, other than documentation about who appeared and what records were played – and even at the time information was basic.  In a 1966 edition Anthony Booth made remarks critical of the release of a particular Roy Orbison record when Orbison had recently suffered a personal tragedy, and Jacobs concurred. But the BBC was unable to supply a transcript of the programme to the record company when requested to, as the show had been live, unscripted, and no precise notes were made of what had been said.

The fact that so few editions remain from the series means that it is left to the imagination how the wide range of music and showbusiness personalities who featured as panellists came over.  There is some evidence from reactions in correspondence and editions of Points of View, such as the fact that one appearance by American comedian Stubby Kaye was criticised, not for his opinions, but for the fact that he chewed bubble gum during the show. 

The series attracted an eclectic range of celebrity panellists from Sean Connery and Peter Sellers to US film star Jayne Mansfield and music producer Phil Spector. More parochial talents such as Thora Hird and Twiggy also graced the line-ups.  Though many were of the young generation of actors and musicians, there was always a balance between them and older opinions – sometimes the combination of personalities was odd to the point of surrealism.

Occasional editions had a themed panel, for example when Tonight team Cliff Michelmore, Derek Hart, Fyfe Robertson and Kenneth Allsop appeared in August 1961.  After the episode which featured the Beatles, other groups sometimes formed the panel, including the Rolling Stones - the only time there was a fifth desk.  One early edition had a non-celebrity panel, consisting of teenage students from the American Dependant High School, Bushy Park, but apart from them and Susan Stranks, the only element of the non-celebrity world was the introduction of voters chosen from the audience, who decided if the panel didn’t achieve a majority verdict.

From 1961 there was the innovation of the Hot Seat, where one of the artists whose records had been reviewed would be interviewed, one the first of these being Spike Milligan.  His record was Sideways Through the Sewers of the Strand, though it is hard to imagine that the discussion stayed on the subject in hand for long, given Milligan’s propensity for anarchy.  

Fluff goes in a new direction...

Another attempt to pep up the format of the show was trialled on 3 December 1966, which was to have a panel consisting of the four disc jockeys – Pete Murray, Jimmy Savile, Alan Freeman and Simon Dee.  This line-up became standard for eight weeks in early 1967, but although at first there was a slight rise in viewing figures, BBC management was not keen on the idea and it was soon dropped, although DJs continued to featured frequently, including new faces like Kenny Everett and John Peel.

Towards the middle of 1967 it was beginning to be felt that the programme had run its course.  With the start of Radio 1, there was a lot more coverage of pop music on the BBC than there had been the case in 1959, and there were many more television programmes featuring it than previously.  The cost of the rights to the show no longer seemed to be justified, and it was felt it was time for a change. 

In the last few months production of the programme was moved from London to Manchester, perhaps an odd decision given that its days were numbered. But facilities there were not as good as in the capital and simple things like using zoom lenses and superimposing captions became more difficult.

Revived 45s

 A replacement programme was sought, and finally it was decided that Manchester would produce a new show starring Alan Freeman from the start of 1968.  Juke Box Jury had been moved to Wednesdays in September 1967 as part of a rejig of the Saturday schedule when Simon Dee’s chat show was promoted to that day.  The final edition of the original BBC Juke Box Jury went out a few days before the end of 1967, and featured two of the panellists from the first show - Pete Murray and Susan Stranks - with frequent guests Eric Sykes and Lulu making up the numbers. 

The records on this edition were Honey Chile by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas;  Lantern Light by Peter and the Wolves;  Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt by Billy Fury;  I Can Take or Leave Your Loving by Herman’s Hermits;  Mr Second Class by the Spencer Davis Group;  For Your Information by The Cedars;  and Don’t Change It by Ferns Brass Foundry.  The ‘Hot Seat’ guest was Spencer Davis.

The new Alan Freeman show would be in an early Friday evening slot between the antiques show Going for a Song and soap opera The Newcomers.  It promised ‘a look at the latest pop releases with artists live and on film, plus comment and opinion on the pop music scene’.  All Systems Freeman only ran for 12 editions in total, and Freeman returned to radio.

We had not seen the last of Juke Box Jury, as it was revived in 1979 and 1989-90 (following a one-off revival by Arena in March 1989 as part of a night celebrating the centenary of the jukebox). 

For all the apparent limitations of the programme, in its heyday Juke Box Jury gathered more than respectable audiences, and at a time when the generation gap seemed to be constantly widening, it helped to bring them a little closer as the disparate panel members weighed up the varied music of the era.

Do you think Juke Box Jury is a classic programme? Which music programmes that succeeded it have caught your eye? Let us know your thoughts in the space below.

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