COAL IN THE BOILER, BURNING UP BRIGHT
Spencer Leigh sifts through the management files for the BBC's first pop show, 6.5 Special.
This article was published in Now Dig This is May 2005. I had watched 6.5 Special as an adolescent and it was very enjoyable to research it from a totally different angle as I read the management files, which are held at the BBC Written Archives Centre, just outside of Reading. Unfortunately, I had to rely on my memory of the programme while writing the piece as so little of it remains. From time to time the film of 6.5 Special appears on late-night TV, usually with a few performers omitted.
The accepted wisdom is that ‘6.5 Special’ was the first television show in the UK for teenagers, that Jack Good was the only man with any inkling of what teenagers wanted and that the BBC executives were reluctant to have the programme in their schedules. How much opposition was there to ‘6.5 Special’ and how did the BBC really view it? Up until now, the public has not been privy to the internal correspondence of the BBC, but I have been able to visit their written archives at Caversham and read through the files. The BBC has kept correspondence, scripts and production notes relating to ‘6.5 Special’ and I could hardly believe what I was reading. For the first time ever and with many thanks to the BBC Written Archives, we are able to present the inside story of ‘6.5 Special’.
The hub of activity was Caravan 25 in the Television Centre where the programme’s executive producer Josephine Douglas had her office. Douglas, a RADA graduate, was in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (1950) after which she took a job with the BBC. Her programmes included ‘Saturday Night Date’, ‘Tall Story Club’ and ‘Forces Requests’.
The original intention was to screen a programme for teenagers on Monday evenings following ‘Children’s Hour’. The possible titles were ‘Hi There’, ‘Live It Up’, ‘Take It Easy’, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Start The Night Right’. Jo wasn’t happy with any of them, but on 2 January 1957, she told the Assistant Head, Light Entertainment that she had the title, ‘6.5 Special’, although ‘6.5 Saturday’ was another possibility. She commented, “Trains and allusions thereto are frequently used in jazz parlance and this could be carried through to the billing – ‘Those aboard the 6-5 Special tonight were…’.”
A magazine programme created problems, not least that it would touch on the domains of other producers. Up until then, the BBC only showed film clips in its programme, ‘Picture Parade’, and their management was not happy about ‘6.5 Special’ wanting extracts. And as for interviews, would the ‘6.5 Special’ team be capable of asking anything sensible? Paul Fox, the editor of ‘Sportsview’, expressed his ‘horror’ at the boxing Cooper twins being featured in ‘6.5 Special’. The former boxer and now ‘6.5’ presenter, Freddie Mills had set up the interview and Paul Fox complained about “outsiders dealing with sporting arrangements.” To make it worse, ‘6.5 Special’ would be trailing a fight which was being covered by ATV. Reading through this correspondence, you realise that it is a wonder that the programme ever got off the ground.
The 6.5 Special first chugged out of the station on Saturday 16 February 1957. The producers of the 55 minute show were Josephine Douglas and new boy, Oxford graduate Jack Good, and the designer was Tony Abbott. The hosts were Douglas and Pete Murray and the script was Trevor Peacock. It was broadcast live from the Riverside Studios with an audience of 70 and the planned running order was as follows:
Opening captions (45 seconds)
Mainstream jazz from Kenny Baker and his Dozen (2.30)
Pete Murray, desperately trying to be hip, said, “Welcome aboard the 6.5 Special. We've got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us the gas, so let’s get on with it and have a ball.”
It was thought that a translation was necessary, and Jo Douglas added, “Well, I’m just a square, but for all the other squares with us, roughly translated what Pete Murray said was: "We've got some lively musicians and personalities mingling with us here, so just relax and catch the mood with us.”
The King Brothers, who had made their mark on the children’s TV talent show, ‘All Your Own’. (5.00)
Tony Hancock was billed to appear, but it didn’t happen: he was replaced by a boys’ choir, but I don’t know why (5.00)
More from Kenny Baker and his Dozen (2.40)
Freddie Mills with a feature on Herculean balancing featuring two Hungarian refugees (4.00)
Film clip of Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ from ‘Don’t Knock The Rock’ (2.40)
Star spotlight – the Italian movie actress Lisa Gastoni, who appeared in ‘Doctor In The House’ (3.30)
Classical pianist from the Ukraine, 66 year old Leff Pouishnoff (6.00)
Dance competition with Kenny Baker and quiz: the studio audience could win record tokens of £2 (4.30)
Trailer for a sporting programme (2.00)
Newcomer Michael Holliday sings ‘10,000 Miles’ and ‘Marrying For Love’ (5.00)
The King Brothers, leading to Kenny Baker and his Dozen (4.00)
Gosh, that was exciting, wasn’t it? Well, yes it was. Almost certainly Little Richard nor anyone remotely like him had ever been seen on TV before. Tom Sloan, the Assistant Head, Light Entertainment, wrote to all concerned after the production: “It was a fairly complicated programme and the fact that it got on the air at all was largely due to the great patience and understanding shown by all members of the crew to a fairly new producer.” So that’s putting Jack Good in his place.
Being a new concept, the BBC sought audience research, and the viewing figures were encouraging. Two weeks earlier some soccer in this slot had attracted 10% of the adult population but ‘6.5 Special’ had reached 13%. ITV could only manage 4%.
A few months earlier the BBC had tried a magazine programme for the under-twenties, ‘Teleclub’, but the reaction index (56) had been disappointing. ‘6.5 Special’ starts with a reaction index of 64, which is very encouraging. The report says,
“There was plenty of evidence to show that the older the viewer supplying evidence the less he (or she) enjoyed this programme. Since a preponderance of the sample were over the age of 30, the reaction index would appear to be unusually high. It arises from the extraordinarily tolerant attitude adopted by many, if not most, of the older viewers and typified in the following comment by a retired overseer, ‘This doesn’t cater for my age group but as a programme for the youngsters I can see it was good and we must cater for youth, so on these grounds, I approve.’ An over 50 fitter’s mate called it “A real after tea tonic – lively entertainment with plenty of go to it.” There were exceptions. A considerable number of older viewers were not prepared to make allowances. To them the whole programme had been ‘utterly trashy’ and ‘quite intolerably noisy’ – it could only possibly appeal to the more moronic type of Teddy Boys and Girls and the programme should be scrapped forthwith.”
A teenager mill tester said, “This is what many of us have wanted for a long time and I just cannot say how much I enjoyed it. But my dad was grumbling all the time. He said it was ‘just a lot of noise’.” There were mixed feelings over the studio audience. Many thought that the ‘informal party’ atmosphere was overdone. Jo Douglas was criticised for being ‘rather too exuberant’.
Some teenagers were less tolerant than the retired overseer. An apprentice panel beater commented, “I am what is known as a square, so how could I enjoy this? And why do we have to have so much rock’n’roll lammed at us?” The only true rock’n’roll in the programme was the Little Richard film clip.
The researchers asked the viewers to rate the performers. Michael Holliday came top with 65% of the viewers liking him very much: then there was Pouishnoff (61%), the King Brothers (54%), Kenny Baker and his Dozen (43%), Freddie Mills (35%) and Lisa Gastoni (23%). Why did the public have antipathy to such a pretty actress as Lisa Gastoni?
The second programme featured dance band vocalist Dennis Lotis (‘I’m In The Mood For Love’, ‘Sugaree’), Mick Mulligan’s Jazz Band with George Melly, the comedian Davy Kaye, the actor Tony Britton, a ‘dance drama’ and calypso singers, Malcolm Joseph Mitchell and George Brown. Freddie Mills demonstrated judo and the film clip came from the Treniers with ‘Rockin’ Is Our Business’ from ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. There was no home-grown rock’n’roll unless you could the big band leader, Denny Boyce, who was accompanying Davy Kaye on the novelty ‘See You Later Alligator’ and jazz trumpeter June Robinson with ‘The Saints Rock’n’Roll’.
Ronnie Waldman, the Head of Light Entertainment, watched the programme and sent a memo to Jo Douglas and Jack Good.
“This was again a good show with some points it would pay you to watch:-
“(1) Please never again let us use the ‘Oh-look-the-red-light’s-been-on-all-the-time’ routine. Young people today surely are realists. Radio listeners may have fallen for (or been forced to fall for) this hoary old chestnut over and over again in the 1930’s, but asking today’s youngsters to believe it is going too far. A conversation between Britton and Murray in perfect camera range with perfect microphone coverage and not another sound in the studio and then – Surprise! Surprise! It Was Going On The Air All The Time! I think not, don’t you?
“(2) There was some unevenness about the length of the interviews. The dance drama (which was absolutely fascinating, by the way) was preceded by a too-long interview while judo was literally thrown away. We could have done with a little more of the latter and less talk preceding the former.
“(3) Jo must watch that we don’t see too much of her. It’s always wise to underplay any piece of strength.
“(4) The high camera needs re-thinking and some of the ground-level shots were too confused.”
The third programme on 2 March 1957 was the first with a live performance from a rock’n’roll star, albeit Tommy Steele. His eight minute spot featuring ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Rock With The Cavemen’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Singing The Blues’ was the longest TV sequence devoted to rock’n’roll up to that point. Budget constraints were hitting home as Kenny Baker was reduced to playing with his Half-Dozen. Freddie Mills went swimming and the film spot was ‘Now You Has Jazz’ by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong from ‘High Society’. The star spotlight was with the actress Adrienne Corri, while Julian Bream played classical guitar. Russ Henderson and his Steel Band played ‘The Banana Boat Song’, and who can forget their 1957 single, ‘Waiting For The Coconuts To Fall’? Mike and Bernie Winters, the only comedy duo with two straight men, performed a sketch which mocked rock’n’roll. This involved a Mr Barris who was made up to look like Bill Haley.
The show planned a big discovery with Michael John and the Jackpots (actually the Steelmen) performing ‘Tra La La’ and ‘When You Rock And Roll Those Big Brown Eyes’. Michael John had been a member of the George Mitchell Singers and auditioned for Jo Douglas in January 1957. Jo offered him to the programme, ‘It’s Up To You’, telling the producer “It would be a great help if you could feature him before 2 March, so that it would appear that I had, in fact, discovered him in your programme. I feel that this would give him a good start as a solo artist.” And who has heard of Mr John since?
Further audience research was commissioned after the fourth show on 9 March 1957. The 13% audience had dropped to 11% and the reaction index to 61.The research department asked viewers to rate the performers. The overall percentages for artists being liked very much had dropped considerably. Tommy Steele was on top with 46%, Big Bill Broonzy (40%), the film producers, the Boulting Brothers (37%), Freddie Mills (36%), Mike and Bernie Winters (35%) and the Vipers (35%). ‘6.5 Special’ must be commended for booking Big Bill Broonzy and I was encouraged by the reaction, only 6% behind Tommy Steele. On the other hand, the researchers found that Freddie Mills’ “sporting item was rather out of place” and viewers were getting tired of “seeing him pop up in so many programmes.” And how about this? “Many viewers complained that the words of the number performed by the Vipers’ Skiffle Group were completely inaudible because of the noise of their instruments.”
On 18 March, BBC executive Tom Sloan was nursing reservations about ‘6.5 Special’. “We must do something to make the feature items more balanced and meaningful. The sports item with Freddie Mills is in danger of falling apart because it has no clear purpose – for example, there was nothing like enough made of cycling as a means of recreation, details of cost, clubs etc. The hairdresser item was pointless. I am sure that as rock’n’roll diminishes it is important to introduce more items of general interest.”
Both Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan were featured on 27 March, and the film clip on 13 April was Little Richard’s ‘Ready Teddy’ from ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. The programme was ambivalent about rock’n’roll as the same programme featured Dickie Valentine with his parody of ‘Hound Dog’ and a song that Trevor Peacock had written for Jo, Pete and Freddie, ‘We’re The Cockiest Rockers in Town’. Perhaps it’s just as well that so many of these programmes have been lost or destroyed.
Jo and Jack were delighted by Trevor Peacock’s scripts and he was offered 40 guineas a week up to the end of June. This lead to a row with a BBC executive as it had been ignored that some programmes would be dropped due to sporting events. The budget for ‘6.5 Special’ was £1,000 a show and the individual expenses are recorded for 25 May: Eric Delaney (£157), Jimmy Logan (105) Don Lang (78), Lita Roza (63), Chas McDevitt (45), Jo Douglas (31), Pete Murray (26) and Freddie Mills (21). There is a telex after Jack Good had enquired about some US performers but the cost of having Perry Como, Pat Boone or Fats Domino on the show would be £600 including air fare.
The comments from BBC executives include, “Once we get some female glamour into it, it really ought to be a winner” and “Can you get Trevor Peacock to eschew the puns? Freddie Mills’ spot seemed embarrassingly full of them.” Jo Douglas wrote to the Head of Religious Broadcasting, “I do hope you don’t still feel that we are corrupting the morals of the youth of this country. This is far from our intent.”
However, a big row emerged in April 1957 when the Deputy Director of Television Broadcasting no less criticised Ian Carmichael’s lavatorial humour. Jack Good sent off a riposte:
“I deeply regret that we failed to make it clear that the humour of Mr Carmichael’s spot was satirical. The point that was not made clear, apparently, was that people who think motor horns and chamber pots funny are themselves legitimate objects of ridicule. Grateful though I am for all criticism, your comment seemed reminiscent of the charge against Dean Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ that it was in bad taste because it made fun of midgets.
“But satirical or earthy, chamber pot humour is at least more healthy than some of the suggestive words and gestures unreproached in our fifth and sixth-form programmes. And we shouldn’t forget that quite a number of modern undergraduates – and dons – still enjoy ‘The Miller’s Tale’ by Geoffrey Chaucer.
“On reflection, however, I agree that chamber pots ought not to be televised, and I apologise sincerely – if not very profoundly.”
I wonder what was in the fifth and sixth form programmes.
The intention of the film spot was to have “a well scripted interesting discussion with Pete Murray” and viewers could write to the film company for a photograph of the star. Among those appearing were Tyrone Power, Julie Harris, John Fraser and Eva Gabor. At the end of April, Laurence Harvey dropped out of the programme as, according to a press statement, “it would not have been possible for him to give enough time to studying the script to do it justice.” Laurence Harvey was unhappy with this statement and told the ‘Daily Herald’ rather pompously, “I had to take the micky out of the compere, Pete Murray. I think it appalling that the BBC should expect an actor who has some sort of position in the theatre to act as a stooge to Mr Murray.” In other words, I didn’t qualify at RADA to take part in this nonsense. And it was nonsense: the offending script is on the files: sample line, “The electronic ratio disseminator doesn’t work.” “Well, it’s not plugged in.”
Jack Good was not at all happy with Laurence Harvey’s stance. “Laurence Harvey read through the script in the presence of Pete Murray and myself. Harvey made no adverse comment on it: he was sure that it was an excellent script but he did not know whether he would have time to rehearse it. His comments were not only a complete surprise to us but were also not consistent with what had previously happened.”
The programme continued to have wide-ranging guests - the Kaye Sisters, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys, the Polkadots, Tony Brent and Jim Dale (29 March), the John Barry Seven, Max Bygraves, Marion Ryan (5 April), Ray Ellington, Gary Miller, Hutch (12 April), Eve Boswell, the Mudlarks, bandleader Ted Heath (19 April), Dennis Lotis (3 May), and Michael Holliday, Don Lang and Jim Dale (17 May). The comedian Bill Maynard had a one-off appearance but did not want to become a regular. The gypsy performer Danny Purches was filmed at a camp at Westerham. There was little control over the studio audience and the commissionaires found them rude and aggressive.
‘6.5 Special’ was intended to reflect new music and so it might be thought that the producers should be listening to the records, but what on? Here’s Jack Good: “I have been in touch with John Humphreys and he is against the idea of buying a record player for the use of this office. He agreed that we might hire one, stipulating that the hire should be on a monthly basis. He does not want to be committed for a longer period. The cost of the hire to be credited against our programme. I should be grateful therefore if you could arrange for delivery to this office of a record player capable of playing three speeds 78, 45, 33) as soon as you can manage it. I understand that the cost of the hire will be approximately £1.1.0d weekly.”
The record player would have other uses, namely, Jo and Jack could rehearse performers miming to their latest releases. Miming is so commonplace today that it is hard to believe it could cause controversy. But it did. On 31 August 1957, Pete Murray was meant to say, “So here to mime to his latest disc ‘Old Cape Cod’ is Michael Holliday” but he may have said ‘sing’ instead of ‘mime’ which led to a complaint from the Head of Light Entertainment. Jo Douglas responded, “If Pete Murray used the word ‘sing’, I am sorry. The audience in the studio were fully aware of the situation as I explained it to them before transmission. As Michael Holliday had to move about, it would be impossible for a microphone to follow him. For his second number, the other side of the disc, we equipped him with a hand microphone.” The phrase “singing to his own record of…” was devised, but Ronnie Waldman was not happy, “The fact remains that the artist is not singing.”
And thus we have this extraordinary memo from Jo Douglas:
“The whole issue of miming to records is an extremely difficult one in this particular programme as on many occasions the live work of the artists bears no relation whatever to their record performance. For example, the ‘6.5 Special’ public wanted to hear Russ Hamilton. The Russ Hamilton of record fame, who is the best selling ever British artist in America, does not exist. He cannot play the guitar and neither does his singing voice resemble that on the record. The fact remains that the record personality is the one in which our public are interested. Is it right therefore to present him as a record personality, which is all he is, in a mediocre performance? Is it wiser indeed not to present him at all? This is the problem facing us with many artists of this type.
“The case of Frankie Vaughan was quite a different one – he mimed to his record simply because he came into the show at the very last moment with no orchestrations and no provision made in the planning of the show for booms. This I do not feel to be a fraud as his live performance is identical with his record one.”
At the end of September 1957, there was speculation that Jayne Mansfield might appear on the show. This had been cleared with 20th Century Fox but unknown to them, she had made plans to visit a US Army base in Sculthorpe and could not get to the studio in time.
In November 1957, ATV are going for “the maximum audience at an off-peak time”. How are they doing this? They are scheduling ‘The $64,000 Dollar Question’ at 6pm to be followed by a birthday tribute to Sir Winston Churchill. “If they are lucky,” says the Controller of Programmes, “this will give them new records for early evening and we must do all we can to keep up the size of the 6.5 audience. Can you get somebody big ‘unexpectedly’, outside budget if necessary, to justify extensive trailing on Friday? And Jack Payne can certainly carry a plug in ‘Off The Record’.”
The most significant of the live broadcasts came from the Two I’s coffee bar in November 1957. Adam Faith seized the moment and his group the Worried Men stole the show. The programme featured Chas McDevitt, Larry Page (later to manage the Kinks and the Troggs), Laurie London, the King Brothers, Wee Willie Harris, Jim Dale and Mike and Bernie Winters. The film clip came from the Terry Dene film, The Golden Disc’, which was set in Soho. The show closed with Wee Willie Harris, the King Brothers and Mike and Bernie Winters performing ‘Rockin’ At The Two I’s’ together.
The executive were impressed: “The edition from the Two I’s was not only extraordinary but extraordinarily good. It was first class television as well as first class entertainment. Whose idea was it to do this as an OB?” Jack Good’s of course.
In December 1957, the musical, if not the rock’n’roll, content of the show had been increased. The show featured Don Lang, the Vernons Girls (‘Rockabilly Party’), balladeers Jimmy Lloyd and David Hughes, Frankie Vaughan’s discovery Joyce Shock, Confrey Phillips, Vic Ash and Kenny Baker. The film clip was Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ from ‘Disc-Jockey Jamboree’ and the actress Sheree Winton (Dale’s mum) was featured. The Worried Men were on hand but they had to accompany Jon Pertwee because Pertwee was owed on a show on some BBC contract.
The next week’s show was also subject to audience research. This time the audience was 18% of the adult audience and the reaction index was 74, both higher than ever. The individual artists whom the audience liked very much were Michael Holliday (68%), Don Lang and his Frantic Five (56%), the Dallas Boys (55%), Jim Dale (55%), Johnny Duncan and his Bluegrass Boys (52%), Freddie Mills (51%), Marion Ryan (46% for her ‘Dingdong Rockabilly Wedding’), Laurie Gold and his Pieces of Eight (38%), comic actor Graham Stark (30%) and bandleader Johnnie Gray (30%). The most disliked of the performers was Freddie Mills with 18% and Johnnie Gray had better acquire “other assets besides the mass of hair displayed on his face.”
In December 1957 Decca released an LP, ‘Stars Of 6.5 Special’, and Jack Good was not pleased: well, at least he now had a player to hear it on. “Even a ‘6.5 Special’ disc that was bang up to date would be in danger of being old-fashioned after its release, but this record is a museum piece even before appearing on the market. It is a hotch-potch of old tracks that, for the most part, were just not good enough to be used elsewhere. Note for instance the unfortunate track of ‘Singing The Blues’ which was obviously made at the same time as the tracks for ‘The Tommy Steele Stage Show’ and was, quite rightly, rejected for this LP.
“The Terry Dene track was, it would seem, an unsuccessful attempt for a 78 which is not a whit improved by dubbing on electronic squeals. The extremely poor attempts to inject atmosphere by using applause and scream tapes do much to mar whatever is good in this record.
“The record is really a money-catcher. It advertises Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan and Terry Dene. Lonnie Donegan has one track – a very old number, quite unrepresentative of the modern Donegan, made before he left Decca to join Nixa – and the Tommy Steele and Terry Dene numbers are just bad. In fact, the most lively items are those by the Worried Men and Wee Willie Harris.
“Apart from these criticisms, the backings for the vocalists seem weak – especially for Tommy Steele. The best is for Wee Willie Harris, strangely enough. But one noteworthy feature – and here we may compare it with the EMI LP – is that not once is a vocal group used: and this really dates every track, because the use of vocal backings is one of the most prominent features of modern teenage music, and in fact a vocal backing is now always used in ‘6.5 Special’. And why are there no real rock’n’roll numbers?
“The final criterion of a record bearing the name ‘6.5 Special’ must be its ability to generate excitement. This disc leaves me cold.”
Meanwhile, when Ronnie Waldman was asked by an American TV executive to elaborate on the ‘6.5 Hand Jive’, he sent over a small publication about the dance. Waldman commented, “It gives a fair enough description of the movements but does not in any way convey the excitement of the actual thing itself.” So someone thought the Hand Jive was exciting.
Jack Good was wanting to mount a production called ‘6.5 Stage Show’ but on 3 January 1958 he was refused permission for this outside activity: “I am writing to confirm that permission cannot be given on policy grounds.” Perhaps in a fit of pique, Jack Good resigned, and Duncan Wood and Dennis Main Wilson were the new producers. Unfortunately some papers of a “confidential nature” have been removed from the file, but a memo on 13 January, only ten days later, refers to “the disappearance of Good”. Kenneth Adam wanted to have a fresh look at the programme as he had come to dislike the programme so much:
“(1) We had a totally unnecessary and unsuitable dance from a girl in a skintight costume which was one of the most suggestive items I have seen on any screen. There was a similar item from the Vernons Girls a few weeks ago. This must stop. The charm and vitality of the programme have always depended on the teenagers’ own dancing. We do not want nightclub characters and performances at this time of night.
“(2) There were too many Presley-type bellyswingers in one programme. Some performers can get away with this without offence: some find it more difficult. When several appear in quick succession, they all become offensive.
“(3) The balance has gone further than ever in the direction of rock’n’roll just at the time when straight jazz for jiving is on its way back. We must make better use of the really good bands we employ. To bring John Dankworth, for example, to the studio for a play-in and play-out is artistically and economically absurd.
“(4) The so-called comedy element is in danger of spoiling the programme. This is because it lasts too long. The comedy spots should be flashes, not sketches. Their purpose should be to bridge gaps or afford relief, they should be strictly interlocutory.
“(5) I am still worried about this football team and its Sunday matches. (This will be the Showbusiness XI.) Although the charity is not now named, we are still plugging the ground and the time of kick-off. This must stop. We are in danger of subverting the whole of BBC policy and laying ourselves open to the most embarrassing comeback.
“I am writing urgently because I want action, please, at once. These tendencies can be easily and painlessly removed. The criticisms are not levelled at Duncan Wood, who only took over in such a hurry (though he ought to have stopped that dance!).”
Sounds like Jack Good was on the verge of turning the show into ‘Oh Boy!’.
Tom Sloan replied, agreeing to all it said and saying that Dennis Main Wilson and Duncan Wood were overhauling the programme. And as for the Presley bellyswingers, “The main offender was Marty Wilde and although he has been contracted for a further two programmes, we are considering paying him off if his performances do not improve.”
On 5 February 1958, the two producers looked at the programme. This is from the report:
(1) The Programme in the Past
“The reputation of the show has reached a pretty low level in the eyes of many of the reputable agents. It is felt that certain types of artist have been over-exploited and that good quality artists in the musical world have been denied access to the show. A three-handed battle has been taking place between the groups of interested managers to obtain control of the strongest possible bill of ‘6.5 Special’ artists for their respective stage shows.
“Cut-price acts have been offered – false values have been placed on certain artists and there is evidence of attempted coercion of artists (e.g. Don Lang) from one management to another directly reflecting on their appearances in ‘6.5 Special’.”
Larry Parnes is specifically criticised: “Marty Wilde’s management seems to be under the impression that they would dictate the number of items he was to perform and his position in the running order of the show. Needless to say, this particular management is no longer under this illusion and the option on this artist has not been taken up.”
(2) The Programme to the End of the Present Quarter
“Our London studio audiences are pretty poor and the resultant lack of atmosphere has a detrimental effect on the show. Conversely, the OB programmes have a large and enthusiastic audience, but the effect on the screen is rather like seeing an excerpt from the local palais.
(3) The Programme from April onwards
“If ‘6.5 Special’ is to succeed in the future, we should build it round a central personality who can be authoritative – we should try and plan the programme so that it is viewed with interest rather than curiosity – we should stop the slightly patronising air with which it is sometimes introduced – and we should end the ‘let’s be funny at all costs’ attitude which seems to have invaded the show.”
The new producers wanted to retain Pete Murray as the resident, but would ditch Jo Douglas: “Jo has given over the last ten months a comprehensive exhibition of how technique can nearly overcome basic miscasting. Jo can do far better for herself in another type of programme vehicle.”
“Freddie Mills is a very nice chap but contributes nothing to ‘6.5 Special’. The items for which Freddie was first introduced have long departed but Freddie has remained, and the problem now is how to get him into the show at all without disastrous consequences.” On 27 March 1958 , Pete Murray and Freddie Mills left the show. They were instructed to “say goodbyes but no tributes, no tears and no ad-libs.” The new compering duties fell to Jo Douglas and Jim Dale.
Stanley Dale had been promoting a National Skiffle Contest stage show with Jim Dale as its compere and he suggested that ‘6.5 Special’ could run this weekly. This was a long-running contest and it outstayed its welcome. Also, there were issues relating to non-Musicians’ Union members in the skiffle groups. In March 1958 the MU was close to instructing their members to withdraw their services. Furthermore, the union was complaining about the audience being around while their members were rehearsing. This turned rehearsals into performances and they demanded further payment.
By May, Dennis Main Wilson was defending himself. “I will not enter into arguments about phoney skiffle groups singing phoney religious songs, but since we are having a go, I did not book this wretched skiffle contest in the first place and the same phoney spiritual has been performed before on 6.5 Special.” He is also fed up with the “hordes of young thugs”.
On 10 February 1958, Kenneth Adam was impressed with Pere Duval and his black habit. “then we had a rather tiresome youth in a dog collar produced to tell us why the churches were empty.” Did the Head of Religious Broadcasting know of this intervention? However, Adam really disliked “the rather revolting semi-religious number from a coloured singer. By the end of all this, one had forgotten how effective Pere Duval had been and was merely left with a slight feeling of nausea.”
In April the show went to Paris and Kenneth Adam wrote, “I was appalled to see how bad the reaction was to the ‘6.5 Special’ from Paris. I had hoped that my own personal dislike for this visit would not have been shared by other people but it was more unpopular with the public than it was with BBC officials.”
Tom Sloan wrote on 4 July 1958, “We have just heard that Jack Good’s new production ‘Oh Boy!’ goes against us at 6pm commencing 13 September. It is essential that our new set –and our new show – are in operation by this date.” The musical policy was still over the place, one programme in September 1958 featuring Tony Osborne and his Brasshats, Tito Burns’ 6.5ers and Reg Owen and his band. Said Tom Sloan, “We must get more beat music into the show – Ronnie Carroll singing a waltz last week was ridiculous.”
But the rock’n’roll didn’t always work - “Some character called Vince Eager tried to act as if he was Elvis Presley and looked a complete fool. Last week he started his song in a different key and a different time to the orchestra.”
On 4 November 1958, Kenneth Adam wrote, “I have been making enquiries among the young generation about the interest in ‘Oh Boy!’ and ‘6.5 Special’ and there is no doubt that the former is preferred. At this I am not surprised. Its formula is better, it has more punch and its camera work is simpler and it is faster than ours. Are you sure you have the right producer for the new show? On its success depends a great deal of the success of our Saturday night plan.”
Another BBC executive, Eric Maschwitz wrote, “The idea is to get as much life and movement and noise out of a simple presentation as possible without cluttering up the studio and the screen with juvenile delinquents.” The final ‘6.5 Special’ was broadcast on 27 December 1958: “The content was poor, the presentation and the camerawork very poor and the whole thing had no reason for its existence on our screen.”
Would ‘Drumbeat’ do the trick?