TV Pop Diaries

Popular Music on British Television

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The 1950s

Television ownership in Britain rose dramatically thanks to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, but glancing at the BBC’s post-Coronation output it was obvious that they were doing little to keep this new audience. Many people felt that they had bought a very expensive box, with the cheapest fourteen-inch screen at just under fifty pounds, plus a two-pound television receiving licence, renewable every year. With an average weekly wage of about five pounds thirteen shillings, there must have been a great temptation to send the set back to the rental company after The Big Day. However, the Government had previously announced in April 1953 that the BBC’s monopoly of television broadcasting was to come to an end, so maybe there would be a reason to take the table cloth off ‘the box’ after all, but you would have to wait.

In August 1954 the Times carried the call for a declaration of interest from any parties that wanted to run any of the new commercial channels with the largest areas up for grabs first. Newspaper owners, cinema chain owners, theatrical entrepreneurs, television rental companies all applied and won contracts.

With the threat of losing its audience with the introduction of ITV in September 1955 the BBC decided to increase its output by another thirteen hours per week, implementing this change just a few days before the debut of the new commercial channel. The first commercial service was only available in London and it would take over four years for the whole country to be covered, so the BBC would still have the majority audience, but this would inevitable decrease as the ITV service spread. What would they do to draw attention away from the more seductive newcomer?

I chose the inception of ITV as the starting point for this web site as it (kind of) coincided with the rise in popularity of what we know now as rock and roll, but despite its popularity there would be little or place for it just yet on British television as this new art-form was uniquely American and it would take time for any of the American acts to appear here in the UK, therefore any reference to it on British television would more than likely be tawdry, but newsworthy items on Teddy Boys ripping up cinemas to the tune of 'Rock Around The Clock'.

With rock and roll being out of their remit established BBC producers at that time couldn't be expected to conjure up any kind of show targeting the new rock and roll audience, so a new boy was brought forward to be the guinea pig. Jack Good had been a production apprentice and the task was handed to him to fill in the Saturday tea-time slot. Good single handily changed the look of British light entertainment, but usually gets overlooked in favour of the comedy and variety producers.

A small trickle of chart entries for early rock and roll began here in the UK in 1955 with releases by Boyd Bennett and Bill Haley, while a Fats Domino cover by Pat Boone suggested that some small change was at least happening. In the first few weeks of 1956 The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon, The Platters and of course, Elvis Presley hit the UK chart, but it was the early Pye chart hits for Lonnie Donegan and more importantly a re-issue of his 1954 Decca recording Rock Island Line that really determined the look and sound of popular music on British television. Since Donegan was local he could be called upon to appear at reasonably short notice, but so far I can find no personal appearance on British television before December 1956. Further hits for American acts like Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino were also matched with the British record industry's first attempt at a rock and roll star, Tommy Steele, but so far I can find no appearance for him on British television in 1956, likewise Britain's Tony Crombie and His Rockets. They finally gave in during February 1957 when the BBC premiered The Six-Five Special, and although not strictly speaking a rock and roll show (it wasn't even uniquely skiffle) at least it didn't pretend it didn't exist.

As the ratings for the 'Special' were high for the BBC it was given a long run, until, in a strange move even by BBC standards, Jack Good was allowed to leave and went to commercial television. His next project Oh, Boy! would be Britain's first proper rock and roll show. A non-stop medley of songs with a supporting cast of jazz musicians and girl singers, the show would make stars of Britain's next wave of rockers, Cliff Richard, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and many others from the Larry Parnes stable of stars.

How this new breed were visibly presented was given greater importance. If you were a new Pye or Decca recording artist and appearing on TV for the first time the label wouldn’t want you looking like a greaser or a Ted, despite the fact that that was the audience the singer would want to appeal to. No leather jackets, no teddy boys, no brothel creepers, but nice suits and controllable quiffs were allowed. Singers seemed to be very polite. If you were seen to be disrespectful not just to elders, but to the likes of the Grades and Delfont you won’t find work. Prime time rockers like Cliff, Marty, Tommy Steele were non-confrontational and had to be if they wanted to work. The Grades held the key to the next level, the all-round entertainer. Cliff and Tommy decided to go with it, Marty didn’t and headed for almost obscurity for the next few years. Billy Fury knew that sticking with the formula was the way to go if he was have a future, but even he couldn't have predicted that talent from his home town would determine what happened next. He was from Liverpool.