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Popular Music on British Television

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The 1960s


There was no reason to believe that the 1st January 1960 would be any different to the 31st December 1959 and it wasn’t, but what would happen between the 1st January 1960 and 31st December 1969 would lead anyone to believe that it wasn’t even the same century, let alone the same decade.

The Tommys and the Cliffs would be television regulars for the first three years. They were popular, safe, reliable and good value. They could handle singing, dancing if necessary, comedy routines, duets with guests, everything was at least given a good go. The Val Parnell factory continued to turn out Spectaculars for ATV with not only Cliff, but also new finds like Adam Faith and there was really no sense from anyone concerned that this was about to end, but end it did. They had no idea of what was to hit them in 1963, but until then they were gainfully employed to hoof it around Elstree singing medleys with Alma Cogan and Petula Clark, introducing the latest singing sensation from France, playing straight man feeding lines to Arthur Haynes and wrapping it up with an old hit. A good menu for a night in. Only diversions like The Twist would occasionally change the flavour.

The decade started with the end of Mr Rock and Roll Television, Jack Good. Boys Meets Girls, his second series for ABC would come to an end just before occasional guest Eddie Cochran died in April 1960, while his third show Wham! would also only last one series and would rely too much on charisma free British singers. Good would leave the UK and take his Oh, Boy! formula to the USA. His ventures were seen as a failure and now Pop TV was back in the hands of established station producers. This, together with the decision made in June 1960 that pop only shows were to be abandoned in favour of pop singers and trad jazz bands being parachuted into existing variety formats would have been seen as surrender, but in reality television was only reacting the perceived disinterest that the public was having with pop music at the time. No new major pop stars had been made since the 'Oh, Boy!' era, but we now know they didn't have to wait long for Merseybeat to come to our rescue.

Pop only shows were not new, Jack Good had shown the way, but it was still surprising that ABC were willing to give it another go, and on Saturday tea-time at that, but Thank Your Lucky Stars, which debuted locally in April 1961, would be the most important pop show of the early sixties. Hosted by BBC and Radio Luxembourg DJs Brian Matthew and Keith Fordyce and later by Jim Dale, the networked version of the show brought us The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and many other future superstars plugging their new hits. But when the series began it targeted the female audience who were probably buying most of the pop records at the time, boys just didn't want to know. Their time would come in 1963.

1962 came along and station producers still clung on to trad jazz acts, which was only fair, Mr Acker Bilk's 'Stranger On The Shore' wasn't only the biggest single of 1961 in the UK, but in America too the following year. Ex-trad jazz player Lonnie Donegan had become a big star at ATV with his Putting On The Donegan series, while they also shoe-horned rocker Billy Fury into All That Jazz which didn't really suit him at all. But jazz bands with their quartets, quintets etc were seen as good value for money and they filled the screen nicely.

The failing pop music scene was still regularly represented on both ITV and BBC from parlour games like Juke Box Jury through to Saturday tea-time all pop shows like Thank Your Lucky Stars and pulling in good audiences too, but in May 1962 a band from Dagenham, Essex called Brian Poole and The Tremeloes made their TV debut on the show. Although hardly a seismic shift in itself, and the record they were plugging wasn’t a big hit, but this was the beginning of the next chapter. Within a year everything would change. Television presentation would change, the sound would change, the attitude would change, it wouldn’t be family-defined fun, it would be our and ours alone. Lionel Blair, Mike and Bernie, Eric and Ernie would still be present as they were the hosts, The Beatles mere guests, but the Fabs were comedy conscious, they were there to have fun, not looking awkward and sticking to the script like a professional as Adam Faith did, but engaging with the likes of Ken Dodd, Morecambe and Wise and Mike and Bernie Winters, almost as comedy equals.

Producers wanting to put pop stars on television more often than not reduced them to singing / lip synching to their new release and not to engage then in banter with the host unless it was strictly scripted. The wit of the new, mostly Scouse talent like The Beatles, Cilla Black, Gerry Marsden that came through in 1963 was a unexpected birthday present to producers who made friends with Brian Epstein immediately and gave him access to the kind of theatre and television contacts that he only would have got had be been a success at RADA. Pop music had never been considered regional before the term Merseybeat had been cast, but there it was and North-West TV channels Granada and ABC had never felt so important. The competition that had barely been suppressed between the ITV companies (particularly between ABC and ATV) now came into the open. Who could deliver the best and most relevant pop show on British television using their regional talent and connections. Granada and ABC were obviously the first out of the traps with Liverpool on their doorstep, but the award would eventually go to the London-based Associated Rediffusion with their mod tailored Ready, Steady, Go! But there was one notable absentee from the party, ATV. Due to the old school, strictly variety nature of their contacts the best they could offer was still Cliff Richard and occasional pop acts in their variety and sketch shows, and despite their pop business (ATV's parent company also owned Pye Records) they failed to make a decent pop show until 1978's Revolver. Not only did pop infiltrate all-family variety shows, but also children's shows. This had been going on since Crackerjack in the fifties, but Associated Rediffusion's The Five O’clock Club, with its mixture of pets, puppets and pop behaved like a younger sibling to Ready, Steady, Go!

Commercial television had pretty much taken the lead due to the BBC's disinterest and lack of money. It was obvious that 'Juke Box Jury' was showing its age and they felt that had to respond properly this time. The BBC's Light Entertainment boss Bill Cotton Jr had the idea to respond to Rediffusion's Ready, Steady, Go! with a show which only featured songs in the chart, which the public would already know from the radio, rather than featuring unknowns and imports from America. Top Of The Pops launched on New Year's Day to good ratings and a good reception for the four DJs who would work in a weekly rotation. The show would not be without its problems. The decision to broadcast from Manchester would restrict the number of visiting American acts, while many British acts who moved to London would have to take the ageing plane specially set aside for the show northwards. On some occasion the weather would determine who would appear on the show and who wouldn't. After an experiment in summer 1965 the show moved to London permanently in January 1966. 1964 also saw the introduction of an alternative channel, BBC2 which would almost immediately gain its own Ready, Steady, Go! knock off, the sadly forgotten (due to lack of remaining footage) Beat Room.

Most of the regional ITA stations would contribute something to the pot during the year, TWW's Discs A Go-Go, Southern's Dad You're A Square, Ulster's Pop Scene, Border's Beat In The Border among others suggested advertising revenue was money well spent.

1965 wouldn't see much of a change with practically all the major shows remaining, with only Beat Room failing to get a Happy New Year, being as it was replaced by the clumsy sounding Gadzooks It's All Happening. However Rediffusion were plotting Ready, Steady Go!'s demise as many of their ITV partners had started to replace the show, seeing its tea-time slot probably too potentially lucrative to waste on a pop show. But in the meanwhile Ready, Steady Go! continued in it's 6:08 to 7:00 pm slot locally. In October 1965 it was made public that the producers had a replacement planned for the new year. Fans were genuinely hurt and shocked that such a move had been suggested, let alone acted upon, but they were given a reprieve, either through public support or the proposed replacement was never given enough support by other ITV channels.

However 1966 would be the watershed year for pop music on British television. Despite the special status we now grant the year, voted in many polls as the greatest year for pop music ever, it was bad news for Ready, Steady, Go!, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Shindig! (in the USA) and very nearly the end of the line for Top Of The Pops too. Ratings fell for many of the shows we now see as untouchable classics and overhauls were plotted and planned. ATV's new soap Crossroads had been successful and other ITV stations had chosen to go with that instead at tea-time, either moving Ready, Steady Go! to another time-slot, or day even, or dropping it altogether. Even Rediffusion would admit that maybe it's time was over and reduced the show to half an hour to accommodate the Crossroads motel. By April 1966 the writing was on the wall for Saturday tea-time regular Thank Your Lucky Stars, with most of the ITV channels deciding not to take it, some replacing it with farming soap Weaver's Green, relegating an edited version of Thank Your Lucky Stars to Sunday afternoons. Despite it's planned funeral the likes of The Kinks and The Rolling Stones still continued to appear in person on the show, but the show had fallen into a variety show format after the DJ hosts and Spin-A-Disc had been dropped in favour of the nervous and awkward looking new host Jim Dale. Meanwhile, BBC1 decided to try a brave new project, more in keeping with the ethos of BBC2 if anything, a youth club of the air, A Whole Scene Going. Hosted by Barry Fantoni and Wendy Varnals teenagers contributed to the show rather than remaining the passive dancers or onlookers, while the music acts that appeared would be Ready, Steady Go! friendly. It wouldn't last, but provided a useful template for shows like Something Else and the Oxford Road Show many years later.

1967 wouldn't see new replacements for the mod and teenage shows as the flower children didn't watch television, preferring to make their own happenings, and while over-earnest documentaries about the new scene filled up airtime the music that inspired this new wave would barely be seen. Radio Caroline DJ Simon Dee was given his own chat show. Dee Time on BBC1 which would give a couple of new releases a chance between the guests in a regular chat show format which would continue on BBC1 until the late sixties.

The only major occurrence in the history of pop on British television in the latter half of the sixties would be the pop star as variety show host. Previously it would be established comedy teams or all round entertainers given the host's job, but by 1969, Lulu, Cilla, Sandie Shaw, Tom Jones, and even Scott Walker were given their own series. Lulu and Cilla, together with Cliff Richard would indulge the usual variety mix of songs, comedy and dance routines which proved so popular at the beginning of the sixties. But something was missing, a little colour perhaps?