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Popular Music on British Television

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BILLY COTTON

BBC / BBC1
29th March 1956 - 20th July 1968

Rightly referred to by Pete Waterman as the "Churchill of light entertainment" Billy Cotton entertained our nation better than just about anyone. His rotund belly filled our screens for decades after world war two, becoming Britain's first proper television star.

Cotton and his band had been a popular live attraction since the late twenties and had been recording since the early 1930s, but it was post war when he really became a superstar. His The Billy Cotton Bandshow ran for nearly twenty years on the Light Programme, and his calling card of "wakey,wake-aaaay!" usually meant lunch was ready for an entire nation.

In 1956 after briefly hosting his own series for ATV he moved to the BBC. He was given two shows, the first was to host The Tin Pan Alley Show, then his own series, Bill Cotton Calls Wakey-Wakey.

Throughout his shows Cotton, backed by his band, would play dance numbers, novelty songs, sing-a-long showstoppers, and between the merriment there would be comics, guest musicians and later on pop acts.

The show made stars of pianists Russ Conway and Mrs Mills, comedians like Roy Hudd and Ted Rogers, gave comedy writers like Terry Jones and Michael Palin an early break, while Michael Hurll and Terry Hughes would be among the show's directors.

In May 1958 pop cast its shadow for the first time when Lonnie Donegan was a guest, but the majority of the shows' guests would continue to be singers like Alma Cogan, Shanni Wallis, Kathie Kay and Eve Boswell. The 1961 season stepped it up a bit with Cliff Richard and The Shadows, John Leyton, Adam Faith and Ricky Stevens, while the next few years saw Cotton greet The Springfields, Cliff Richard, Jet Harris & Tony Meehan, Joe Brown and His Bruvvers, Helen Shapiro, Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas, Roy Orbison, Dionne Warwick, Gerry And The Pacemakers, Cilla Black, The Seekers, Tom Jones and many more from the charts.

However, it would be the 26th August 1967 show that would be the most memorable. Scott Walker had gone solo and had chosen the show to promote his debut album. He was not a stranger to the show having appeared with The Walker Brothers in October 1966, while his 'brother' John appeared on the show plugging his hit Annabella on 15th July, and a later appearance which saw him dragged off the stage by fans. Scott began with an uptempo take on the standard More. He then took the opportunity to plug his debut album 'released tomorrow' by performing My Death with Cotton's band. Despite this unexpected assault the audience took it well and he was invited back onto the show in May 1968, a few weeks before the show finished for good.

Cotton and his producer son Bill Jr continued to invite the very best like Gene Pitney and Bobbie Gentry onto the show until the end. There would be another Cotton Band special for BBC2, while Bill likely made his final TV appearance on Cilla's show before his death on 25th March 1969.