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Popular Music on British Television

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16th February 1957 - 27th December 1958

On Saturday evening 16th February 1957 6:00 pm there was a five minute news bulletin. The first edition of The Six-Five Special followed. This was to be the BBC’s response to the end of the ‘toddler’s truce’, the space between the end of tea-time broadcasting and the beginning of evening broadcasting which allowed fretting parents to get their children off to bed with the false assurance that broadcasting had actually ended for the day.

The news and features programme Tonight, launched the previous week, filled the gap from Monday to Friday. With the rumour that ITA were seeking to abolish their toddler’s truce the BBC needed to respond quickly, and preferably, cheaply. The idea for a youth-club style show was put forward and the working title of Start The Night Right was proposed. The budget for the first proper show was £1000. Twenty-six year-old Jack Good was given the job as co-producer, with Radio Luxembourg presenter Pete Murray and the other co-producer Josephine Douglas acting as hosts. It was Douglas’ job to ‘interpret’ Murray’s would-be jive talk for the older, presumably parental, viewers. A typical early show included The King Brothers, Bobby & Rudy, Kenny Baker & His Jazzband and in a rather surreal edition Russian pianist Pousihnoff to add some gravity to the proceedings. A lot of the home-grown rock and roll provided by the new bands seemed to rely heavily on nursery rhyme lyrics set to a rock and roll beat. It’s probable that most of these groups had been around for some time and had decided to give up playing trad jazz and give the new beat music a go. The antagonism felt by jazz players toward the new rock and roll verged on fanaticism, however when offered the chance to earn more money by playing the devil’s new music, few said no, for example Benny Green on the show Oh Boy!.

No major American rock n roll act ever appeared on the show in person, probably due to the British Musicians Union outrage at the new American music, no rock n roll act worth their salt would ever be in a Union, but mostly because the minuscule budget wouldn’t stretch enough to temp any visiting star. Luckily for the BBC the skiffle boom was uniquely British, so they had no trouble finding any number of skiffle combos willing to fill any amount of airspace that the producers had, so there was little or no need to employ any American talent. Besides, many American acts would only appear in the UK when their American chart tenure was at an end. When the bigger British skiffle stars like Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele had accepted lucrative tour offers, television gigs at about £25 a time didn’t seem so attractive, so new and cheaper talent was always tempting to a budget conscious producer.

Other features included a film clip, a sports item hosted usually by boxer Freddie Mills and an interview. When the BBC caught up with skiffle The Bob Cort Skiffle Group were enlisted to record the memorable theme tune. The show became so popular that a movie version was also made in 1957. Regulars, Don Lang’s Frantic Five became a sort of house band supporting visiting singers. One regular act was Jim Dale, whose ‘Be My Girl’ was a hit in November 1957 and later would become a host of the show, replacing Murray in April 1958. The hit show American Bandstand had learned how to save money by playing records and filling the studio with dancers, and this tactic was employed by The Six-Five Special. The programme was usually broadcast live from the BBC’s premises at Lime Grove in London, but occasionally made ventures outside of the studio with shows from Glasgow in May 1957 and a show on 16th November 1957 from the legendary Two I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, London. Douglas left in May 1958 to go freelance (producing hit ITV drama Emergency Ward Ten and several Hammer movies), replaced by Dennis Main-Wilson. Resident comics Mike and Bernie Winters would also leave on the same show, 10th May 1958.

Further production upheavals occurred in January 1958 when Jack Good’s contract was not renewed. Good had intended to take out a touring version of the show with himself as producer, but had neglected to get the BBC’s permission to use the name and format. Good was replaced by Duncan Wood, joined shortly after by Bill Cotton Jnr. After so many administrative problems and a change in music policy an inevitable drop in popularity followed. The show was finally buried after ITA decided to show the frenetic Jack Good produced Oh Boy! head to head with The Six-Five Special. “It’s time to jive on the ol’ six-five” would never be heard again.

Only two shows exist in the BBC archive, one from the final few weeks (22nd November 1958) made at a USAF base, featuring Lita Roza singing atop a fork-lift truck. There was virtually no rock n roll content in the show by this time with the show mutating into just another of the BBC’s variety shows.