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TV Pop Diaries
Pop Music on British Television 1955 - 1999

On Saturday evening 16th February 1957 at 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 Postmaster General had announced in the House of Commons the previous December that there would be a relaxation or abolition of the rule which forbade television broadcasting between the hours of 6 and 7 pm each evening.


The news and features programme Tonight, launched the previous week, filled the gap from Monday to Friday. With the rumour that ITV 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. The show was tried out on a six-week run, but proved itself very quickly. 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, something that Jack Good would pursue with Oh Boy. 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!


The show also had guest comics each week with Mike and Bernie Winters taking most weeks, but Graham Stark, Charlie Drake, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers also made appearances.


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.


Trad' jazz, a British re-working of New Orleans and Dixieland jazz from the 1910's and 20's was easily the most popular music on the live circuit at the time with hundreds of bands up and down Britain all playing the same basic repertoire with only costumes to distinguish them from one another. This also provided a big pool of talent for the producers to pick from over the course of the show's existence.


Other features included a film clip, a sports item hosted usually by boxer Freddie Mills and an interview. However, Mills was retained after the sports spot was later dropped. The scripts for the early shows were provided by Trevor Peacock, better known later as a songwriter and actor, while the later shows were scripted by Jeremy Lloyd, who would emigrate to America and star in Laugh-In before returning to the UK to co-write Are You Being Served. When the BBC caught up with skiffle The Bob Cort Skiffle Group were enlisted to record the memorable theme tune just a matter of hours before the first show was broadcast. That version was replaced six months later by Don Lang who would perform it live on the show.


The show proved popular, not just with the audience, but with the BBC too who had originally intended to rest the show in the summer of 1957, but unusually it was allowed to run.


In one early show they hired a Bill Haley impersonator to make an appearance, but not to perform. He had apparently fooled Tommy Steele who passed him in the corridor.


The show became so popular that a movie version was also made in late 1957 and released Easter 1958. It is currently available on blu-ray from Network. Parlophone also released a soundtrack album, recreating the atmosphere of the show in a recording studio. Decca also cashed in by releasing Stars From Six-Five Special in early 1958, featuring Decca acts who had appeared in the show.


Regulars, Don Lang’s Frantic Five became a sort of house band supporting visiting singers. 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 studios at Lime Grove in London, but occasionally made ventures outside 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. Jack Good told Melody Maker "We will try to see just what it is that makes the 2I's the birthplace of the stars. To capture the true atmosphere of the place we are screening as many as possible of the stars who have been discovered there." They also had a boat race featuring Humphrey Lyttelton, Mike and Bernie Winters, Tommy Steele, Freddie Mills, Pete Murray and vocal group The Southlanders.


BBC radio producer Dennis Main-Wilson was assigned to produce the show, on alternate weeks with Good, starting in November 1957, much to Good's consternation. Wilson favoured big band jazz, while Good still wanted to include skiffle and small groups. Main-Wilson told Melody Maker "Jack thinks I am a square. I may think he is one. We're definitely out to give viewers our own distinct types of presentation in future." An unidentified musician complained to Melody Maker in early 1958 about the conflict between the music and the comedy that the show also was a part of the show. "What a drag. Some weeks they rehearse nothing but comedy, this week it's all music."


In late 1957 Main-Wilson introduced a new weekly section where he would assemble a skiffle band from noted instrumentalists. Talking to The Stage at the time he said "My intention is to form a new group each time and call upon them to play requests from our audience. It will all be impromptu, with no previous rehearsal, thus reviving the best traditions of jazz".


The show was considered popular and important enough to help see out 1957 as The Twelve-Five Special was broadcast live from the restaurant of the Queen Elizabeth building at London International Airport on New Year's Eve. Producer Jack Good told the New Musical Express "Our original choice, the Cafe de Paris, would have been too small for our equipment. And, in any case, it was felt unwise to leave BBC vans in the West End, at the height of the revelry." However, it was not to be a happy new year for Good. It was announced in January 1958 that his contract was not to be renewed by the BBC. Good was later quoted as saying "I had no idea the BBC had announced that I had left.... we were negotiating a new contract." It was suggested that Good had intended to take the show out on the road, but failed to get the BBC's permission to use the name and concept.


The Six-Five Special went on the road in January and February 1958. However, confusion followed with three different shows on the road. The Six-Five Stage show, promoted by Harold Fielding got the backing by Jack Good and featured Jo Douglas, Pete Murray and Freddie Mills, with musical guests The John Barry Seven, Cab Kaye's Quintet and the Five Dallas Boys. Stars Of The Six-Five Special At The 2 I's opened its tour at the Metropolitan in the Edgware Road, London with Wee Willie Harris, Les Hobeaux, Tony Crombie's Rockets and The Most Brothers, while Stars Of The Six-Five Special featured Don Lang and his Frantic Five, Kenny Baker and his Half-Dozen, Jimmy Jackson Skiffle Group, Carl Barriteau and Rosemary Squires, plus a skiffle group from each town they visit. However, the show faced bans from councils who would not allow rock and roll or skiffle to be played on Sundays. The Musicians Union also forced amateur skifflers on the show to join the union (at £5 per band member) or face bans. However, when the shows got under way in March and April they were poorly attended. Arthur Howes, promoter of one of the shows told Melody Maker "Six-Five is on its way out as swiftly as it came in." Tony Crombie walked out of the show in a dispute over money.


There were also plans afoot to broadcast the show from Paris, Hamburg and maybe Rome and Copenhagen.


In January 1958 the show held a fortnightly contest, The National Skiffle Championship, promoted by Stanley Dale. For thirteen weeks two groups from different parts of the country would compete, with the best acts appearing on a Parlophone album. The contest was introduced by Jim Dale. Also in early 1958 Pete Murray began writing a weekly feature, 'Over The Points', for Disc magazine.


There was no doubt that ITV were jealous of the show's success and were out to dethrone it. The Jack Jackson Show was to be moved by ATV from Sunday nights and placed directly opposite in mid-January 1958. An unidentified record plugger told Melody Maker "... it won't make any difference moving The Jack Jackson Show to six o'clock on Saturdays. '65 Special' is still the kids programme." The same article seemed to nail the concept of the show. "The '6.5 Special' has changed direction somewhat since the early missionary days. Then, the idea was apparently to use rock 'n' roll as the bait to bring our teenagers into contact with some of the finer things in life." In reality it would have achieved the exact opposite, bringing adults into the teens' world.


Guest Humphrey Lyttelton had a backstage argument with producer / presenter Josephene Douglas on the 1st February 1958 show. He explained his stance in an article for Melody Maker. "My short barney with Jo Douglas on 'Six-Five Special' was only a fragment of the argument which went on all day in rehearsal and run-through. I appreciate the dilemma of the defenders of the programme - they have to fight simultaneously on two fronts. Confronted by the fans, they must protest that the musical fare they put on - skiffle, rock - the lot, is good stuff. Backstage they can afford to admit that perhaps a lot of it is not so hot. Then the defence switches to - "What can we do? It's what the public wants." ... I think Jo Douglas gave a strong hint about the real state of affairs when she argued that some of the more eccentric performers had "news value"." It was obvious in the pages of the jazz slanted Melody Maker in the mid to late fifties that jazzers felt rock and roll and skiffle was somehow encroaching into their territory and stealing fans. That may have been true, but they weren't getting so many new fans, particularly females who found the rockers more attractive. Lyttelton was invited back onto the show in May, after Douglas had left.


On Friday 21st February 1958 the BBC held a cocktail party to celebrate the show's first anniversary, but Jack Good was not invited. A large birthday cake with a miniature train running around the edge was provided by Disc, the music weekly that Jack Good wrote for.


According to Good (after he had left the show) a male singer had got stuck in the toilet during a live transmission and heard the introduction to his song 'The Gift' being played. Thankfully he managed to get out in time to sing the final chorus.


It was announced on 25th March 1958 that Freddie Mills, Pete Murray and Josephine Douglas would be leaving the show. It was probably no coincidence that ABC had announced a new show to go head to head with the Six-Five Special and the press speculated that Pete Murray would be the host. Explaining his reason for leaving to Disc music paper Murray said "It has been said that I asked for three times the money I have been getting. This is far from true, and the increase requested was not so much more than I was getting. The BBC, however, declined to meet the request." Dennis Main-Wilson told the Melody Maker "We knew Jo and Freddie were going - but Pete Murray's leaving came as a bombshell. We had big plans for him. We aimed to build up his 'week's record choice' spot. As one of the top disc-jockeys in the country, he was the ideal man for this feature." Russell Turner who with Dennis Main-Wilson were now leading the production team told the New Musical Express at the time "Even after Jo goes we may not even engage any replacement. We want to concentrate as far as possible on the music, keeping announcements to a minimum. It is highly probable that we shall make do with the artists on each particular show, without booking regular hosts." However Max Bygraves joined Josephine Douglas to co-host the show on 5th April. Despite the assurance that a lack of a host would benefit the show Murray's replacement was announced in April as Jim Dale, who had been a one-hit wonder with Be My Girl in November 1957 and had been hosting the skiffle contest portion of the show already and would co-host the show with Josephine Douglas until her departure. It wouldn't be the last time Jim Dale was called upon to take a show to its conclusion.


Douglas left the show 10th May 1958 to go freelance (producing hit ITV drama Emergency Ward Ten and several Hammer movies), while the show's resident comics Mike and Bernie Winters would also leave the same edition.


In addition to the presenter problems there also seemed to be production issues after Good's dismissal as he would be replaced by Dennis Main-Wilson, then Russell Turner, then Duncan Wood, joined shortly after by Bill Cotton Jnr. Turner produced four shows from 19th April 1958 while Dennis Main-Wilson prepared to take over afterwards, promising new talent and a new set design.


Asked about the future musical direction the show would take after the three hosts leave Dennis Main-Wilson explained "It is changing all the time, we follow the teenagers tastes - and often lead them. But I can tell you this - with ballads and good ballad singers coming back, the emphasis in future will be on good music."


The show was drastically cut down to 15 minutes for the May 17th show to accommodate a cricket match, displaying the show's vulnerability.


On 2nd August 1958 another regular Rosemary Squires leaves the show. Talking to Melody Maker she claimed "Frankly, I think last Saturday's show will prove to be my last. Producer Dennis Main-Wilson, who handled my previous spots is leaving the show and I don't think Russell Turner - who is taking over - is particularly interested in having me." While later in the month Jim Dale told the Melody Maker "I certainly don't intend to outstay my welcome on Six-Five", explaining his intention to go into comedy.


On 13th September 1958 ABC's Oh Boy! debuts, produced by ex-Six-Five's Jack Good. Talking to Melody Maker he told them "Both shows will be on at the same peak viewing time. I relish the idea of a really good battle. And I would disregard any BBC comment that they are not concerned. The idea of the BBC giving 'Six-Five' a face lift on the same day that we start our new show is too much of a coincidence." The BBC would not reveal its plans for Six-Five until September 8th. Producer Russell Turner told Melody Maker "We want to get the maximum press coverage at the right time. We are not worried a bit about 'Oh Boy!' After all, we have a well-established and extremely popular show and like to see competition. But we have two very big points in our favour. ABC TV cannot reach so many people and our show will be 25 minutes longer than 'Oh Boy!'" He added "We have built an entirely new set at Riverside Studio 1 to present the show in the best possible way. This new policy doesn't mean we shall ignore new talent. We are also including a 'Critics Choice' spot, in which top pop journalists will be featured." Quite how talking about pop is better than listening to non-stop pop offered by Oh Boy wasn't explained, but this certainly precedes the Juke Box Jury format which the BBC would quickly turn to when Six-Five finished.


In an attempt to draw viewers away from the new weekly Oh Boy! new producer Russell Turner recruits six new female presenters to the show in September 1958 – Liela Williams (who would later go on to present Blue Peter), Hilary Martyn, Eve Eden, Tina Winters, Margaret Lorraine and Janine Gray. They are referred to as the ‘Six-Five Dates’. Asked about their role in the show, producer Turner told Melody Maker "We haven't finally decided. But we shall employ them for continuity in some way. I have been interviewing show girls, models and actresses all week. after about 60 interviews you begin to get a bit dizzy." A new much larger set is built, but rock and roll and skiffle will be dropped in favour of more traditional big band music. Talking to Melody Maker Russell Turner "We have given 'Six-Five' a new big-band look. As resident groups we have signed up Tony Osborne and his Brass Hats and Tito Burns and his Six-Fivers." The Brasshats feature four trumpets, and piccolo, four trombones and tuba, bass guitar, drums and percussion. The other band would be led by future talent agent Tito Burns, and features Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes from The Jazz Couriers, but the group would be let go in November. While each week a spotlight will fall on soloists from the various bands that appear. Guest bands were being booked from the launch until Christmas 1958. The decision to drop rock n roll just as the rock n roll led Oh Boy show goes on air was seen as a mistake which would lead to the premature end of the show.


Inevitably, both Six-Five Special and Oh Boy! announced that their show was most popular on the night, but Oh Boy actually got the edge.


Talking to The Stage in September 1958 producer Turner claimed that the show was getting a thousand letters a week and their musical tastes were learning towards big band and big names in pop music. For some reason a TV critic would guest each week, while the best jiving couple each week would be asked back. In October producer Turner begins a weekly column for Disc, but unbeknown to him the show has only weeks left. He claims in the first article that the show will make a new album, in stereo, of three of the show's bands. He also claimed in October "We always prefer to give the first spin to a disc. If a record has been played on radio or any other television show it won't normally find a spot on 'Six-Five'." This pre-dates the 'first play' nonsense that shows indulged in much later in the sixties.


In October Oh Boy experiences problems with some of its regular artists who suddenly decide to leave. Marty Wilde and Ronnie Carroll both find a new home at the Six-Five. But despite the inclusion of rocker Wilde, the show still prefers to present singers like Carroll and Craig Douglas, who is signed to appear on six consecutive shows.


In late November 1958 the BBC, despite their claim of five million viewers, have to make a decision to allow the show to continue, albeit with more changes, replace it with a new show aimed at teenagers, or drop the show completely. A couple of weeks' later the BBC confirm that "structural alterations to give the show a new look" were on the cards, probably in the new year. A spokesman for the BBC told Disc "Fashions change in music, but whatever the outcome, the format for the new show will be of appeal to teenagers." A rumour that the show will be rested for three months but then be replaced with a big band show also circulate. Jim Dale would later claim in Disc that he decided to leave the show before the BBC pulled the plug on it. Before the show was brought to a close an old name reappeared. Don Lang had quit the show but had been brought back after the reboot.


After so many administrative problems and a change in music policy an inevitable drop in popularity followed. Despite the drop outside broadcasts were still being planned up to Christmas, including a visit to London Airport. Russell Turner told Melody Maker in October 1958 that "It looks as though we shall be on for ever. We introduced the New Look 'Six-Five' on September 13. I'm already working on a new New Look series for January, February and March of next year." It was unlikely that he had been given assurance of the show's extension by the BBC.


The 29th November 1958 edition of Melody Maker asked "Has Oh Boy! run Six-Five Special off the rails at last?" A meeting of the producers was taking place to decide its future. The two resident bands run by Tony Osborne and Tito Burns had been let go. Jack Good was not crowing about his old employers' situation "I only hope that we have such a long and successful run."


The show was finally buried by Oh Boy! Ahead of the final shows Russell Turner, the shows' final producer told Disc "It has been estimated that during its run Six-Five has been seen by 784 million people, This means that the total audience for all the shows would fill the London Palladium once nightly, seven days a week for 914 years. In other words the run would have had to start in the year 1044, 22 years before the Norman Conquest." The show was also being spoofed by acts like Morris and Mitch who released a Decca EP in 1958, called Six-Five Nothing Special.


Jim Dale announced at the beginning of the final show "Your last chance to jive on the ol' Six-Five." The final show seemed to be an example of self-pity rather than self-celebration as all the jiving teenagers, the very image that people remember, the image of the soundtrack album cover, were out and celebrities were herded in. 250 invites were sent out. Alumni Jo Douglas, Pete Murray and Freddie Mills had all been invited to appear on the final show, while the audience would be made up of celebrities and acts that had previously appeared on the show. Also appearing would be Disc photographer Richi Howell, who estimates that had taken over five thousand photos on set.


Despite the fact that it was not an exclusively a rock and roll or skiffle show, and never set out to be, it is often mistakenly referred to as Britain's first rock and roll show, however it made stars of Tommy Steele, Terry Dene, Laurie London, Jim Dale and many other early British pop stars.


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 Saturday evening variety shows.



SIX-FIVE SPECIAL


BBC

16th February 1957 - 27th December 1958