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 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
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
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 band 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. 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'
in 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 late 1957 the producer Dennis Main-Wilson introduced a new weekly
section where he would assemble a skiffle band from noted instrumentalist. Talking
to The Stage at the time Main-Wilson 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 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.
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.
In early 1958 the show held a fortnightly contest to find the best new skiffle group
in Britain. Each week two groups from different parts of the country would compete,
with the best acts appearing on a Parlophone album.
It was announced on 25th March 1958 that Freddie Mills, Pete Murray and Josephine
Douglas would be leaving the show. It was probably no co-incidence that ABC had announced
a new show to go head to head with the Six-Five Special and the press speculated
that Pete Murray was to be the host. 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. He would co-host the show with Josephine Douglas until
Douglas left the show in 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 on the same show, 10th May 1958.
Further production upheavals stemmed from January 1958 when producer 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 Dennis Main-Wilson, Russell Turner, then
by 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.
On Friday 21st February 1958 the BBC held a cocktail party to celebrate the shows'
first anniversary, but Jack Good was not invited. A large birthday cake with a miniature
train running around the edge was also provided.
In an attempt to draw viewers away from a 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, Janine Gray. They are referred to as the ‘Six-Five Dates’. A new
much larger set is built, but rock and roll and skiffle will be dropped in favour
of more traditional band music. In an interview with The Stage in September 1958
the producer Russell 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.
After so many administrative problems and a change in music policy an inevitable
drop in popularity followed. The show was finally buried after ITV 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.
Despite the fact that it was not an exclusively a rock and roll show, and never set
out to be, it is often mistakenly referred to as Britain's first rock and roll show.
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.