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THE SIX-FIVE SPECIAL

BBC
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 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 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 her departure.


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.