COAL IN THE BOILER, BURNING UP BRIGHT
Spencer Leigh sifts through the management files for the BBC’s first pop show, 6.5 Special.
This article was published in Now Dig This is May 2005. I had watched 6.5 Special as an adolescent and it was very enjoyable to research it from a totally different angle as I read the management files, which are held at the BBC Written Archives Centre, just outside of Reading. Unfortunately, I had to rely on my memory of the programme while writing the piece as so little of it remains. From time to time the film of 6.5 Special appears on late-night TV, usually with a few performers omitted.
The accepted wisdom is that ‘6.5 Special’ was the first television show in the UK for teenagers, that Jack Good was the only man with any inkling of what teenagers wanted and that the BBC executives were reluctant to have the programme in their schedules. How much opposition was there to ‘6.5 Special’ and how did the BBC really view it? Up until now, the public has not been privy to the internal correspondence of the BBC, but I have been able to visit their written archives at Caversham and read through the files. The BBC has kept correspondence, scripts and production notes relating to ‘6.5 Special’ and I could hardly believe what I was reading. For the first time ever and with many thanks to the BBC Written Archives, we are able to present the inside story of ‘6.5 Special’.
The hub of activity was Caravan 25 in the Television Centre where the programme’s executive producer Josephine Douglas had her office. Douglas, a RADA graduate, was in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (1950) after which she took a job with the BBC. Her programmes included ‘Saturday Night Date’, ‘Tall Story Club’ and ‘Forces Requests’.
The original intention was to screen a programme for teenagers on Monday evenings following ‘Children’s Hour’. The possible titles were ‘Hi There’, ‘Live It Up’, ‘Take It Easy’, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Start The Night Right’. Jo wasn’t happy with any of them, but on 2 January 1957, she told the Assistant Head, Light Entertainment that she had the title, ‘6.5 Special’, although ‘6.5 Saturday’ was another possibility. She commented, “Trains and allusions thereto are frequently used in jazz parlance and this could be carried through to the billing – ‘Those aboard the 6-5 Special tonight were…’.”
A magazine programme created problems, not least that it would touch on the domains of other producers. Up until then, the BBC only showed film clips in its programme, ‘Picture Parade’, and their management was not happy about ‘6.5 Special’ wanting extracts. And as for interviews, would the ‘6.5 Special’ team be capable of asking anything sensible? Paul Fox, the editor of ‘Sportsview’, expressed his ‘horror’ at the boxing Cooper twins being featured in ‘6.5 Special’. The former boxer and now ‘6.5’ presenter, Freddie Mills had set up the interview and Paul Fox complained about “outsiders dealing with sporting arrangements.” To make it worse, ‘6.5 Special’ would be trailing a fight which was being covered by ATV. Reading through this correspondence, you realise that it is a wonder that the programme ever got off the ground.
The 6.5 Special first chugged out of the station on Saturday 16 February 1957. The producers of the 55 minute show were Josephine Douglas and new boy, Oxford graduate Jack Good, and the designer was Tony Abbott. The hosts were Douglas and Pete Murray and the script was Trevor Peacock. It was broadcast live from the Riverside Studios with an audience of 70 and the planned running order was as follows:
Opening captions (45 seconds)
Mainstream jazz from Kenny Baker and his Dozen (2.30)
Pete Murray, desperately trying to be hip, said, “Welcome aboard the 6.5 Special. We’ve got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us the gas, so let’s get on with it and have a ball.”
It was thought that a translation was necessary, and Jo Douglas added, “Well, I’m just a square, but for all the other squares with us, roughly translated what Pete Murray said was: “We’ve got some lively musicians and personalities mingling with us here, so just relax and catch the mood with us.”
The King Brothers, who had made their mark on the children’s TV talent show, ‘All Your Own’. (5.00)
Tony Hancock was billed to appear, but it didn’t happen: he was replaced by a boys’ choir, but I don’t know why (5.00)
More from Kenny Baker and his Dozen (2.40)
Freddie Mills with a feature on Herculean balancing featuring two Hungarian refugees (4.00)
Film clip of Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ from ‘Don’t Knock The Rock’ (2.40)
Star spotlight – the Italian movie actress Lisa Gastoni, who appeared in ‘Doctor In The House’ (3.30)
Classical pianist from the Ukraine, 66 year old Leff Pouishnoff (6.00)
Dance competition with Kenny Baker and quiz: the studio audience could win record tokens of £2 (4.30)
Trailer for a sporting programme (2.00)
Newcomer Michael Holliday sings ‘10,000 Miles’ and ‘Marrying For Love’ (5.00)
The King Brothers, leading to Kenny Baker and his Dozen (4.00)
Gosh, that was exciting, wasn’t it? Well, yes it was. Almost certainly Little Richard nor anyone remotely like him had ever been seen on TV before. Tom Sloan, the Assistant Head, Light Entertainment, wrote to all concerned after the production: “It was a fairly complicated programme and the fact that it got on the air at all was largely due to the great patience and understanding shown by all members of the crew to a fairly new producer.” So that’s putting Jack Good in his place.
Being a new concept, the BBC sought audience research, and the viewing figures were encouraging. Two weeks earlier some soccer in this slot had attracted 10% of the adult population but ‘6.5 Special’ had reached 13%. ITV could only manage 4%.
A few months earlier the BBC had tried a magazine programme for the under-twenties, ‘Teleclub’, but the reaction index (56) had been disappointing. ‘6.5 Special’ starts with a reaction index of 64, which is very encouraging. The report says,
“There was plenty of evidence to show that the older the viewer supplying evidence the less he (or she) enjoyed this programme. Since a preponderance of the sample were over the age of 30, the reaction index would appear to be unusually high. It arises from the extraordinarily tolerant attitude adopted by many, if not most, of the older viewers and typified in the following comment by a retired overseer, ‘This doesn’t cater for my age group but as a programme for the youngsters I can see it was good and we must cater for youth, so on these grounds, I approve.’
An over 50 fitter’s mate called it “A real after tea tonic – lively entertainment with plenty of go to it.” There were exceptions. A considerable number of older viewers were not prepared to make allowances. To them the whole programme had been ‘utterly trashy’ and ‘quite intolerably noisy’ – it could only possibly appeal to the more moronic type of Teddy Boys and Girls and the programme should be scrapped forthwith.”
A teenager mill tester said, “This is what many of us have wanted for a long time and I just cannot say how much I enjoyed it. But my dad was grumbling all the time. He said it was ‘just a lot of noise’.” There were mixed feelings over the studio audience. Many thought that the ‘informal party’ atmosphere was overdone. Jo Douglas was criticised for being ‘rather too exuberant’.
Some teenagers were less tolerant than the retired overseer. An apprentice panel beater commented, “I am what is known as a square, so how could I enjoy this? And why do we have to have so much rock’n’roll lammed at us?” The only true rock’n’roll in the programme was the Little Richard film clip.
The researchers asked the viewers to rate the performers. Michael Holliday came top with 65% of the viewers liking him very much: then there was Pouishnoff (61%), the King Brothers (54%), Kenny Baker and his Dozen (43%), Freddie Mills (35%) and Lisa Gastoni (23%). Why did the public have antipathy to such a pretty actress as Lisa Gastoni?
The second programme featured dance band vocalist Dennis Lotis (‘I’m In The Mood For Love’, ‘Sugaree’), Mick Mulligan’s Jazz Band with George Melly, the comedian Davy Kaye, the actor Tony Britton, a ‘dance drama’ and calypso singers, Malcolm Joseph Mitchell and George Brown. Freddie Mills demonstrated judo and the film clip came from the Treniers with ‘Rockin’ Is Our Business’ from ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. There was no home-grown rock’n’roll unless you could the big band leader, Denny Boyce, who was accompanying Davy Kaye on the novelty ‘See You Later Alligator’ and jazz trumpeter June Robinson with ‘The Saints Rock’n’Roll’.
Ronnie Waldman, the Head of Light Entertainment, watched the programme and sent a memo to Jo Douglas and Jack Good.
“This was again a good show with some points it would pay you to watch:-
“(1) Please never again let us use the ‘Oh-look-the-red-light’s-been-on-all-the-time’ routine. Young people today surely are realists. Radio listeners may have fallen for (or been forced to fall for) this hoary old chestnut over and over again in the 1930’s, but asking today’s youngsters to believe it is going too far. A conversation between Britton and Murray in perfect camera range with perfect microphone coverage and not another sound in the studio and then – Surprise! Surprise! It Was Going On The Air All The Time! I think not, don’t you?
“(2) There was some unevenness about the length of the interviews. The dance drama (which was absolutely fascinating, by the way) was preceded by a too-long interview while judo was literally thrown away. We could have done with a little more of the latter and less talk preceding the former.
“(3) Jo must watch that we don’t see too much of her. It’s always wise to underplay any piece of strength.
“(4) The high camera needs re-thinking and some of the ground-level shots were too confused.”
The third programme on 2 March 1957 was the first with a live performance from a rock’n’roll star, albeit Tommy Steele. His eight minute spot featuring ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Rock With The Cavemen’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Singing The Blues’ was the longest TV sequence devoted to rock’n’roll up to that point. Budget constraints were hitting home as Kenny Baker was reduced to playing with his Half-Dozen. Freddie Mills went swimming and the film spot was ‘Now You Has Jazz’ by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong from ‘High Society’. The star spotlight was with the actress Adrienne Corri, while Julian Bream played classical guitar. Russ Henderson and his Steel Band played ‘The Banana Boat Song’, and who can forget their 1957 single, ‘Waiting For The Coconuts To Fall’? Mike and Bernie Winters, the only comedy duo with two straight men, performed a sketch which mocked rock’n’roll. This involved a Mr Barris who was made up to look like Bill Haley.
The show planned a big discovery with Michael John and the Jackpots (actually the Steelmen) performing ‘Tra La La’ and ‘When You Rock And Roll Those Big Brown Eyes’. Michael John had been a member of the George Mitchell Singers and auditioned for Jo Douglas in January 1957. Jo offered him to the programme, ‘It’s Up To You’, telling the producer “It would be a great help if you could feature him before 2 March, so that it would appear that I had, in fact, discovered him in your programme. I feel that this would give him a good start as a solo artist.” And who has heard of Mr John since?
Further audience research was commissioned after the fourth show on 9 March 1957. The 13% audience had dropped to 11% and the reaction index to 61.The research department asked viewers to rate the performers. The overall percentages for artists being liked very much had dropped considerably. Tommy Steele was on top with 46%, Big Bill Broonzy (40%), the film producers, the Boulting Brothers (37%), Freddie Mills (36%), Mike and Bernie Winters (35%) and the Vipers (35%). ‘6.5 Special’ must be commended for booking Big Bill Broonzy and I was encouraged by the reaction, only 6% behind Tommy Steele. On the other hand, the researchers found that Freddie Mills’ “sporting item was rather out of place” and viewers were getting tired of “seeing him pop up in so many programmes.” And how about this? “Many viewers complained that the words of the number performed by the Vipers’ Skiffle Group were completely inaudible because of the noise of their instruments.”
On 18 March, BBC executive Tom Sloan was nursing reservations about ‘6.5 Special’. “We must do something to make the feature items more balanced and meaningful. The sports item with Freddie Mills is in danger of falling apart because it has no clear purpose – for example, there was nothing like enough made of cycling as a means of recreation, details of cost, clubs etc. The hairdresser item was pointless. I am sure that as rock’n’roll diminishes it is important to introduce more items of general interest.”