Sunday, 17 August 2008

Son of Wakey Wakey and the Six-Five Special

The obituaries for Sir Bill Cotton, who died last week, centred – quite rightly – on his astonishing record in television light entertainment. He was, after all, the man who brought Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, The Generation Game and Parkinson to the BBC, shaping the look of Saturday night for a generation and more.

But, without wishing to be disrespectful to the man and his contribution to British culture, there’s also been something that’s troubling me.

According to the BBC website: ‘Cotton brought pop music show Six-Five Special to BBC television,’ a comment echoed by other obituaries. The Daily Telegraph also claimed that he was responsible for ‘the discovery of Tommy Steele’.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. But let’s not get carried away.

Just to be clear: Tommy Steele was discovered by John Kennedy, with Larry Parnes subsequently brought into the management team.

And while Cotton did work on Six-Five Special, it’s a gross distortion of history to give him the credit for the show. Because the credit belongs pretty much exclusively to the very great Jack Good. It was he who was the original producer in 1957, the man who made sure that the emphasis in this new series for teenagers was very firmly on music.

That hadn’t been the original intention at all. Good’s co-producer was to be Josephine Douglas, who had much more traditional ideas: ‘Jo wanted film excerpts on mountaineering – hobbies-for-the-youngsters kind of a programme; I wanted all music.’ His solution was elegant; he invited Douglas to present the show, along with disc jockey Pete Murray, thereby ensuring her absence from the control box.

So, although Six-Five Special did emerge as a magazine show, with sports features and with resident comedians Mike and Bernie Winters, it was the music that caught the popular imagination. Amongst those who benefited most from the programme were Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan, while Marty Wilde, Jim Dale and Vince Eager got their first break here.

And, quite apart from the content, it was Good who constructed the look of the programme. In particular, he took the revolutionary step of placing the audience between the camera and the performer, so that they could be seen dancing to the music of the live bands. And he refused to patronize his viewers by pretending that a TV programme was somehow an objective observation of an event; instead he admitted frankly that this was a constructed experience: ‘Who gives a damn if a camera comes into shot?’ he asked rhetorically.

As George Melly pointed out in the context of the look of 1960s youth culture: ‘he virtually invented the pop style.’ The influence was felt not merely in rock and roll television, but far beyond, from That Was The Week That Was onwards.

Having put the record straight a little, then, here’s a photo of the late Sir Bill Cotton, with his bandleader father Billy Cotton (© V&A Images). Taken by Harry Hammond, this picture, together with some wonderful shots of Six-Five Special, can be found in my forthcoming book, Halfway To Paradise: The Birth of British Rock.

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