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The home of the hits

RW & Ornette

Since everybody else seems to have shared their memories of Television Centre, the home of most of the BBC’s visual output for the past half-century, which the corporation finally abandoned to the developers today, I might as well join in. It was from that distinctive building in Shepherds Bush that the first series of The Old Grey Whistle Test, which I presented, was broadcast live on Tuesday nights in 1971-72, and here is a photograph (by Robert Ellis) of Ornette Coleman being interviewed by me on the programme in 1972.

Ornette was not your typical OGWT guest. He was in London to record his symphonic work, Skies of America, at Abbey Road with the LSO, and I had to plead a bit with the producer, Mike Appleton, to get him on the show. It was one of my happiest moments of the series, along with the appearances of Curtis Mayfield and John Martyn, and the night Dr John came into the studio and, in the guise of Mac Rebennack, sat down at an upright piano and spent a mesmerising 10 minutes working his way through the history of New Orleans keyboard styles. And who would not have cherished the night Captain Beefheart arrived to present his paintings to the world? They were strikingly excellent, and gave an indication of the direction he would take when he re-adopted the identity of Don Van Vliet a few years later.

A lot of the series wasn’t so much fun for me, particularly some of interviews (notably those with a near-psychotic Jerry Lee Lewis, a sneery Mick Jagger and a sarky Randy Newman — each one no doubt a justified response to my indifferent interrogational technique). That’s why I called it quits at the end of the first series and returned to the typewriter. I thought the programme needed someone more extrovert to front it. Mike, however, chose to hand the baton to Whispering Bob, who was even quieter than me. It wasn’t for a couple of decades that Jools Holland and his producer Mark Cooper came along with Later, which in its early days was almost exactly the kind of programme I’d have liked the OGWT to be: musicians playing live, without many restrictions.

That first series was broadcast from a studio called Presentation B, which measured 32ft by 22ft and had been designed for reading the news. Somehow bands managed to crowd into it, along with a couple of big old 1950s-style cameras, while the production staff occupied a control room the size of a phone box. And Curtis Mayfield’s wonderful band turned their amps all the way down to 1 but managed to make their short set sound and feel like the best gig happening anywhere in the world that night.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Gumpert #


    March 22, 2013
  2. Don van Vliet had an exhibition of his paintings at Liverpool Bluecoat Chambers, which I went to. The gallery was practically empty & reverentially quiet until the silence was broken by this booming voice behind me. It sounded like the good Captain – but no, surely not? Just some stoner imitating him, I thought. I turned round and there in caped glory was the good Captain Beefheart checking out his exhibition! I was too scored to go and talk to him!
    “Regrets? I’ve had a few … ” !

    March 22, 2013
  3. WKB #

    I wouldn’t beat yourself up over the interviews. I remember the Jerry Lee one and Paxman on benzedrine would have struggled to cope. Randy Newman, who I worshipped then as now, reminded me of myself then, ie. a stroppy adolescent. Harris never had a feel for Black music. God, had you stayed, we could perhaps have had Al Green, Syl Johnson, Laura Nyro, James Carr or even Chic in that tiny studio.

    March 22, 2013
  4. I have a fond memory of the Ornette Coleman interview. On its conclusion, I recall that you swivelled to one side to introduce the next item. As you were speaking, Ornette ambled across the set to come between you and the camera – pure Acorn Antiques!

    March 23, 2013

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