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Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Diana #

    And of course RSG was followed by one other extraordinary and innovative music programme, The OGWT, hosted by Mr. Williams.

    October 6, 2020
    • Gordon Hastie #

      Albeit several years later. In between the pirates were killed off and we were given Radio One as meagre compensation.

      October 7, 2020
  2. I remember the first episode with Billy Fury and watched it every Friday, glued, transfixed, impressed, until work intervened. But I do remember bunking off work early to catch the James Brown and Otis Redding specials. Now… what exactly has Dave Clark done with those transmission reels? PS Must get that book.

    October 6, 2020
    • Dave Clark sold his RSG materials to BMG a couple of years ago. In all, less than 10 complete editions survive, a couple from 1963, 3 or 4 from 1965, just the Motown special from 1965 and the Otis special from 1966. There are various odds and ends from other shows but not a lot. BMG did find some extra material from the 1965 edition from where The Who’s performances came from and they featured single performances from Manfred Mann and Nina Simone, but sadly it seems we’ve seen most of what’s survived, so legendary perfoemances by a great many acts including the James Brown and Paris special are long long gone. I’m very envious of everyone who did have the good fortune to see the original broadcasts… I was born a few years later! Interestingly, the very last edition of OGWT that Richard hosted (11th July 1972) was a Rolling Stones special which featured the complete three song set from 1966 with the iconic “Paint It, Black” which was probably the first time that was ever repeated and even then, Richard made no bones that it was the finest pop TV show of the 1960’s.

      October 7, 2020
      • Is there any surviving footage of The Action on RSG?

        October 10, 2020
      • Sadly not. All there appears to be of The Action footage wise is that short documentary report from early 1967 and the mimed performance of “I’ll Keep On Holding On” shot for US TV outside of the Albert Hall.

        October 11, 2020
      • roger #

        Thanks for the info

        October 15, 2020
  3. Bill Clifford #

    I think I remember a programme called ‘ Cool for Cats ‘ presented by Kent Walton, who was also a wrestling commentator. I can’t remember if it had live acts or did they just play discs. I’m sure someone will let me know.

    October 6, 2020
    • I seem to ecall Cool for Cats as a short program (15-20 mins?) each episode featuring 4 or 5 discs. I remember studio dancers, but not any artists presenting, i.e. no Tommy, Marty, Cliff. I could be wrong. Kent Walton went on to be a TV wrestling commentator, did he not?

      October 6, 2020
      • Bill Clifford #

        Not forgetting Jukebox Jury.

        October 6, 2020
  4. Matthew Wright #

    Great Richard, will have to investigate that. And yes, as Walton used to say on mid week wrestling programme – “Happy Thursday, Friday, see you Saturday grappling fans”. But whilst Cool for Cats was a step up, it was RSG that transformed things – remember Lol Coxhill backing Rufus Thomas’ Walking The Dog? Before that we had to put up with the likes of Jackie Dennis! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mggF4fu6mfI and cringe.

    October 6, 2020
  5. Graham Morris #

    Dear Richard

    i have written to you before to say how much I enjoy your pieces. Being of a similar age, with a shared and eclectic taste in similar music you often remind me of episodes and music that I have momentarily forgotten, and just as frequently introduce me to new performers, especially in contemporary jazz. Today’s piece takes me back to my immediately pre-university years, tucked away in Plymouth – when my weekend really did start with Ready Steady Go!. Getting a bus (before the last bus!) home on a Friday evening to catch the show was tribute in itself – just as in pre-teen years I left Plymouth Argyle football matches 5 minutes before the final whistle in order to get home in time for 6-5 Special. So thank you again for these special treats. Spending the late sixties at University in Essex, with weekends in London, I was able to discover first hand much of the music of which you often write.

    I often share your posts with my son who lives in Italy. We have developed an ever closer undertanding of our joint love of music, and he has only comparatively recently become interested in jazz. I have shared many memories of my first records (EPs, then LPs) of Charles Mingus, Monk with Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, purchased in the mid 1960s. He recently asked me about the various ‘eras’ in jazz, after I had been trying to explain how bebop came about. That conversation led me to the discovery of a terrific website of digital and extremely well presented graphic information on music genres. You probably know it, but I thought I would draw it to your attention in case you don’t. You can find it at https://musicmap.info/ It really is a terrific site, allowing great exploration of each super-genre, into genres, digging down and revealing information and lots of music samples. It is a superb example of digital graphic art, and the way complex information can be presented online.

    For anyone interested in the history of popular music the site is a goldmine. It led me to think what a shame there are no Emmys, Oscars, or Mercury awards for websites like this. It really does deserve promotion. If you agree, maybe you can do something for it.

    I hope you won’t mind me intruding on the Ready Steady Go! piece with this tangental comment – and if you don’t know of the site, and are persuaded to check it, I hope an exploration of it brings you pleasure as it continues to do for me. I know nothing of its provenance, or its authorship. It just brings an historical and contextual perspective to music, including that which I know we both love – as encourages further exploration. Just as you do with ‘the blue moment’.

    Thank you once again.

    Your enthusiastic reader,

    Graham Morris

    >

    October 6, 2020
  6. Tim Adkin #

    Whilst RSG was undoubtedly the gold standard there were also some far less remembered BBC efforts which might be worthy of some kind of mention. I’m thinking of such efforts as the Barry Fantoni presented ‘A Whole Scene Going’ and the slightly later ‘How It Is..’ which had an eclectic mix of presenters like Angela Huth, Richard Neville and Ronald Fletcher. I also dimly recall a show (title escapes) broadcast late on Friday nights in early 69 that featured, inter alia, Colosseum (in the James Litherland era) and Roland Kirk – possibly on the same night’s broadcast.

    October 6, 2020
    • bosdike #

      I remember some excellent artists on How It Is……David Ackles, Fairport Convention and The Chambers Brothers.

      October 10, 2020
  7. Colin Harper #

    Tiny correction, Richard: the awfully named ITV precursor to RSG! that you mention was ‘Boy Meets Girls’, not ‘Boys Meet(s) Girl’ (1959-60). I suspect that not too long after that point, TV producers all realised that the audience for the new pop was skewed towards girls, so had that show been made in the wake of Beatlemania perhaps it would have been called ‘Girls Meet Boys’. Or perhaps any kind of tweaking to that formula would have just sounded too passé.

    October 6, 2020
  8. The weekend starts here. Those words were magic to an alienated 17 year old who had no girlfriend, and certainly no parties to go to. It made me feel I was part of something exciting. My first glimpse of Keith Moon’s face as he propelled I Can’t Explain. He looked utterly cool and utterly out of it.

    October 7, 2020
  9. Corinne Drewery #

    Fabulous! Thank you for this great piece. I watched Ready Steady Go from the age of five and have been trying to recreate that world ever since…This was the first time I remember seeing who made the music. We now take this for granted but before this programme I only heard music when a record was played or heard on a jukebox. Seeing performers from America along side our own home grown stars against the Pop Art influenced sets and fast edits was a visual awakening to match the sounds. Would love to read about its creators and their inspiration…they have been providing it to generations of music lovers ever since. xxx

    October 7, 2020
  10. Peter F #

    Thanks, again, Richard, for this pointer, sounds brilliant. I’ll order the book just as soon as I can tell myself I’ve cut back by the appropriate number of bottles of red!
    For me, none of the various attempts, BBC and others, to pick up the baton worked. They were all uncomfortable in their fabricated ‘coolness.’ Barry Fantoni’s was a fine example.
    I’m amazed to read that the Who appeared 16 times, I just remember I was disappointed whenever they weren’t on.
    Speaking of ownership of the tapes – if anyone is sitting on the episode featuring ‘Shapes Of Things,’ where Jeff Beck (in a poncho) drops to the floor, hits his fuzz box with his hand, and plays a stunning solo, it should be prised from them and aired pronto. That really was 60s ‘cool!’

    October 7, 2020
  11. Paul Tickell #

    Tim (Adkin), you are right about ‘A Whole Scene Going’ – far from as earth-shattering as RSG but it did a lot of remarkable items, including one of Pete Townsend’s best interviews. Sadly, in the nature of BBC material from the ’60s, episodes have been lost/wiped… Re the Friday night show you refer to, might it be Colour Me Pop though as I remember that was Saturdays?

    October 7, 2020
    • Tim Adkin #

      Paul (Tickell), it wasn’t ‘Colour Me Pop’ (or the similar ‘Disco 2’) because the show in question was almost certainly on BBC 1 – ‘CMP’ also if I recall featured individual artists (David Ackles and Fleetwood Mac being particular highlights) There is footage of a film called ‘Supershow’ on YouTube featuring Colosseum and Kirk which must have been made around the same time (footage of Colosseum with Litherland is rare to say the least). It was some kind of live arts show with live music – the sort of thing Joe Melia would introduce a couple of years later. ‘How It Is’ (from memory) had Friday teatime footage of The Nice playing ‘America’ with knives in the Hammond and a flaming US flag – extraordinary.T

      October 7, 2020
  12. viviane phillips #

    I was Elkan Allan’s secretary from 1965 to 1968,. I had walked in to the Redifusion offices in Kingsway casually, in passing and asked at reception if there were any vacancies, I was sent up to Elkan’s office where he had just finished an afternoon of interviews for the job of his secretary. Luckily, he agreed to see me and offered me the job. It really was an exciting time, in retrospect, but at the time we just took it all in our stride – seems like a different world now. I remember the Motown Special, with Stevie Wonder aged 14 or so, left on the stage on a raised platform while everyone went for their tea-break! And Ready! Steady! Goes Live from Paris, with Cathy McGowan and all of us having a great time. It was great to be reminded of those times and the names of people I knew. Anyway, I enjoyed your article, Richard, thanks.

    October 8, 2020

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