Six-Five Special

Six-Five Special

Don Lang & His Frantic Five were the house band

The Six-Five Special was a TV series which ran from February 1957 to December 1958. It replaced the “toddler’s truce” where TV shut down from 6 to 7 so parents could get small kids to bed. These were the days just after the TV interval, where programmes would stop for ten minutes mid-evening so the nation could make their bedtime cocoa. The interval would be a potter’s wheel or goldfish in a bowl. Something circular anyway. That had to be ditched, because our energy supplies couldn’t cope with half the country switching on electric kettles or gas stoves at exactly the same time. It was “Six Five” because first came a five minute news bulletin then the show.

Intended as a few weeks’ stop gap until something better could be produced the pop music programme Six-Five Special gained such a huge audience from the start that its future could not be ignored, and it ran to 92 episodes. Presented originally by Pete Murray and Josephine Douglas, the sudden impact of teenage music on a Saturday evening at the previously forbidden hour established its dominance overnight. Practically all pop music shows on British television would follow this early Saturday evening time slot as a result. (Oh Boy!, Drumbeat, Boy Meets Girls, Juke Box Jury, Thank Your Lucky Stars etc).

Lonnie Donegan: Jack O’Diamonds from the 1958 film

It was produced by freshly-graduated Jack Good, alongside Josephine Douglas, five years his senior who combined the role of co-producer with Jack Good, and co-presenter with Pete Murray. Pete Murray was a DJ from Radio Luxembourg, which he quit in 1956 to do work for the BBC, though he still recorded Radio Luxembourg sponsored shows. This was an unconventional background for the BBC in those days. His weekly introduction was:

PETE MURRAY: Welcome aboard the Six-Five Special. We’ve got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us the gas, so just get on with it and have a ball.

The programme was broadcast live in real time on Saturday evening, with rehearsals earlier in the day. It was filmed at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. There was then a complete run through immediately before performing for the transmission. No miming. No pre-recorded tracks. The shows themselves were not recorded. Thee are a few bits on line, but mainly stuff online is from the subsequent film.

One of its (economical) features was pushing a lot of kids into a large studio with no set, apart from a few platforms, and having them milling around on the floor. The BBC wanted sets, and they were built, but Good had them wheeled out of the way. That would continue in TV pop. In the 1958 film, these sequences justify pulling back and having the huge BBC TV cameras in view. The hand-jive was a feature of the programme, something for the kids to do without stumbling into cameras and wires. Jack Good wrote an instruction manual, Hand Jive at Six Five.

Three of the John Barry Seven.
Note that Hofner Violin Bass – this was filmed in November 1957

In 1957 rock and roll was not credited with a shelf life much longer than a Davy Crockett hat so the BBC were determined to insert other items into Six-Five Special to ensure its longer term survival. So Freddie Mills, the boxer, had a sports section. Comedians Mike and Bernie Winters had a slot. To the frustration of viewing teenagers the powers-that-be even managed to incorporate a classical music slot into the show for a while, but after the resultant furore (mostly from classical musicians), it was dropped. Still, they maintained a hairdressing slot and public information films. The BBC saw it as a magazine show like Tonight on weekdays, except that Tonight was mainly topical items, with a couple of songs. Six-Five Special was songs with added topical items. Tellingly Jo Douglas said:

The idea was to present the best in modern music, reflect the taste of the under thirties and so capture TV’s missing millions … the teens and twenties who until then had successfully resisted the charms of televiewing.
Sleeve notes to Decca LP, Stars of Six-Five Special.

Under thirties? This did not suit Jack Good for long. His concept had always been a live music show and he argued against the added segments, eventually simply moving to ITV to do Oh, Boy. At that point, Six-Five Special was attracting a weekly audience of twelve million. The BBC were paying Jack Good £18 a week (the average for men was £12, but it’s still not a lot). Later quotes suggest he was sacked for being argumentative.

In retrospect, Six-Five Special was staid. There’s a CD Early British Television Rock ‘n’ Roll which pairs the Six-Five Special LP tracks with music from its successor, Oh, Boy!  It was reissued as Jack Good’s Six-Five Special VERSUS Jack Good’s Oh, Boy! It makes a point. Oh, Boy! instantly sounds far more electric guitars and beat group.

The current CD (GVC, 2009). Six-Five Special left, Oh, Boy! right. Both colourized.

The house band at Six-Five Special sound like the resident dance band at your local palais on “Rockin’ Tuesday Night” for teens as a respite from the quickstep. Their contributions add to the theory that the first rock n’ roll was Louis Jordan’s jump jive. That’s what they sound like. Mainly it was Don Lang and His Frantic Five. The Bob Cort Skiffle Group did the first version of the theme which was used in the weekly show.  When the skiffle craze started to fade in 1958, Don Lang recorded a more rocking version which replaced Bob Cort.

Although Jack Good’s initial plan was to establish a groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza for a television audience, it is fair to say that he fell well short of achieving this objective since the programme relied heavily on so many of the tried and trusted artistes of the early to mif-fifties, who had already established themselves as easy-listening crooners, balladeers and all-round entertainers. Petula Clark, Joan Regan, Dickie Valentine, Michael Holiday, Lita Rosa and Dennis Lotus all fell into this category – performers who had already secured an older audience. It was left to bands such as Don Lang & The Frantic Five, The John Barry Seven, skifflers such as Johnnie Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys and Lonnie Donegan, to provide the energy and exuberance indicative of of rock ‘n; roll, alongside a regular quotient of jazzbands led by Hymphrey Lyttelton, Johnny Dankworth or Chris Barber.
Blu-ray booklet for the 1958 film, Geoff Leonard & Pete Walker, 2015, Network Bluray notes

Dickie Valentine from the film version. Hardly rock ‘n’ roll

The BBC was reluctant to use imported US talent too:

The promotion of home-grown talent with youth appeal was the chief part of the brief, which probably justified why the bigger names in rock ‘n’ roll (All American) – very rarely got a look in.
Geoff Leonard & Pete Walker, 2015, Network Bluray notes

Instead, Lonnie Donegan and Jim Dale sang cover versions of American songs … and Lonnie got the British hits.

Tommy Steele. Still from the filming of the actual TV series

The show brought celebrity and hit records to many new faces like Terry Dene and Jim Dale but it was Tommy Steele, already seen as the British Elvis, whose fortunes were boosted further by regular appearances on the Saturday screen. Steele’s hits during the lifespan of the show included Singing the Blues, Butterfingers, Handful of Songs, Nairobi…few of them really rock and roll although they were seen as such. But all these and two cinema films (The Tommy Steele Story and The Duke Wore Jeans) made him the biggest teen idol in Britain before Six-Five Special faded and Tommy crossed the floor into all-round entertainment and the likes of Little White Bull.

 The cinema film The Tommy Steele Story made a point of featuring skiffle, a craze at its absolute height in 1957. The theme tune of Six-Five Special, performed by resident band Don Lang and his Frantic Five, was vaguely reminiscent of a skiffle number – well, it was about trains – making skiffle the musical genre firmly associated with Six-Five Special. The Vipers Skiffle Group and Chas McDevitt and Shirley Douglas appeared often on the show plus the king of them all, Lonnie Donegan. Two skiffle records out of Donegan’s huge tally of chart hits were at Number One during the first months of Six-Five Special. (Cumberland Gap and Putting On the Style). Skiffle was intended to be an all-join-in, home-made sort of music, with its washboard rhythm and tea-chest bass, and the weekly television dosage encouraged the formation of a thousand young amateur bands. Many of the British rock musicians of the 1960s started life in a Skiffle group.

 One complete edition of Six-Five Special on 16 November 1957 was broadcast live from the frothy coffee/ rock ‘n roll mecca The Two I’s Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street, London. Thanks to television the fabled 2 -Is, with its hip mural of two eyes staring out from the wall behind the performers, gazed for the first time into homes across the social spectrum of the land. No other club, excepting The Cavern in Liverpool in the early 60s, has retained such nationwide renown as a birthplace of early British rock stars. Another was broadcast from Weston-super-Mare.

In 2019, the Daily Mail online uncovered a cache of stunning still photographs taken during the actual studio productions. One has the “chaperone” responsible for keeping the stars away from the young girls, or rather protecting the young girls from the stars. She was Lady Donegal and was seen with Jim Dale. If the BBC had not dispensed with such figures, there would have been less trouble with the likes of Jimmy Savile later.

The Records

Six Five Special LP: Parlophone – all EMI artistes.

The Parlophone LP cover features actress Jennifer Moss, who played Lucille Hewitt in Coronation Street, as the central dancer. Years later. Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark video also used an actress pretending to be an audience member; Courteney Cox, or Monica from Friends. These are the tracks in the same order which appear on the current CD. It was a special EMI recording session, NOT tracks from the TV show even if a few screams were heard from the “one hundred jiving, clapping fans” in the studio. It was re-issued in 2009 on CD with the Oh, Boy! album as Early British Televised Rock ‘n’ Roll (Jasmine). 

The scene at the recording session was fantastic. Kids were jiving all over EMI’s number one studio. Soft drinks were being served. Musicians in shirt sleeves were blowing like mad for the hell of it.
Jack Good, LP sleeve note

John Barry reprises his two vocals Let’s Have A Wonderful Time and Mel Torme’s Ev’ry Which Way which were to appear in the film, then adds a third, Rock-A-Billy Boogie. Jim Dale’s Crazy Dream is one of the better tracks, but the appalling cooing backing vocal undermines him.

Don Lang on Ramshackle Daddy combines Elvis impersonator with a show off high speed delivery. It’s the backing chorus which sounds SO old-fashioned.

Laurie London does a high-pitched Pick A Bale of Cotton what with Lonnie Donegan being on the Pye Nixa label so unavailable. It’s hard to see the appeal of Laurie London’s pitch at the time. Up Above My Head is dreadful.

Terry Wayne does the full Bill Haley on Boppin’ The Blues and continues with Teenage Boogie. The backing chorus (Ho! Ho! Teenage Boogie! Ho Ho!) from the Frantic Five lets it down. The album closer Six Five Jive has a good lively start and bass line, but frankly Jimmy Jackson’s voice can only be described as grating. At least the King Brothers had enough singers to dispense with the backing chorus on Cold Cold Shower and Party Time. They come across rather well. I remember that a cold shower was held to be the solution to dirty thoughts involving irregular motions of the flesh.

Listening through (you don’t need to try this at home, I’ve done it for you) the prevalence of buzz words – jive, blues, teenage, boppin’, boogie, Saturday– dominate the songs.

COLLECTORS NOTE: The Parlophone LP is rated at £50 mint in Rare Record Price Guide 2020. I’ve seen it for double, in “VG” condition, but probably a few years ago. My copy is no more than VG, and cost £15. It’s listed under Soundtracks.

Stars of Six-Five Special: Decca – all Decca group artistes

The Decca LP was only a 10 inch, the two releases setting the idea that multiple companies can evolve albums associated with a programme. Decca were playing a cunning game here. It’s “Stars” of Six-Five Special, not the programme itself. It’s not a special recording like the EMI disc either. It’s a round up of tracks by Decca artistes who had appeared on the show. Lonnie Donegan gets second-billing on the sleeve in terms of lettering size. However, all his hits during the series were on Pye Nixa, not Decca. His contribution is Diggin’ My Potatoes, a Decca single from 1956.

The sleeve notes are by Pete Murray and Jo Douglas, and they re-imagine dialogue:

JO: Hello there. Do sit down, Pete … I think we’ve made it. Ronnie Waldman has given the OK on the title, and he’s prepared to try you and me out as a team.
PETE: That’s wonderful news, Jo. “SIX-FIVE SPECIAL” sounds good. When do we start?

They cunningly discuss the forthcoming film enabling them to talk about “the recording session” – actually for the film, but the teen reader might be led to thinking it was for this disc.

They continue their dialogue:

JO: Hello there. Do sit down, Pete … I think we’ve made it. Anglo-Amalgamated have given the OK on the film, and you and I are going to be in it.
PETE: That’s wonderful news, Jo. The old “Six-Five” has certainly travelled a bit since the old “fill in” days. A feature film … Have you signed any stars yet?
JO: Lonnie Donegan and his boys. How’s that for a beginning?
PETE: Great! And I’ve got news for you … Decca are making a Six-Five LP …

So it would seem that Jo and Pete started out all their conversations in the same way, and that Pete as a free-lancer was expected to stand until invited to sit by Jo Douglas, who was his superior as a BBC staff producer. Lonnie and his boys are particularly exciting, even if they now record for rivals Pye Nixa.

COLLECTORS NOTE: The Decca 10″ LP is rated at £20 mint in Rare Record Price Guide 2020. It’s listed under Various Artists, not “Soundtracks” which is accurate.

TV Mirror & Disc News, 16 November 1957

The Songs

Cumberland Gap: The Vipers Skiffle Group, Parlophone 78 rpm 1957
Cumberland Gap: The Vipers Skiffle Group, Parlophone 45 rpm 1957

Most of the records made by artistes seen on and associated with Six-Five Special in 1957 would have been issued on 78s. Not until the next year did the 45 become increasingly common. The Vipers version of Cumberland Gap above has Parlophone’s “new” dancing sleeve on the 78, but the old beige sleeve on the 45- which has the retailer’s added catalogue number written in the corner, so is the correct sleeve. No one had told the BBC that a Viper was a marijuana smoker.

COLLECTORS NOTE: The Vipers singles, like most records of the era are falling in value, but are still rate at £15 to £20 in mint condition (down from £25 to £30 a decade ago). Even though they recorded the same two songs as Lonnie Donegan, and he had the bigger hits, The Vipers are more collectable.

Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan as well as Petula Clark were on the TV programme BECAUSE they were already major stars rather than the programme making them stars. But Six-Five Special cemented their positions. Dickie Valentine, Joan Regan and others had already passed their peak.

The impression of early British rock you get is that Louis Jordan was the father of rock & roll, and it was a single-parent family, and the offspring was a chip off the old block. The list of hits by regulars on the show indicates its huge impact on British music.

Don Lang and His Frantic Five (HMV)
School Day 1957 #26
Witch Doctor 1958 #5

Terry Dene (Decca)
A White Sport Coat 1957 #18
Start Movin’ 1957 #15
Stairway of Love 1958 #16

Jim Dale (Parlophone)
Be My Girl 1957 #2
Just Born (To Be Your Baby) 1957 #27
Crazy Dream 1958 #24
Sugartime 1958 #25

Tommy Steele (Decca)
Singin’ The Blues 1957 #1
Knee Deep In The Blues 1957 #19
Butterfingers 1957 #8
Handful of Songs / Water Water 1957 #5
Shiralee 1958 #11
Nairobi 1958 #3

Chas McDevitt & Nancy Whisky (Oriole)
Freight Train 1957 #5

The Vipers (Parlophone)
Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O 1957 #10
Cumberland Gap 1957 #10

Lonnie Donegan (Decca, Pye)
Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O 1957 #4
Cumberland Gap 1957 #1
Puttin’ On The Style 1957 #1
My Dixie Darling 1957 #10
Jack O’Diamonds 1957 #14
Grand Coulee Dam 1958 #11
Sally Don’t You Grieve 1958 #11

Petula Clark (Pye Nixa)
With All My Heart 1957 #4
Alone 1957 #8
Baby Lover 1958 #12

Jackie Dennis (Decca)
La-dee-da 1958 #4
Purple People Eater 1958 #29

Russ Hamilton (Oriole)
We Will Make Love 1957 #2
Wedding Ring 1957 #20

Laurie London (Parlophone)
He’s Got The Whole world In His Hands 1957 #12

Dickie Valentine (Decca)
Snowbound for Christmas 1957 #20

The film

There was a film in early 1958.

The film is available on bluray and DVD in a remastered edition. Diane Todd who plays the lead role of Anne was already a regular singer on the Tonight nightly magazine news show. She had sung on Six Five Special too. Diane Todd has probably the least rock ‘n’ roll voice and delivery of anyone you have ever seen. Cocktail bar crooning. Unlike the character in the film, Anne, her performance was not the road to greater success.

It doesn’t take long to write a synopsis. Anne (Diane Todd) is singing some very retro 50s style song (You Are My Favourite Dream). Her friend, Judy, suggests they get a train … the 6.5 Special … from Edinburgh to London to see the show and maybe she can perform on it. Obviously this conversation takes place in their underwear, the only remotely potentially (but not actually) sexy thing in the film. Anne gets a neat nightdress, being a featured singer, so it’s Judy who has to expose her bra and pants.

Pete Murray, Freddie Mills, Jo Douglas

The two girls board the train. Anne is still reluctant. Every compartment has an act from the show. They all sing. Anne auditions for Pete Murray and Josephine Douglas who are on the train. DING! We switch to the studio where the next episode is being filmed. Anne sings a couple of over-enuciated operatic lines to introduce Dickie Valentine’s song. She’s promised a full slot next week. Bernie Winters and Mike Winters who did comic cameos in the film appear briefly. Boxer Freddie Mills used to do the sports segment on the show, so in this he’s seen directing a spotlight. The outstanding performers in the film are Lonnie Donegan and The John Barry Seven, and John Barry sings for the first and last time. He’s very good.

As a small child I was taken to a neighbour who had a TV sometimes, at around 2 pm for Watch With Mother. I stared at the Flower Pot Men and Weed, and my sister told me they lived inside the TV. In a monochrome world, obviously. I believed her.

Viewers of this film presumably believed that all the cast got an actual train called the 6.5 Special and travelled through the dark (easier with a studio set train as you don’t have to project anything through the windows) together to do the show once a week. Just as for years viewers of pop exploitation films believed that all the members of a group lived together.

Article started by Paul F. Newman, later additions and embellishment by Peter Viney

The film is reviewed in full (much of the above is taken from the film review) on peterviney.com