One of the most influential programmes in the history of BBC television was first broadcast 55 years ago today, on Saturday November 24th, 1962.
Although it only ran for two series, ending in 1963, “That Was the Week That Was” broke new ground in television comedy. Relying on a host of performers and writers who would become household names, it was at the vanguard of the 1960s boom in satire.
Until then the BBC had been largely deferential to ‘the establishment’ and reluctant to lampoon respected figures in society such as leading politicians. But times were changing and the programme’s launch came at the height of the politically-charged Profumo affair, which exposed scandal and corruption in politics and high society.
The aim of the show was to present a humorous review of the past week, satirising the biggest news stories and the people in them. It was devised, produced and directed by Ned Sherrin, and presented on screen by David Frost. The show opened with its theme song, sung by cast member Millicent Martin and with the lyrics changed each week to reflect current news stories.
The bulk of the 50-minute show was a series of usually satirical sketches, debates, musical numbers and monologues, targeting politicians, celebrities, British society, racial and sexual inequality and even the monarchy. Due to its nature as a topical comedy show, material was written hastily in the week leading up to each broadcast, and varied in quality. Some sketches have become classics, such as a ‘consumer’s guide to religion’ discussing the merits of various competing faiths, but others missed the mark.
Other weekly features included cartoonist Timothy Birdsall drawing a usually-improvised cartoon live on air, and a topical calypso, again often improvised to suggestions from the studio audience, and sung by comedy actor Lance Percival. Other regular cast members included Kenneth Cope, Roy Kinnear, Al Mancini, Robert Lang and Willie Rushton.
A small army of scriptwriters worked on the show, some also occasionally performing on screen. Sherrin recruited younger writers directly from the Oxbridge revue groups, including future Monty Python team members John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Other more established writers included Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, Frank Muir, Dennis Potter, Bill Oddie, David Nobbs, Denis Norden, John Betjeman, Eric Sykes, John Bird, Keith Waterhouse and Kenneth Tynan, forming a ‘dream team’ of 1960s talent.
Broadcast in a primetime Saturday night slot, “That Was the Week That Was” (soon shortened to “TW3”) attracted 12 million viewers. Performed live, its often chaotic appearance became part of its appeal, with viewers able to see the “workings” of a TV show as cameras moved around the sets and boom microphones dropped into view. It also regularly ran over or under its scheduled time slot as cast and crew worked through their hastily-prepared or improvised material.
When the second series began in the autumn of 1963, the BBC attempted to reign in TW3 by scheduling repeats of popular TV series “The Third Man” immediately after it. Since these repeats would begin at a set time and couldn’t be shortened, TW3 would have to end on time. This tactic annoyed the TW3 team, so for three weeks as part of the show they read out the plot of the episode of “The Third Man” due to follow it, forcing the BBC to relent and drop the repeats!
Although it was regularly controversial and spawned hundreds of complaints to the BBC, TW3 also won critical praise for its innovation and apparent fearlessness in choosing its targets. It broke many of television’s established conventions and undoubtedly launched the careers of a string of comedy performers and writers who went on to work on some of the hugely successful BBC comedy shows of the 1960s and ’70s. Most, but not all, of the live episodes were recorded and survive today, with only the pilot and an episode of the second series missing.
Despite its popularity, the show was cancelled in 1964. The BBC justified the decision by stating that it was an election year and the unpredictable content of TW3 could inadvertently compromise its impartiality. Several commentators suggested the real reason was that the show had become too edgy and senior BBC executives feared they had lost all control over it.
Ned Sherrin attempted to revive and improve on the formula in a new show, “Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life”, which aired during the winter of 1964-65. It was more polished, alternating satire with chat, but lacked the revolutionary impact of TW3 and lasted just one series.