The TV show that made the sixties swing
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Ready Steady Go! was hardly one of the sixties survivors, with few traces left of the show that did so much to define the decade. But, says Garth Cartwright, a new book manages to capture the spirit of a legendary programme and its moment in time.
“The weekend starts here” went the tag line to a dynamic new TV show and, between August 1963 and December 1966, this truly was the case for many British youth, as Ready Steady Go! began its broadcast at 6pm every Friday.
Heralded by some as the greatest music TV series ever, Ready Steady Go! attained ‘legendary’ status decades ago but, frustratingly, appeared to have vanished leaving few traces, more mythic than tangible.
This situation has been changing, though, first with a BBC4 documentary, screened last March, and now a huge hardback book, Ready, Steady, Go! The Weekend Starts Here: The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV.
At first glance author Andy Neill’s book appears the literary equivalent of those multi-album box-sets (containing demos, retakes et al) that are aimed at uber-fans: it weights a couple of kilos, documents each episode and is jammed with photos and memorabilia, the perfect present for a 1960s obsessed, Brit pop anorak. Upon reading I quickly realised that Neill – biographer of The Who and The Faces – has written far more than a glorified fanzine: Ready, Steady, Go! was, he convincingly argues, popular entertainment television that helped change both British TV and society.
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Long described as the soundtrack to 'Swinging London', Neill demonstrates how RSG! was more than simply chic pop stars and presenters: as Pete Townsend notes in his interview, “its not flippant to say that RSG! probably helped pave the way for sexual liberation, but more seriously to the legalisation of homosexuality in the UK and a broader racial integration.”
Indeed, RSG! Gave young women leading media roles (as presenters and producers), embraced African American culture in a way no other British media previously had and caught youth culture’s fizz, the sense that the young were no longer going to remain deferential to their elders. More than any other document of that era – including the Beatles’ films – the series captured what made the 1960s so dynamic.
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Ironically, RSG!’s founders gave little initial thought to challenging establishment values. Instead, journalist Elkan Allan, having been appointed Head of Entertainment at Rediffusion, a media company created to make programmes for ITV, realised with the onset of Beatlemania that a pop programme would likely succeed.
At 41, Allan realised he needed youth to help shape his vision so hired his 24-year-old secretary, Vicki Wickham, as assistant producer. Wickham was an inspired choice although his initial presenter, 34-year old Keith Fordyce, was less so, being the epitome of the senatorial TV chap.
Allan then hired 20-year old Cathy McGowan – who beat 600 other applicants who had answered an advertisement for “a typical teenager” - her chic dress sense, long fringe and unforced ebullience ensuring she instantly became the “face” of RSG!.
McGowan had no media training and it showed: she got names wrong, asked naff questions, giggled and behaved like the bands’ buddy. In doing so McGowan made teens across the nation feel she was one of them and so grounded RSG! in their reality.
Filmed live in Rediffusion’s Holborn studios each Friday – the rest of the week they shot children’s TV here – Ready, Steady, Go! featured both British and international artists miming to their new releases while Wickham sourced the best dancers from clubs across the West End so to keep energy levels high and ensure fashions and dances were fresh.
Indeed, the mod movement broke beyond London via RSG! and The Who appeared regularly. Dusty Springfield, who began her solo career in late-1963, was a semi-regular presenter and it was her devotion to African American music that ensured Wickham and Allan would begin to book more and more African American artists. Alongside giving the likes of Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy their first ever UK TV exposure, RSG! would devote entire episodes to 'specials' celebrating the artists of pioneering R&B labels Motown and Stax plus “Soul Brother No 1”, James Brown.
Black was just beginning to be seen as beautiful and RSG! took mod enthusiasm for African American music, clothes, dance, slang and more into the UK mainstream. Kenny Lynch, the self-described “black Cockney”, was also a regular performer. Considering the Race Relations Act wasn’t passed until 1965, RSG! was groundbreaking in its multicultural vision.
In 1964, 24- year-old American director Michael Lindsay-Hogg came on board and emphasised RSG!’s pop art feel, pushing the lighting, titles and camera angles to a degree never seen before on British TV.
Unknown new talent was invited on, so giving Donovan, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix their first TV exposure. Peter Blake and Peter Cook were both regularly on set – Ready, Steady Go! capturing London’s zeitgeist like nothing else. By 1965 many artists were insisting on performing live – miming deemed uncool (unless it was ironic: a classic clip features members of the Rolling Stones and McGowan goofing about while pretending to mime to Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe).
Yet by becoming so cutting edge RSG! would lose the mass pop audience who were devoted watchers for the first two years when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Sandie Shaw and other chart busters appeared regularly. Inevitably, this lead to its cancellation.
The BBC, previously having struggled to showcase popular music on TV, launched Top of the Pops in 1964 to compete with RSG! and, by focusing only on hits, soon captured far greater viewer numbers. But, beyond helping sell vast numbers of 45s, Top of the Pops had little resonance while Ready, Steady, Go! energised and informed British culture as much as the artists it featured.
Unfortunately, like many other 1960s-era TV series, most episodes of Ready, Steady, Go! were wiped once they had been screened so then-expensive videotape could be reused.
Lindsay-Hogg managed to get several episodes recorded for his own collection and these are all that remain today. Dave Clark – of the Dave Clark Five – purchased this footage and issued it on VHS in the 1980s but nothing’s ever been available on DVD.
German music behemoth BMG now own this footage and, as they published Neill’s book, surely are intent on making it available: British pop culture’s lightning rod has the book it deserves, now let’s hope the surviving footage get similarly regal treatment.
Ready, Steady, Go! The Weekend Starts Here: The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV by Andy Neill is published by BMG
READY, STEADY VOICES
LULU: “I was a teenager in Glasgow and the whole of the city used to empty when Ready, Steady, Go! was about to come on. This was the days when everybody stayed indoors to watch a specific programme and RSG! was a phenomenon. Before I even went on it, I was a big fan of the show, I watched it every week because it was what was happening with the dances and the fashion. When my first record Shout came out in 1964, I did other shows but none were as cool as RSG!”
RAY DAVIES: “The mid-Sixties was a special time and RSG! reflected that period with art, dance and fashion, as well as the music. There was no other live showcase like it, one that had its finger so firmly on the pulse of a cultural revolution.”
MARY WILSON: (The Supremes) “The kids on RSG! would be right in between you and doing very odd dances. That was one of the things I found kind of strange but, at the same time, wonderful because it exposed us to a different approach.”
MICK JAGGER: “Ready, Steady, Go! was the best rock ‘n’ roll TV show of all time. It just seemed more vibrant and real and could, sometimes, be sensational. It was exciting to be on, while the other shows, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Top of The Pops, Ed Sullivan, were more like commercial vehicles, rather than being shows in themselves.”
MARTHA REEVES: “What was remarkable were the musicians. I remember they had to take tea breaks during the rehearsals which was something that was brand new to me. The guys stood up and said, ‘Oh it’s teatime’ and I said, ‘What’s teatime?’ and they all proceeded to take their break which was mandatory as the English union insisted that they take their time and not rush things. However, they were quality musicians and did very good at emulating the Motown sound.”
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