Five pop shows on television to every two where they talk about politics
Milton Shulman wants less Ready Steady Go! and more Panorama
POP records are not only big business but a social phenomenon. There is little doubt that they are making a discernible impact in the shaping of the new Britain.
From being the squarest nation in Europe we are fast becoming the coolest. Foreigners familiar with the Britain of Victor Silvester and hunt balls are staggered by the transformation they find in the dancing seen in jazz clubs and discotheques.
The grace, the rhythm, the abandon – not to mention the improvement in the looks of the girls – have that sophisticated natural quality that one used to associate only with the more exclusive haunts in Paris, Manhattan and St. Tropez.
More important, that ease and lack of restraint has begun to manifest itself in certain social side-effects among the young.
Class and racial barriers erode much more quicker when peers’ daughters swing unselfconsciously with lorry drivers and Negro musicians.
The innate rivalry of the dance floor has created a heightened awareness of such status ornaments as hair styles, smart clothes and make-up.
The time-consuming demands of the pop craze has so canalised their energies that relatively few of them display much interest in politics, social problems or even hobbies.
The intimacy of their surroundings and the encouragement of physical abandon has also inevitably resulted in a freeing and liberalising of sexual inhibitions.
But is all this any different from the twenties, when teenagers were swaying to the Charleston and the Black Bottom? It is all a question of degree and I think that at the moment we are going through a particular virulent phase of the rhythm epidemic.
And chief among the influences to be credited or blamed for this phenomenon is undoubtedly television.
There are at present no fewer than five weekly peak hour shows devoted exclusively to the playing and plugging of pop music. This compares with two programmes about politics, three about current affairs and two off-peak shows fortnightly devoted to all the arts.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of these pop programmes – presumably devoted to the ever-changing tastes and fads of their fans – is how quickly they congeal into frozen formulas and into mindless repetitiveness of the same technical gimmicks.
The three oldest in the business – Ready, Steady, Go!, Thank Your Lucky Stars, and Juke Box Jury – have remained practically unchanged, down to the compere’s cement smiles, for almost three years.
Now with stentorian fanfares two of them ushered in what they shouted was to be a fresh era in pop presentation.
“We’re all terribly excited,” said Cathy McGowan, introducing Ready, Steady Goes Live. “It’s the very first show of its kind where everybody sings live.” If memory serves me right I thought that was what TV used to do before most of Miss McGowan’s audience were actually born.
There was no doubt that something fresh had to be done to Ready, Steady, Go! which had deteriorated disastrously from its early days, when its free-and-easy mingling of artists and audiences had given the show a spontaneity and bounce that appealed triumphantly to the very young.
But of late is anarchic shooting had become an excuse for sloppy directing, its natural studio environment had become a refuge for lazy set designers and cheap budgets, and its gay, lively enthusiasts had diminished into a jumble of spotty faced, frozen gawkers.
Harried into going live by a growing suspicion among audiences that mime merely disguised the incompetence of its performers, Ready, Steady, Go! moved into a larger studio and recruited some prettier girls into the audience.
But apart from discovering two girls who could sing remarkably like Dionne Warwick, it cannot be said that a new millennium in pop programmes was opened up by the renovation.
The problem of singing live proved that only Tom Jones and Miss Warwick could perform as effectively without the help of recording engineers. The actual sound balance of the programme was atrocious, with rhythm beats blotting out melodies and the background noises blurring the singing.
There was chaos in the cueing, with performers caught with their instruments down and egg all over their guitars. “You’ve done it again,” cried Manfred Mann at a bad cue. “Ready, Steady Goes Live. Aspirin sales have doubled!”
A.B.C.’s Thank Your Lucky Stars did much better with its revised show. Getting rid of all the nonsense stunts – audience markings “O’ll give it foive,” extraneous disc jockeys – the acts took place in a well-marked off arena, divorced form the audiences, allowing the lighting effects to play their full part.
By cutting to the fist-chewing, hysterical screamers in the audience only when it was needed to match the effect of the performers, the viewers at home could get an uncluttered, clean-cut picture of groups like the Beatles, the Animals and the Drifters without interruptions from the stamping fett and waggling behinds of the studio fodder.
I am at a loss, however, to explain the continued tolerance of the B.B.C. for Juke Box Jury. The juxtaposition of close-ups of astigmatic children and square-faced Moms with the sound of the latest records has long since ceased to be of any conceivable visual interest.
The sight of middle-aged people like David Tomlinson, Joan Turner and Catherine Boyle trying to communicate their with-it-ness to a glum-faced, mummified audience is one of the continuing embarrassments on TV.
What conceivable use their judgments are escapes me when last week no fewer than seven out of nine records were solemnly nominated as hits. David Tomlinson, indeed, voted for nine out of nine as hits which, as a standard, would make the turnover in the Top Ten as active as an explosion of jumping beans.
This programme, like Ready Steady Go! also tends to correlate pop music with inarticulateness. The vocabulary of Sue Lloyd on Juke Box Jury seemed to be confined chiefly to the words “I love it, I think it’s great.” Cathy McGowan, doing most of the talking in Ready, Steady, Go! announced a “smashing” competition, thanked Manfred Mann for a “smashing” arrangement, said a harmonica player was “smashing” and told us that the four dancing couples we were going to see were – guess what? “smashing.”
And, in addition to doing something about this potential deleterious effect on teenager speech, could the producers of these programmes not be so shamelessly ready to plug any new American star that happens to float into town?
Dionne Warwick, in spite of her undoubted talent, does not deserve a spot on the Eamonn Andrews Show, Ready, Steady, Go!, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Juke Box Judy [sic] in just under ten days.
It would, indeed, be healthier all round if the entire pop world were farm more independent of the public relations men in the record business.