It’s fair to say that, over the years, I’ve got used to shopkeepers giving me funny looks. I don’t think any have been as riven with utter confusion, though, as the one that I was given by the lady behind the counter in a branch of Oxfam when I was a mere twelve years old.
This was back when the average charity shop was still – sometimes literally – packed to the rafters with all manner of weird and wonderful sixties cultural ephemera, as people chucked out their old home entertainment standbys in huge quantities, doubtless assuming that the Atari ST and Super-VHS were here to stay. If you were a youngster with a keen interest in The Pendulum Years, even if you hadn’t chanced upon a copy of The Pendulum Years yet and so wouldn’t actually have used that phrase at all, this was tantamount to sheer nirvana, scooping up armfuls of Monkees albums and Pogle’s Wood annuals whilst inexplicably serious-looking men frowned over a selection of outdated car manuals before putting them back on the shelf. Sometimes, you would chance upon something a bit more mysterious and less well remembered – or at least less well repeated every school holidays by the BBC – and this confused look was the result of just one of those moments. Although it was really a little more significant than that.
Although I didn’t actually know it at the time, this was the moment that would set me off on a monophonic monochrome voyage into the deepest recesses of the ‘sixties’, from which there would be no turning back. The sort of bands with one original member left that they dragged out on ITV daytime shows would be replaced by Tinkerbell’s Fairydust and The London Jazz Four. Adam Diment and Len Deighton novels would boot Ian Fleming off the bookshelf. Television listings would be scoured in the faint hope of the read-about-but-never-seen likes of Bedazzled and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush. And all because of that one discovery that forced a sharp detour away from jumbled off-the-peg nostalgia for miniskirts and ‘Flower Power’ into the dustier realms of Johnny Dankworth albums and late night BBC2. Whatever ‘the sixties’ actually was, I found it in a charity shop, wedged between some dinner party cookbooks with partially faded dust jackets and the inevitable surfeit of copies of Life On Earth.
At that point, I don’t think I really knew of That Was The Week That Was as anything more than a sentence, and not an especially clear or comprehensible one at that. I knew straight away, though, that whatever this book actually was, I had to have it. On the front was what appeared to be a very young David Frost, dressed as a classical conductor for some reason, and the programme’s name picked out in fireworks. On the back was a young woman in a natty and very ‘sixties’ dress, who very clearly had red hair even in a black and white photograph, and a list of names that were mostly a mystery to me at that point but which I would later come to know very well indeed. It reeked of ‘beat boom’-era jazz records and yellowing clippings from the arts pages of broadsheet newspapers. And although I had scant idea of what any of it actually meant, I knew I had to devour it from cover to cover.
Inside I found a dazzling, tightly-packed collection of sketches, cartoons, song lyrics, spoof adverts, book and magazine parodies and amusingly posed photos sending up ‘officials’ of all stripes and hues, all of it rendered in a refreshingly unfamiliar sixties magazine-style layout. Dotted throughout were a large number of full page photos of Millicent Martin, presumably for teenage boys to ‘enjoy’, and full page photos of David Frost, presumably for David Frost to ‘enjoy’. There was a dedication to Timothy Birdsall, a name totally unfamiliar to me at the time, but whom I later learned had been a regular performer on the show, drawing quick-fire satirical cartoons live on air, and who had died suddenly between the two series of That Was The Week That Was; the respectful black bar drawn beneath that detail in Roger Wilmut’s indispensable history of the satire movement From Fringe To Flying Circus still brings out a deep inexplicable sorrow, and like his fellow sixties namesake Tim Buckley, he would later become something of a personally totemic figure for me. When you have a name that people like to take the piss out of, it’s always good to know that some talented and useful people had it as well as those three loathsome irrelevances Tiny, Tiger and Language. I understood very little of what I read, and did not imagine for a second that I would ever actually get to see any of That Was The Week That Was, but that didn’t really seem to be the point. This was a gateway into what was then a completely lost world, and one that I really, really wanted to inhabit. Doubtless this was due mainly to its remote and esoteric nature, but it just seemed so thoroughly exciting.
At the time, this book was probably the closest that viewers would get to experiencing That Was The Week That Was outside of the weekly live transmissions, and I assumed that this would be pretty much the same for me as well. You can imagine how thrilled I was, then, when BBC2 repeated an edition as part of anniversary celebrations a couple of months later. By that time I’d already also found the That Was The Week That Was album, produced by George Martin and with numerous Pythons and Goodies-in-waiting hiding amongst the writing credits. Later I would find the less impressive second book, which seemed to be striving to contain absolutely no words whatsoever; the theme single performed by Millie and Frost, with a frankly filthy for 1962 song about office workers having affairs on the b-side; the tribute book to Timothy Birdsall, with genuinely eye-moistening contributions from his colleagues on the show; and the ‘unofficial’ album Funny Game Politics, produced by George Martin and based on a stage revue that the cast and writers had mounted to mock the very election that the Government had used as a pretext to get them taken off the air. Now that one really did take a lot of interpreting.
Even with all of this reference material to hand, not to mention the extant editions of the show that I later ‘acquired’ and indeed my robust working knowledge of sixties popular and socioculture, I’ve still no way of really knowing just how exciting it must have been to watch those shows going out, nor indeed the real magnitude of just how frightened the authorities were of them. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence around – for example Syd Barrett, another key obsession of the era for me, would reputedly leave parties to get home in time to catch it, while the BBC were under such pressure from the government that they attempted to rein the show in by making it the second-to-last show in the schedules, a ploy that was hastily abandoned when David Frost took to ending each edition by reading out the plot of the repeated episode of The Third Man that was to follow it – but you can only really guess at how energising and amusing it must have felt and how very real the sense that it would come to an all too abrupt end was. Even Brass Eye probably didn’t even come close. That Was The Week That Was was a rare flash of blatant irreverence and disrespect in an era that wouldn’t have said boo to a goose if it wore the right old school tie, and the fact that Mary Whitehouse was still vocally angry about the show thirty years later speaks volumes. Her assertion that it was the starting point of the decline in standards and decency that led us where we are today, on the other hand, speaks volumes of hogwash.
All of that was probably just a hazy memory at the time I pulled that book off that shelf, though, and certainly not anything that anyone too young to have seen That Was The Week That Was should have had any awareness of. So all in all it’s hardly surprising that the lady serving me looked back from the cover to my face several times, and watched with some alarm and suspicion as I left the shop. Many years later, in that very same shop, I handed over a frankly comparatively ludicrous amount of money for an elusive Dudley Moore album. Perhaps she just knew where I was headed.
You can find more about television from the dustier corners of the archives in my book Not On Your Telly.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.