Over The Points: 6.5 SpecialAndrew Liddle looks back at a ground-breaking television programme that ushered in a new age – and starred a lad from Halifax!
16th February, 1957!
It's a date, some 65 years ago, that deserves to be fêted in British television history, celebrated in the annals of pop culture, given due recognition as the official coming of age of a generation. It was the time the whole country switched on to a new brand of pop music - and the first opportunity the young record-buying public got to actually experience it performed live.
It was also the first time the country got to hear of Don Lang, an unlikely trombone-playing heartthrob from Halifax.
""Hi there! 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 with it and have yourself a ball!"
With these words Pete Murray, the Radio Luxembourg DJ, straining very hard to get hip, introduced the first episode. The other presenter, Josephine ‘Jo’ Douglas, went from being an unknown actress from Sheffield to overnight fame. Former World Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Freddie Mills, jovially beefed up the supporting cast and the resident band was the Frantic Five led by Don Lang, who got mobbed by girls in the streets of his hometown when he came back – in his shocking red Ford Thunderbird – to visit his Mum.
They thought he was not much more than a teenager like themselves. In fact, born Gordon Langhorn, in 1925, he was 32, and big and burly like his father and grandfather who had both played Rugby league for Halifax.
Up to this point he’d been an in-demand session musician, notably the lead trombonist with the big band led by alto saxophonist Ken Mackintosh, born in Liversedge, Bradford, who went on to international fame and became the arranger of choice for Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro and others. Together, Mackintosh and Lang wrote the jazz standard The Creep.
Singing on comedy numbers with the band’s vocal group, the Macpies, Don developed a clear diction with a rapid delivery which was soon to stand him in good stead. Seeing the way pop music was going, he left the band and formed his own small group, having his first hit in 1955 with Cloudburst, on the HMV label.
Probably his biggest break was getting to belt out the fired-up theme tune, written by Julian More and Johnny Johnston for the new television show. The words which had an excitement of their own became forever synonymous with Don who sang them in all but a couple of early episodes, when the vocal honours belonged to the Bob Cort Skiffle Group:
"Over the points, over the points, over the points, over the points.
The 6.5 Special's
steamin' down the line, the 6.5 Special's right on time.
Coal in the boiler burnin' up'n bright, rollin' and a-rockin' through the night,
My heart's a-beatin' 'cos I'll be meetin' the 6.5 Special
at the station tonight!"
For the rest of his life which ended sadly in 1992, when he died of cancer, wherever he went he was asked to sing the lyrics that had passed into pop legend. As he was fond of saying years later he still found himself somehow associated with the big pop names, even though all he’d ever really wanted to be was a session trombonist, which he reverted to when the Beatles introduced a musical revolution of their own. In fact, John Lennon was a big fan and had him play trombone on their White Album.
When Don brought the Six-Five Special
down the line, right on time - five after six - every Saturday night on the BBC, it was suddenly possible to see and get close to the British pop stars who were making the latest get-with-it records only broadcast on foreign stations. Essential teenage listening on a Saturday night was Radio Luxembourg’s Jamboree, a two-hour show often presented by the American DJ Alan Freed who popularised the term Rock‘n’Roll. Luxembourg played such as Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Britain’s own Skiffle King, Lonnie Donegan, but the BBC Light Programme was still spinning Doris Day, Alma Cogan and Dickie Valentine on the wireless.
Television, the new medium, was hardly any keener on American music than the domestic radio. Indeed, the Perry Como Show
was the only American tv musical show aired in this country at the time. ITV, rather more daring than the BBC, allowed initially a mere 15 minutes to its own breakthrough pop programme, Cool For Cats, when it began in December 1956 - compèred by Canadian Kent Walton, later fondly remembered as the voice of televised Wrestling. Of course, not everybody had access to this commercial station which required a special aerial and the programme did not feature live artistes.
Don Lang & His Frantic Five were the house band
Then suddenly came Six-Five Special,
its studio packed out with animated teenagers jiving, clapping for all they were worth, being intimately part of the scene. It was ground-breaking in its day and set the format for most later pop television. And unlike so many that followed, it was not only live but the artistes actually made music rather than mimed to their own records. Don had them rocking in the aisles with frantic versions of Six-Five Hand Jive, Red Planet Rock
and I Want You To Be My Baby!
Originally supposed to run for only six weeks, Don’s big engine just kept on rolling, attracting 8 million viewers at its peak, leading to numerous spin-offs like the 1958 feature film of the same name, two touring stage shows and a concert version.
Sadly - and unbelievable at the time - it hit the buffers in December 1958. The Six-Five Special Party, on 27 December 1958, the last performance, did not seem very festive at all and in fact it ruined many a Christmas!
It was a long time before reasons emerged as to why it was derailed at the height of its popularity. Apparently it was a row over the content that led to producer and driving force, Jack Good, leaving the BBC in early 1958. He wanted to tone down the sport and public-service content and concentrate on the music.
The staid and stuffy BBC simply could not accept this, so Good resigned. Their loss was ITV's gain when he switched channels to create Oh Boy! which ran from13th September, 1958 to 30th May, 1959. With a greater concentration on pop, a screaming audience and always featuring at least one American artiste, it was in direct competition with 6.5 Special, but had the advantage of starting five minutes earlier!
Within a handful of months the BBC’s experiment with pop had ended. It would be more than five years before, in January 1964, they tried again with Top of the Pops,
which turned out to be the world's longest-running weekly television music show, broadcast continuously until 2006.
It must be remembered that British television was in its infancy in 1957 and this was one of the BBC’s early attempts at creating something for a teenage audience at a time the very idea of a genuine youth culture was only just being recognised. Sadly, it was not recorded and little remains of it apart from the thrilling title sequence with Don singing.
Three days later - on Tuesday 19th February - ITV launched another ground-breaking hugely-popular series, Emergency Ward 10, set in Oxbridge General Hospital. One of Britain’s first major soap operas, it ran twice weekly for the next ten years, making household names of the delectable Nurse Carol Young, played by Jill Browne, and a host of dishy doctors, including surgeon Alan ‘Digger’ Dawson, a role taken by Australian, Charles Tingwell.
It will shock modern readers to learn that 6.5 Special
actually broke a curfew. Who now remembers the quaint ‘toddlers’ truce’, the hour-long blackout imposed by both the BBC and ITV, between 6 and 7pm, so that parents could pack small children off bed?
This quaint nannying came to a sudden, dramatic and very welcome end that Saturday of 16th February 1957 when the far from golden silence was shattered by a five-minute news bulletin followed by a potent dose of Rock, Skiffle and Trad Jazz!
The world would never be the same again. The 6.5 Special
had arrived on time, to transport a new generation into a new musical age and make a household name of the boy from Pellon, Halifax – Don Lang.
We are grateful to Peter Viney and his website https://aroundandaroundcom.wordpress.com/ for the photos of the record covers