1953 Coronation

THE CORONATION OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II - In most parts of the country, in the towns and the cities, streets were deserted on the morning of Coronation Day, 2 June 1953. In residential quarters and in suburbs groups of cars were parked in the silent roads. They stood outside houses where the H ariel of TV had drawn neighbours and friends inside to take part in what became, as each hour passed, the greatest day yet in the history of television's short and remarkable history. That day the TV audience, for the first time, was almost double the radio audience. Of the adult population of Britain, numbering around 36,500,000, nearly twenty-and-a-half million watched the Coronation on television. More than half the viewers all over the country watched in the homes of friends, about a million and a half watched big-screen relays in cinemas and other public places. Two hundred children, in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, watched in colour as closed circuit pictures were transmitted from three TV colour cameras overlooking Parliament Square.

In the two months preceding the Coronation more TV sets were bought than in any other two months. At least two and a half million sets were in use-giving TV in 1953 a family audience of about 8 million people. On 2 June, 1953, TV unleashed a binding power through the nation, the significance of which to national life proved to be immense and historically important.


THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT - The summer of 1953 had seen the BBC's then new head of drama Michael Barry allocates his entire first year's budget for new scripts - the princely sum of £250 - on a single author, a young staff writer (and winner of the 1950 Somerset Maughan Prize for Literature), named Nigel Kneale. The scripts ultimately delivered by Kneale were for an imaginative, atmospheric, and innovative six-part science fiction thriller very much different from the somewhat staid, theatrical productions that at the time were very much the standard template for the BBC's television drama output. Kneale's dark and disturbing story was basically woven around a simple but highly effective framework. The Quatermass Experiment told the tale Professor Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate), head of the British Rocket Research Group, and the deadly after effects which arise when an experimental spaceship with a three-man crew is deflected hundreds of thousands of miles off-course, before finally returning to Earth. The survivor, Victor Caroon (Duncan Lamont) had been contaminated with an alien life-form that caused him to metamorphose into a hundred-foot-tall vegetable creature capable of infinite reproduction. After a tense cat and mouse manhunt, that saw the alien wreak havoc on London, it was finally cornered by Quatermass in Westminster Abbey and ultimately destroyed in time to save the world.

The Quatermass Experiment was to be the first of several successful collaborations between the writer and celebrated producer/director Rudolph Cartier. Cartier and his production team exhibited great faith and ingenuity to bring Kneale's literate and complex scripts to the television screen. At the time, Television drama was broadcast live, and the art of small screen special effects were virtually unknown. Indeed, the horrific elements required by Kneale's story had to be created 'on the night' itself, within a tightly limited series budget of just over £3500. Such were the limitations to be overcome for the serial, that Kneale himself 'played' the monster during the tense climax, using his own rubber gloved hands, covered with bits of vegetation and leather and pushed up through a simple blown-up still of Westminster Abbey. Only too well aware of the technical limitations placed upon him, Kneale relied on the basic dramatic strengths of a tight coherent plot and well-drawn three-dimensional characters to tell his story.

Once broadcast, the serial's impact was immediate, and tremendous. The combination of it being aimed, as it was, at an adult audience, as well as being the first episodic production of its kind, ensured it as an instantly popular success as well as being the basic template for the serials to follow.


George DixonDIXON OF DOCK GREEN - Jack Warner first played Dixon in the 1949 Rank movie, 'The Blue Lamp,' in which he was gunned down by armed robber Dirk Bogarde. His creator, Ted Willis, resurrected him six years later as a replacement for the BBC series 'Fabian of the Yard.' Willis spent a number of weeks researching at Paddington Green station, where he 'recruited' some 250 officers to provide him with anecdotes, until he finally placed Dixon at London's fictitious Dock Green police station, where he became a permanent fixture for the next 21 years, making the series the longest running police show in British TV history. Willis created a cosy, non-violent image around George Dixon, episodes began and ended with a monologue to camera beneath the police stations blue lamp, with a moralistic message that crime doesn't pay, before old George would disappear into the night whistling 'Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner'. George was eventually promoted to 'Desk Sergeant' and new, younger characters, such as Detective Sgt Andy Crawford came to the fore.

With his promotion George rarely strayed beyond the station's front doors, and indeed, the last few years of the series saw him preparing for retirement, not surprisingly as Warner was now 80 years of age. Jack Warner died 5 years after the series finished, and in tribute to him his coffin was borne by officers of Paddington Green Police Station, as the shows theme 'An Ordinary Copper' was played over a PA. It was not just Jack Warner who was buried that day, it was an entire age of innocence, where the good guys upheld simple, traditional values and the bad guys came quietly. More than a quaintly old fashioned and reassuring television series came to an end when George Dixon went off duty for the final time, a doorway to an old way of life was closed and firmly bolted forever.

Robin Hood

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD - Richard Greene starred as the legendary 12th century outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin of Locksley, the Earl of Huntingdon, was forced to rebel against the cruel Prince John (Hubert Gregg, Brian Haines and most famously -Donald Pleasence) and his local henchman, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Wheatley). Ably abetted by his traditional band of Merry Men, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlett (Ronald Howard, later replaced by Paul Eddington who would go on to find fame in The Good Life and Yes Minister), and Alan-a-Dale. The series was one of the first British shows to be purchased by an American TV company where it was also a big success.

Robin Hood enthralled a generation of children and spawned a number of imitations such as The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Sir Francis Drake and The Adventures of William Tell. Shot at Nettlefold Studios at a rate of a 26-minute episode every four days, Hood managed to maintain a high standard of writing, employing blacklisted Hollywood writers who wrote under various aliases. The series was also significant in being the first commissioned programme for the new ITC company. Terence Fisher, Don Chaffey and Ralph Smart were among the directors, and the theme song was a hit in 1956 for Dick James, who also went on to become a world famous music publisher with his DJM company publishing the songs of The Beatles and Elton John.

Bruce Forsyth

SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM - Debuting on the first weekend of commercial television in the UK, from the very start Sunday Night At The London Palladium established itself as the highlight television show of the week for Britain’s viewing millions - and immediately climbed to the top of the TV ratings. The show was the topic of conversation for millions in factories, offices and shop floors on Monday mornings and one Church of England vicar – the Rev. D.P. Davies, of Holy Trinity Church, West End, Woking, Surrey – started his Sunday evening service half an hour earlier, so that his congregation could get home in time to see the show. The British viewing public had never seen anything as spectacular as this on their TV sets before as the world’s most celebrated stars and the best of homegrown talent was bought into their living rooms in an extravaganza of music, dance and comedy. Sunday Night At The London Palladium was very probably the one show, above all others, that helped establish Commercial Television.

When 'Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium' aired for the first time on 25th September 1955, it featured among its stars the legendary Lancashire Lass, Gracie Fields, and from the USA current singing sensation Guy Mitchell. The show was hosted by Tommy Trinder. South London born Tommy had been a regular at the Palladium since 1941 with the review Gangway, and was without doubt one of the top comics of the day. Loved by his audience he would always tell them how fortunate they were to see him perform with his good-natured catch phrase "you lucky people". When, in 1958, Tommy decided to give up hosting the Palladium show a replacement was sought. When Parnell saw Bruce Forsyth perform for the first time he knew that he had found his new Palladium compere. Initially given a four-week run as front man, Forsyth was an instant hit and the series entered its golden era. Like Trinder before him, he had a natural ability for ad-libbing and audience participation. Within week's audience figures rose to over 14 million households for the Sunday night spectacular, and in the process a new star was born.

The format for the Palladium show never altered, it opened with the famous high-kicking Tiller Girls, a welcome from the host, a few acts and then Beat The Clock. In the second half another couple of acts were followed by the star turn, and the finale involved all the acts waving goodbye from the famous revolving stage. In its heyday 28 million viewers tuned in, at the time nearly half the population of the United Kingdom. The stars that appeared on the show or 'topped the bill' reads like a who's who of show business. The day after the Beatles topped the bill, the British press, unable to believe how the West End of London had been brought to a complete standstill by the groups fans, discovered a new word: BEATLEMANIA.

Sid James and Tony Hancock

HANCOCK'S HALF HOUR - Transferring from a successful radio run in 1956, the comedic misadventures of one Tony Aloysius Hancock esq. of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, beguiled the television audience of the UK until 1961. Written by the prolific writing team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (who would go on to create another comedy legend - 'Steptoe and Son'), each hilarious half hour recounted a particular misadventure in the pretentiously uneventful life of the lugubrious, trademark Homburg-hatted, lead character. Partnered initially with the highly experienced comedy actor Sid James, Hancock's immaculate comic timing allied with James' own skill and perfectly pitched and observed scripts from the resident writing team, ensured the series outstanding success.

The series had immense pulling power and many pubs complained that customers would stream out twenty minutes before the broadcast of the latest ‘Hancock’ to ensure that they got home in time and were comfortably in front of the television before the show started. Following this final season Hancock made an ill advised defection from the BBC to ITV, in the process dispensing with the creative input of Galton and Simpson. The dubious decision of ‘The Lad Himself’ to read his lines from autocue rather than memorising them was another sad nail in the coffin lid of Hancock's television fame, and one that ultimately led him to take his own life. However, at its peak, 'Hancock's Half Hour' was a genuine Rolls Royce amongst situation comedies, and that kind of sheer style and class never really goes out of fashion.

Donald Pleasence

ARMCHAIR THEATRE - Debuting in 1956 with the play 'The Outsider', starring David Kossoff and Adrienne Corri, 'Armchair Theatre' ushered in a golden age of both writing and production for the 'one-off' drama on British television. Although the series captured a respectable audience rating in it's early days, it wasn't until 1958, and the arrival of Canadian producer Sydney Newman, that it gained a reputation for the ruthless, down-to-earth and back room 'kitchen sink' type of story for which it is still remembered today.

Newman's approach was to abandon established dramas and go for a gritty realism with a series of specially commissioned plays by young playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Robert Miller, Ray Rigby and Alun Owen. As the series gathered in reputation so it attracted some of British theatre's best-known faces and names such as Flora Robson, Gracie Fields, Joan Greenwood, Charles Gray, and Donald Pleasance (pictured). Lesser-known names would go on to enjoy long and distinguished careers and these included Alan Bates, Tom Courtney and Diana Rigg. Unfairly dubbed 'Armpit Theatre' because of the stark realism it at times portrayed, but enjoying a reputation for drama of the highest quality, for many, 'Armchair Theatre' was not only an essential part of Sunday night viewing in Britain, but an outstanding contributor in the history of television production.

Billy Cotton

THE BILLY COTTON BAND SHOW - Big band, big sound and big big personality - with a rousing call of "Wakey-Wakey" followed by his signature tune "Somebody Stole My Gal", Billy Cotton introduced an inexhaustible 50 minutes of non-stop music, dancing and comedy in the essential weekend variety revue that was a stalwart of BBC programming for 12 years. The first BBC series went out on 29th March 1956 under the title of Wakey Wakey! Billy Cotton also briefly hosted the variety series The Tin Pan Alley Show, although he was not very happy with this series which he saw no more than a "limbering up" for his main series. Ronnie Waldman, the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment, introduced Billy to Brian Tesler who had been working under Waldman's wing for four years at the BBC. Tesler was to be producer of The Billy Cotton Band Show and in order to transfer the winning formula that had so entertained Bill's adoring audience for years he went along to watch one of the music hall gigs. "(I) saw what a vibrant show he put on with the band and singers." Said Tesler. "It was boisterous, and very funny. As I watched the band on stage I could see ways in which we could use their production numbers for television. Then I thought we could bring in dancers to dance with Bill. He could obviously do little routines, and the juxtaposition of this large man - who, like many large men, was capable of delicate and dainty movements - with a bunch of beautiful and glamorously dressed showgirl dancers would obviously be very appealing. And it was."

The dancers, a line of 12 dancing girls, were named the Silhouettes. The BBC used a technique, still relatively new in those days, called overlay and inlay. This technique created a special effect in which you take a person's silhouette and fill it with anything you want, like newsprint, or clouds or whatever. "It was a technique I developed at the BBC, it was very effective, and that's why we called the girls the Silhouettes." Said Tesler. The series also launched careers, including Russ Conway (who was awarded his own BBC television series in 1960), Mrs. Mills, Ted Rogers and Roy Hudd, the first three becoming regulars or semi-regulars following their first appearance. Guest stars ranged from homegrown stars such as Alma Cogan and Frankie Vaughan to international stars like Jane Mansfield and Bob Hope and through the years up-coming stars the likes of Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw also appeared.

Billy Cotton was presented with an Ivor Novello award in 1959 and voted Show Business Personality of the Year in 1962. The series never witnessed a decline in popularity, with only Bill's death from a heart attack on 25th March 1969 bringing it to a close. By that time the producer of the show was Bill Cotton junior. Bill's son, a rising star within the BBC who would one day become Managing Director of the Corporation. The final show (retitled since 1965 as Billy Cotton's Music-Hall) was transmitted on 20th July 1968. Bill Cotton junior once summed up his father's life as having "spanned the halcyon days of the big band, and continued beyond that time, surviving by blind faith and courage and the ability to take life by the scruff of the neck and make it do what he wanted." A fitting tribute to the man once dubbed by the Variety Club of Great Britain as "Mr Show Business."

Emergency-Ward 10

EMERGENCY-WARD 10 - Britain's first medical soap, which was also the first of the nation's twice-weekly serials, (airing on Tuesday's and Friday's), 'Emergency-Ward 10' started life as 'Calling Nurse Roberts', a six-week filler which went on to become one of the nations best loved programmes, reaching an average audience of 16 million people a week and 24 million at its peak.

The series was the creation of South African born Tessa Diamond, an ATV continuity writer who was responsible for writing the links for programme announcers, and who had already submitted several series idea's to the stations programme developers. Set in the fictitious surroundings of Oxbridge General Hospital, the series was an instant hit -with one million viewers tuning in to the first episode in February 1957, and running for ten years. In the process it made stars out of the actors and actresses who walked its wards, not least of all Jill Browne, who played pin-up nurse (later Sister) Carole Young. The series also won praise from the British Medical Association for allaying people's fear of hospitals, and in 1962 the then Minister of Health, Enoch Powell, congratulated the show on its 500th episode and commented on the useful job it did in reminding the public of the need for immunization.

Although the series was high in drama it had a very low mortality rate (patient deaths were strictly limited to five per year), concentrating more on the lives of the men and women who staffed the hospital. These included Charles Tingwell as surgeon Alan Dawson and Ray Barrett as Dr. John Nolan. Richard Thorp who would later go on to star in another long running soap, 'Emmerdale Farm', played Dr. John Rennie, and John ('Please Sir!' - 'Upstairs Downstairs') Alderton joined the cast in 1963 as Dr. Richard Moone. (Alderton later married his co-star Jill Browne).

The long list of patients who received treatment within EW10's walls included Ian Hendry, Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney, all of whom went on to bigger and better things. There was a 1958 full-length feature film, 'Life in Emergency-Ward 10', and a brief spin-off series starring Richard Thorp; 'Call Oxbridge 2000', but in 1967, with ratings beginning to fall, ATV supremo Lew Grade pulled the plug on the hospital's life support. Grade later admitted it was; 'one of the two biggest mistakes of my life.'

Alfie Bass

THE ARMY GAME - Hugely successful series from Granada TV that started in 1957 as a fortnightly live sitcom, which was moved to a weekly spot when it became so popular. Loosely based on the 1956 movie 'Private's Progress', the series followed the fortunes of a mixed bag of army conscripts in residence at Hut 29 of the Surplus Ordnance Depot at Nether Hopping in remote Staffordshire. At the forefront of this gang of misfits was Pte 'Excused Boots' Bisley played by diminutive comedian Alfie Bass (pictured), Pte 'Cupcake' Cook (Norman Rossington), Pte Hatchett (Charles Hawtrey who would become a 'Carry On' film regular), Pte 'Popeye' Popplewell (East End born comedian Bernard Bresslaw, another 'Carry On' regular) and future 'Doctor Who' William Hartnell as bellowing Sgt Major Bullimore. Popplewell's catchphrase "I only arsked" became a national catch phrase and became the title for a 1958 feature film based on the series.

'The Army Game' debuted on 19th June 1957 sandwiched comfortably between two of ITV's top rated midweek show's -'Criss-Cross Quiz' and 'Play of the Week' and alternated every other Wednesday with 'The Caroll Levis Variety Show.' By the end of the first series 'The Army Game' had become the nation's favourite sitcom and was switched to a Friday night slot - there was a break of just two weeks between series one and two with the former ending on 4th December and the latter commencing on 20th December 1957.

A number of cast changes from 1958 onwards affected the show's popularity and ultimately led to its demise. The first to leave were Hawtrey, Bresslaw and Hartnell (although the latter returned for the final series). Hartnell's place was taken by Bill Fraser as Sgt Claude Snudge, a character that proved popular enough for a spin-off series 'Bootsie and Snudge' in 1960. The series is notable for launching the career of many British actor/comedians including Harry Fowler and Dick Emery (who appeared as 'Chubby' Catchpole), and amongst its writers boasted the likes of Barry Took, John Antrobus, Talbot Rothwell and Marty Feldman. Selected episodes were paraded once more by the now defunct Granada Plus in 2002. Unfortunately, it was plainly obvious that the series has not aged well. National Service officially ended on 31st December 1960 and both it, and the series itself soon became a distant memory. 'The Army Game' was most definitely a product of its time-and for a while, as far as its audience was concerned, it was a product that stood head up and shoulders back above all others.


Article: Laurence Marcus