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THE TOP 10 BRITISH TELEVISION ICONS
OF THE 1950s

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.


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This is by no means meant to be a definitive list but a general overview. You may agree or disagree with the editors choice of 1950s icons. To tell us what you think of the 1950s Telly Icons.
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All reviews on this page adapted from Television Heaven apart from The Coronation - adapted from the 1954 TV Annual

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