The idea for That Was the Week That Was (which familiarly became known as TW3) came partly from the then director general of the BBC, Hugh Greene, who wanted to "prick the pomposity of public figures"--but it was the team of Ned Sherrin, Alasdair Milne and Donald Baverstock that was responsible for developing its successful format. The trio had previously worked on the BBC's daily early-evening news magazine show Tonight (1957-65--revived and revamped version 1975-79) and the light-hearted style and wide-ranging brief of that show often allowed certain items to be covered in a toungue-in-cheek, irreverent or even satirical way. TW3, in its late-night Saturday slot, moved those elements a stage further and, taking a lead from the increased liberalism of theatre and cinema in Britain, was able to discuss and disect the week's news and newsmakers using startlingly direct language and illustration. Whereas Tonight was gentle, TW3 was savage, unflinching in its devotion to highlight cant and hypocrisy and seemingly fearless in its near libellous accusations and inuendos. Complaints poured in, but so did congratulations and despite enormous political pressure, Hugh Greene--determined in his quest to see a modern, harder BBC through the 1960s--stood by his brainchild.
Stylistically the show broke many rules: although it was commonplace on "live" shows of the fifties (like the rock 'n' roll show 6-5 Special) to see the cumbersome cameras being pushed from one set to the next, TW3 went beyond that. A camera mounted high up in the studio would offer a bird's-eye view of the entire proceedings, showing the complete studio set-up with the flimsy sketch sets, the musicians, backroom personnel, the audience, other cameras, etc. It seemed to indicate that the viewing audience was to be treated as equals--that both creator and viewer knew it was a studio, knew the sketches weren't really set in a doctor's waiting-rooms but in a three walled mock-up, knew that make-up girls would wait in the wings with powder and paint--so why hide it? The format of the show was simple, rigid enough to keep it all together, flexible enough to let items lengthen or shorten or disappear altogether, depending on time. Millicent Martin (the only permanent female member of the team) would sing the title song (music by Ron Grainer with Caryl Brahms providing a new set of lyrics each week relating to the news of the past few days) then David Frost, as host, would introduce the proceedings and act as link man between the items and often appearing throughout in sketches or giving monologues. (Originally John Bird was to be host but declined; Sherrin saw Frost at a club, doing an act where he gave a press conference as Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, and offered him the role of co-host with Brian Redhead who dropped out after doing the untransmitted pilot.) Bernard Levin interviewed people in the news or with strongly held views and his acid wit added an edge which occasionally produced flare-ups both verbal and physical. (A member of the studio audience once punched him, rather inefectually, following a scathing review he had written). Lance Percival acted in sketches and sang topical calypsos (a device used on Tonight) many of which were ad libbed. David Kernan was a resident singer whose strength was his ability to parody other singers and styles, Timothy Birdsall drew cartoons, Al Mancini pulled faces and the engine room was provided by Willie Rushton, Kenneth Cope and Roy Kinnear who fleshed out the sketches and comic chatter. The show occassionally featured guest artistes, most famously comedian Frankie Howerd whose popularity had waned somewhat. His one appearance on TW3 managed to dramatically resurrect his career, as his humour seemed to work for both traditionalists and this new, younger, harder generation.
The writing credits for the show read like a Who's Who of the sharp young talent of the time: John Albery, John Antrobus, Christopher Booker, Malcolm Bradbury, John Braine, Quentin Crewe, Brian Glanville, Gerald Kaufman, Herbert Kretzmer, David Nathan & Dennis Potter, David Nobbs, Peter Shaffer, Kenneth Tynan, Stephen Vinaver, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall--plus contributions from the show's creative staff: Sherrin, Frost, and Levin.
Memorable moments from the series include Gerald Kaufman's list of silent MPs which highlighted politicians who hadn't spoken in the House of Commons in ten or fifteen years. The sketch caused a furore when it was read out by the team, despite the fact that the information was readily available. Kenneth Cope's "confession" monologue (written by John Braine) featured a figure, hidden in shadows, who confesses to being heterosexual and relates the misery it can cause. Frost's scathing profile of Home Secretary Henry Brooke insinuated, amongst other things, that his intractability in an immigration case had led to the murder of the subject. Millicent Martin, sang with black faced minstrels about racism in the Southern States. And most memorable of all was the truly serious edition immediately following President Kennedy's assasination. The whole show was given over to the subject, tackling the shock felt and the implications of the shooting with rare solemnity and dignity. (That episode was lodged at the Smithsonian Institute)
36 50 Minute Episodes
1 150 Minute Special
1 100 Minute Special
29 September 1962 150 Minute Special
24 November 1962-27 April 1963 23 Episodes
28 September 1963-21 December 1963 13 Episodes
28 December 1963 100 Minute Special
A U.S. version of the series (also featuring Frost) debuted 10 January 1964 on NBC and ran until May 1965. Singer Nancy Ames took the Millicent Martin role and Buck Henry, Pat Englund and Alan Alda were among the regulars. The show proved equally groundbreaking in the United States and, like the British version, was no stranger to controversy.
Campey, George, J.T. Archer, and Ian Coates. The BBC Book of That Was the Week That Was. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1963.
Frost, David. That Was the Week That Was. London: W.H. Allen, 1963.