Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Long Before Colbert or Trevor Noah Was That Was the Week That Was

David Frost, in front, and the cast of the BBCs ground-breaking weekly satire That Was the Week that Was.

Long ago before there was a John Stewart or Stephen Colbert show, even before there was a Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour there was a little thing on TV called That Was the Week That Was which brought political satire and cutting edge social commentary into the unsuspecting and unprepared living rooms of millions.

TW3, as it was soon nicknamed, premiered on November 24, 1962 across the Puddle on the BBC.  The show came on the air in the midst of a delicious sex scandal known as then Profumo Affair which rocked the Conservative government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan so it was off and running in the business of biting political satire at an opportune moment.

Producer Ned Sherrin tapped a young a little known broadcaster David Frost to host the show and manage a three ring circus composed of a large cast, writers scribbling away furiously even as the show was on the air and a good deal of improvised material.  It was slated to run for 50 minutes, but as the last program on the BBC’s Saturday night line up, it often ran over time—and once or twice simply stopped short of the mark.  Frost and Sherrin resisted network pressures insisting that the material should determine the length of the program, not an arbitrary time slot.

In the show’s second season the BBC decided to put re-runs of the series The Third Man on afterwards to hem the program in to it allocated time.  Frost responded by reading synopsizes of the upcoming episode at the end of his program spoiling it for the audience.  The BBC soon abandoned its plans and the show was once again happily running long.

Singer Millicent Martin was the sole woman in a testosterone heavy cast,  

TW3 opened every week with a snappy theme song by Ron Gainer and sung by Millicent Martin that would incorporate mentions of news stories of the last week which the show would satirize.  Gainer proved other songs as needed and actor Lance Percival would often ad lib calypso songs from suggestions by the studio audience.  Besides the sketch comedians the cast included cartoonist Timothy Birdsall and political commentator Bernard Levin.

Dozens of writers contributed to the program including a who’s who of rising and established British comedians and writers—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, and Kenneth Tynan.

Radio Times was the BBC's widely circulated program guide

Predictably, the show drew howls of protest from its targets who besieged the staid BBC to reign in the program or cancel it.  Among those with their panties in a twist were the Tory Party, the Boy Scouts Association (for a jab at the sexual orientation of Scouts founder Lord Baden-Powell) and the government of civil war wracked Cyprus on behalf of Greek leader Archbishop Makarios.

On September 23, the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the show scrapped its usual format and produced a moving 20 minute tribute to the fallen president featuring a new song by Gainer, The Summer of His Years, which later became an international hit for Martin and Connie Francis.   Film of the program was jetted across the Atlantic and was shown on NBC the following day during the marathon coverage of national mourning. 

The recording of TW3's somber and emotional program on the Kennedy Assassination included Martin singing In the Summer of His Years which also became an international hit single. 

Despite continued strong viewership, the BBC elected not to slate a third season.  There was an upcoming election in the United Kingdom and officials were afraid that their political neutrality would be called into question.

But the show lived on in another incarnation in the U.S.

NBC aired a 60 minute pilot episode of an American version on November 10, 1963 with Henry Fonda as host, radio star and celebrity game show panelist Henry Morgan, improvisational stars Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and a supporting cast that included a young Gene Hackman.

The program was well received.  The imported British JFK memorial also gained the respect of viewers and NBC brass alike, who green lighted the series to begin in January of 1964—an American election year.

The series premiered as in a 30 minute format on Friday nights with actor Elliot Reid as host.  With his BBC program canceled, Frost took over as host later and flew over weekly to host, making him as familiar this side of the Atlantic as back home.  The regular cast included Morgan, Buck Henry, Alan Alda, Tom Bosley, Sandy Barron and Nancy Ames singing the opening song.  Other regular contributors were Gloria Steinem, William F. Brown, and Calvin Trillin.  The celebrate Harvard mathematics professor, Tom Lehrer performed an original song most weeks.  Guest stars included Woody Allen and on the final broadcast Steve Allen.

Tom Lehrer, the singing mathematics professor, was already an established musical satiriest when he signed on to do an original song most weeks on the American version TW3

In addition to barbed satire, TW3 also had its serious moments.  Puppeteer Bur Tilstrom, creator of Kukla, Fran and Ollie contributed what he called a hand ballet about the Berlin Wall which won an Emmy.

The show was renewed that fall, but ran into difficulties when it was moved to Tuesday nights opposite CBS’s popular corn Petticoat Junction and ABC’s night time soap opera Peyton Place.  It also ran into the Goldwater campaign, which was convinced the show was hostile to it, probably not a bad assumption despite jibes at President Lyndon and Vice Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.  The campaign preemptively bought out the time period for the scheduled premier and did it again three more times before Election Day.  And, of course the show was off the air for election night coverage.  So that in the heat of the campaign the satire program was off the more weeks than it was run.

The show returned to the airwaves November 10th and opened with a film of Goldwater’s concession speech and an announcer telling viewers “Due to circumstances beyond control, the regularly scheduled political broadcast scheduled for this time is pre-empted.”

In provincial Cheyenne, Wyoming this young misfit, already a news junkie, was enthralled.  It was the one program where I claimed the TV no matter what.  I even triumphed over my Dad’s soft spot for rural hijinks and Mom’s attachment to Dorothy Malone’s heaving bosom.  But I was not enough.  Rating never recovered from the disastrous move to Tuesday nights.  NBC cancelled the show at the end of the season in May of 1965.

Lehrer's compilation album of his songs from TW3 became an instant classic. 55 years later a generation of geezers and many younger fans can still sing the lyrics of many of the songs.

In September of 1965 Tom Lehrer released a compilation of his contributions on the show on That Was the Year That Was on the Reprise label.  I may have been first in line to buy it.  And I nearly wore it out.


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