Series / That Was The Week That Was
That Was the Week That Was
(abbreviated to TW3
) was a satirical television comedy programme shown on BBC television
between 24 November 1962 and 28 December 1963. It was devised, produced and directed by Ned Sherrin
, and presented by David Frost
The programme is considered to be a significant element of the "satire boom" in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. At this stage in the decade, far from challenging entrenched social attitudes and conventions, the 1960s promised to be a continuation of the socially conservative, conventional and stifling 1950s. The historical significance of this show is that it was the first challenge to convention of the decade. It broke new ground in comedy through lampooning the establishment and political figures of the time. This is so commonplace now that it is hard to believe the practice of satirising political leaders and those hitherto perceived to be our "social betters" had to begin somewhere and was in fact frowned upon - but it began here, over 50 years ago. Later shows such as Spitting Image
would simply not have happened were it not for pioneering shows such as this. Its first broadcast coincided with coverage of the politically charged Profumo affair, and John Profumo, the politician at the centre of the affair, became one of the first targets for derision. He was certainly not the last.
An American version by the same name, also featuring Frost, aired on NBC
from January 1964 to May 1965. Moral Guardians
in both countries repeatedly protested, but it was too late - the genie was out of the bottle and practically every TV show that even dabbled in satire has something of TW3
about it. The programme always opened with a song – That Was the Week That Was
– sung by Millicent Martin to Ron Grainer's theme tune, its words rewritten to include topical issues in the news.
Cast members included cartoonist Timothy Birdsall,note
political commentator Bernard Levin, and actors Lance Percival, Kenneth Cope, Roy Kinnear, Willie Rushton
, Al Mancini, David Kernan, and Millicent Martin
(resident chanteuse). Michael Redgrave
and Robert Lang made multiple guest appearances to recite topical poems, while Frankie Howerd
made a guest appearance to deliver a monologue poking fun at the Macmillan government. Script-writers included John Albery, John Antrobus, John Betjeman, John Bird, Graham Chapman
, John Cleese
, Peter Cook
, Roald Dahl
, Richard Ingrams
, Lyndon Irving, Gerald Kaufman, Frank Muir, David Nobbs, Denis Norden, Bill Oddie
, Dennis Potter, Eric Sykes
, Kenneth Tynan, and Keith Waterhouse.
Recurring segments included:
- Timothy Birdsall drawing a (usually politically-themed) cartoon on a blank piece of paper while explaining the ideas going into the picture.
- Lance Percival singing a calypso song inspired by the week's news events.
- Bernard Levin engaging in a debate with one or more members of a particular profession or organisation (such as barristers or hoteliers), usually beginning by reciting a list of reasons why the profession/organisation is a national disgrace and then inviting the guest(s) to refute his arguments.
The series was cancelled in early 1964 as a General Election had been called and the BBC claimed that the programme's material could compromise its impartiality. Sherrin later revived the format as Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life
(1964-65, also fronted by Frost) and BBC-3
(1965-66, fronted by Robert Robinson), though neither is quite as fondly remembered as TW3
This satirical TV show included examples of:
- Accidental Innuendo: Invoked in a 1963 sketch spoofing the controversy over junior minister Thomas "Tam" Galbraith beginning a letter to civil servant John Vassall (whose homosexuality had been used to blackmail him into spying for the Soviet Union) with the words "My Dear Vassall". A civil servant (David Kernan) presents a draft letter to his superior (Lance Percival), who reacts with disgust to the perceived sexual overtones of such language as "Pursuant to your letter, I am hoping for the favour of an early reply. Thanking you in anticipation," and the possible closing lines "Yours faithfully" and "Your obedient servant". He insists the letter simply end with the writer's name... which, unfortunately for said writer, is Fairy (or Fairey, or Farey).
- Audience Participation: When Lance Percival began strumming his guitar to introduce a topical calypso performance, he would ask audience members to suggest stories that had already been featured in the episode as possible subjects for a verse of the song. In the 29 December 1962 episode, he expanded this to an invitation to name any news story from the previous year.
- Biting-the-Hand Humor: The BBC were certainly not immune from TW3's caustic putdowns, with various programming and executive decisions being held up to ridicule during the series' run. For example, in the series' final episode on 28 December 1963, Bernard Levin mentioned that 1964 would see the launch of the BBC's second television station, but no-one would notice as they would all be watching ITV, as usual.
- Catch Phrase: David Frost closed each episode with a Title Drop. In the final episode, he expanded it to "That was That Was the Week That Was... that was."
- Clip Show: The 29 December 1962 and 28 December 1963 episodes were presented as year-end retrospectives entitled That Was the Year That Was. The 1963 retrospective included reprises of many sketches and songs that had been performed in episodes earlier in the year (though still performed live rather than using the tapes of the original versions), such as the Parody Commercial montage spoofing Harold Wilson's election as Labour leader (originally performed on 16 February 1963), or the "Mississippi" song satirising racism in the American Deep South (originally performed on 27 April 1963).
- Couch Gag: The theme song had different lyrics every week to reflect the week's events. Just to give a few examples (first verses only):
- Following the publication of the New Years' Honours List, during the unusually snowy winter of 1962-63:note
That was the year that was
It's over, let it go
We start a bright new year
With a lot of last year left over in ice and snow...
The Honours List out, the dullest in years, who cares if Sir Eric Edwardsnote has joined the Life Peers?
(Willie Rushton: (spoken) Possibly Lady Edwards...)
Whose spirit does Her Majesty think she will lift by putting Carron and Nabarronote both on the knight shift?
Someone got something for services to canoeing, and the Most Reverend E. Mabathoana, Archbishop of Basutoland,note got a CBE... for whatever he was doing!
- Following the opening of the Playboy Club in Los Angeles and the Labour leadership election which saw the leftist Harold Wilson defeat the more centre-left George Brown:
That was the week that was
The bunnies are here, no doubt
If rabbits are in this year
The logical conclusion is that girls are out...
The Labour MPs flocked to Harold in dozens, it's not "On your way, brothers" but "On your way, Cousins"note
The party has now got to meet at both ends, like the other two statesmen they must kiss and make friends
Iraqi TV has a hard-hitting show, we know satire's in... but how far can you go?
- Following Chancellor Reginald Maudling announcing the Budget in 1963, including an end to taxes on homemade beer and gambling, and new allowances for company cars:
That was the week that was
Get out and grow your hops
All Maudling's budget's done
Is turn a nation of shopkeepers
into a nation of boozing shops...
There's no tax on gambling, no further controls, you're laughing my friend if you're buying a Rolls
He's aimed the whole thing at the Orpington man,note
the Tories will hold on 'til '64 if they can
But that's way ahead, so go on, have a ball, especially if you're one of the three million seven hundred and eighty thousand... who pay no tax at all!
- Credits Gag: The credits ended with a different epigram every episode, such as "If all the world loves a lover, why are there so many policemen in Hyde Park?", or "Mr. Gladstone devoted one night a week to lecturing fallen women - this has nothing whatever to do with the term 'Gladstone bag'".
- Does This Remind You of Anything?:
- A sketch from the 16 February 1963 episode (repeated in the series finale) satirising the outcry over the use of cars for sexual metaphors in the 1962 Leslie Phillips film The Fast Lady took this idea and dialled it Up to Eleven, with Lance Percival getting into a car (a prop in the original version, a real car in the reprise) with a female voice with whom he has an amorous conversation while taking "her" out for a drive. The dialogue mostly revolves around purely automotive terms (sometimes of a very technical nature), but Percival and the car react as though they are engaging in sexual foreplay.
Car: I like it when you move the gear lever and close the switch, thus energising the solenoid and causing the left-hand side of the piston to be exposed to the partial vacuum in the reservoir.
Driver: (chuckles) You've been driven by other men.
Car: Well, I bet you've driven other women.
Driver: Not the same thing.
Car: Why are you stopping? I'm not going in a lay-by with a strange man!
Driver: I'm not stopping.
Car: Well, what are you doing?
Car: Pervert. (Driver looks shocked)
- In a 1963 sketch parodying anti-homosexual witch hunts in the government and civil service, Kenneth Cope, dressed in a trench coat and hat, gives a grave confession of the events that have led to his coming to terms with his heterosexuality, such as thinking the captain of his public school's football team was a boring, disgusting slob, and having to take a client to a strip club where he found himself "violently desiring" a stripper in a G-string as she wrestled a stuffed snake. He ends the monologue by pleading for acceptance from the audience, saying that he is not so different to them.
- Double Vision: The series finale featured Millicent Martin singing a farewell song to TW3 itself in a duet with... herself, with live and pre-recorded performances presented in split screen.
- Exact Words: One link segment had Willie Rushton relating the story of a production of Expresso Bongonote by Cambridge undergraduates, and saying that the proctor, Mr. Richard Bainbridge, said of a scene featuring four female cast members posing nude from the waist up, that "frankly, I prefer Shakespeare." "Well, your wish is our command," said Rushton, the camera panning to David Kernan dressed as Shakespeare, nude from the waist up except for a ruff around his neck.
- Lyrical Dissonance: The "Mississippi" musical number from the 27 April 1963 episode (repeated for the 28 December 1963 episode) is a jaunty, jazzy vaudeville song... which contains numerous ironic uses of racial slurs and such lines as "And if you ain't for segregating white folks from the black / Then they won't hesitate to shoot you bravely in the back!"
- Modern Minstrelsy:
- The George Mitchell Singers, the resident performers on The Black and White Minstrel Show, appeared in their usual Blackface for the musical number "Mississippi", which seems to be a traditional minstrel show number until the lyrics start skewering racism in the American Deep South.
- The Black and White Minstrel Show itself was parodied in a one-off gag in which Frost wondered if they shouldn't broaden their horizons when looking for old musical standards to sing. Cut to a performance of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, with Blackface singers in stereotypical Viking costumes but wearing the white gloves and doing the jazz hands that were a signature of minstrel show performances.
- Motor Mouth: In most episodes, Millicent Martin would sing a satirical musical number in which the words flew by so fast that audiences struggled to keep pace with her. In the series finale, Willie Rushton claimed she had sung 15,000 words over the course of the 31 episodes of TW3 that had aired that year.
- News Parody: The series was one of the seminal examples of presenting the week's news stories through a satirical eye, generally starting by identifying a story in the news and then leading into a sketch or comic song about it.
- Opinion Flipflop: Instances of the press flip-flopping on their opinions of politicians or other public figures were the subject of scorn on TW3.
- In the 5 January 1963 episode, the programme poked fun at how the same newspapers that had raked Clement Attlee over hot coals while he was Prime Minister suddenly held him up as an example of not just a good Prime Minister, but a good Englishman in honour of his 80th birthday.
- Later in the same episode, Frost read a series of excerpts from the Sunday Express and other papers owned by Lord Beaverbrook criticising Lord Mountbatten, and then a sudden turnaround in which Lord Beaverbrook had nothing but praise for Lord Mountbatten's military career... Frost suggested that the latter's presence at the opening of the Express international boat show was possibly not a coincidence.
- Parody Commercial: Several of the sketches were parody commercials. For example, after Harold Wilson won the 1963 Labour leadership election against George Brown despite little being known about his policies were he to be elected Prime Minister, he was the subject of a series of spoof adverts by the cast of TW3 in the 16 February 1963 episode. Just to give a few examples:
Patricia Routledge: (singing) You look a little lovelier each day... with fabulous Douglas Jay!note
Al Mancini: Wilson causes Labour blur! Forget those nasty scruples with Wilson! Only Wilson gets right under the skin!
Willie Rushton: (standing in front of a pension policy advert) At 25, I was only a don. And what did I need with a policy? At 35, I was in the Cabinet. I was sure that a policy would only tie me down. At 45, I began to worry about the future Labour offered. But I knew that a policy would be the biggest disadvantage of all. (smiles) But today, at 46, at last I can afford a policy. (smile fades) Any ideas?note
Lance Percival: If you have any ideas for an attractive, up-to-date policy that would appeal to the working classes, please put them on a postcard and send to this address: Conservative Central Office, London, S.W.1. (the address appears on a title card)
Millicent Martin: (singing) Darling... please pass George Brown!
Kenneth Cope: Wilson for your party! Wilson makes your party go with a swing! (Six percent to the Conservatives.)
David Frost: Don't think of Wilson as a mere commodity! Remember, you don't use Wilson - Wilson uses you!
- Political Correctness Gone Mad: Although the series lambasted prejudice in all its forms, they were not above attacking this attitude as well. In the 30 March 1963 episode, a sketch about retail magnate Charles Clore happened to mention that he was of Russian Jewish descent, sparking outraged viewers to accuse the programme of anti-Semitism. The fact that Clore's Jewish heritage had not been mentioned as an insult and that few of the angry letter writers were themselves Jewish prompted Bernard Levinnote to make his segment in the following week's episode a monologue attacking such attitudes.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: As with all satirical programmes, there were many of these on TW3.
- Bernard Levin frequently began his debate segments by delivering one of these to his guests (sometimes individuals, sometimes representatives of a given profession or organisation), then allowing them to refute his arguments.
- David Frost often delivered monologues denouncing one or more public figures or organisations as corrupt, inept, or both. For example, in one episode he recited a list of MPs who had not given speeches in Parliament since at least the 1959 General Electionnote ; in another, he excoriated Columbia Records A&R head Norrie Paramor for insisting on putting his own bland, forgettable compositions on the B-sides of singles released by artists on the label.
- A sketch from the final episode took the form of a parody of This Is Your Life with Frost as host Eamonn Andrews, delivering a "reason you suck" speech to then-Home Secretary Henry Brooke (played by Willie Rushton) for his scandal-plagued tenure in the position.
- Refuge in Audacity: The Mississippi sketch. See the Values Dissonance entry.
- Running Gag: Kenneth Cope bursting into a rendition of big musical number (such as "Maria" from West Side Story), only to either stop himself or be stopped after the first line.
- Something Else Also Rises: Parodied in a 1962 episode. Willie Rushton gets into bed with an impossibly glamorous actress/model type. Amid giggling and sighing, foreplay ensues. The camera then cuts to stock footage of waves crashing against rocks, tall chimneys falling, train going into tunnels, etc. We cut back to Willie Rushton and girl, who are still in bed - but soaked through from the waves, covered in brick dust and rubble from the chimney, and smothered in soot from the steam-train. She is screaming. He is wide-eyed with panic.
"Every bloody time we try something, all that bloody lot happens!"
- Song Parody: Although many of the satirical songs on the programme were original, others were set to existing tunes. For example, a song about an outbreak of typhoid at the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt and the resulting local coverup in 1963 was set to the tune of the children's song "Oh dear, what can the matter be?"
Kenneth Cope, Lance Percival: (singing) Oh dear, what can the matter be / We've got typhoid down in our lavatory / We won't tell the tourists 'til Saturday / Have it denied by the Mayor!
Mayor (Willie Rushton): (singing) As Mayor of Zermatt don't accuse me of lying / Though hundreds have caught it and dozens are dying / As long as a few are still ski-ing and buying / I promise it's only a scare!
All three: (singing) Oh dear, look at the Matterhorn / Practically nobody's there!
- Spiritual Successor: Following the 1964 General Election, Ned Sherrin revived the satirical sketch variety/discussion format for two further programmes.
- Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, which ran for 62 episodes from 1964-65 (with three 45-minute episodes a week, a workload which may have contributed to the programme's short run), retained David Frost as frontman and included Willie Rushton and Bernard Levin as supporting performers/pundits, as well as John Bird (the original presenter of the pilot of TW3), Eleanor Bron, and John Fortune. Perhaps the most remembered sketch featured Patricia Routledge as a working-class mother in Liverpool's Irish Catholic immigrant community being chastised by the local priest for failing to conceive her seventeenth child.
- BBC-3 ran for 24 weekly episodes from 1965-66, now fronted by Robert Robinson. Bird, Bron, and Fortune returned from Not So Much a Programme, joined by TW3 cast members David Kernan and Millicent Martin and occasional writer/performer Bill Oddie. By this time, the sketch/music/discussion format was perceived as tired, and the series suffered in comparison to The Frost Report and Not Only... But Also. The programme became infamous for featuring the first Precision F-Strike on British television when, during a censorship debate, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan argued that as the word no longer shocked people, neither should the act it describes.
- Take That: As with all satirical programmes, TW3 ran on these. From a This Is Your Life parody featuring Frost as Eamonn Andrews and Willie Rushton as then-Home Secretary Henry Brooke in which Frost recited every scandal that had befallen Brooke, to a comparison of six major religions in the style of consumer magazine Which?, to a Black and White Minstrel Show-style musical number attacking racism in the American Deep South, any social institution or public figure was fair game.
- Title Drop: Delivered by Frost at the end of every episode.
- Title Theme Tune: "That was the week that was / It's over, let it go / Ooh, what a week that was / That was the week... that was!"
- Trans Atlantic Equivalent:
- In the United States, NBC aired a version of That Was the Week That Was, also fronted by Frost, from January 1964 to May 1965 (following the cancellation of the UK original). The series was notable for featuring regular musical contributions by Tom Lehrer (who performed several of his songs from the American TW3 on Frost's later BBC programme The Frost Report).
- In Canada, This Hour Has Seven Days, which aired on CBC television for two series from 1964-66, was directly inspired by TW3, though it included more serious discussion of current events amid the satire. The series notably featured contributions from future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, then a law professor.
- Very Special Episode: The 23 November 1963 episode aired the day after the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy (whom the programme had previously not been shy about mocking). Sensing that the British public might not be receptive to satire as they reeled from the news, the cast and crew set aside the usual tone and format of the series to deliver a sincere tribute to the memory of the late President, the episode lasting just 20 minutes instead of its usual 50+.