What was set up as a somewhat risky experiment featuring unusual approaches towards audiences, concepts and TV viewing habits, the live broadcast of the London based production Ready, Steady, Go! became probably the best pop TV show ever.
With cameras always in plain sight, that caught every interaction going on between dancers and bands. Just like a real club atmosphere, but brought to TV sets in millions of homes.
RSG!, the brainchild of legendary British journalist and TV producer Elkan Allan and produced by Associated-Rediffusion, was the first national program aimed specifically at teenagers and young adults. For millions of teens born during the war and shortly after, each episode, airing Friday evening with the motto “The weekend starts here!” was very welcome entertainment and inspiration.
The show in a way completely altered classic live television show’s attitude, as before RSG! all broadcasts chiefly presented a smoothly produced show, where an experienced 30 years+ host presented light music in the Queen’s English, all caught by neat camera work, where classical wide shots followed a closeup, all taken in a perfectly illuminated studio with every platform angle planned in advance.
Ready, Steady, Go! abandoned all of that, in favor of wild, frantic, often blurred and fast changing camera angles (a bit similar to Cinéma vérité camera work), to give the show the equivalent of the live experience, to be consumed by home audiences.
Apart from the studio crew (and the hosts of the very early episodes) every person on the show was either in his or her mid-20s or a teenager. Musicians and audiences spoke colloquial English and were not embarrassed to use local accents or working-class expressions. The entire set was in permanent action and hardly ever – except during the interviews – would anybody stand still. On the production side, a small staff, consisting mainly of Francis Hitching, Nicholas Ferguson, Rollo Gamble, Vicki Wickham, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Daphne Shadwell, and Peter Croft were responsible for the new concept.
Before RSG! moved to the much bigger Wembley studio in 1965, it was produced in a very small venue right in the center of Swinging London, where audiences, who also served as dancers who were picked up and invited by the show’s scouts in neighboring clubs beforehand, literally rubbed shoulders with the bands. And the dancers permanently had to watch out for the moving huge cameras that would simply run anybody over who was not fast enough to step out of the way.
The show’s host, Cathy McGowan, became famous almost immediately. Her immaculate dresses and Mod outfits, soon made her the idol of countless young female watchers (McGowan started her own fashion line at that time).
She became the Face of the show and by her charms and attitude as “the natural girl from next door” easily justified replacing the previous and much older hosts Keith Fordyce and David Gell with her.
Compared to the only other big English TV music show featuring modern bands, the rather formal Top of the Pops from rival BBC starting in 1964, RSG! was hotter, more authentic and usually showed fresh and unknown bands. Top of the Pops was not at all that experimental and mostly stayed on the safe side with acts already establish. (That void, felt when RSG! was canceled in 1966, is lamented in many letters to the station and the former producers).
While the show only little longer than three and a half years, its effect on popular culture, fashion and youth culture was extraordinary, and it had established beat music as an important export for the country. When it folded, future musical developments such as psychedelia were largely left uncovered in English TV.
RSG! in a way spotted the Rolling Stones, promoted many so far unknown bands and can forever be credited for presenting a huge number of great American soul musicians to an English public on TV for the first time. Furthermore, having black artists perform and dance on TV, also was a thing unheard of before. Dusty Springfield, then a highly successful singer who often toured the US and met with black singers, established the connection to London and was instrumental in bringing many Motown artists to the show.
Author Andy Neill, who already proved his expertise in terms of the Sixties with acclaimed books on The Beatles, The Who, The Faces and the era in general, with Ready Steady Go!: The Weekend Starts Here: The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV provides quite a gem.
The massive LP sized book comes on quality photo paper, which makes the RSG! story so heavy and it invites to study several hundred detailed backstage pictures, show stills and publicity shots with famous bands in their prime. All the major people behind the operation (except McGowan, who now prefers a quiet life with no interruptions from the media) have been consulted by Neill, and it is unlikely somebody else could have produced a better piece of writing on the show.
The title is also a very interesting history of early English TV (with respect to music entertainment and popular culture) and a small who’s-who of directors, companies, formats, strategies and marketing ideas from various networks. The five chapters (numbered down from 5 to 1, like Manfred Mann’s “5-4-3-2-1” that was the show’s signature tune for a long time) give a very detailed report on RSG! from its humble beginnings as a live show staring on September 8, 1963 when rather many slips up happened live, to the final show on December 23, 1966. Diverse important musicians, producers, and label managers remember the set in their own words on a couple of pages, such as Andrew Loog Oldham, Donovan, Tony Hall, Eric Burdon, Lulu, Christ Stamp, Kim Fowley, Pete Townshend and others.
There is also a helpful index, listing all the bands that attended the show (together with the songs they performed) and a complete index of ALL 173 broadcasts and the show specials. Such an entry states the respective host, the bands, their songs, interviews, regional broadcast times, guest commere and the show’s director. Furthermore, another detailed list of the Ready, Steady -Win! band competition series, a spin-off, is included.
Ready, Steady, Go! is an extraordinary book, highly recommend, with brilliant chapters and a superb graphic layout. The mass of pictures, collages and precious show stills in both black and white and color alone are worth having the six pounds of documentary on your bookshelf. Be prepared for mostly rare photographs of The Bo Street Runners, The Echolettes, David Bowie, The Beatles, Sounds Incorporated, P.J. Proby, Chris Andrews, The Yardbirds, Otis Redding, Dave Clark, Johnny Kidd, John Walker, James Brown, and many, many more in excellent quality.
Review by Dr. Ebert © 2020
Andy Neill. Ready Steady Go!: The Weekend Starts Here: The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV. BMG Books, 2020, 268 p.