David Frost was a TV pioneer who was one of the major forces behind the ground-breaking satirical TV show That Was The Week That Was, or TW3 as it was quickly dubbed.
The show could be seen as defining the spirit of 1963. Its first outing was at the tail-end of the previous year, and the second series ran throughout 1963 before being halted because of the forthcoming general election. At any rate, that was the reason the BBC gave.
The show had a pop at politicians, the Prime Minister, public figures, Britain’s declining global power, farmers, restaurateurs, public relations people. It satirised religion and class and social attitudes. The programme delighted in puncturing stuffiness and pomposity. Ted Heath blamed the show for ‘the death of deference’. You couldn’t give it a better compliment.
The show was produced by Ned Sherrin and presented by David Frost. Its signature note was the opening song, delivered by Millicent Martin. It always began with the same two lines: That was the week that was. It’s over, let it go’, and continued with a sharp, funny overview of the main events of the previous week. Then followed a series of sketches, monologues, songs, debates, live cartoons.
Watching it was like being in a comedy club. All the nuts and bolts were on view, the scaffolding, the cameras, even the scripts sometimes. The programme was live and often overran, which added to the sense of immediacy and topicality.
As for the other people credited with contributions to TW3 – well, you couldn’t raise your hat high enough. Bernard Levin, Dennis Potter, Kenneth Tynan, John Betjeman, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, John Bird, Jack Rosenthal, David Nobbs, Willy Rushton, Roy Kinnear, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall were among the writers and performers. You felt as if the cleverest, funniest, most right-on and sometimes scariest figures in the literary and media world were including you in their world view. You were in on the joke.
The Profumo Affair broke in the interval between the show’s two series, providing rich pickings for satirical comment on the scandal which swept the country. Here’s the song which summed up the end of the affair, from September 1963.
That was the week that was.
It’s over, let it go.
We’re pleased to write it off,
But not as pleased as one or two Prime Ministers we know!
Security’s perfect, there’s no spies at large –
They didn’t even link to Henry Brook, who’s in charge.
Macmillan has been reading Lord Denning in bed,
He’d have found it much livelier with a Trollope instead!
At the end of business, one thing’s left to ask:
‘Gentlemen, what am I bid for one bitterly ashamed mask?’
This song illustrates the nature of the show and its audience. To enjoy it, you have to know that Lord Denning’s commissioned report on the Profumo Affair had just been published. (It was a best-seller – 4,000 were bought in the first hour of its publication.) You would know that Henry Brooke was the Home Secretary, and the subject of a series of scathing attacks on TW3, which called him ‘the most hated man in Britain’. The assumption was that you would get the pun on Trollope, referring to the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, and the term ‘trollop’, a derogatory term for a promiscuous woman. Neither reference is likely to be heard in everyday conversation today.
The last line is a cracker. Viewers would recognise the reference to the so-called Man in the Mask, a figure who was reported to attend society dinner parties naked apart from a mask to disguise his identity as a well known politician, and was said to wait on the guests and beg them to revile and abuse him. In the song, the ‘bitterly ashamed mask’ gives a nod to the public fascination with the weird sexual behaviour of the upper classes, but the bitter shame is the shame that the innocent were persecuted, the interests of the Old Guard protected and the Denning Report thought by many to be a white-wash.
The country was divided into two camps, those who got TW3 and those who didn’t. For hip youngsters and would-be beat girls, there was only one way to go. Many of the jokes and references went over your head, but you had to pretend to understand. It was usually enough to repeat a punchline with a knowing laugh. David Frost’s sign-off line, ‘No, but seriously, he’s doing a great job’, delivered after a stinging attack, could be adapted to many situations for an infusion of comic-satirical credibility.
Many of those involved with the show continue to do great work. Others, such as David Frost who has sadly just died, aged 74,have been celebrated in obituaries. An early loss was the young (as we now recognise) cartoonist who drew cartoons live on the show, Timothy Birdsall. He was handsome and extraordinarily talented and we all had a crush on him. He died in June 1963, from leukaemia, in the middle of the second series. He was one of the first non-musician artists for whom we wept a little tear in the playground.
At the time we weren’t to know that six months later we would be shedding tears for JFK. His death was marked by a shortened, non-satirical edition of TW3 which paid tribute to the president and reflected, we felt, the shocking impact of his assassination.
As Philip Larkin nearly said
‘So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the rise of TW3.’