Ready Steady Go!, the pioneering 60s pop show, takes to the stage as part of the Meltdown festival. RSG! producer Vicki Wickham tells Phil Hogan about the impact – and the fun – of its early years
by Phil Hogan
Like the Beatles’ first LP and sexual intercourse, you might guess the pioneering pop show Ready Steady Go! was a product of 1963, the year the 1960s started swinging at last.
With its youthful spontaneity, cool graphics and gleefully shambolic presentation (and you only had to watch the BBC’s Reithian Juke Box Jury with your parents to see what it wasn’t), RSG! trailed the white smoke of the coming revolution. Its chirpy slogan, “The Weekend Starts Here” – a mantra for a hip new generation of teenagers with money in their pockets for clothes and records and going out – could equally have been “Everything Starts Here”.
History has declared Ready Steady Go! a cultural landmark – for its live performances (miming was eventually outlawed on the show) and its championing of emerging talent – though of course no one was thinking about posterity back then. “We really had no idea,” says Vicki Wickham, who at the age of 24 found herself plucked out of a backroom secretarial job to produce the show. (Now running her own production company in New York, Wickham is putting together a Ready Steady Go! event for Ray Davies’s forthcoming Meltdown festival in London.)
“We were all so naive. It was like being given a box of candies and being able to eat them all. Elkan Allan, the executive producer, just said to us, book who you want. So we were booking people our own age, and for all sorts of reasons – Brian Jones, because we loved his hair and thought he was gorgeous. George Best, who we all thought was heavenly – he came on to be interviewed. We could have anyone.”
And they did – the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, the Animals, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, “Little” Stevie Wonder, the even littler Marc Bolan, David Bowie (as Davy Jones and the King Bees). Gary Glitter – Paul Raven then – worked as the show’s warm-up man! It’s a long list. In the 178 episodes aired – the show went out live every Friday night for more than three years without a break – it would be easier to say who was missing (Dylan, Aretha and, weirdly, Cliff).
Dusty Springfield – a close friend of Wickham’s – was a permanent fixture. “It was Dusty who introduced me to American black music. She would play me these obscure artists and I fell in love with them. Dave Godin had his store, Soul City, just off Cambridge Circus, so on a Saturday we would go there. We introduced an awful lot of American acts people had never heard of – mostly Motown. The mod crowd loved Motown. So if we put on Wilson Pickett or Ike and Tina Turner, they would respond because it was music they were beginning to hear in the clubs. They knew if they watched the show they’d find out who was new and over here. The mod scene was just starting out as we came along, and when Cathy McGowan joined us we became a mod show. And, of course, Cathy became the face of Ready Steady Go!“
McGowan was 19 when she was recruited as an “adviser” after a trawl of hundreds of teenagers for her looks and her interest in “boys and fashion”. She was soon presenting the show, though she became as famous for her lack of polish as her trendsetting Biba styling and pelmet fringe. (The YouTube clip of her asking George Harrison what the Beatles did in their spare time is a case study in what happens when a group of young people say: “Hey, let’s put the show on right here!”) And the nation loved her for it.
Wickham agrees. “You couldn’t do it today. They would fire her after two weeks. But it became endearing – a lot of people watching felt that they could do the job, which they probably could. It wasn’t a bad thing. And in fact none of us had any experience. Where could we have got experience?”
Is it true they once had Marianne Faithfull miming to the wrong song? “Oh, things like would happen all the time. There’d be cues missed, someone coming late out of the dressing room, or the camera would mow down one of the dancers. But that’s the excitement of live TV. We laughed at Solomon Burke, who in his full cape and crown and everything fell off the riser. He was a big man even in those days.”
Wickham does put a good word in for Keith Fordyce, an avuncular old-school figure who as the main presenter in the first series kept chaos to a minimum, even if it meant having a “square” in the camp. “Yes, Keith was much older and he was experienced, and at the time we were all rebelling and saying we’ve got to get rid of him, but in retrospect it was great he was there.”
It wasn’t an obvious idea in 1963 to let a bunch of twentysomethings run a TV show, but the resulting mix of guilelessness and instinct for what audiences wanted did work. “The show reflected what was going on then because we were young. We could decide to have Pete and Dud, or Phil Spector or someone from the art world or the book world. We reflected the times without knowing what the times were.”
Not only that but it was so much fun that artists kept coming back for more. “It was a small world and I guess we were all in it together. It was our scene. We all went out to clubs every night – the Revolution or the Speakeasy. You knew everyone – the pluggers, the managers, the writers and photographers.” The artists too. Many became friends, not least Ray Davies of the Kinks, whose performance of “You Really Got Me” in 1964 made the group overnight stars.
Wickham is now preparing for Davies’s Meltdown, featuring acts who appeared on RSG!, including Eric Burdon, Sandie Shaw, Ronnie Spector and the Manfreds (most of Manfred Mann, whose hit “5-4-3-2-1” was the programme’s theme tune). Does it make her nostalgic for that golden age?
“I’m not nostalgic at all. It won’t be an oldies show by any means – they’re all acts that are working and relevant now and we’ve added new ones and quirky ones. So it will be representative of what the show was.”
It will be a concert rather than an attempt to recreate a studio environment, she says. But the set will be familiar. “Nicholas Ferguson designed all the best sets and graphics and luckily he kept a lot of them. I’m delighted to be doing it. I love a challenge – and I love Ray.”