Classic Television Thursday #026 – That Was The Week That Was (UK 1962-1963) (US 1964-1965)

tw31For many folks, including myself, Jon Stewart‘s The Daily Show is just that – a daily dose of laughter and news parody which I do my best not to miss. Of course, the recent news of his imminent departure from the show has a lot of people guessing not just what’s next for him, but who can possibly fill his shoes. Sure, there’s been a lot of turnover and rearranging of seats on the late night talk show circuit recently, but The Daily Show is something that has become something so unique to Stewart and his interviewing skills have proven so superb (along with his obvious passion and at times barely-controlled outrage at certain of the topics that he covers) that it’s hard to imagine anyone – except perhaps for John Oliver who can’t be considered a real candidate for the slot since he now has his own HBO show – even wanting to take the job on.

Anyway, that got me to thinking about other news parody shows, and specifically one that could definitely be considered a classic, even though I suspect most of my US readers have never heard of it. That show is That Was The Week That Was.

tw32That Was The Week That Was, otherwise known as TW3, was a comedy news parody show which actually began in the UK in 1962. The show was created, produced and directed by Ned Sherrin, and was hosted by David Frost – yes, the same David Frost who would go on to be one of the preeminent interviewers of his time, with his most famous (or some would say infamous) interview subject being Richard Nixon, as recounted in Frost/Nixon.

One of the most interesting aspects of TW3 was the panel of writers who were involved with the show. Just take a look at this Partial list of names: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, Richard Ingrams, Gerald Kaufman, Frank Muir, David Nobbs, Denis Norden, Dennis Potter, Eric Sykes, Kenneth Tynan, and Keith Waterhouse.

The show was incredibly well received by the public, and was also highly praised by critics. As Graham McCann wrote in his 2006 book Spike and Co.,

TW3…did its research, thought its arguments through and seemed unafraid of anything or anyone…. Every hypocrisy was highlighted and each contradiction was held up for sardonic inspection. No target was deemed out of bounds: royalty was reviewed by republicans; rival religions were subjected to no-nonsense ‘consumer reports’; pompous priests were symbolically defrocked; corrupt businessmen, closet bigots and chronic plagiarists were exposed; and topical ideologies were treated to swingeing critiques.”

Hmmm… sounds somewhat like a more recent show, doesn’t it?

Interestingly, this being the “swinging sixties”, the show didn’t just go in for the “guy sitting behind a news desk” type of satire. It also incorporated song and dance routines, sketches, and other ways of skewering its targets.

tw34Of course, any show that wore its agenda on its sleeve like TW3 was bound to have its opposition, especially among those it sought to skewer. Nonetheless, it did last for two series, but in the end, the BBC chose to cancel it in 1964, citing as its ostensible reason the fact that it was an election year, and strict restrictions on the broadcast of political material too close to the election was against its rules and could jeopardize its reputation for impartiality.

So given all of this, why isn’t the show better known? Well, of course, part of the reason is that it was doomed by its own topicality. After all, today’s news is yesterday’s history, and as anyone who has sat through even recently-relevant just-a-couple-of-weeks-old rebroadcasts of TDS will tell you, those episodes age very quickly. Plus, the show was aired live, and many of the episodes were not recorded. It’s actually something of a wonder that any of them survive at all, though as it turns out, there are only two episodes from the run that appear to be missing. Here’s an episode that was first broadcast on Feb 16, 1963:

After TW3 finished its run in the UK, it then migrated to this side of the pond, along with presenter Frost, and a US version began airing in 1964. This version was a bit more star-studded in front of the camera, with the pilot, for instance including performers such as Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan, guests Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and supporting performers including Gene Hackman. The recurring cast included Frost, Morgan, Buck Henry and Alan Alda, and Nancy Ames sang the opening song The writing staff on  this version was just as strong as its British counterpart had been, including such luminaries as Gloria Steinem, William F. Brown, Tom Lehrer and Calvin Trillin.

Unfortunately, this version of the show also only lasted for a couple of seasons, and unlike its British counterpart, most of the episodes have been completely lost, remaining only in amateur audio recordings and a few acetate archive recordings such as the one below. Fortunately these serve to at least give us a taste of what the show was like.

So what will happen to The Daily Show after Jon Stewart leaves his post? Obviously, I have no idea. But one thing we can all be sure of: As long as there are stupid politicians making stupid statements and stupid decisions, someone will be out there ready to call them out, and stupid politicians and other public figures are a commodity we will never run out of.







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