Home Television Comedy That Was The Week That Was

That Was The Week That Was

1 9 6 2 – 1 9 6 4 (UK)
36 x 50 Minute Episodes
1 x 150 Minute Special
1 x 100 Minute Special

Devised by former Tonight men, including Donald Baverstock, Ned Sherrin, Alasdair Milne and Antony Jay, That Was The Week That Was (or TW3 as it became known) reflected the new permissive image of the BBC under Director-General Sir Hugh Carleton Greene.

It was deliberately made by the Current Affairs department and not by Light Entertainment, in case the latter played it too safe. Producer Sherrin intended that it should “discuss anything that people might talk about on a Saturday night”.

They certainly talked about TW3 as it rapidly drew an audience of 10 million, way above the expected figure.

The show was fronted by the hitherto unknown David Frost, a ministers son, with resident accomplices William Rushton (famed for his impersonation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan), Bernard Levin (famed for his acidic interview style), Lance Percival, Roy Kinnear, Kenneth Cope, John Bird, John Wells, Eleanor Bron, Al Mancini, David Kernan and Roy Hudd.

Millicent Martin sang the theme song – which never scanned – incorporating the week’s events. It always began “That was the week that was, it’s over, let it go”.

Her material for the song was provided by Herbert Kretzmer, a lyricist of South African origins and fashionably liberal pretensions who, late in the 1970s, emerged as a television critic.

Much of the show was written by journalists rather than by scriptwriters, and among regular contributors were Dennis Potter and Kenneth Tynan.

The show covered such previously taboo comic subjects as racism, royalty and religion. Politicians of the day were also fiercely lampooned.

The series provoked an enormous public outcry, but those who made the programme would have been disappointed if it hadn’t!

An Anglican vicar once called Levin a “thick-lipped Jewboy”, one critic attacked Frost and Sherrin for being ‘peddlers of filth and smut and destroyers of all that Britain holds dear’ and there were endless complaints about Rushton’s scruffiness, Frost’s front teeth and Kinnear’s stomach.

The Postmaster General was soon demanding to see scripts of TW3 before transmission, but was warned off by Harold Macmillan, who wisely maintained that “it is a good thing to be laughed over – it is better than to be ignored”.

And TW3 did indeed heap scorn and derision on the Macmillan government, earning the ire of Mrs Mary Whitehouse in the process. When she declared the programme “anti-authority, anti-religious, anti-patriotism, pro-dirt”, she was, of course, listing the programme’s most popular features.

Stylistically the show broke many rules: although it was commonplace on “live” shows of the fifties – like the rock & roll show Six-Five Special – to see the cumbersome cameras being pushed from one set to the next, TW3 went beyond that.

A camera mounted high up in the studio would offer a bird’s-eye view of the entire proceedings, showing the complete studio set-up with the flimsy sketch sets, the musicians, backstage personnel, the audience, other cameras, etc.

The format of the show was simple, rigid enough to keep it all together, flexible enough to let items lengthen or shorten or disappear altogether, depending on time.

Millicent Martin (pictured below right), the only permanent female member of the team, would sing the title song with a new set of lyrics each week relating to the news of the past few days, then David Frost, as host, would introduce the proceedings and act as link man between the items and often appearing throughout in sketches or giving monologues.


Originally John Bird was to have been the host but declined. Sherrin saw Frost at a club, doing an act where he gave a press conference as Harold Macmillan and offered him the role of co-host with Brian Redhead who dropped out after doing the unaired pilot.

Bernard Levin interviewed people in the news or with strongly held views and his acid wit added an edge which occasionally produced flare-ups both verbal and physical.

A member of the studio audience once punched him, rather ineffectually, following a scathing review he had written.

The show occasionally featured guest artists, most famously comedian Frankie Howerd whose popularity had waned somewhat. His one appearance on TW3 managed to dramatically resurrect his career. Howerd was allotted an eight-minute slot, but on the night his monologue ran for thirteen minutes.

Nobody really minded because he went down a storm – plus TW3 was open-ended, being the last programme of the evening. Its length was dictated only by available material and overtime payments for the crew. At the start of the second series, controller of programmes Stuart Hood tried to rein the show in by scheduling a serial based on The Third Man immediately afterwards. Sherrin and Frost conspired to give the plot away at the end of each TW3 until it was axed.

Lance Percival acted in sketches and sang topical calypsos (a device also used on Tonight) many of which were ad-libbed.

David Kernan was a resident singer whose strength was his ability to parody other singers and styles, Timothy Birdsall drew cartoons, Al Mancini pulled faces and the engine room was provided by Willie Rushton, Kenneth Cope and Roy Kinnear who fleshed out the sketches and comic chatter.

Memorable moments from the series include Gerald Kaufman’s list of silent MPs which highlighted politicians who hadn’t spoken in the House of Commons in ten or fifteen years. The sketch caused a furore when it was read out by the team, despite the fact that the information was readily available.

Kenneth Cope’s “confession” monologue featured a figure, hidden in shadows, who confesses to being heterosexual and relates the misery it can cause. Frost’s scathing profile of Home Secretary Henry Brooke insinuated, amongst other things, that his intractability in an immigration case had led to the murder of the subject.

Millicent Martin sang with black-faced minstrels about racism in the Southern States. And most memorable of all was the truly serious edition immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination.

The whole show was given over to the subject, tackling the shock felt and the implications of the shooting with rare solemnity and dignity. That episode has since been lodged at the Smithsonian Institution

An American version of the series – also featuring Frost – debuted on 10 January 1964 on NBC and ran until May 1965.

Singer Nancy Ames took the Millicent Martin role and Buck Henry, Pat Englund and Alan Alda were among the regulars. The show proved equally groundbreaking in the United States and, like the British version was no stranger to controversy.

Ned Sherrin died of cancer in 207, aged 76.