Sunday Night at the London Palladium Pt.1
Sunday Night at the London Palladium began at 8:00pm on September 23 1955 with Gracie Fields and Guy Mitchell sharing top billing. The TV audience was estimated at around 350,000 a figure that today would not excite producers of a small cable channel, but then ITV was just three years old and available only in the London area.
As the years passed more transmitters opened and in 1960 the average audience was 17 million though in February of that year Max Bygreaves drew 21 Million and in December Harry Seacombe a record 22 million. ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ was constantly in the top ten ratings and helped to establish ITV as a main competitor to the BBC. The programme was broadcast live every week from the famous London Palladium theatre from 1955 – 67 on the ITV network by ATV which was owned by the famous theatrical impresario Lew Grade. Production was by Val Parnell. Six programmes aired as special episodes in the United States between May and August 1966 on NBC.
The programme always opened with the sound of ‘Startime’ and ended with the guest artistes riding the Palladium’s great ‘revolve’ or turntable was more than the nation’s favourite variety show; it was a 20th century rite, determining the Sunday evenings habits of almost half the nation’s population. It is rumoured that a vicar recognised the fact when he brought his Sunday evensong forward half an hour so that congregation could get home in time to watch the programme. Maybe some of the guys were returning to see the long legs of the famous Tiller girl dancers (first started in 1889), whose dance routines and high kicks in a straight line became an important part of the shows glamour. But it was often the top of the bill act – changed each week which increased the viewing figures further.
The compere’s job was the top job in comedy. Tommy Trinder – catchphrase ‘You, lucky people’ – was the first. Trinder was followed as compere by Dickie Henderson, Bob Monkhouse, Hughie Green and a surprising choice in Actor and wit Robert Morley. This compering role was later to create three relatively unknowns into major showbusiness comedians and entertainers. Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan and Jimmy Tarbuck, it also introduced a wider public to Des O’Connor who may not have been discovered by the show but stood in for Norman Vaughan and Bruce Forsyth.
Tommy Trinder was a true Londoner and a big name in Music Hall and Variety Theatre. One of his gags on the show was: ‘The army made a man out of Liberace – and he sued them’. He probably wouldn’t get away with that material today and indeed Trinder recalled ‘The next morning you couldn’t see my desk for letters of protest from his fans. One of Trinder’s best moments was when a power cut postponed the live TV transmission and Trinder had to hold the audience alone, cracking jokes and keeping them going. It is estimated Trinder did between 75 – 90 minutes on the stage that night. When the show finally gets under way his opening words to the TV viewers were ‘Welcome to Monday at the Palladium’.
Norman Vaughan suffered like many performers with off stage nerves, especially as this show was ‘live’. The comedy scriptwriter Eric Merriman would phone Norman each Saturday after ‘Match of the day’ with suggestions for the topical gags. Often they would still be discussing the routine in the early hours of Sunday morning – and the whole script might need revamping in the build up to the actual performance. For all other compere’s the written topical jokes were written on cue cards and held up in the orchestra pit for them to read. ‘Trouble was the boys didn’t hold up the cards in the right order’ comedian Alfred Marks remembers. During the Profumo affair, Vaughan was warned that any gags about Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice Davies or other personalities involved in the pending court case, were subjudcial. Writer Merriman and Vaughan thought about this as what had occurred was hard to ignore, eventually he got around it by simply saying to the audience, ‘It’s all been happening this week – but I can’t say a word about it’ and it got a laugh.
Eric Cuttler has a strong interest in showbusiness and has written several articles on comedy, pop music and TV light entertainment & drama for leading publications and newspapers. He started his career in the theatre before moving into television as a production manager for ITV.