In April 1966 Time magazine described London as the world city of the decade, proclaiming it as: ‘London – The Swinging City’. It was a statement that would fix the capital – and indeed the sixties themselves – in the imagination for years to come. It was an era of self-confidence. Upper-class elements of the London Season effortlessly blended with working-class talent in the fields of art, music, film and fashion. The new ideas were creative, innovative, bold and brash.
There was one television programme broadcast during this time which encapsulated the vibrancy of the time – the music show Ready, Steady, Go! The first episode was broadcast in the middle of 1963 and the show came off the air at the end of 1966. Including special editions and New Year spectaculars there were a hundred and seventy-eight programmes in total, all broadcast in black and white. With its catchphrase ‘The weekend starts here!’ it became a must-watch on Friday evenings for any hip teenager across the country.
Ready, Steady, Go! is often described as the most influential programme in the history of pop on television – and not just because of the music content. The production team were young, and eager for the show to reflect everything that was happening in London at the time. A new book by Andy Neill will be published this autumn which delves into this side of the programme, putting the show in the context of the period during which it was transmitted.
Featured in the book will be some of the works of Nicholas Ferguson, who was the show’s designer for much of its existence. Having carried out his graduate and post-graduate training at the Slade School of Fine Art, he joined Associated-Rediffusion TV after leaving, and soon found himself exposed to a whole new world. Television was now reaching the masses due to the growth in technology, but many youngsters, like Ferguson, paid little attention to it as London nightlife, with its clubs and theatres, provided all the entertainment students at the Slade wanted.
However, when Ferguson was approached by the Head of Design, Michael Yates, to work on a new show called Ready, Steady, Go!, which was already running, he was intrigued. Elkan Allan, the Head of Light Entertainment at A-R TV, wanted the show to look casual, almost anti-design, and Ferguson was more or less given free rein to create visuals that would bring the art world into the television studio in a way that had not yet been seen. There was one major drawback, however: there was no budget. The previous Art Director had spent it all.
Ferguson decided that the way to get around this was to create collages that were inspired not just by the arts but by the theatre as well. He had seen Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle performed by the Berliner Ensemble in London and had been overwhelmed by what he had seen; so he used the Brechtian simplicity as his mainframe. Ferguson saw contemporary artists of the day keeping things simple, in line with this Brechtianism. Already a devotee of the Cubism of Picasso and Gris, he had been particularly struck by an exhibition of Kurt Schwitters at London’s Marlborough Gallery in 1960, and these collages provided a key influence. He also saw a major exhibition of American art at the Whitechapel Gallery that included the work of the pop artists of the time, such as Robert Rauschenberg, who was to prove another inspiration for Ferguson’s patchwork designs. With a trip to Paris introducing him to the Surrealism of Max Ernst, Amédée Ozenfant’s Purism and what he describes as, ‘huge [Robert and Sonia] Delaunays, with great circles of colour’, the stage was set for high art to meet pop music.
Ferguson soon knew what his theme for Ready, Steady, Go! would be. While the studio walls were kept bare, bold and dramatic blowups, created from collages, were placed strategically around the studio and the audience, marking a stark contrast. However, the key factor that any television Art Director at the time had to overcome was the fact that broadcasts were in black and white. Lighting Directors were used to the tones, balancing the blacks and greys, and this was something to which Ferguson also had to adapt when conceiving his designs for the show. The solution was to use a strong red, which appeared as a deep grey on-screen, and which contrasted well with the black and white hues. Ferguson created his collages the night before the show, cutting up newspapers and magazines that he had collected and, by his own admission, ‘making a complete mess of the office’. They were made to a standard size – eight inches by ten – but were then photographed accurately and blown up to twenty feet by ten. He used an array of images – the Eiffel Tower, Rembrandt paintings, Marlene Dietrich – interspersed with patterns and shapes to compensate for the lack of colour and to introduce a sense of depth into the collages.
The whole production department worked as a team to ensure that the music, art and fashion slants of the show worked well together. Michael Lindsay-Hogg was one of the main directors and, before each programme was broadcast, he would plan exactly where the stars would stand. The camera would be directed at, say, Dusty Springfield on the stage in the middle of the studio surrounded by the audience and dancers, and the huge blowups would be visible in the background. The staging was far more like theatre in the round than the typical television programmes of the time with their more traditional formats. In Ready, Steady, Go! there was a feeling of real movement. This was created by the inspired use of cameramen who were more used to filming sports events. Lindsay-Hogg had the idea of using these rather than the traditional, light entertainment- trained cameramen as they were more used to following action as it happened, perhaps cutting away to a young mod dancing in the audience, much as they would cut away to a fan at a football match for an instant reaction. Lindsay-Hogg’s direction was also heavily influenced by French Nouvelle Vague cinema in its use of tight close-ups and fast cutting. These elements combined to give the programme a feeling of great vibrancy and spontaneity.
Ferguson’s designs were fundamental to the visual identity of the show. He gave many of the original artworks away at the time as they were so popular, and nobody had yet quite realised what a significant and historic programme was being produced. It was not until last year that Ferguson unearthed some of the images still in his possession in his studio in France. Lost since the late sixties, they have remained virtually intact, meaning that a new generation can appreciate his innovative work.
For Ferguson, Ready, Steady, Go! was an exciting and inspiring programme to work on, mainly, he says, because the team felt like a family. Everyone worked closely together to bring the world of modern art into the confines of the television studio, and to relate it to the art of the pop singer or group. They were having fun, being creative and working on a project that reflected the London they were living in. Andy Neill’s book The Weekend Starts Here! is set to demonstrate the social and cultural significance of the programme. This extended far beyond the music content: the programme played the important role of inspiring the worlds of art, fashion and television itself. Ready, Steady, Go! encapsulated the spirit of sixties London.