All Systems Freeman – 3 

1 February 2007

Alan Freeman

The recent death of Alan Freeman caused many of us baby boomers to think of the Halcyon Days of our adolescence in the sixties and to recall our musical tastes of the time. The loss of a leading figure of that era’s pop culture (in the widest sense) unleashed for many of us a torrent of nostalgia. Freeman’s career spanned over four decades but it was surely in the sixties that he was at the top of his game.

Looking back more than forty years, it’s startling to remember the influential role of the ‘Deejay’ in the youth culture of the day. In an era where radio music programmes had only recently consisted of a sequence of gramophone records ponderously declaimed by ‘resident announcers’, the arrival of a knowledgeable and specialist presenter moved popular music from something previously thought ephemeral into the realms of art, assessed and quantified by someone who knew the background, saw the context and called the prospects. This may today seem pseudy or just plain obvious – but at the time it was a startling development. Alan Freeman was the first ‘inside commentator’ on this tipping point of popular culture.

His talents were wider than his sixties radio listeners may have first realised. He had picked up some acting skills in his youth and, with his frustrated ambition to be an opera singer, was no stranger to the proscenium arch or the small-scale film set. As his career in UK radio developed he was approached by casting directors from the film industry and began to accept small character parts in supporting features. This was never intended to replace his musical activities but to supplement his BBC and Luxembourg income with a remunerative pastime that he also enjoyed.

Inevitably, his filming experience had started with commercials, and he became associated with several products in television and radio campaigns. Oddly this never seemed to bother the Light Programme bosses and at no time appeared to be a threat to his BBC career.

It may be that the Corporation saw his value and were happy to turn a blind eye in order to retain his services. The BBC were never entirely consistent in their policy on this, with other stars like Bernard Braden being censured for their attempts at simultaneous commercial activity.

In the case of Alan Freeman, his career on Luxembourg had probably led the BBC to feel that with only an hour a week of exposure on the Light Programme, they were not entitled to act as if they owned him. As his media role grew, he probably became too big a figure for the BBC to possess contractually. Accordingly, Brentford Nylons and Bed Linen, Omo washing powder and Gordon Moore’s Cosmetic Toothpaste became brands with which he will always be associated in the minds of anyone over 45.

His roles on the screen were occasional and carefully selected, but always memorable. From the curious ‘It’s Trad, Dad’ (1962) to the musical feature film ‘Just for Fun’ in 1963, to the heavier ‘Sebastian’, working alongside Dirk Bogarde in 1968, Freeman was notable for his convincing performances and his ability to be serious in character. This was no mean achievement for a public figure normally noted for his laughing hypnotic smile. His movie appearances reached their zenith in 1965 with a major role in the Peter Cushing mystery film ‘Dr.Terror’s House of Horrors’, where despite the rather cliched title he was able to turn in a convincing performance as a young newlywed who was at first sceptical and later haunted by the Tarot prediction of his fate by a stranger on a train.

Alongside Peter Cushing were Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland and a young Roy Castle. The film was a considerable box office success and might have lead to further movie engagements had not Freeman’s TV career strongly taken off at the same time.

It was in January 1964 that the BBC decided to respond to the runaway success of ‘Ready Steady Go’, a pop show firmly aimed at the youth market, which Associated-Rediffusion had launched on ITV six months earlier.

The only pop show on BBC television for several years had been ‘Juke Box Jury’ and although still popular, it was beginning to show the limitations of the format. In the eyes of younger viewers it suffered from the unfortunate image of sometimes having patronising older guests on the panel, making occasionally inexpert judgements on ‘these young people’s music’. The BBC were less sensitive to this than they should have been, still aiming such shows at the legendary ‘teatime family audience’.

This mix of guest ‘jurors’ had been leavened by a sprinkling of pop singers appearing on the jury as fellow artistes, but overall the show was failing to generate the excitement and dynamism that A-R (of all companies!) was achieving on the other channel.

Fluff in action

Fluff in action on ‘All Systems Freeman’

ITV’s ‘RSG’ was introduced by Radio Luxembourg personalities Keith Fordyce and Cathy McGowan, only Luxembourg’s second female presenter after the legendary presenter-singer Carol Dean. The BBC felt it needed to match this and in planning ‘Top of the Pops’ for launch in early 1964 it stunned the entertainment industry by engaging not one but four further Luxembourg presenters to introduce the new show in rotation.

Alan Freeman, Jimmy Savile, Pete Murray and David Jacobs were each to introduce one show a month with periodic additional guest comperes. David Jacobs was of course already known as the presenter of the still continuing ‘Juke Box Jury’ and although all four were fine choices, they were obviously chosen not for newness but for familiarity and (amazingly) to ‘reassure parents’ that there were adults present in the ToTP studio!

In the pre-pirate radio era of January 1964 the BBC hierarchy, perhaps rather elderly by today’s standards, still felt that anything aimed at teenagers needed token adults present as established and respectable anchor figures. Teenagers were still construed as children for most purposes and it was assumed that the only ‘responsible’ policy was always to have a few older people on hand. It was some years more before the arrival of Radio One finally persuaded ‘Auntie’ to allow the young cognoscenti to do their own thing on BBC premises…

‘Top of the Pops’ was a considerable success in these early days and the pool of four presenters survived for over three years almost unchanged, though guest presenters became more common and David Jacobs dropped out early to concentrate on his BBC and Luxembourg radio shows. It was only with the advent of the new Radio One in 1967 that a new generation of young ex-pirate radio deejays became the obvious talent pool for ToTP comperes and the original names (except for the ever-popular Jimmy Savile) were quietly dropped.

In the case of Alan Freeman, however, his prominence in the music media meant that his Light Programme show carried seamlessly on into the Radio One era. It was felt that he deserved his own TV show to replace his TOTP role and to complement his radio work.

‘All Systems Freeman’ was launched as a weekly show on BBC1 in 1968. The programme was an absolute revelation and showed what could be done with television music formats if the new skills of pop radio presentation were allowed full rein in a visual medium.

A difficult scheduling settlement robbed the show of the major late evening audience it might have had and it was felt subsequently that its early evening placement, mistakenly aimed at family rather than teenage audiences, may have robbed it of additional ratings success – but the show was nevertheless popular and its style admired by the younger record-buying public.

The format of the programme was revolutionary and stylish. Looking back, the show now seems to have been a clear forerunner of the ‘video jock’ concept that developed in the eighties.

It was greatly to the credit of Freeman and his producers that almost twenty years before MTV became predominant in television music presentation, this Freeman vehicle started to set new standards of format in the field.

The set was startling and innovative. The radio studio ethos was retained, with the presenter sat at a console appearing to control the musical inserts with sliders, dials and other control mechanisms. We should remember that this was the sixties and an era when technology was seen as an unquestioned good and modernity too a universal aspiration. Such a studio layout might seem kitsch today but at the time could be presented as cutting edge. The studio set was no ‘Star Trek’ bridge console however. The visible turntables were more than props and actually provided genuine audio input. In a master stroke, Freeman wore headphones (‘cans’) and did his own vision mixing on a panel adjacent to his turntables. This was new – and very, very, cool.

The design motivation was of course ‘Deejay as hero figure’ as experienced by radio listeners over the previous four years on the offshore or ‘pirate’ radio stations on ships around the UK coastline. These had become iconic parts of the culture of the day, and for younger audiences particularly, these offshore idols had become the swashbuckling heroes of a new youth culture.

The programme included filmed reports on developments in the popular music world, pop business news and in a pre-video era, unusual films of groups performing in non-studio settings – another first, several years before Queen made the first modern pop video with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

The programme was well-liked by the regular and younger audience but failed to achieve the ratings expected after managerial misplacing in an unsuitable early evening ‘family slot’. To the surprise of many, it was not renewed for a third series. It is now seen to have been too far ahead of its time and another example of ‘innovation misunderstood’.

Freeman’s radio work continued to dominate his career, and his long running ‘Pick of the Pops’ radio show, having already been doubled from one to two hours a week, was revamped in 1968. The legendary Brian Fahey ‘Swinging Cymbal’ theme was replaced by a charming if slightly curious Jazz and harpsichord piece with the curious title of ‘Quite beside the Point’. This appeared to be new, though it had in fact been recorded in 1958 and languished in the record library. The show went from strength to strength in terms of style and content, but made less impression among seven days’ worth of pop shows, compared to the earlier years when it had stood almost alone on BBC Radio, alongside Saturday Club and Easy Beat, as the only conduits for new pop releases on the Light Programme.

Freeman stood down from ‘Pick of the Pops’ in 1972 (though he returned again some years later) and developed his career on the new Independent Local Radio service, with Capital Radio in London. For listeners outside the South East he seemed to disappear, as Kenny Everett had done when he too moved from BBC to Capital – but like Kenny, Alan returned to the BBC and national listenership at a later date. His Capital Radio and further career is outside the scope of this article, which is a personal memoir of Freeman in the sixties.

His film career continued, with appearances in ‘Absolute Beginners’ (1986), ‘Passionata’ (1992), and ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ (1995). He was no mean pianist and gave occasional private recitals of both jazz and operatic solos. His work for charity was extensive, though he declined to be interviewed on the subject.

The writer had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Freeman in 1966 when he hosted a small delegation of the original ‘Transdiffusion children’ (by now mostly strapping sixth formers) on a conducted tour of the Radio Luxembourg London studios as 38 Hertford Street.

In conversation we learned of his very real commitment to the music and to providing background information on the groups and singers during his programmes wherever possible (though time for chat was more restricted on Luxembourg than the BBC, and his thirst for back story was developed more in his much later Capital Radio career). Freeman was an evident perfectionist and our 1966 delegation witnessed the opening of one pre-recorded Luxembourg show, his five nights a week ‘Pops Till Midnight’ late slot, being done in three or four takes until he thought it right. He was insistent that the best in British pop music should have the best of presentation to surround it.

His programmes were famous for the careful selection and use of signature tunes, musical ‘links and bridges’, chart countdowns and ‘interstitials’ musically in key with their surroundings. In the pre-pirate era before the jinglemeisters of Dallas had become ubiquitous to UK audiences, he was already aware of the dynamism that good links could bring to a show. On his Luxembourg slots, the commercials were carefully placed to fit with the surrounding music and never to be jarring or out of context.

As indisputably the premier British Disc Jockey of the sixties, Alan Freeman was a master of his craft, an expert on his music and one discovered a hell of a nice guy.

With Freeman’s death, the four greatest British radio disc jockeys of the sixties have all left us – but no doubt, alongside Kenny Everett, John Peel and Jack Jackson, Alan Freeman is even now on some great radio station in the sky, perfectly timing another chart countdown to exactly fit the theme tune.

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