Three before six
Rediffusion in London never really saw itself as a regional contractor. As the backbone of ITV, the company’s view was that it was ITV, with the regional companies simply breaking away to show something of local interest before returning to Rediffusion’s “basic” service – the same pattern as the BBC Home Service, which had no London region – the Home Service was the London region.
This attitude meant there was no local news service in London. But the Independent Television Authority (ITA) kept pushing for one, so Rediffusion came up with Three After Six (so named because it was originally shown at 1803, but it later drifted to 1808, leading Rediffusion to retcon the name into meaning Three PEOPLE After Six). This was not a conventional news programme. It wasn’t even a conventional features programme in the style of Midland Montage or About Anglia of the time. This was something very different. The TVTimes for the London region covering 28 November to 4 December 1964 (issue 474) reports.
In theory, it sounds easy – just assemble three intelligent people who take an interest in what’s going on in the world, sit them in front of the cameras and let them chat to each other for 20 minutes. No scripts to be written and learned, no elaborate rehearsals.
But spend a little time with the Three After Six team (presented by Rediffusion on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays), and you’ll find that the secret of the programme’s success is a little more complicated.
The trio have to like each other enough to enjoy discussion, yet have such different personalities that they are constantly disagreeing. It’s generally agreed that the current team of Dee Wells, Alan Brien and Benny Green disagree with rare pungency and wit.
They have the same profession – journalism – in common. But their interests and backgrounds are so diverse that they can never be quite sure what the others are going to think on any particular issue.
The threesome’s alliances, as they contradict each other, are constantly shifting. And each feels differently about the show.
Dee Wells is usually the most apprehensive before they go on the air.
“It’s working without a script that’s so unnerving. You walk in that studio with nothing except those opinions and facts you’ve got inside your head,” she said.
“Some jobs get easier as you get used to the routine. This one gets worse.”
But Dee never worries that she might run out of opinions. “Certainly not. I’ll find something to say about anything. The more subjects we discuss the better.”
Alan Brien, who has been accustomed to bashing out Instant Opinion articles on his typewriter for 15 years, is not bothered by the lack of script – it enables him to deliver his views direct, without the bother of typing. But he’s more cautious than Dee. “There are some very complicated issues I’ve never thought out and wouldn’t care to offer an off-the-cuff opinion on. Steel nationalisation, for example.
“And there are some strong views I hold that I’d rather not discuss in public because it might be needlessly upsetting to people who don’t share them and who are stuck with their own attitudes, no matter what I say.
“I try to remember,” continued Alan, “that, although we are just expressing our quick opinions and are likely to have forgotten what we talked about a few days ago, some of the things we discuss have special significance to some viewers.
“I recently met a woman who took me up on my remarks about publicans who sit at the bar with the customers instead of serving behind it. I’d expressed myself forcefully and had upset her because she and her husband had just taken over a pub.
“I’d made these remarks about three months ago and had forgotten them, but they’d stuck in her mind!”
Benny Green, who finds every show an enjoyable gamble, admitted: “If I don’t know anything much about a subject I try to make a virtue of it. I’m ignorant about motoring, for example, so I say interest in cars is a waste of time – which horrifies Dee!”
“I try to be as funny as possible, to entertain viewers, but I always try to tell the truth as I see it and it doesn’t mean, when I’m treating a thing humorously, that my views are not serious.
“Once, working on a TV show from Manchester, a Frenchwoman – Ginette Spanier – laughed at everything I said. Afterwards, she told me me ‘We don’t have any comedians like you in France.’ I replied: ‘Madam, my opinions were perfectly serious.’ The she laughed some more!”
For the record, Benny was enthusiastic, Alan indifferent and Dee worried.
Although Three After Six is unscripted it still takes up a good deal of the participants’ time. Three days a week they meet for an hour at 10am and look through newspapers and magazines in search of topics. Then they meet again at five and warm up with a discussion, usually on something they daren’t discuss on the air. A typical subject: the news that ladies’ bottoms are back in fashion.
Said Benny, who was a professional dance band musician for 10 years before becoming a full-time writer five years ago: “I live at Wembley, which means that by the time I get back home in the middle of the day, I have only a couple of hours to do some writing before it’s time to set off for the Television House studio.
“But I find that having to read all the papers every day gives me ideas for articles and scripts, so I do well out of it.”
Dee came to London from New York 11 years ago because she thought living would be less expensive here. “Unfortunately, I discovered I had to get a labour permit, which wasn’t easy. But I contributed a few paragraphs to The Guardian, wrote about fashion for the London office of the New York Times and, when I’d got a few cuttings, went to the Sunday Express and told them I was what they needed.
“They said they were doing fine, didn’t need anybody. But I persisted and they gave me a job.”
Now Dee fills in the gaps between Three After Six by contributing to The Sun. While her income has increased, she has a sneaking feeling that London has become as expensive as New York.
Alan, who has a flat in town and a phone-less weekend cottage on the Thames at Cookham, Berkshire, said: “Ten o’clock is the earliest I can manage to think about work. I’ll resort to any excuse, even washing the dishes and mowing the lawn, to avoid starting work before 11.”
As he is the Sunday Telegraph’s drama critic the time of Three After Six suits him well.
“We come off the air at 6.30, just in time for a drink before dashing off to the theatre. I often need that drink: free seats most nights may sound marvellous but there are few things more painful than sitting through a bad play.
“And I invariably know when I’m in for a bad night when my wife refuses to come with me. She has an uncanny instinct for spotting boring plays!”
- Dee Wells was born in Rhode Island, USA, on 19 March 1925; she died in London, UK, on 24 June 2003
- Alan Brien was born on 12 March 1925 and died in London on 23 May 2008
- Benny Green was born in Leeds on 9 December 1927; he died in London on 22 June 1998