My life with the stars on TV pop show

Imagine being at the heart of a hip-and-groovy TV show that entranced the nation's teenagers.

Steven Russell

Imagine being at the heart of a hip-and-groovy TV show that entranced the nation's teenagers. Carolann Jackson doesn't have to dream. She was there - rubbing shoulders with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross . . . and later Blondie and The Police. An envious Steven Russell listens agog

IT'S the Swinging Sixties and the conservative face of Britain is changing. Office worker Carolann Jackson spots an advert in Melody Maker: “Teenage hostess wanted for television pop show.” She's toiling for a London public relations firm - “As boring as hell!” - so this is a glorious chance for a young go-getter who adores music and clothes. After dispatching a handwritten application in green ink, figuring it will make her stand out from the crowd, she finds herself on a shortlist of three. The coveted top spot on the trendsetting show Ready Steady Go! is handed to doe-eyed Cathy McGowan, who is quickly tagged “The Girl of the Day” as her fashion sense and make-up influences a generation. To Carolann goes a consolation prize. But what a prize! After a couple of other roles within the Rediffusion TV empire she becomes a programme assistant on the show, where she comes face to face with the stars: The Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, Sandie Shaw, Stevie Wonder and more. At the age of about 21 she also trawls the trendy clubs, handpicking the grooviest of the groovy dancers, and the hippest of the snappiest dressers, to dance on-screen while the bands and singers do their stuff.

Later she'll go on to work for a management company working with The Police and other bands, such as The Stranglers.

Heady stuff, n'est-ce pas? With hindsight, she realises it was. Attitudes were changing fast, with fashion, music and art both reflecting those changes and powering them.

“I look back at it now and think how privileged I was to be involved at the heart, not at the periphery but at the heart, of such massive change that was going on, virtually unknown to us,” says Carolann, who has lived near Colchester for more than 35 years. “I was only aware afterwards that I'd met all these incredible people; and it certainly added a different dimension to my life.”

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She grew up in Leigh-on-Sea, cheek-by-jowl with Southend, and after leaving school went to work for a London accountancy firm. “I wasn't shifted to it at all,” she laughs. “My shorthand was abominable, typing was worse, and I'm sure if I hadn't left I would have got the sack.”

Then came the PR job. (“Very dry.”) That Melody Maker ad, then, promised a life more exotic.

Carolann was a young lady already caught up in the spirit of the times. “We were really the first generation to have our own set of clothes. There was rock and roll - I guess it started with Elvis - and kids started listening to other types of music. My mum listened, maybe, to Doris Day. We found our own scene completely.”

She commuted to work, most of her pay swallowed by train fares, so the arrival of a fashion empire like Biba, whose first store opened in the autumn of 1964, was manna from heaven. Biba offered dresses for �2 and 10 shillings, “a really good, totally-modern dress. Boots cost a couple of quid, and they did their own make-up for the equivalent of 30 or 40p”.

The Friday-night show Ready Steady Go! had begun in the summer of 1963 - the idea of Elkan Allan, head of Rediffusion TV, to tap into the burgeoning youth scene. It was famous for its rallying-cry “The weekend starts here!” and one of its introductory tunes: Manfred Mann's “5-4-3-2-1”.

“Everybody - everybody! - used to watch it,” says Carolann. “You had to be home or get somewhere you could see it. It was 'the' only pop programme.” Top of the Pops, on the rival BBC, wouldn't appear until the following year.

Ready Steady Go! became increasingly hip and relevant, she says, “something approaching 'underground', as it were, whereas Top of the Pops was 'chart, chart, chart.'”

Ready Steady Go! had been running at least a year when Carolann saw the ad that changed her life. By then the programme was changing, with founder presenter Keith Fordyce, “who I think was in his 40s and so inappropriate for a teenage show”, being replaced by younger blood, “and it became a totally teenager-oriented show”.

Her job with Elkan Allan was essentially that of a PA's - meetings, letters, expenses to deal with - but more exciting than PR. Allan was a big wheel in light entertainment and she met people like Spike Milligan and Tommy Cooper. Then came three months or so working on shows That's For Me and Search for A Star, before switching to Ready Steady Go!

On contract, she thinks she was paid �12 and10 shillings a week.

Carolann stayed with the show for about two years, until just before it finished - the last edition screened two days before Christmas 1966.

Her main task was to go round the clubs, looking for top-notch dancers who looked good and knew the latest moves.

“Some of it was really subtle. In some dances you would raise your hands, for instance, and in other you wouldn't. You had to catch on to that really quickly.

“Everybody wanted to come on Ready Steady Go! and initially it was a free-for-all, with the first 50 getting in. But the same people were turning up again and again. We wanted to make it fresher, so we developed a rota running over four weeks. I'd take people off and add them on at will.”

Only upon reflection does she recognise the power she had! “The clothes had to be right, the hair had to be right, the make-up had to be right - they had to be perfect representations of what Ready Steady Go! purported to be: a hip teenage programme. If the person was a great dancer but looked rotten, they wouldn't get on! It was a set-up in one way, but they were genuine people: great dancers from the housing estates or wherever they happened to be.”

Clothes were equally as important as music, sometimes more so. “Biba was a massive influence, but a lot of people made their own clothes, as I often did. You'd see someone wearing something fashionable and up-to-the-minute and you'd find a pattern or you'd copy it from memory.

“The interesting thing was that the kids led fashion; the groups followed. All this about The Beatles and military-wear . . . That started in Carnaby Street before The Beatles did it. Bands would look at an audience and think 'So that's what they're wearing, is it?' And they would copy them. The whole thing was so teen-led.

“Biba was far more relevant than Mary Quant. Quant was upmarket and expensive; Biba was down-home, honest, streetwise, cheap stuff that kids could wear.

“People in boring old office jobs could take off their work clothes and put on these wonderful things, and in an instant they were a different person. The psychology of clothes was incredible. Now, people often seem to wear the same clothes to work as going out.”

Daytime brought the usual admin tasks: arranging acts, speaking to managers, working up publicity, keeping an ear to the bush telegraph to identify up-and-coming performers. “I was running on adrenaline and didn't get tired. It was exciting.”

During the show, Carolann worked with “the kids” on the studio floor at Kingsway (“cramped”) or Wembley (“vast”). The job - carried out by three or so people like her - was a bit of a Girl Friday role: turning a hand to anything to make sure the show happened.

One of Carolann's tasks was to produce Cathy McGowan's cue-cards on a typewriter that created six-inch-high letters and hold them up just below the camera lens. Once, she says, no-one told her the running order had changed and she held up the wrong card - forcing the presenter to ad lib.

Carolann says of the girl labelled “The Queen of the Mods”: “She got on very well with most of the stars because she was very down to earth and she asked very simple questions, like 'What's your favourite food? What's your favourite record? What did you do this weekend?'

“It was the stuff the fans wanted to hear about. Most of them didn't want to know 'Who was the second guitarist on the B-side of that obscure track you did in 1962' or whatever. Most of the fans were interested to know about these guys as people.”

The studios and dressing-rooms dripped stars. “Little Stevie Wonder was fantastic - an incredible smile the whole time. Diana Ross seemed so thin and tiny compared to the publicity photos.”

Another featherweight was Twiggy, whom she remembers meeting in the Ready Steady Go! green room. “She was so thin! Very shy; I think she was feeling her way and didn't know where she fitted. She was a cockney girl amongst people in television who were quite intellectual and spoke quite posh. She came over as gauche. She was very much like a little girl. Beautiful, very nice, but very gauche.”

A highlight was a special Beatles-only edition devoted to the Fab Four in their heyday. “People were coat-pulling and hair-tugging to get to the front. Girls were weeping. I can't remember what they played because I was running around like a mad thing.”

Carolann didn't usually get to see much of the acts. “I was too busy looking after people who were fainting or being sick, or taking them out the back for some fresh air.

“When the Stones came on, it was even worse. They were the most hip group. They had this awful reputation but in fact they were as sweet as pie, so nice and accommodating, and did everything asked of them. There was no anarchy or rebellion - which was not what their reputation would have had you expect. Their public image could be as wild as you liked, but professionally they were good boys.”

Once the show was over, it was the custom to adjourn to the latest trendy club, where production staff mingled with stars. “I saw the first unofficial performance of Jimi Hendrix. Clapton was there too, and The Animals . . .

“You became blas�. You would see these people so often! When you came into it, you'd have this illusion of greatness - that Eric Clapton and all the other people were God. Georgie Fame I adored; ditto Ray Davies of The Kinks. I thought I couldn't possibly talk to them; what would I say? But after a while they just become people and you forget they're brilliant musicians.”

Her friends - whom she'd often sneak in to rehearsals or performances - “didn't make any special fuss of me because I worked there. Ready Steady Go! came into the conversation the same way their jobs did. 'Celebrity', as we know it now, just did not exist.”

Looking back, she realises she must have been na�ve in so many ways relating to business and television, but was actually involved in quite important decision-making. Producers sought the opinions of their bright young things and backed their gut instincts. It worked. Carolann remembers suggesting a long swing for the set of a Supremes song, for instance.

She saw a re-run of Ready Steady Go! on TV a couple of years ago, “and I saw myself on camera for the very first time - just standing at the side, or a shot dancing. One was of me looking sidewards with a big conk, and it held it for about two seconds, which is a long time on television. 'Blimey . . .' It was interesting.”

She laughs. “And now it's 40 years on and three-stone heavier! It's no good trying to deny it.”

Today's music scene doesn't hold much appeal.

“How old am I now - I'm not going to tell you! - but what interest do I have in modern music? My daughter keeps me in touch with what is going on, from time to time, but, frankly, because I've been through that whole scene, I find a lot of the music repetitive, derivative, not innovative.

“There's nothing wrong in picking up on things from the past as a reference point, but a lot of it is blatant copying. I've heard it before, and I've seen these movements come and go, so to me that no longer holds any interest.”

The zeitgeist of the 1960s was much more fresh - a sign Britain was becoming less stuffy and more meritocratic.

“I was aware that the sort of things I was interested in were also being picked up by other people: pop-art, the French new wave of films, blues. People were aware it was there if you wanted to explore it. Before, it had been only for a privileged minority who kept it close to their chests. The times made things visible and vibrant.

“I remember undergoing a big intellectual change in my thinking. It made me grow - made me realise there were other ways of looking at things.

“Other people had different cultures and different ideas. And it was my first real contact with black people. I realised 'So? What's the difference?' A black musician is a white musician is a Russian musician is a French musician. It was a surprise to me that people could have any kind of bias.

“This was a great coming together: of classes, of cultures, of different ways of living together; and it was a great leveller - all bound by music and fashion and art and the times.”

AFTER leaving Ready Steady Go!, Carolann worked for the National Jazz Federation, an agency that looked after jazz musicians and other groups. She basically mothered them: made sure cars were booked, roadies were on time, that they had the right equipment and so on.

Then she went to work for Miles Axe Copeland III, a hugely successful music industry impresario. Acts in the Copeland stable included The Police - Miles's brother Stewart was the drummer - Squeeze, The Stranglers, Wishbone Ash, Climax Blues Band, the Anti-Nowhere League and others.

Carolann's job was to help keep the show on the road. She'd take care of admin, making sure bands and crew got to places on time, with the right visas and passports: “being a glorified mum, and a confidante, and a shoulder to cry on - all those things; as well as booking bands onto the university circuit, arranging interviews with local radio stations and the BBC, and lots more besides.”

Police guitarist Andy Summers “was a jazzer, and I used to sing in modern jazz bands - or contemporary serious music bands, as they were called - and we had loads of conversations about artistes that we liked. Stewart was also a really lovely guy: gentle and kind and full of fun.

“They were very courteous to us and would come in the office and have a cup of tea and sit and chat. My friend used to run the fan club and literally sackfuls of mail would come in.”

The organisation had “crummy” offices in in the West End. “They were always getting broken into and there were syringes outside the door. Total dump. We moved out to Ladbroke Grove, which was equally dumpish but had a bit more space. Every time it rained, the toilet downstairs used to overflow and you'd have raw sewage floating around the basement.

“It was very seedy but was apropos in some senses. To have worked with punk bands and been in plush offices would have given the wrong image!”

Miles, the boss, was a very good manager. “He'd come in at weekends and paint the walls and put in grouting and Polyfilla! But he was very good at his job; he'd do deals that would make you tremble.

“We didn't spend money on lavish offices and lavish equipment. We lived at rock-bottom level, with typewriters that hardly worked most of the time; but we did the job and saved thousands of pounds for them all, so the attitude was right in some ways.”

Life could be hectic. Hours in the music industry were known for sometimes being ridiculous. In those less-corporate days, co-workers turned their hand to virtually anything - getting press coverage, public relations, selling records, managing, publishing - and chipped in together to get the job done.

“We all had sleeping bags in the office. The number of times I had to phone and say 'I won't be home tonight . . .'

“If we had a job that had come upon us very suddenly, and a press release had to be with the NME (New Musical Express) by eight o'clock in the morning, say, you'd get out your sleeping bag and work until four or five in the morning, get a couple of hours' kip, and then get back to work. That's the way it was, especially on the independent side of the music business.”

Blondie came over, fronted by Debbie Harry, as the band got its first taste of international fame. “She was lovely, very sweet. The Americans had incredibly good manners and were very accommodating.”

A tour of America with The Police was memorable, and many miles were travelled across Europe and in visiting countries such as the former Yugoslavia.

“I saw a lot of the world . . . but, of course, I was working. It was a job. So I didn't get to see much of the countryside. But it was wonderful to eat foreign food and enjoy the sunshine - and come back with dozens of memories.”

In France, one of The Police's articulated trucks turned over on its side on a tight bend and much of the equipment was damaged. “There were loads of us on phones, doing the best we could to hire equipment from wherever we could. We got together a sort of set that was sort of OK.”

Jools Holland is one of those musicians she holds dear. Once, there was a big gig at a lord's estate in Ireland - Squeeze, The Police and several other bands played. On the way back to England, the plane was delayed for about an hour, with the passengers on board. “Jools stood up and gave us the most wonderful hour-long monologue. He is so funny; we were all in absolute stitches. He kept us all entertained - inside the plane. I didn't realise what a great comedian he was.”

Jools also played piano at Miles Copeland's wedding in New York, including a boogie-woogie version of Here Comes the Bride, Carolann was there. “The Coasters played at the reception party afterwards.”

Life certainly had its moments. But everything has a natural life-span and, when Carolann baulked at being introduced as Miles's secretary - “I was much more than that; more a right-hand person” - she realised it was time to go.

It was also just before she had daughter Nita, now 25. Commuting from Essex to London, and combining the demands of the music business with motherhood, just wouldn't work, either.

“And there comes a point where you think 'What am I actually doing? I'm feeding an industry that is selfish, which is turned in upon itself, which is almost parasitic in some senses. I didn't think I really liked it any more.

“Music had become a commodity, like washing-machines or soap powder, and that was not what I went into it for. I went into it with enthusiasm and energy, and all those expectations about learning and innovation, and it had sort of come to a plateau. I might as well have been working for a car manufacturer, and the time was right for me to go.”

A Sixties girl up to date

Carolann Jackson:

Has lived near Colchester since 1973

Is married to Andrew

He works for a music publisher, on the copyright side

Daughter Nita is 25

Carolann chairs a local charity and teaches at Colchester Institute She teaches life skills to folk with learning disabilities and other needs