Millcent Martin: Mavericky!

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I’d never heard of Millicent Martin until just a few days ago, when I found myself looking for old David Frost stuff on YouTube after his death earlier this week. Miss Martin has had a long career, but may be best-known for singing satirical songs on Frost’s short-lived but groundbreaking public-affairs show “That Was the Week That Was” (aka “TW3”), which kinda presages not only much of the British comedy boom of that decade, but virtually pioneered the use of comedy as a means of direct engagement with the political process via mainstream television.

The show was entire unique, starting with its opening theme–a swinging swath of British bop (which sounds a lot like West Coast stuff) popular enough to market as its own studio album… 

The lyrics were reworked for new episodes, to encompass the news of the day. The quality of the writing seems uniformly strong, in particular the poetry and song-lyrics, all of which is smoothly articulated by the singer, if not always the panelists. It’s a tricky enough matter in America these days, let alone in the BBC structure of 50 years ago. TW3 was the beginning of Frost’s lifelong push to establish himself in the newest, freshest broadcast formats; he went on to co-found the infamous TV-am network, and he was working for al-Jazeera at the time of his death. To see TW3 at its most bold, brash and biting, check Millicent Martin in the lead on “Mississippi”, which ruthlessly lampoons America’s racial climate at that time.

1963 saw the show’s peak, and its subsequent demise, just a month after the murder of JFK–a crime that stirred the cast to cold, sober sanctimony in the darkest moment yet for their generation. After some reflective words from the panel, Martin adds her voice, singing “In the Summer Of His Years” in honor of the fallen president…

By year’s end, the show would be off the air, but not before yielding another masterpiece from Millicent Martin, who duets with herself in split-screen for a run of rollicking vocalese on “Goodbye”, from the show’s finale. Those who saw the show then never forgot, while those who weren’t around–like myself–get to experience it anew…

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