Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Fabulous Elvis

Just over four and a half decades ago, in April 1969, I was working at Caffyns in Eastbourne, when RCA Records released Elvis Presley’s new album. On the day of release, during my lunch hour, I walked into town and headed to the record department at WHSmith, where they still had listening booths where one could ask for records to be played without any intention to purchase until the staff got irritated and chucked you out. By the time I got there to listen to Elvis, the soundtrack album from his 1968 NBC-TV Special, there was only one copy left.

You wouldn’t have to be reading Elvis Monthly or be among Elvis’s community of British fans to realise that the TV special had received unprecedented significance in the music press and elsewhere. Most of us had heard about it, which at the time, was being hailed as Elvis’s comeback from his Hollywood years to once again retain his position at the fore of popular music. Anyone who had seen his last picture Speedway, would know and understand why every Elvis fan and music journalist was genuinely excited about the special, and why it was so important to see the show that had all America raving, but what most couldn’t understand was why we had to wait over a year to see it on British TV.

What was perhaps strange is that when it did finally get an airing in the UK, on New Year’s Eve 1969, with a title change to The Fabulous Elvis, it was relegated to BBC2, which most people didn’t have access to, as its 625-line colour broadcasts could only be received on newer TV sets, so most people didn’t have it. I was living at home with my parents at the time, and they certainly didn’t. Like many other households in the UK at that time, our TV could only receive black-and-white broadcasts for what, at the time, were the two main channels, ITV and BBC1, which meant that not only did I have to wait over a year before the Elvis special was broadcast, but I wasn’t even able to see it when it was. I had to wait a further six weeks after its showing on BBC2, until it was repeated on BBC1 on Wednesday 4 February 1970 at 8.00pm. But why the hold up in showing it in the first place! It seems Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was partially to blame.

According to a cutting in the New Musical Express on 1 March 1969, “There are still no plans for the special to be screened in this country. BBC-TV executives have expressed great interest in the show from the outset - and because of the Corporation’s special relationship with NBC-TV, asked to see a copy of the film, with a view to purchasing British screening rights. However the copy has still not arrived in this country. The NME understands that rights to the special are held by Elvis and his management, and the delays in making it available for world distribution is primarily the responsibility of the Presley organisation. Meanwhile BBC-TV is maintaining its effort to secure the film.” And then two months later, in May, the NME ran a story that fans would definitely see the special sometime in the near future. “Colonel Tom Parker revealed this week that he has now signed the necessary clearance, enabling for it to be seen in this country. Both BBC and ITV are interested in securing it, and says the Colonel, the show will go to the highest bidder.”

In the end, when the show finally made it onto BBC1, 45 years ago this week, it was very exciting to think that after all the ifs, buts and maybes, I would finally get to see it, along with the thousands of other British fans, who either missed it when it was on BBC2 or couldn’t watch it because, like me, their families didn’t have the right kind of TV set. And in those days, before we had the luxury of video recorders and Sky boxes, we couldn’t tape it to watch again later. We would have to wait for it to be repeated and the likelihood of that was, well unlikely. 

I watched it with my parents at home, on their old black-and-white TV, along with my sister and her husband, and after the end credits had finished rolling, I remember my dear late father saying, “Shame he didn’t have guests on like Tom Jones does!” Quite disgusted with the comment, I told him, I was now going to my room to play the album at full volume, and was immediately asked why, “You have just watched it on TV... don’t you think we have had enough Elvis for one night!” Guess what my answer was! 


  1. A Great Read Nigel, Thanks a million.

  2. Thanks Nigel, Great memories.I can't really remember the first time I ever saw it, so reading your recollections was great.