Looking Back, with Eric Leaver

IT WAS in 1932 that American boxing manager Joe Jacobs coined the famous phrase "We wuz robbed!" But 24 years later, most people in Blackburn - and, evidently, plenty more in other parts of the country - were expressing the same sentiment after a knock-out blow that really floored the town. Talk about being built up for a let-down. . .

MONTHS of expectation and excitement lay behind Blackburn's tilt at the title - but they were wiped out in seconds when, by four to one, the judges gave the points to their opponents, Leeds, in the semi-final of BBC TV's 'Top Town' amateur talent contest.

For though television had reached its adolescence by 1956, it was still firmly in the era of live broadcasting, so when this Battle of the Roses began to run over time in the BBC's Dickenson Road studios in Manchester, it meant the climax was curt - and, for the Blackburn team, cruel.

The judges - three from showbiz and two who were viewers - only had time to blurt out their choice of winner before the programme ended.

It was the lack of any explanation as to why Leeds came out tops that angered viewers glued to their black and white sets back in Blackburn, especially as the town's team was considered to have put on the best show yet out of its three appearances that year in the hugely-popular Top Town tournament.

"On the buses and in the shops the next day, the town was talking of nothing else but Top Town," reported local journalist Ron Kennedy.

Local pride was hurt. For, as Ron wrote, the team's progress in the earlier rounds had boosted it to a height that had probably never been reached since Blackburn Rovers won at Wembley 28 years before.

Complaints over the verdict poured into the town hall. In fact, three days after the team's defeat, the town's director of publicity, Bob Battersby, wrote to the contestants: "We have been absolutely overwhelmed by telephone calls, callers and even letters from independent viewers in other parts of the country protesting against the judges' decision." The disappointment in Blackburn was truly widespread - simply because so many of its people had been captivated by the contest from the outset.

Eddie Peacock, who, as a 14-year-old pianist and pupil at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, was to become one of the youngest members of the town's team, recalls: "The show was unbelievably popular at the time. And when, in the autumn of 1955, it was announced that Blackburn was to enter a team it seemed that three-quarters of the population, in a state of acute excitement, held its breath while it awaited news of the auditions."

Indeed, the following January, an audience of more than 3,000 packed the town's King George's Hall as the show's producer Barney Colehan auditioned more than 40 different acts from which 11 would eventually be chosen - after a week's wait to add to the suspense - to appear on TV.

And the excitement was kept up as the selected 'stars' were named and as the announcement was awaited of who their opponents in the first round would be.

When the Evening Telegraph reported the line-up and disclosed that they would face a team from Stoke on Trent on February 27, many of the Blackburn contestants were familiar names on the town's amateur stage. They were: the New Independence Jazz Band, six tradesmen and architects playing traditional jazz; St Peter's CE Secondary Modern School's choir, 22 boys and a pianist; the Midget Marionettes, operated by Ian Stancliffe, an interior designer; comedian Bill Shaw, school teacher; Barbara Townley and Raymond Aspin, a tracer and a clerk in vocal duets; Betty Hill and Dorothy Woodend, students in a dance duet.

There were also Bob Muir and Arthur Whalley, vocalists, valve tester and signwriter; Howarth Nuttall, a singing clerk; the Margaret Sandham dancers, eight girl students, and Patricia Ayres, a ballet student accompanied at the piano by Edward Peacock, a schoolboy.

Eddie, now 56, of Thornton Cleveleys,was chosen to play Chopin's well-known Waltz in C sharp minor, but was teamed with ballerina Pat Ayres who would, said the Evening Telegraph, "with the aid of a trick transmission" dance on the lid of his grand piano.

What Pat - nowadays the well-known Pat Eakets of the same-name Blackburn school of dance - was actually dancing on in a corner of Harrogate's Royal Hall, where the first round against Stoke was televised, was something else altogether.

"I had to dance on a piece of black rubber marked out in the shape and size of a grand piano," she says. "The whole thing was so exciting at the time."

Says Eddie: "Pat dancing in miniature form on the piano lid was intended to represent my imagination as I played and, upon finishing the piece, I was to reach out to touch the ballerina who had featured in my dream, only to discover to my acute dismay that she had vanished.

"Not only did I contrive to miss my imaginary target, but in doing so, I gave a fair impression of Rocky Marciano!"

Even so, it did not harm the Blackburn team's rating. The judges voted 3-0 to make them winners of the heat.

Six months later, at Manchester, they came up against Ashington from Northumberland. Some of Blackburn's team had changed - baritone Howarth Nuttall had quit to become professional and comedian Bill Shaw, was replaced by comic Frank Revill and Eddie's 'Marciano' manoeuvre was dropped. But still, the team romped home 4-1 winners.

Hopes were high, then, when at the end of October, Blackburn returned to the Manchester studios to meet Leeds in the semi-final.

But though there was to be no explanation for the judges' verdict, one act that was deemed to have swung it for Leeds was the city's police choir - or, rather, the police horse they brought on to add a touch of animal magic.

"This had such an impact that I always think that was what won them the semi-final," says Pat Eakets.

But was there another influence at work that night? All these years afterwards, Eddie Peacock gives a curious clue as to why the votes might have gone to producer Barney Colehan's home town.

"At the studio rehearsal, it seems several Blackburn team members overheard Barney castigating the Leeds team for their lacklustre efforts, reminding them that, as they were destined to emerge as winners of the tie, much more effort was needed," Eddie states.

We wuz robbed! Or wuz we?

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