50 Years of Top of the Pops 

1 January 2014 tbs.pm/1327

Anyone who had access to a television or other UK-based news sources during November 2013 couldn’t help but notice the publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary of a long-running BBC series, namely Doctor Who, thanks to a whole slew of features, interviews, quizzes, online teaser videos, magazine articles and a specially-commissioned historical drama (“An Adventure in Space and Time”), etc., not to mention the hype surrounding the special anniversary episode (“The Day Of The Doctor”) itself.

However you could be entirely forgiven for not knowing that another highly significant UK television landmark took place on 1 January 1964, namely the transmission of the very first edition of Top of the Pops; a show that was broadcast most weeks from that date right up to the end of July 2006 and still has Christmas and New Year specials together with the brand continuing in magazine form as well as online.

But why is the BBC currently almost pretending that the anniversary of such a long-running and influential TV show doesn’t exist, at least by stark contrast to the recent Doctor Who hype? Of course most people are capable of figuring out the answer to that question, namely the proverbial big bear in the corner of the room – Jimmy Savile. Lots of commentary, debate, facts and speculation concerning him and what he may and/or may not have done during his lifetime has been mentioned elsewhere, so I’ll try to keep this relatively brief and simple, though as is often the case real life is rarely as straightforward in practice as initially appears to be the case.

First things first, Jimmy Savile was without doubt guilty of many crimes of assault. Of course we will never accurately know the full extent of what he did, but even if 70% of his claimed victims were lying about their encounters that still leaves a lot of genuine victims and his true mendacious nature exposed. Some people will always blame the BBC and/or its management for what may or may not have happened on corporation premises in the past, or simply for the fact that they employed him as a presenter for many years on both television and radio.

For most of his working lifetime, Savile had a cast-iron reputation as a charity worker, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for his celebrated causes, and in retrospect this was the perfect cover for his salacious activities. Some people who had encountered him may have had misgivings and some may have heard rumours of misconduct, but whilst newspaper headlines were singing his praises and the establishment was happy to give him unfettered access to various hospitals and prisons he was effectively untouchable. Savile was extremely careful and clever, ensuring that whatever happened in a hospital ward/dressing room or prison cell remained a secret between him and his victim(s), therefore as long as his victims were too scared to say anything his reputation as a popular radio and TV presenter remained intact.

Turn the clock back fifty years and Top of the Pops was a new music show based around a popular music record sales chart, therefore it was natural that presenters would be recruited by virtue of their association with a burgeoning music scene, hence Savile (and Alan Freeman) were logical choices to host the very first edition, with various DJ’s taking turns to present the show over the following years to come. Unlike what some tabloid newspapers like to imply there’s nothing intrinsically ‘bad’ about Top of the Pops; Savile at the time was just another DJ/presenter with a flamboyant lifestyle as was the case with many of the other presenters and personalities associated with popular culture.

Originally commissioned for only 6 weeks, the very first edition of Top of the Pops was broadcast on 1 January 1964 at 6.35pm live from a church hall in Manchester. That week’s Number 1 was by the Beatles (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”), but the Beatles only appeared live on the show once (16 June 1966), miming to two songs (“Paperback Writer” and “Rain”). Unfortunately as with nearly all 1960s editions of Top of the Pops, the Beatles’ live appearance wasn’t kept in the BBC archive though a copy of the complete show is rumoured to exist in a private archive of a US collector (and would be worth a fortune if offered for sale today).

Sources claim that the very first performance on the first show was the Rolling Stones performing “I Wanna Be Your Man”, but a Popscene forum posting suggests that a written record of the show’s playlist from the BBC Written Archives Centre lists Dusty Springfield as being the first performer. However bear in mind that running order lists were frequently rearranged and/or modified depending on various factors, so it’s perfectly possible that the Stones were moved to the start shortly before transmission. The first few shows were broadcast live and weren’t recorded, so there’s no visual record of their contents apart from some photographs taken of each of the acts that appeared on the very first show.

This recording doesn’t originate from the first show, but here’s the original Top of the Pops title sequence as used in 1964 followed by a short clip of a chart rundown:

Johnnie Stewart was the main Top of the Pops producer for the first nine or so years, and a silhouette of him sat on a chair could sometimes be seen during the end credits as in the above example. (He would briefly return as a TOTP producer later during the 1970s.)

An opening announcement played over the title sequence – “Yes, it’s Number 1, it’s Top of the Pops!” – was retained at least until 1971, and another regular (but frequently inaccurate) Tip For The Top feature lasted even longer; Tip For The Top specifically highlighted a new release that was thought to be destined for great success, though later on it was formally dropped apart from an occasional recommendation for a new release that also proved to be inaccurate on numerous occasions.

The whole purpose of Top of the Pops was to have a music show based around the singles chart and playing popular tunes exactly as what you would hear if you bought and played the record as opposed to making do with weak cover versions often heard on the radio due to rights restrictions, and a special arrangement was made with the Musicians’ Union for Top of the Pops to permit artists to be shown miming to a backing track; indeed during the first few years they went as far as to show someone playing a record on a turntable in the studio in order to reinforce this.

However there were limitations to this agreement, which meant that a Top of the Pops Orchestra sometimes had to supply music for a live vocal performance with varying degrees of success; this state of affairs lasted until 1980 when the rise of promotional video clips changed the performing landscape. If an artist wasn’t available to perform on the show, a promotional film/music video would be shown if available, and in some cases a film would be specially commissioned by the BBC for Top of the Pops as did happen for several Beatles releases including Hello Goodbye.

Alternatively a record would be played whilst the studio audience danced, but this couldn’t really be done frequently as it would rapidly become too monotonous, so before music videos became commonplace the solution was to employ a professional dance troupe to perform a carefully rehearsed and choreographed routine. The first of the dance troupes was known as the Go-Jos (for whom there sadly appears to be no surviving footage), followed by the hugely-popular Pan’s People (1968-76), the short-lived Ruby Flipper, Legs and Co., and Zoo, though by 1982 promotional music videos were so commonplace there was effectively no need for a dance troupe anymore so they were dropped in favour of showing the audience dancing (and even that was later abandoned).

The chart was originally displayed as a list on the back wall of the studio similar to what you might see in a record shop, and at the start of the show the camera would slowly pan down the list as the Number 1 record was played. To begin with, the TOTP singles chart was created from scratch each week by averaging chart positions taken from several commercially-published singles chart listings, and at least by 1966 the chart rundown was now represented by showing individual captions for each artist in the Top 20. (The show had moved from Manchester to London in January 1966.)

That was then, but what about Top of the Pops today and does it stand a chance of being resurrected just like Doctor Who and (Strictly) Come Dancing, or alternatively somehow reimagined as a brand new format as with the modern incarnation of Top Gear? There hasn’t been a regular weekly edition of Top of the Pops since that fateful 30/7/2006 final countdown and enthusiasm for the show within the BBC wasn’t that great even before the Savile scandal emerged from the woodwork, so it’s going to take a bit more than the goodwill of a handful of people for it to successfully return on a regular basis.

It has been argued that there really isn’t a place for popular music these days on a major UK TV channel when most popular music videos are avaiable to watch on YouTube on demand and there are several TV channels dedicated to music. However, dedicated music channels are amongst the least-watched regardless of platform, and the so-called music channels on Freeview (digital terrestrial) don’t even show that much in the way of actual music nowadays. The most popular songs on YouTube struggle to exceed 10 million views from a worldwide audience within the first 6 months, compared to the 4 million+ viewers that a revived Top of the Pops could attract on one night in the UK alone.

But given that the weekly music sales and download charts now appear to have relatively little change from week to week, how could a revived weekly edition of Top of the Pops deal with this chart inertia to avoid repetition whilst still accurately reflecting current trends? For example, the current iTunes music singles chart still has Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (a tune released last summer) in the Top 30, PSY’s Gangnam Style is in the Top 100 as well as Avicii having several tracks within the Top 200, which would collectively make for a fair amount of repetition over several weeks.

Perhaps one answer is to use a random weekly snapshot of, say, the Top 200 music track downloads as a basis for each edition of Top of the Pops, with selected new entries and climbers chosen to be featured on that week’s show. The selected tracks would then have to be checked for the possibility of record company chart rigging, namely suspicious sales activity that may indicate the bulk purchasing of downloads to artificially boost their chart position. Given that artists and promotional videos may not be available for album tracks as well as promotional video production generally falling out of favour given their expense, a dance troupe could also be reintroduced as well.

A weekly Top of the Pops show has always featured a sales chart rundown of some description otherwise you might as well bring back The Old Grey Whistle Test instead, and a full Top 200 would be impossible to effectively cater for. Therefore should ‘new’ Top of the Pops have a weekly sales Top 40 rundown as before, or even confine itself to a Top 30 or Top 20? It has been suggested that you might as well just display a Top 30 at the beginning with Whole Lotta Love playing in the background 1970s style to get the chart out of the way before moving on to that week’s selection of music, and there is some merit to that argument given that a Top 40 is less relevant nowadays than it has been in the past.

For Top of the Pops to be revived successfully on a weekly basis it has to be produced by someone who understands and loves popular music as well as someone who’s prepared to take risks, together with a channel controller who won’t schedule it opposite Coronation Street and ideally not show it on a Friday or at a weekend. Top of the Pops should always be on BBC One so that it becomes a popular talking point like it used to be (and shows like the X Factor are nowadays).

Ironically if the BBC really wanted to distance itself from Savile, etc., bringing back Top of the Pops on a weekly basis would ensure that the show is talked about in the present tense as opposed to just being a relic from the past; a place where the ghosts of Savile and various past misdemeanours also happen to reside. I have no doubt whatsoever that Top of the Pops can be successfully revived as a mass market music show, but I’m not pretending that it’s going to be easy.

You Say

5 responses to this article

Pete Singleton BEM 2 January 2014 at 11:26 pm

Interesting and thought provoking article.

For what it’s worth, I preferred Elkan Allan’s “anarchic mayhem” flavour of Associated Rediffusion’s short-lived “Ready Steady Go!” with it’s “in vision” cameras snaking their way through the audience like Daleks with those rotating lens turrets, the Quant-esque Cathy McGowan, the urbane slightly out of place Keith Fordyce and the rough, edgy mod sub-culture feel of the show which aired late on Friday evenings after all good under 11s were tucked up in bed!

That series seemed to tune into the psyche of the time far more than ToTP ever did, although the influence and longevity of ToTP cannot be dismissed, but it was of course a different beast altogether.

Whether ToTP could ever be revived as a weekly BBC-1 offering I am not sure. I think not – we live in a different world altogether and it did well to survive into the early 21st century as a TV chart show battling against a myriad of music channels. Likewise RSG! As much as I would love to see revivals of either show, I regret that like Oh Boy! and Six-Five Special (and probably The Tube, OGWT et al) they belong to times past.

But hey, what do I know? I’ve been proved wrong before!

Richard Jones 7 January 2014 at 9:31 am

The article makes reference to the celebrations for Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary, problem with this is that Doctor Who is currently in production (remember how little there was in 2003 on mainstream channels for the series 40th anniversary, when the show was out of production, even though it was about to re-enter production)…

But also remember, aside from two drama episodes (one Doctor Who proper, the other not) the bulk of Doctor Who’s celebration was not on mainstream BBC Channels (Watch and one complete story on BBC Four).

The slot I do feel that the BBC always missed for Top of the Pops was early evening Sunday, although this would then clash with the BBC Radio 1 chart show… But it could have been made the lynchpin to Saturday evening television. But this isn’t how it panned out, it was kept to weekday evenings. Even after the blooming of music video channels, TotP still brought something to television that they regularly failed to, live (or mimed as live) performances with an audience, which for some of the audience at home would be as close as they would ever manage to get to their pop idol dream, before ITV claimed the title of Pop Idol…

TotP could come back, it could be presenter led with a studio audience, with live (or mimed as live) performances, but it would need to re-invent itself in a new timeslot when the target audience are likely to be there, and maybe that pre-Saturday night out, getting ready to go on the razz, slot is where it would need to be… So, where do we now put Strictly/Voice/Lottery/Doctor Who/Casualty…?

David Hastings 7 January 2014 at 12:29 pm

It’s true that Doctor Who is a current programme which happens to be both very popular and earns the BBC a lot of much-needed revenue abroad, hence the big celebration. However, Top of the Pops was given a New Year special (which I suppose is one good thing), but the special edition was shown on New Year’s Eve as opposed to New Year’s Day (the 50th anniversary itself); just 1 day before what was arguably one of its most important birthdays. It’s like ‘celebrating’ Christmas Day on Christmas Eve and not even mentioning the fact that it’s Christmas Day tomorrow! Also Spitting Image will now be getting the 30th anniversary treatment by a broadcaster which never showed the series in the first place (the BBC), courtesy of an Arena special. (And that’s for a series which has been dead for many years.)

Given all the adverse publicity, downplaying the anniversary is understandable from the BBC’s viewpoint given current circumstances, but it still could have shown something like a TOTP2 special on the day itself complete with a very brief mention of the anniversary. As it stood, the only official attempt to mark the anniversary on the day itself was a news item on the BBC website (link provided in the article’ second paragraph).

At least there’s an official Top of the Pops 50th Anniversary book, available from all good online book sellers but doesn’t appear to be stocked in any of the shops I’ve looked in. (The curse of Savile strikes again.) From what I’ve seen of this book online it appears to have one or two minor inaccuracies which could be due to people’s recollections, but is still worth a look.

Joseph 23 July 2014 at 8:40 pm

Although I’m in the U.S.A., I don ‘t think the “Top Of The Pops” theme in the clip included with this article was the original from 1964.

I thought somewhere on You Tube, I once found a clip of a primarily drum-and-percussion theme with a man playing rums which seems to be the original 1964 “TOTP” theme. I would think the theme in this clip came along in 1966 or 1967. I’m sure you know exactly when.

Andrew Swift 26 June 2015 at 11:28 pm

The captions for the chart rundown had been introduced by the time The Beatles made their appearance on TOTP in June 1966.

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