Another chance to see… Top of the Pops 

3 February 2022 tbs.pm/74562

 

BBCtv/BBC-1 1964-2005
BBC-2 2005-2006

 

It’s early one Thursday evening sometime in the Summer of 1973 and it’s that time of the week. The TV is turned on and switched to BBC-1 where the closing titles to Tomorrow’s World are rolling, ready for Top Of The Pops to follow. Alice Cooper’s got a new single entering at the lower end of the charts, hopefully we’ll get to see him on tonight’s show, unlikely but who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky? A brief glimpse of the BBC-1 globe and then Noel Edmonds, tonight’s host DJ from Radio 1 is there to greet us with those well trodden words “Yes it’s Number One, it’s Top Of The Pops!”. The riff chords of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love performed by C.C.S play behind a series of ‘still’ pictures of the chart rundown but Alice won’t be appearing here, this is the Top Twenty and he’s in at twenty-three. Still, there’s hope.

First record up though is a strange one by a band called Hotshots called Snoopy versus The Red Baron. Hmm, strange one that, bit of a comedy song, but as you know, they like something easy to get the show started. Next up… Oh no, not Donny Osmond! Young Love? What’s that all about? Your Mum’s gone all gooey because it’s an old song from the ‘fifties and, well, he’s such a clean nice looking boy, nice teeth and all that, your sister could do a lot worse than find a boy like him. Come on, we need something a bit raunchy for the the next record, surely Alice for this next one, please? Nope, it’s Get Down by Gilbert O’Sullivan and worse still we’ve got Pan’s People dancing to it with a bunch of dogs, for crying out loud, what’s going on here?

 

Courtesy of Bluevelvetglove

 

Who’s this up next, Mud? Well their first one was sort of okay and this one (Hypnosis) isn’t really that bad either, but they’re not quite up there with the best, are they? Please, if we can’t have Alice then maybe T.Rex, Wizzard, Bowie, even The Sweet, anything a bit heavier than this but definitely NOT Peters And Lee who are on now! They were on that Opportunity Knocks! show the other week, what on earth are they doing here? But of course, your Mum likes them. Trouble is now we’re running out of time, it’s just gone ten-to-eight and we’ve now got film from America of Diana Ross and, even worse, you know what’s coming next, it’s that orchestra at Number One with the theme music from that detective series that your Mum and Dad watch every week. An orchestra at Number One on Top Of The Pops in this day and age! Really? But it’s still worth hanging on ‘cos you never know, Alice might just get played over the closing titles. Actually you’ve just heard that it’s David Bowie (YES!) and The Laughing Gnome (NOOOO!).
Really, why do you bother? Every week it’s the same old rubbish, every week you’re yelling at the telly in disgust. You’ll tune in next week though just to give it one more chance. And the week after. In fact, you never miss it.

It’s hard to imagine now that when the the world’s longest running TV pop show started, the channel on which it was broadcast was simply known as BBCtv, there being no BBC-2 at that point. New Year’s Day 1964 was when it kicked off, a period when the Corporation were allegedly uninterested in pop music on any of their broadcast outlets. True, there was the erstwhile Juke Box Jury hosted by David Jacobs, but like its predecessor Six-Five Special it leaned more in the direction of light entertainment than being an out-and-out pop show. On the radio the BBC Light Programme is often accused retrospectively of ignoring pop music during the period when Britain (well, London) was launching itself into the ‘Swinging Sixties’, but that really is a bit unfair. The Light Programme, as the name implies, was really a channel for light entertainment, drama and comedy. It was never a pure music station as such, any music that was featured had to appeal to a wide audience and of course, the BBC was well endowed with its own orchestras and contracted performers to provide that music. The playing of ‘Gramophone Records’ en masse was seriously discouraged by the Musicians Union and limited to just a few hours in any broadcasting week. For this reason Saturday Club, the Light’s pop show that is most fondly remembered was largely made up of sessions recorded specially for the show by the guest artists and groups, the odd record being slipped in to fill the gaps. The only true pop record show on the Light was of course Pick of the Pops from where Top of the Pops may have taken its inspiration.

But the guys at Television Centre had their eyes on something rather interesting that was happening on the other side where, at teatime on Fridays teenagers in London were glued to Associated-Rediffusion’s Ready Steady Go!. The show made its debut on Friday 9 August 1963 and became must-see appointment TV for any self respecting pop fan at the time. Contrary to popular belief RSG! was not a networked show, being transmitted at the same time the other ITV companies were screening their flagship regional news and magazine programmes, although recordings of the show were syndicated across some of the regions over different days, losing the impact of its trademark “The Weekend Starts Here!”, a little pointless when for example, ATV showed it in the Midlands on Tuesday evenings.

 

Courtesy of olliedann

 

So it’s quite possible that the guys at Television Centre hadn’t noticed TWW’s Discs-A-Go Go in Wales and the West which was also part networked or syndicated, or even Granada’s regular inclusion of pop music in their Scene At 6.30 where, according to Micheal Parkinson, The Beatles were almost the ‘House Band’. In fact, the only regular networked pop music show on ITV was ABC’s Thank Your Lucky Stars on Saturdays, usually at teatime against the BBC’s Juke Box Jury (schedulers were not known for being kind to their audiences back then), where the presentation of the music was a straight performance in front of the studio audience. RSG! on the other hand had its audience dancing to the music on the studio floor while cameras and even the performers wandered among them giving the show its legendary vibrancy.

It was this quality that caught the eye of Bill Cotton, Head of Variety at the BBC. He felt that applying the Pick of the Pops radio format to the vibrant club atmosphere of Ready Steady Go! the corporation could be onto a winner and so he employed former Juke Box Jury producer Johnny Stewart to make it happen. Obviously Pick of the Pops on TV would be impractical, so the format became streamlined into the formula that stayed with it through most of its forty-two years existence. Firstly, focusing on the Top Twenty the programme would always end with the Number One record, which would be the only record allowed to appear in consecutive weeks. The show would include the highest new entry and the highest climber on the charts (provided it had not featured in the previous week’s show). The only other time a track could be featured in consecutive weeks was when it featured in a different format, for example a song played over the chart rundown at the start of the show or over the closing credits would be acceptable for playing in its own right the following week. Records going down the chart were never featured.

The first edition of TOTP was broadcast live from a BBC studio in a converted church in the Longsight suburb of Manchester, going out at 6.35pm on 1 January 1964. The Hollies, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Dusty Springfield, The Dave Clarke Five and The Rolling Stones were seen miming to their current chart hits, the prospect of bands setting up in quick succession and playing live being an unrealistic one. Like Ready Steady Go!, Top of the Pops made no secret about the groups or singers miming, in fact the turntables playing the records were clearly visible in the early shows, often with the host DJ placing the pick-up arm onto the record while introducing the next act. The number one record for the first show was by The Beatles, whose Can’t Buy Me Love was played over some newsreel film. The programme had been commissioned for a six week run during which the presenter line up was rotated to include Radio Luxembourg presenters David Jacobs, Jimmy Savile, Pete Murray, and Alan Freeman. Once the show had established itself beyond that initial run, production was relocated to London, firstly at Lime Grove and then at Television Centre in 1966 and, from 1967 a selection of Radio 1 DJs joined the regular roster of hosts.

 

Courtesy of The Beatles. Not Top of the Pops footage.

 

The format was still pretty much in place in October 1979 when I was fortunate enough to be among the audience for an edition hosted by David ‘Kid’ Jensen, an experience not easily forgotten. Walking into Studio 1 at Television Centre I couldn’t help being fascinated by seeing what looked like stage blocks from my old school drama department being held together by gaffer tape, the whole set looking thoroughly dull and unglamorous until the main studio lights came on. In the studio that evening were XTC, Squeeze, Matumbi, Sad Cafe and Lena Martell while Blondie, Rainbow and The Police (that week’s number one) were on film inserts. Also on the bill that night were Legs & Co dancing to Kate Bush’s Them Heavy People.

After a quick briefing from the floor manager as to what to expect and how to behave, the programme began. The audience of roughly thirty people were shepherded into position by various members of the floor crew and frequently pushed aside to allow for the smooth movement of cameras across the studio floor. For this reason each of the cameras had members of the floor crew clinging on the side to push us out of the way (we were warned about this in the pre-recording briefing: “DON’T argue!”). Similarly we would be pushed to one side or told to “duck” for the overhead camera crane as it swooped and swung over our heads, often too close for comfort.

Seeing the bands miming to their records (unenthusiastically, it has to be said) was also an interesting experience. Drums had pads placed on their skins to dampen any noise while cymbals were replaced with plastic mock-ups. The music over the studio speakers was played at a relatively low level and was therefore competing with the sound of dead guitar strings being hit and drummers playing what were effectively Tupperware sets, along with the clomping sound of the audience trying to dance while being pushed aside for the cameras or avoiding decapitation from the overhead camera crane. Believe me, this was a real fun evening! Lena Martell was the only artist to perform live and for this we were treated to an intimate performance from the Top of the Pops Orchestra. The show was recorded on Wednesday evening for its transmission on Thursday.

 

 

As the show lumbered into the ‘eighties it gradually became clear that the format would need the odd reboot. Pop videos, specially commissioned by the record companies replaced the traditional straight promo film for bands who couldn’t appear in the studio. They were slick and glossy, all of a sudden the mimed TOTP performances looked archaic. The launch of Channel 4 in 1982 brought with it The Tube, a live magazine and music show in the best traditions of Ready Steady Go! nineteen years earlier and with a similar Friday teatime slot clocking in fifteen minutes short of two hours, but now with the bands and artists actually playing live. Then of course in 1984 came the cable and satellite station MTV with its non-stop diet of pop videos, the anticipation seeing your favourite band on Thursday night had dissipated. There was still life in the old show, however, with TOTP bringing more of a party atmosphere into the studio (presumably by turning up the volume on the studio speakers?) and varying the presenting team, mixing Radio 1 DJs with guest presenters from other BBC shows. At the end of the decade the show was allowed the luxury of a weekly simulcast in stereo on Radio 1 with the roll-out of that network’s FM service, the simulcast being part of a Radio 1 show of the same name featuring brief interviews with the artists appearing along with a few bonus tracks.

A massive shift came in 1991 when the show relocated to the BBC studios at Elstree and was allocated its own studio, the permanent set-up allowing for a few live performances on the show, along with a shift to Friday evenings in 1996. But as the decade wore on it became clear that Top of the Pops was wearing out, although not as rapidly as some had anticipated. True, MTV had now been joined on the cable and satellite platforms by VH-1, but there was still a hunger to see bands and artists actually performing their songs in the studio, and although Channel 4 were providing such opportunities with their youth shows, TOTP held on to its advantage of reflecting the chart, with viewers able to see the acts performing the records that they were buying.

 

Courtesy of TellyArchive

 

Unfortunately, they weren’t buying enough. Faced with diminishing sales of singles and a changing world of wall-to-wall pop TV, TOTP entered the twenty-first century as an endangered species as the viewing figures fell below 3 million, just one fifth of its typical audience during its heyday.
In 2005 the bold decision was made to move the show to Sunday evenings at 7pm on BBC-2, the idea being that it would air immediately after the official announcement of the new top 40 in the chart show on Radio 1, giving an air of continuity and immediacy to the show. But for many, the move from its prime-time slot on BBC-1 was seen as sidelining, the writing was clearly on the wall. Despite new features such as the album chart rundown, a couple of ‘archive’ slots and regular host Fearne Cotton being joined by a different guest host each week, on 20 June 2006 the referee checked his watch and blew the whistle for full time as the BBC announced that, with average figures now down to 1.5 million Top of the Pops would come off at the end of the following month. The final show aired on Sunday 30 July, a nostalgia-fest hosted by all the great and the good that had presented it over its forty-two year run, with its original host uttering those immortal words “It’s Still Number One, It’s Top Of The Pops” before switching off the studio lights for good.

Somehow though the show continues to breathe. The legendary Christmas Specials still air on BBC-1 in their regular annual lunchtime slot on Christmas Day (“special editions” of a show that is no longer running: how brilliant is that?) while the spin off TOTP2, a weekly archive show first aired in 1994 continues in the form of special editions from time to time. Then of course there are the weekly BBC-4 re-runs every Thursday evening where, since their first broadcast on 1 April 2011, the original intention of playing shows from the same week thirty-five years earlier in their traditional 7.30pm slot have fallen foul of having to skip entire editions due to the wrong-doings (actual or alleged) of their host presenters, as well as editing out performances by artists similarly accused or charged of such things and consequently, as I write, the run has caught up by five years.

So the Top of the Pops legacy lives on, albeit in archive form which can never truly recreate the sense of anticipation of seeing your favourite band matched with the frustration at seeing the same old rubbish week after week. But at least it was good rubbish.

They never did play that Alice Cooper track…

 

Courtesy of mymusicfootage

 

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