Sunday, November 26, 2000 by

One of the great TV phenomenons of the last year has been the pop nostalgia series. From Channel 4′s Top Ten, through BBC2′s I Love the Seventies, to Sky One’s TV Years, every channel now seems to have a programme taking an ironic look back at pop culture of the past, using archive footage, contemporary interviews and Stuart Maconie. So of course it’s time for ITV to find out Peter Kay’s phone number.

Smash! is “The Story of the British Hit Single”. This could be a great concept for a series, an in-depth review of the last 40 years, full of memorable archive footage and interesting facts. Nicely done, it could be a great landmark series, along the lines of the Beatles Anthology. So why the hell are they cramming over 40 years of pop into six 25-minute long programmes?

Each episode concentrates on a particular genre, such as Rock Anthems, Dance Music, Teen Pop, and in this episode, Sex. This is a mistake, as there’s no sense of chronology, nor any sense of any major shifts in pop music. It also means that loads of the most influential singles of the past, which don’t fit into any categories, get ignored. Where could we put – say – The Stone Roses or Elton John? And it still comes down to the length of the programme, there’s no way they can possibly cover the genre in 25 minutes. Top Ten devotes 90 minutes to each genre, and still has trouble fitting in all the important records.

The Sex episode was ill-conceived from the start, as the production team seemed unsure as to whether they were covering songs about sex or artists that used sex to sell records. Therefore we got a mishmash of both – Cliff Richard talked about how controversial he was at the start of his career, by using his “smouldering” eyes, before we were then abruptly given the story of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax. Then it was a discussion of the Rolling Stones, before a long feature about Lola by the Kinks. There’s a world of difference between Lola and Relax – alright, they’re both vaguely about sex, but Lola is just a song about transvestism, and is not an overtly sexual record, while Relax includes “a massive orgasm” in the middle. Then the last 10 minutes discussed the Spice Girls, who are not, and never have been, an overtly sexual act. How is it possible to cite Wannabe as a landmark in sexually-related pop? Girl Power or not, this should have gone in the Teen Pop show. All Saints were also mentioned, although Paul Gambaccinni pointed out that they were doing stuff that American acts like TLC did first. And then, most ridiculously of all – Steps! This seemingly was to point out that they were not concerned with sex at all, which is accurate, but why feature them in a programme about it? Would the Teen Pop episode include Marilyn Manson just to show he isn’t a teen pop act?

Clearly the programme can’t live up to its subtitle, but at the very least we could expect a witty, fun series. Alas, the features are dull, the commentary is bland (delivered with no feeling by nice-voice-no-personality DJ Harriet Scott) and the interviewees are poorly chosen. While we had Cliff Richard, Holly Johnson, Ray Davies, and Neil Tennant (who was excellent) the rest of the pundits were the least imaginative choice possible: Tony Blackburn, who’s a total parody of himself and should never be allowed to comment on music again; Mike Read, who, ridiculously, didn’t appear in the section devoted to Relax; and the over-exposed Kate Thornton, who discussed the rise of the Spice Girls but didn’t mention the time she threw them out of the Smash Hits office while she was editor and proclaimed they would never be famous. At least Gail Porter didn’t make an appearance this week, so the sequence in the first episode where Mike Read, Steps and Porter sang Bohemian Rhapsody remains the worst thing shown on television this year. For now, at least.

The research is also not quite what you’d expect from a so-called “landmark” series – the performance of Relax on Top of the Pops was incorrectly billed as being from October 1983, despite there being tinsel on the set and the record not being in the charts at that point. The Relax sequence was probably the best, but they seemed to lose interest at the end and the item ended with “The record was released, it got banned then sold millions of copies”, and that was it. Could we not have seen some news footage from the era to illustrate that? Or even a word from Mike Read? The level of care and attention given to the series can probably be illustrated by the fact that the first few minutes of the programme were devoted to introducing the series and what was coming up – despite this being the second episode.

Of course, you could say that we’re expecting too much from 25 minutes of nostalgia, and you could be right. But given Top Ten and I Love the Seventies have done similar things with twice as much wit, depth and care, is there any need for this series to exist at all?


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