Top of the Pops

Sunday, July 17, 2005 by

First, the good news – it’s not on Fridays anymore. It’s somewhat surprising to realise that Top of the Pops managed to survive in the dumping ground that was it’s slot opposite Coronation Street for nine years, but despite this longevity, it could never be said it was a good move. As well as the obvious problems of finding and sustaining an audience, one other major flaw was it was using a chart that had been unveiled the previous Sunday, and as such – especially when first week sales were all important – it always felt hugely out of date. Now the new slot means it’s no longer broadcast five days after the chart was published, but just five minutes.

Being able to reveal the new number one before anyone else on television at last gives the show a major selling point and an obvious hook for the first time in ages. But here’s the bad news – it’s on BBC2. It may perhaps have been an outdated idea, but certainly Top of the Pops‘ great appeal came from the fact it was on BBC1 and therefore putting new bands in front of the widest audience around. The fact that your grandmother could stumble across Kanye West or the Kaiser Chiefs was all part of the excitement. Moving the programme out of the mainstream turns it into just another music show, and its new slot still puts it up against Coronation Street. Okay, it’s longer than before, but no doubt when it’s followed by something other than the 22-minute Malcolm in the Middle it’ll return to the usual half-hour length.

Still, if it has become just another music show, we can at least hope that it’s a decent music one. The move to BBC2 has seen something of a change in emphasis for the programme, with the idea being it is now aimed at a family, rather than a purely youth, audience. To this end, it’s been “merged” with TOTP2 and now adds archive clips to the mix, while regular host Fearne Cotton will be joined each week by an older sidekick to give a different perspective. First up it was Phill Jupitus – a wise choice given his musical knowledge and telly experience – but future co-hosts are promised to include Jeremy Clarkson and Ozzy Osbourne. Some of this seems like stunt casting, and it’s reminiscent of the guest presenters that did shifts on the show a decade ago, where in the end hosts like Chris Eubank or Frankie Dettori just got in the way of the music.

Cotton and Jupitus certainly made for an odd couple. Despite having been on the programme for some time and having presented loads of live telly, she seemed oddly tongue-tied and had trouble getting her lines out – references to “Churlotte Charch” are fair enough on a live show, but “Top of the Plops” and “tonight o’clock at eight” suggest a real battle with the autocue. Meanwhile Phill’s anecdotes and wordy links appeared to baffle and bore the teenage audience.

For the most part, the show continued as the BBC1 Top of the Pops did – there were a couple of records from the chart and a few pre-release singles. It seemed a little remiss not to book anyone truly spectacular to launch the new slot – a Robbie Williams or Coldplay might have got casual viewers tuning in, whereas Bananarama and Paul Weller probably wouldn’t. Those two acts, as well as comedy country band Hayseed Dixie, were presumably chosen with a more adult audience in mind. Yet it’s important not to turn the younger audience off as well, and if we’re stuck with endless Elton John and Sting again then it will only hasten its descent into irrelevance.

In amongst this we got archive clips of Take That and Madness, both of which will have been pretty familiar to viewers of TOTP2. However there seems to be little point to these clips – Madness made some sense as they have a new album out, but the Take That snippet was seemingly shown because Take That were once famous. They were simply slotted in among the running order, with little context or introduction – they didn’t even have the date on screen – and some viewers may have been confused as to why they were interrupting the flow of current hits for old material. Great though the archive is, these items just get in the way and there seems to be no reason for their presence other than a cynical attempt to get adults watching.

Obviously for a relaunch of Top of the Pops we’ve got to have an unenlightening speech-based feature as well, and the show certainly delivered when Fearne interviewed the cast of the new Fantastic Four film. This segment was like death on television, not helped by the fact it was conducted in absolute silence in the studio – at least play some music in the background! – and the quartet had little of interest to say. When questioned as to whether they’d attended any gigs while they were in London, one of them pointed out that they had been unable to do this during the two hours they’d spent in the country. As ever, it falls foul of the obvious contradiction of the current Pops – if it’s that interested in music, why not just play more music?

It must be said that, despite the many flaws, there are aspects of the programme under the current regime that have proven to be successful. Certainly, at points its ability to create a spectacle has been unmatched since the neon’n'cheerleaders golden age of the 1980s, with some recent performances making great use of the whole of the studio and snazzy special effects, and looking really rather exciting on screen. However the move to BBC2 seems to have been concurrent with a budget cut, with the sets appearing much cheaper than in recent months, and the performance from Hayseed Dixie coming across as especially dull – it just looked as if they were turning the lights on and off.

Rushed production also seemed evident with Inaya Day’s caption putting her at the wrong number in the charts, while the voiceover – albeit having more personality than the previous narrator, the irritating Lynsey Breckney – appeared to come from someone they’d just dragged off the street. In fact it turned out to be James Cannon, regularly heard hollering bombastic announcements about competitions and exclusives, without the million echo chambers his voice normally goes through. His rather weedy natural tones seemed to sap the chart countdown of much of the excitement the new slot should have given it.

In the end, the BBC2 Top of the Pops is not really any better or worse than the previous few years on BBC1 – it’s a bog-standard pop show that occasionally sparkles but more often just inoffensively plods on. Now it’s been shunted out of sight of the general audience, it’s lost the one aspect that genuinely made it an important series. No longer can Top of the Pops justify itself as an untouchable programme. The future looks uncertain.


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