Top of the Pops

Friday, March 28, 2003 by

No matter how many times the BBC might tell you otherwise, the sad fact is that Top of the Pops doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Such is the way the record industry works at the moment, by the time most tracks appear on the show, the acts have been promoting them solidly on TV for a month or so, and they’ve reached as high as they’re ever going to get. Furthermore, with the show on a Friday, the current chart’s already been out for nearly a week, so anyone who doesn’t know who’s number one clearly isn’t that bothered.

Yet there’s still a place for it in the schedules – mostly because it’s the only show on peak-time mainstream TV that gives airtime to all types of music. The fact that Slipknot and So Solid Crew regularly appear between A Question of Sport and EastEnders is justification enough for the programme to continue.

It should be easy to produce Top of the Pops – simply get together the biggest sellers in the chart and stick them in a studio. However a look through the recent past suggests otherwise. A decade ago the show was helmed by veteran BBC producer Stan Appel and his ridiculous “no miming” policy that drove away younger viewers. Then, a few years later Ric Blaxill filled the show full of indie bands that drove away older viewers. For the past six years, the show’s been the responsibility of Chris Cowey. At the start of his reign, things looked to be going well, as there seemed to be a wider variety of acts on the show, and much more imagination in the presentation. However in recent years Cowey’s been less than sure-footed, and the latest “revamp” sees his worst ideas yet.

The most obvious change is that the show now has two presenters rather than one. This isn’t a bad idea, with the chance of two lively hosts sparking off each other and creating a bit of rapport. However Lisa Snowden and Sarah Cawood only appear together at the start and end of the programme, and for the rest of the time they just present individually – in which case, there’s no need for two presenters at all. Indeed, if they’re simply regurgitating bland Cowey-penned statements, then there’s perhaps no need for any presenters at all. It seems to be frowned upon them to show any signs of individuality whatsoever, and as such everyone who hosts is completely interchangeable. Yes, the bands are the stars, but that’s no reason to remove all traces of wit.

At its heart, Top of the Pops is simply eight bands performing eight records. With only half an hour to play with, the more acts – and crucially, the more varied acts – they can fit in, the better. The great strength of the programme has always been that if you didn’t like what was on now, there’d be something else along any minute. Hence features have never really had much of a place on the show – there are other programmes that can do that. That’s especially the case if they’re as awful as the latest ideas they’ve come up with. Liberty X were invited to express their opinions on the other acts on the show. The obvious flaw with this is that, given they’re probably going to appear with them on other TV shows, they end up saying that they’re all brilliant. That’s likely to happen every single week unless Mark E Smith ever appears on the programme again, and as such renders the whole item pointless.

Worse still, this feature takes place in the “Star Bar”. Unbelievably this has been part of the show for 18 months now; the idea being that we can all enjoy the glamour of watching the stars relax off-camera. However virtually no stars ever appear in the bar, and as such we end up just seeing a load of anonymous hangers-on quaffing booze, and this just makes the viewer feel ignored. That would be bad enough, but because it’s an actual working bar, everyone gets drowned out by constant chatter and the presenters have to awkwardly pass the microphone around to allow anyone to be heard. Surely the first consideration before building the bar should have been whether it actually worked on telly, and it clearly doesn’t – it looks and sounds completely rubbish. As it stands, it is just utterly pointless.

What’s baffling about the show at the moment is that when interviewed Chris Cowey always goes on about how the most important thing about Top of the Pops is the music, yet the actual show itself often seems keen to break off it for irrelevance. Indeed, we’ve now lost one track to make way for pointless footage of Blue and Gareth Gates arsing about backstage. Regardless of the quality of this footage – and exactly what we gain from seeing the drummer from Linkin Park drinking a cup of coffee, God alone knows – the basic fact is that it’s out of place on a 30 minute show based around performances. They don’t even play any music in the background while they do it! In the time they waste, they could put on another act.

The only plus point of these changes is that, like most of the other “innovations” this show has seen, they’ll obviously be dropped within weeks. Yet the basic flaws remain. At the moment the programme is resolutely dull and unexciting, with very little energy put into the presentation. The reliance on pre-recorded performances gives the whole thing the feel of a clip show, further sapping the excitement, and every act is filmed in exactly the same way. Presumably now the show is seen around the world there has to be a uniform look, but this seems to have come at the expense of any sort of wit or humour whatsoever. In the ’80s, the show was brash and over-the-top, but you always got the impression that it had its tongue firmly in its cheek (after all, John Peel was a regular host). Nowadays it’s just a sea of blandness. This goes right down to Wes Butters on voice-over duties, who reads out the chart with about as much excitement as he’d use reading out his shopping list.

You might argue that the current state of the chart is to blame, but other TV shows prove that you can still present pop in an interesting way. Take CD:UK, for example, which comes across as 10 times more exciting, thanks to better direction, good effects and a hyper audience. It also seems to be more interested in music, as when guests appear they talk about their records rather than, say, tonight’s EastEnders or the new series of Cutting It (indeed, Cowey keeps on going on about how appearing on Pops is an honour, while letting any old C-list star with something to plug appear). An extra frisson of excitement is added by the fact it’s broadcast live, something Top of the Pops seemingly can’t be bothered with anymore.

Similarly Popworld, on T4 on Sunday mornings is much better than Pops, as it has a sense of humour and regularly takes the piss out of the guests and pop in general. Compare this to Top of the Pops, which always acts as if the second coming is taking place in the studio. BBC3′s Re:Covered is much better than Pops. It’s a fair bet that even The Roxy was better than current Pops.

I’ll stick with Top of the Pops, if only because I’ve been watching it non-stop for some 20 years now. I’d assumed that there was a time I’d get too old for the show and stop watching. However with its creaking format and lack of enthusiasm, it looks as if the show is starting to get on the creaky-side itself.


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