It’s Still Number One, It’s…

Steve Williams on Top of the Pops

First published August 2006

Top of the Pops, a new series for teenagers, will be based on the latest discs, mainly hits from the current week’s top 20 or 30. In many cases you will meet the artists whose records are being played. They will mime their songs. This is a departure from normal BBC practice, but the rule is being relaxed because the purpose of the programme is to let you hear the discs exactly as recorded, though within the setting of a television programme. No artist gives quite the same performance twice, but what goes out in Top of the Pops is precisely what won the ‘pop’ the first place.”

That’s how the Radio Times announced the launch of the BBC’s new pop programme back in January 1964. Over 40 years on, it could be argued that nobody has yet found a better way to present pop music on television. Certainly, no pop programmes (nor, indeed, many programmes of all kinds) lasted longer than Top of the Pops, thanks to a format that is so simple and so effective that it almost seems bizarre that nobody had come up with it beforehand. Basically, it was the chart with pictures – thus guaranteeing that the viewer would hear their favourite songs and see their favourite pop stars.

Inevitably, the BBC were somewhat lukewarm about their new series. The original commission was for just six episodes, with the option of six more if things went well. Furthermore, the production team of the new programme were sent to work from the BBC’s tiny studios in Manchester – simply to use up studio facilities that were until then fairly redundant. The show was also limited to a 25 minute slot, though Johnnie Stewart, the man appointed the first producer, admitted that he’d have been happy with 10 minutes as it would leave the viewer wanting more.

And the viewer certainly did want more. Within a few weeks the run was made open-ended, and one of the huge advantages that Top of the Pops has had over its rivals throughout its life has been its permanence – it was almost always on every week, in peak viewing time on the main channel. After an early shift from Wednesdays, Thursday nights were synonymous with Top of the Pops for some three decades. The early evening slot was another help, with most commercial alternatives being shown either during children’s television or late at night. It could also be argued that 1964 was the ideal time to launch a new pop show – British acts were influencing the world’s charts, and pop would later be seen to define the era. If it had launched maybe five years later, it’s questionable as to whether it would have had as long a run.

But mostly it was thanks to Johnnie Stewart that the embryonic programme became such a success. Stewart wisely implemented a series of rules to ensure that the programme had a discipline. These rules were straightforward enough; the number one record would always be featured, as would the highest new entry and the highest climber. Records going down the charts would never be featured, unless they then started to climb again and reach a higher position than before. Non-movers could only be played if they didn’t move for four weeks, and, crucially, no record apart from the number one could be featured on consecutive programmes. What this meant was that, in a sense, it wasn’t up to the producer what went on the programme, but rather the public who had gone out and bought the records. It also meant there would be a high turnover of material, rather than the same old faces showing up all the time.

A further convention from the early days that stayed a tradition was that each artist normally only got three minutes to perform. This meant that if you didn’t like what was on just now, there would be something else along in a moment. To further emphasise this democratic approach, no regular presenter was booked. Instead Jimmy Savile, Pete Murray, Alan Freeman and David Jacobs took it in turns in the early days to front the show. This meant that the real stars of Top of the Pops were the acts on that week’s programme. Hence while Savile was a regular face on the programme for 20 years, it was never seen as “Jimmy’s show”. When Radio 1 began in 1967, most of the show’s hosts were DJs from the station, and many had little television experience. But again this stopped them dominating the programme and ensured that its appeal was not linked to that of its hosts.

You’d think that Top of the Pops was an incredibly easy programme to produce – you simply get some chart stars, stick them in a studio and get them to mime to their records on stage. Certainly the straightforward format should have ensured that the programme remained hugely consistent throughout its four decades on our screens. But this clearly hasn’t been the case. Sometimes it’s been an incredibly successful series, capable of creating some unforgettable moments of television. At other times it’s annoyed and frustrated its viewers and regularly been threatened with the axe. What’s interesting is how the producers that replaced Johnnie Stewart in the big chair have taken to the job and attempted to put their own stamp on a familiar format.

By the end of the 1960s Top of the Pops had become well-established as a regular fixture on BBC1. By now it had moved from its original Manchester base to new studios in London, which brought with it higher technical standards and made it easier to entice big name artists onto the programme. It had also become a Christmas staple – on Christmas Day 1967 a review of the biggest hits of the year was scheduled before the Queen’s speech at 2.10pm, and this has become a fixture on 25 December ever since.

The first real problem that the programme had to overcome was the Musician’s Union deciding that asking artists to mime to their records was depriving their members of work. Yet technical reasons meant that it wasn’t possible for all the artists on the programme to perform live – the studio just wasn’t set up for it. A compromise was therefore reached, as Johnnie Stewart engaged musician Johnny Pearson to form a Top of the Pops Orchestra. These session musicians were supposed to recreate the sound of the record as accurately as possible for the artists to perform to. Inevitably this led to some rather unusual renditions, although sometimes it wasn’t their fault – on numerous occasions acts arrived without any arrangement and it would be up to Pearson to work out an orchestral version in a couple of hours. It was all part of the fun, though – hearing these fiftysomething musos who were seemingly more at home with light classics trying to get to grips with the latest punk, reggae or disco track was an integral part of the Pops experience.

Almost from day one, there were complaints that Pops didn’t care enough about music. The programme was actually made by the BBC’s light entertainment department, and it could be argued that the quality of what they were showing was hardly ever questioned. If people were buying Bay City Rollers records, then the Bay City Rollers would be on the programme. Of course, this also meant that if people were buying progressive rock, metal or punk, that too would be on the programme. What was more important to the BBC was that it was a peak-time programme and had to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Yet in the early 1970s, there was an attempt (not for the last time) to broaden the programme’s musical horizons. By 1971, Top of the Pops had been extended from 25 to 45 minutes and increases in technology meant that the programme would no longer have to be broadcast live as a matter of course. Instead of having to assemble all the acts on a Thursday night, they could now come into the studio whenever they were available and record a performance that could then be slotted into the programme at a later date. This all meant there was much more flexibility, and the extended running time meant that more material could be included.

In January 1971, Johnnie Stewart went on an extended break, and in his absence Stanley Dorfman was appointed producer – a curious choice, as Dorfman was normally the programme’s set designer. At the time, singles sales had dipped somewhat, and so Dorfman decided to deviate from Stewart’s rules for the first time and allow artists to perform album tracks on the programme. Hence the “LP Spot” made its debut, in its first week featuring a 10 minute track from a Yes album. These performances were billed in advance in the Radio Times, with acts like Marmalade and Osibisa also appearing. It was also decided to allow acts to appear regardless of whether they were in the charts, hence the Rolling Stones performed Brown Sugar several weeks before it became a hit, and Sandie Shaw got to plug a comeback single (which failed to chart).

This certainly gave Top of the Pops a bit more credibility, but it seemed to take the programme away from being the family-orientated show it once was. When Stewart returned from his break later in the year, he immediately dropped the LP Spot and the pre-chart performances, and instead stuck to his original rules. Fortunately singles sales then began to rise again, and the viewing figures followed suit, with the programme now regularly making the top 20 ratings again after a few years absence. Many of the performances from this period (from the likes of Slade, The Sweet and T-Rex) are fondly remembered to this day. This success was despite a budget cut that limited the amount of set dressing and flashy lighting that they could use.

In 1973 the BBC decided to move the programme from its by-now-familiar Thursday night slot to Fridays, much to the chagrin of a significant chunk of the audience, who complained that they could no longer watch it as they always went out that night. These complaints seem oddly familiar, but on this occasion the BBC changed their minds and returned it to Thursdays after six months. The following year, the show was off the air for nine weeks thanks to a technicians’ strike. Yet ITV failed to capitalise on this advantage, with their pop shows still confined to teatime or late-night ghettos. As Johnnie Stewart finally left the show, passing the baton onto veteran variety producer Robin Nash, it seemed as if the winning formula would continue for many years to come.

Robin Nash’s first few years at the helm of Top of the Pops were fairly serene, with his biggest problem involving the show’s resident dance troupe. Pan’s People retired from the show in 1976, and Flick Colby launched Ruby Flipper, a mixed boy-and-girl group, to provide entertainment when the artists couldn’t make it in the studio. But the new troupe failed to catch on, so by the end of the year it was back to the girls alone with the arrival of Legs & Co, who remained a part of the programme until the early 1980s. Yet despite this uncertainty over the hoofing, the rest of the show continued as it had always done. By now it was certainly part of the TV establishment.

Yet it was this that had become a problem by the end of the decade. Punk became the defining musical force, and a lot of the movement’s bands regularly appeared on the programme (though The Clash famously always refused). Many of these performances were certainly memorable, though often thanks to the acts sending up the whole thing, or the production team trying to get to grips with the style (such as The Ruts performing on a set covered in fake graffiti). Add to this a studio audience who seemed to spend most of the time simply standing and staring at the acts rather than dancing, and you had a series that was noticeably starting to creak at the seams. Thanks to the ITV strike, Pops garnered its biggest ever audience in October 1979, with 19.7 million people watching. But this was very much a one-off, and changes were clearly needed.

In May 1980 the Musician’s Union went on strike in protest at BBC cuts, and Top of the Pops was off the air for nearly three months. On its return in August, big changes had been made. Robin Nash had been replaced by Michael Hurll, another experienced light entertainment producer – like Nash, he’d come straight from Crackerjack. Hurll decided that the programme simply wasn’t as entertaining as it should be, so made sweeping changes. One of his first ideas was for regular celebrity co-hosts. This wasn’t altogether successful, and was soon dropped, but there were some memorable moments from the off-message celebs, as can be demonstrated by this exchange:

Tommy Vance: “Do you like disco, Roger?”
Roger Daltrey: “Oh, I hate it!”
Tommy Vance: “Well, that’s a shame, because here’s the Village People, and Can’t Stop The Music!”

Hurll also decided that the audience had to play a bigger part in the programme. Hence he invested in silly hats, flags and streamers and told the audience to stop just standing about and start dancing more. Later he hired regular cheerleaders to encourage the star-struck punters to make an exhibition of themselves, and the set was redesigned to place them in shot more. Later, Jimmy Savile, who was nearing the end of his time as host, complained this was cynical, but certainly on screen it helped to make the show look loads more exciting and the studio seemed a great place to be.

Clearly, Hurll had decided that Top of the Pops could never be a serious music programme, and hence chucked everything at it to make it as glitzy and exciting as possible. There were now bigger, permanent sets, flashy visual effects, a more frantic chart rundown and, from 1981, a new theme tune by Phil Lynott. It also started being broadcast live again on a regular basis, meaning anything could go wrong – and sometimes it did, such as Rick Parfitt falling off the stage during a performance by Status Quo and taking the drummer and drum kit with him. And all the acts had to perform in front of the flashing lights and whooping audience, leading to legendary appearances from the likes of The Smiths.

Better still, Hurll invited John Peel back for another go as presenter. Peel had first presented the show in 1968, but was struck by nerves and made a complete mess of it (a performance now sadly no longer in the BBC archives), being told after the show that he would never appear on television again. Hurll, however, gave Peel the licence to basically take the piss out of the whole thing. From 1983, the show was presented by two hosts each week rather than one, and Peel was regularly paired with David Jensen. The duo would normally raid the costume department before the show, invent ridiculous running jokes and take the show into the realms of the surreal (“Next up are a duo who I like to think have modeled themselves on us.” “Yes, still at number one, it’s Wham!”) Hence there was wit and charm to tone down the more vulgar aspects, and it could be argued that the early 1980s were the programme’s finest hour. Certainly, the viewing figures seemed to bear this out.

Hurll made more changes throughout his stint in charge – the dance troupe, at this point Zoo, was quietly phased out in 1983 when videos became commonplace, ending Flick Colby’s long relationship with the show. The Top of the Pops Orchestra had also been disbanded. The new compromise reached with the Musician’s Union involved acts specifically recording their own backing tracks before coming on the show, thus still theoretically providing members with work. In reality, though, few ever bothered and simply mimed to the original record instead. On one occasion this backfired, though – the Union paid a rare visit to the studio in 1983 and spotted Wah! miming to their record, thus leaving them with just a few hours to re-record the whole thing, with a rather unsatisfying result.

As Hurll took a more executive and less hands-on role, there was perhaps less imagination put into the show as we went through the 1980s, a time when Top of the Pops faced perhaps their biggest threat from the opposition. In June 1987, ITV launched their own peak-time chart show. The Roxy was produced by Tyne Tees, a company with a long history of music programming, most famously with The Tube. Inevitably it owed a lot to Top of the Pops – it was a mix of live acts and videos, fronted by two DJs (including David Jensen, who had left the BBC to join Capital Radio) and boasting a rundown of the new chart (albeit the less authoritative Network Chart). Furthermore, by being scheduled on Tuesday evenings it was able to cover the latest hits two days before Pops.

Yet within a year the programme had ended. It hadn’t helped that Tyne Tees had a run of bad luck, mostly due to the lack of support by ITV, who never gave it a regular networked slot. So while some regions showed it at 7pm, others placed it at 6.30pm, and others at, fatally, 7.30pm, opposite EastEnders on the other side. An industrial dispute at the end of 1987 meant that for a few weeks no acts could come into the studio and as a result the show was full of old performances and videos. A further problem came from producing the show from Newcastle and the difficulty in enticing acts up – they came up for The Tube, but that had a loyal audience of record buyers and there was the opportunity to perform for longer periods of time. The Roxy only offered three minutes of miming in front of an audience who hadn’t turned off after Crossroads.

Eventually Thames and TVS, among other regions, rescheduled it to a late night slot, and ITV dropped the show altogether in April 1988, giving Pops a monopoly again. Yet viewing figures were declining, and there was a marked lack of energy about the current Pops. New producer Paul Ciani took to hiring new, often unknown presenters rather than the fiftysomething Radio 1 regulars, and a short-lived deal with ABC led to a few months of performances filmed in the USA. Yet an episode from 1991 looked fairly similar to one from a decade beforehand, and as in the late ’70s, it was having trouble getting to grips with the latest musical trends. Michael Hurll once referred to the programme being filled with “job centre bands” – the idea being that the anonymous dance acts charting used to visit their local job centre and hire a couple of people to appear on Top of the Pops for them.

So in 1991 it was decided to thoroughly examine the state of the show. The new man in charge was Stanley Appel, a light entertainment veteran who had been involved with Top of the Pops for many years in a number of roles. He took over the producer’s chair in the summer of 1991, though at first this was only a temporary measure while Paul Ciani was ill. However, with Ciani not well enough to return (he died the following year), Appel took over full-time. He decided that nothing – including Johnnie Stewart’s original rules – was sacred, and prepared the show’s most radical revamp yet.

The new look Top of the Pops made its debut on 3 October 1991. However, Appel made two big mistakes. The first was to allow acts to appear regardless of whether they were in the charts, or based on album or American sales. This allowed the producer much more freedom and flexibility than at any time in the past. This perhaps wouldn’t have been a problem in some cases, but here it meant that Appel’s age became a bigger deal than it otherwise would have been. The first new look show featured the video for a Stevie Wonder track that proceeded to reach number 63 in the charts, and later episodes featured performances from the likes of Genesis, Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond – with little appeal to the programme’s teenage audience. Indeed, the only praise for the new show in the Radio Times came from fortysomethings.

The second mistake was the ruling that all artists must now sing live. This was utterly idiotic, pandering to a “You Can’t Hear The Words” mentality and undermining Pops‘ original principles. Rather than celebrate pop music for what it was, it began to penalise it, with numerous acts unable to perform to their full potential. Pete Waterman argued that he would never allow his acts to sing live on the show, not necessarily because they couldn’t do it, but because television couldn’t record it properly. The new policy was even more ill-timed as dance music was soon the dominant force in the charts, leading to the acts performing tracks that sounded utterly ridiculous (with samples being sung live) and nothing like the records. So why watch the show when you couldn’t hear what you were actually buying?

Unsurprisingly, viewing figures decreased still further. The show’s 30th anniversary was celebrated with an evening of programmes on BBC1 in January 1994, but despite this public show of support, it was regularly reported in the press that the axe was soon to fall. Major surgery was clearly required. Appel retired from the BBC in January 1994, something it seems bizarre for the producer of the BBC’s flagship youth show to do. His replacement would have their work cut out.

Uniquely, the new man in charge at Top of the Pops was not a graduate from the light entertainment department, as all his predecessors had been. In fact, Ric Blaxill had never produced a television programme before in his life. He was approached to become the new producer after many years at Radio 1, where he’d produced Simon Mayo’s breakfast show. The advantage for Pops was that Blaxill could come to the programme from a completely new direction, and not suffer from the programme’s conventions.

Blaxill claims that one of his first jobs after taking charge in February 1994 was meeting with record company executives and passing them Top of the Pops‘ “new rules” in an envelope. The envelopes were empty. Blaxill claimed that there were now no rules, and anything went as long as it worked on screen. Hence bands were no longer obliged to sing live, but could if they wanted to. A further immediate on-screen effect was that Radio 1 DJs were now presenting the show again, after Appel had decided to use new, unknown presenters such as Tony Dortie and Mark Franklin, who had failed to impress. The relaxation of the rules meant that records going down the charts could be played, or the same track could appear two weeks running if the artists couldn’t make it first time round or it was especially popular.

There were still non-chart tracks played, but as Blaxill was in his 20s rather than his 50s, these tended to be from rather more contemporary artists than those that Appel had featured. It was fortunate that Blaxill’s tenure coincided with the rise of Britpop, and the gradual resurrection of the singles chart after a few terrible years in the early ’90s, and this all meant that viewing figures began to rise again. In September, TOTP2 began, with Johnnie Walker fronting what was billed as “a music magazine for the older record buyer”, mixing recent clips with archive footage, and then the following year the Top of the Pops magazine began, aimed to rival Q or the NME.

Hence by February 1995, to coincide with a new look for the show, Radio Times were devoting big features to Blaxill and how he had saved a programme seemingly destined for oblivion. For the BBC, this was a treat – it coincided with the Chris Evans-inspired revival in Radio 1′s fortunes, and so the Corporation was able to court a much more attractive, younger audience. Yet it seemed that Blaxill began to believe his own publicity, regularly booking bands that the general public seemed to have little interest in – Menswear performed their first limited-release single , and most famously Bis performed without even having a major record deal. While younger viewers were tuning in, older viewers were switching off – mostly to the rampant Emmerdale on ITV.

Blaxill also hired regular celebrity hosts – the idea being to “make the 30 seconds between the acts as unpredictable as the acts themselves”. Unfortunately inspired choices like Jarvis Cocker (who famously wore a “I Hate Wet Wet Wet” T-shirt) and Harry Hill were few and far between, with later seemingly everyone on television being given a stint behind the gold mike – including the likes of Jeremy Hardy, Lulu, Noddy Holder and Frankie Dettori, who were really no better than Tony Dortie. Viewing figures began to fall again.

On Thursday 6 June 1996, it was announced that we were watching “the last Thursday Top of the Pops for a while”. The programme was temporarily moving to 7pm on Fridays, it was claimed to avoid a clash with summer sporting events. Yet over the summer, only one week saw sport on Thursday but not on Friday, and when the Olympics came about, Pops was moved over to BBC2 for the first time, where it garnered an all-time low audience (at the time) of 2.6 million. It became obvious that this shift was perhaps testing the water for a permanent move.

Fridays could have been a more favourable slot for Top of the Pops. On Thursdays it was up against Emmerdale while Fridays only saw Shane Richie’s awful bingo quiz Lucky Numbers as opposition. Yet Fridays were always a weak night for the BBC, with Coronation Street at 7.30pm dominating the schedules and more or less ensuring most viewers would decide to start their evening with the third channel. It also lost parts of the young audience who went out on Fridays (as it did back in 1973). Furthermore, it was now even further away from the charts published on Sundays. As singles sales now tended to peak in the first week of release, it made Top of the Pops look even more out of date – we’d already heard the chart ages before, and were now already looking forward to the following week.

Yet it was still expected that Pops would return to its familiar Thursday night slot in the autumn. However ratings seemingly didn’t justify this, so the familiar slot come September was now filled by Watchdog. Pops did get a new regular timeslot, though – still on Fridays, but at 7.25pm, putting it directly opposite Coronation Street. Sure, it had an extra five minutes and a headstart on Corrie, but obviously viewing figures sank still further, not helped by a permanent bolting to 7.30pm in November, which lost it any sort of advantage it may have gained. Fridays were also less secure, with Children in Need and other regular events meaning the programme moving, and now always to BBC2 rather than another slot on BBC1. A Saturday night repeat offered former viewers another chance to see it, but this was normally always scheduled after midnight, and now doesn’t appear until nearer 2 or 3am.

A further side-effect was that acts were now more reluctant to appear. With programmes like the National Lottery show offering larger audiences, and credible series like Later With Jools Holland attracting more active record buyers, it was hard to work out what Pops had over other shows. Yet it was still the only place on peaktime television where you could see all types of music, something that remains the case.

Ric Blaxill left the programme in February 1997, joining a record company. While the BBC searched for a successor, staff producer Mark Wells held the fort for a few months. Wells came from a more traditional light entertainment background, and hence didn’t have the music experience his predecessor boasted. Yet he did implement a number of changes, some of which are still used to this day. Wells stopped using high-profile celebrity presenters, and instead created the first proper “team” of presenters – well-known, adaptable figures like Jayne Middlemiss, Jo Whiley and ZoĆ« Ball, who would take it in turns to front the show. For a while this rota included Mark and Lard, who presented a couple of episodes in their own inimitable style. There was also more concentration on the chart, with the number of pre-chart exclusives toned down, and hence less emphasis on the producer’s own choices.

One of the more radical changes came in May 1997, with the first show for many years not to include a video, all the acts instead performing in the studio. This era began to utilise recording in batches more – acts would perform in the studio whenever they were available, and the performance would be recorded and slotted in when the single made the charts, something that would become more apparent in later years.

A new permanent producer arrived in June 1997 – Chris Cowey. Cowey had been working in music television for many years, he’d been on The Tube in the 1980s, then joining Initial Productions, where he produced Channel 4′s White Room and, on a couple of occasions, The Brit Awards. This seemed perhaps a bit high-faluting for Pops, with the new man coming from “serious” music programming rather than entertainment. Yet Cowey’s early period was pretty successful – there was more creativity in the presentation, and the audience played more of a part. Indeed, it seemed he was following Michael Hurll’s model from the previous decade. Not in all cases, though – it was claimed he’d had a look at every male DJ on Radio 1 and decided they were all too ugly to become a presenter.

One of Cowey’s big ideas was to make more of Top of the Pops as a brand. Hence from the late ’90s, the programme began to be sold around the world in kit form. Each foreign broadcaster who licensed the show would build a set that followed the design of the British version, thus making it possible for performances to appear all over the world. For the British edition, it meant that if an act couldn’t make it to London, they could still appear on the show via the German or Italian version. It certainly also helped make the BBC a bit of cash, but one of the downsides was that there was less flexibility – all the performances looked the same, and sometimes there were so many pre-recorded performances that it started to look like a clip show. Suddenly, it all got a bit sterile.

By the end of the ’90s, it seemed that virtually every channel had its own pop show. Some of them were hardly much of a threat – five’s Pepsi Chart was simply a lower-budget version of Pops, and could normally only attract one or two live acts a week. However ITV’s CD:UK was a different proposition. Launched in August 1998, the first producer was, of all people, Ric Blaxill. The show offered at least six live acts a week, an hour-long slot, a hyper audience and likeable presenters. Its biggest advantage, though, was the scheduling – its Saturday morning slot was perfect for acts who could then convince the viewers to go out and buy their singles that afternoon, meaning soon bands were clamouring to appear. It also counted down the “Saturday Chart” – in reality, the midweek chart, before the official chart was issued the following day. Alright, it wasn’t as accurate, but it still meant that it was a week ahead of Pops, and hence seemed much more up to date. This was perhaps Pops‘ biggest competition yet.

Worse still, one week in 1999 saw Top of the Pops beaten in the ratings by, of all things, Top of the Pops 2. Since the launch, the programme had progressed to become, simply, a grab-bag of archive clips, along with the odd new video. Such unashamed nostalgia caused viewing figures to rise and saw it move from Saturday afternoons to an early evening slot on Wednesdays. In a week with both Pops and its little sister shown on BBC2, the latter was the victor by a couple of hundred thousand viewers. It also now seemed a better place to break new acts than its big brother – the likes of Eva Cassidy and The Mavericks made their first TV appearances on the show, and this was cited as the reason for their increased record sales.

Outwardly, at least, the BBC were still supporting the series. In October 2001 the show moved from the Elstree studios it had been based in for the previous decade – which had proved to be inconvenient for acts and audiences, and made it one of the last BBC-produced programmes not to be broadcast in widescreen – and returned to BBC Television Centre. Alongside a dedicated studio, the new location was also home to the “Star Bar”. The idea behind this concept was that we’d get to see the celebrity guests off-duty and enjoy even more showbiz glamour. However, the major problem was that it was an actual working bar, rather than a television studio, so everyone was drowned out by relentless chatter, and it was hard to see what was gained from watching a bunch of PR people sitting around boozing on our licence fees.

Then, in early 2003, the number of acts on the show was cut down to allow for more behind-the-scenes material and feature items. This seemed somewhat pointless, especially as the behind-the-scenes footage was often incredibly repetitive. However after six months this was abandoned when Chris Cowey left the programme and the BBC to return to freelance work. In his place came a former presenter of the show, Andi Peters. Still most famous for his work in the Broom Cupboard, Peters had begun to make waves behind the scenes, both at LWT and in his most recent appointment as Head of Youth Programmes at Channel 4, where he’d devised T4. Now he was back at the Corporation in the new role of editor of pop programmes.

Initially, Top of the Pops was unchanged – indeed, the Star Bar was closed down and the series returned to featuring nothing but performances. Yet this was only a temporary measure while Peters planned a radical revamp to the show, which would turn out to see the biggest changes for over a decade.

He took as his starting point the idea that, with numerous channels pumping out back-to-back videos, Top of the Pops needed to be doing something more than stringing performances together, which was too passive an experience for today’s viewers. There was some merit in this idea, but the question was whether this was suitable for a programme that went out on Friday nights when a sizeable amount of the audience had one eye on the screen and the other on choosing an outfit for their night out.

Nevertheless, Peters’ revamp, which came in to force on 28 November 2003, was so radical it was announced the programme would now be officially known as All New Top of the Pops. There was a brand new set built, while the series would now return to being broadcast live as a matter of course – something that hadn’t happened on a permanent basis since All About Eve memorably failed to hear their backing track in 1988. There was also a full-time presenter booked – MTV host Tim Kash.

Most notably, the studio performances would now increasingly be interspersed with competitions, interviews, phone-ins and features. These weren’t the old style of “feature” where a camera would follow Busted to the canteen in the hope that they’d say something funny, but specially commissioned reports following pop stars on tour or in the studio. It all made for a packed programme, and therefore the number of live acts dropped from the usual eight to nearer five or six.

Sadly, the new format proved somewhat unsuccessful. The features were generally extremely dull – it was hard to see how the mass audience were going to be left spellbound by watching Lostprophets wandering around an airport, or someone called Christina Christian presenting boring news from the American chart in a monotone. Kash proved to be somewhat of an acquired taste as presenter, unable to demonstrate much in the way of a personality, and Peters fell into the old trap of thinking the way to attract a wider audience than teenagers was simply to book ancient acts like Elton John and Sting. It was also reported that all these extra features had seen the programme spiral way over budget.

Inevitably changes were made – the number of features were scaled down (though never dropped completely in this era) and Kash began rotating his stints as presenter with Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates, before his contract failed to be renewed after its first year. There was also an increased number of attention-grabbing stunts, with performances taking place on the roof or in the car park of Television Centre, and one entire episode in July 2004 being broadcast live from Newcastle. Yet no matter how many new ideas were pioneered, the fact it continued to be broadcast opposite Coronation Street meant viewing figures failed to increase to any great extent.

This couldn’t go on, and eventually a big decision was finally taken – Top of the Pops would no longer be broadcast on BBC1, and instead become a fully-fledged BBC2 series from July 2005. There was also to be a new timeslot, with the show now being broadcast on Sunday evenings, which was at least fairly sensible, as it meant the programme was now to go out just five minutes after the new chart had been revealed, rather than five days. There was also thought given to appealing to a more BBC2 audience, which would be done by “merging” the programme with Top of the Pops 2, and pairing existing host Fearne Cotton with a different guest each week to add a different perspective.

With the features abandoned, the new BBC2 Top of the Pops was now back to straight performances, with one or two archive clips. The guest hosts were often chosen to counterpoint the slick pop, with the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, Sue Barker and news reporter Jeremy Bowen all taking a turn. The odd notable choice aside – most obviously Clarkson slagging off most of the acts – it was tough to find willing co-hosts, and so most weeks saw familiar faces such as Richard Bacon and Phill Jupitus take a turn, simply hosting the show as the Radio 1 DJs would have in the past.

Although in its new slot, it was able to reveal the new chart for the first time on TV, this could often have a detrimental effect – bands had to be booked far in advance, and in between the booking and their appearance could have found themselves entering low down the chart or even, as on a number of occasions, missing the top 40 completely. Worse still, because the series was now on BBC2 with its smaller audiences (now shuttling between one and two million viewers), some of the bigger names were disinclined to appear at all – so while the format was now probably as good as it had been for many years, the quality of the acts was much poorer.

Early in the BBC2 run, Andi Peters quit the show to return to presenting, with Mark Cooper taking over as Executive Producer. Cooper was head of all contemporary music programming at the BBC, originating the likes of Later with Jools Holland, and it was hard to see how someone from the “serious” end of music television would have much enthusiasm for a series that still had its roots very much in light entertainment.

Finally, on 20 June 2006, came the announcement that could have happened at any time in the last 15 years – Top of the Pops was to come to an end. The BBC claimed that in an era of continuous TV music, and with the market splintered into umpteen genres, there was simply no call for a half-hour programme of this type. It was hard to argue with this, and the BBC were at pains to point out it certainly didn’t mean the end for pop music on the BBC, with occasional editions of Top of the Pops 2 featuring some new material, and a regular series of live pop concerts going under the name of The BBC1 Sessions.

The curtain finally came down on Sunday 30 July 2006, with Jimmy Savile fronting the last show as he had done the first. With it came the end of over four decades of guaranteed chart music on British television. From now on you’d have to watch any number of channels or programmes to find out all that was going on in the world of pop.

But maybe, in a few years, some enterprising producer will realise that the grab bag of everything popular makes for the very best way of presenting music on TV.