Top of the Pops

Sunday, July 30, 2006 by

I can’t remember the first time I watched Top of the Pops. I can’t have been any older than about three or four, because one of my earliest memories is of mounting my own episodes with my sister. While we were decorating the Christmas tree, I’d cover myself in tinsel and, suitably glammed up, would be Mike Read or Peter Powell, introducing my her miming (we were already well aware of the conventions) to records by Diana Ross, Kim Wilde or, as we were still very much relying on our parents’ record collection, St Winifred’s School Choir.

So Top of the Pops has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Perhaps only Blue Peter is another series I can’t recall not being there, and even with that evergreen show there was a lengthy period when I wanted nothing to do with it. With Top of the Pops, though, I’ve been an avid viewer as child, teenager and adult, and I remember ages ago deciding I was never going to stop being interested in pop music and so never stop watching Top of the Pops.

Of course, over the years, it’s meant something different. At the start it was exciting to watch as a family, but as my parents grew out of it and I got a telly in my bedroom, it would be a solo pursuit, where I would sit mere inches in front of the screen, the better to take in the vibrant atmosphere. Even when the show was at its nadir in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was still faithfully tuning in to painstakingly make notes on chart statistics and facts.

Later, in the mid ’90s, Top of the Pops was the opportunity to watch the latest Britpop faves – from Echobelly to Symposium – showcase their latest three-minute wonders that were going to reinvent pop music forever. Then it was off to university, where each week I’d end up watching it with at least half a dozen other people, all expressing their opinions on the week’s line-up. Finally, as I no longer had the time or inclination to listen to daytime Radio 1, it was the chance to catch up with the latest pop, sometimes finding something great, at other times starting to feel ancient.

Anyway, as it turns out, I’ve managed to outlive Top of the Pops, meaning I’ll miss the final stage of the Pops-watching process; sitting watching it with kids and winding them up about the silliness of the acts. It all means that, given the series has been such a major part of my life – and indeed, the life of almost everyone under the age of 50- the final show was always going to be a disappointment. How can they possibly have found room for everyone’s most cherished moments in just 60 minutes?

Basically it was very much as you would expect – the likes of Savile, Travis and Blackburn were all present and correct (and in a nice touch surely nobody else noticed, they were all given period microphones), though quite why Pat Sharp, who hosted about three shows in 1983, was considered one of the final 10 is a mystery. Presumably, given he also hosted the last edition of The Roxy, he had experience of this sort of thing. It was nice to see Rufus Hound among the hosts, though, as he was perhaps the only plus point of the last few desperate years. Hound seems hugely affable, is capable of being witty in a 30-second link (although admittedly he only had Fearne Cotton as competition in this regard) and even appears to be genuinely interested in music. I’m sincerely hoping that he goes on to bigger and better things.

There were no surprises in the clips, either – indeed, many of them would appear later on this evening in the repeated documentary about the show. Much of this is, of course, thanks to the fact that the number of clips that still exist from the ’60s would have trouble filling up a half-hour show on their own. Anyone who’s ever watched more than a handful of episodes of TOTP2 can probably cue in the miserable-looking bloke that stands staring between Sonny and Cher. One thing it did prove was that clips from recent years stood up well enough compared to the older material – in terms of creativity and the role the audience played, they may well even be rather better.

But of course, simply showing the big names – your Madonnas, your Rolling Stones – is only really telling half the story of Top of the Pops. Much of the fun of the series came from those stars rubbing shoulders with an indie band who had finally reached the heady heights of number 37, who about 99% of the audience had never heard of but, if you were a fan, you were delighted to see being treated as a “proper” pop group. This was the case right until the end – seeing Belle and Sebastian jumping around or the lead singer of The Crimea attempting to stare out the audience is always a real treat.

This was always the great thing about the show – if you were in the charts, it didn’t matter what you looked like or if you’d only sold records to members of your fan club, you were on the programme. Even some of the most famous moments came about this way – Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s performance of Relax is rightly celebrated, but they were at number 35 at the time and were only on because it was straight after Christmas and hardly any records had been released.

Thinking rationally, it’s obvious why Top of the Pops is coming to an end. Viewing figures are a fraction of what they used to be, the target audience of teenagers don’t seem to care less about it, and of its loyal audience, most of those are 20 or thirtysomething men who are only still watching it because they’ve not missed an episode since they were five years old. It surely couldn’t continue in the slot it ended up in, because it was like nothing else on that channel and smacked of simply being allowed to continue because the Beeb were too sentimental to axe it.

And yet, the thing about Top of the Pops is that throughout its 42 years on air, there was always a new chart, and with it was always some new bands to appear on the programme. The format can never be tired, because it’s always based on what’s happening right now. Sure, we’re going to get a Christmas show, and TOTP2 will sometimes feature a new band, and there are new ideas like The BBC1 Sessions and The Electric Proms, but there won’t be a showcase week in week out where everyone who’s released a single has the chance to get on television.

The last show once more made use of the Top of the Pops archive, surely the greatest collection of recorded music in the world. The great tragedy is, it’s not going to get any bigger.


Comments are closed.