All New Top of the Pops

Friday, November 28, 2003 by

You wouldn’t get BBC News deciding not to cover a train crash because they’d had too many of those stories recently. And Match of the Day would never decide that all this football was getting boring, so they’d put a film on instead of the Cup Final. Yet the team behind British television’s flagship music programme has decided that what it really needs is… less music.

New Executive Producer Andi Peters has overseen the biggest changes to Top of the Pops‘ format for 12 years. He’s said that there’s to be less emphasis on the chart because nobody cares anymore. Yet if this is the case, how come there are currently around half a dozen charts on TV and radio? The appearance of the Smash Hits Chart, Flaunt Chart, Hit 40 UK et al would suggest that ranking records in order still holds an appeal. Also, these days you can’t pick up a Sunday supplement or style magazine without reading about Kylie, Beyonce or Justin, while Saturday night TV on both channels seems to be almost entirely devoted to finding new pop stars. If this is pop at a low ebb, goodness knows what sort of coverage it would have whem it was vibrant.

Peters also claims that simply watching back-to-back performances is “a passive experience”. How this explains the umpteen TV channels on digital platforms simply playing non-stop videos, and presenter-less radio stations, is beyond me. Furthermore, given the slot Top of the Pops currently holds, surely all viewers want is a “passive experience” – most will be getting ready to go out or simply tuning in to see a favourite act, and won’t want to, or can’t, sit down and watch interviews and features. Over the past four decades, what anyone remembers from Top of the Pops is not the presenters or the extraneous material, but the peformances.

It’s not as if features have no place in music programming. CD:UK on ITV1, for example, invites pop stars to review the latest singles, and if it’s all a bit contrived, it can sometimes come up with some interesting and lively television – note the spat between Louis Walsh and Melanie C a few months back, which got the programme in the papers. Previously, though, all Pops has been able to come up with in the way of features – as demonstrated last time OTT reviewed the show in March – was simply watching Gareth Gates drinking a cup of coffee, or getting the cast of Cutting It in to plug their show. If you can’t think of features, just don’t do them.

So what of the new show? Well, it’s not quite as “All New” as the name might imply, as the first five seconds illustrate. The “new” theme tune is in fact simply the return of Tony Gibber’s composition as introduced with the useless 1991 relaunch. Tim Kash offers a brief hello, and then it’s straight onto the first act. Mis-Teeq are perhaps a curious choice of opener, mostly because they’re only at number 13 in the charts. But they don’t just perform their current single, but a medley of some of their other hits – something else more often seen on CD:UK.

We then get Kash in a sea of audience members, delivering a link that goes on for ages. This unfortunately means that during this bit he is firstly drowned out by the cheering crowds – a side-effect of broadcasting live – but then later battling against a deathly silence, with the audience unable to keep their enthusiasm up while he promotes the show’s new phone and text number (“if you want to get in touch with us”), as well as the website. It’s all very well promoting what’s still to come, but it does mean that there are no surprises, and if the viewer doesn’t like any of the acts in the list, there’s no real reason for them to keep watching.

In any case, it’s hard to imagine anyone staying awake, let alone watching, after the second track – it’s Elton John in concert in Atlanta. Of course, Pops is a family show and as such Elton would certainly deserve a spot on the programme with a new single in the charts. However, he is performing Your Song, a hit in 1971. There’s no point to this performance being on the show at all, he’s simply there because he’s Elton John and he is famous. And for a supposedly vibrant new programme, the quality of the footage is awful, mostly stuck on one shot of Elton’s head throughout and seemingly shot by a member of the audience with a camcorder.

Will Young follows, live in the studio, and he performs well, but there’s a marked lack of occasion here, partly because he’s already performed this song on dozens of other shows and partly because the new set seems to dominate the studio and there’s a large gap beween the stage and the audience. Following that is what we’ve been waiting for – the first feature, with the cameras following The Darkness on tour in America. At least now Pops is actually putting some thought into their features and turning them into proper reports, rather than simply watching pop stars stand around backstage and hoping they do something funny.

Yet there are two flaws in this package. The first is that Top of the Pops has the first screening of the band’s new video, but only about 20 seconds of it are actually shown – just throwing it away, despite that clearly being a bigger draw than a boring feature. The second is the voiceover. Lynsey Breckney is the new “voice” of Top of the Pops, but throughout the whole show puts virtually no enthusiasm into her narration. She’s not helped by a dreadful script – such sentences as “This four-piece band from Lowestoft in Suffolk are taking their music and their very British sense of humour to the US” make her sound like she’s reporting for Panorama rather than Pops. Hard to imagine the teenage audience enjoying a programme seemingly written by their dad.

Another lengthy link sees Kash seemingly introducing the programme all over again, before setting up a video vote – a decent enough idea, if another lift from the opposition. Then it’s a performance by Nelly, but again this rather undermines the “All New” aspect as it’s exactly the same performance as was seen on the previous week’s edition, on the old set, with simply the new logo stuck on the backdrop. Next up is Kash on his CD:UK-style sofa alongside Gareth Gates and Kelly Osbourne. What are they there for? No reason at all. Gareth talks about his fans, Kelly talks about her dad and then a minute of Gareth’s video is shown. Again we’ve got editorial content for the sake of it, wasting time that could be better spent playing more tracks.

Breckney then simply reads out the album chart, with stills of the sleeves shown – hardly exciting telly, especially as it’s nearly a week old. Kash muddles his way through a competition, then it’s Kylie Minogue live in the studio performing an album track. Next up is the much-hyped appearance of Victoria Beckham, where the viewers get to choose which of the two tracks on her new single they’d like to see her perform. However this isn’t going to happen until next week, making this appearance largley pointless. Then it’s another report, with Craig David in South Africa. At least this one lacks the dull voice-over, but it’s no more interesting – certainly the casual viewer couldn’t give a toss about what David thinks of Johannesburg.

An ace cock-up follows with Kash setting a Robbie Williams competition with a choice of three answers, all of which are wrong – something that hardly proves how nuts about music the programme is. This is followed by a clip from Williams’ Knebworth concert – already shown on television and available on DVD, though presumably this replaced the promised Michael Jackson video that was incomplete and couldn’t be broadcast. Margerhita Taylor plugs the appearance by Lemar later on BBC3 – a man who’s entered the chart at number five. Surely he’s a better choice for the main show than one hit wonder Lisa Maffia, who’s on next, and performs, again, a medley? This means yet more old tracks, making it seem like nothing special.

Then Kash is outside with a throng of Blazin’ Squad fans – well, four of them anyway – who simply say that they like Blazin’ Squad. Yet after more plugging and recapping, we get the best performance of the night – and it’s by, of all people, Blazin’ Squad themselves. They’ve got a hundred dancers circling the fountain outside TV Centre, à la All Star Record Breakers, before rushing inside and taking over the studio to perform Flip Reverse. For the first time the show feels like an event, as if the acts are treating it as something special and as if you’re seeing stuff you wouldn’t get anywhere else. It’s just a shame that, again, the track is old.

Some dull music news follows, and then it’s the top 10 – with Breckney again sapping all the excitement out of it thanks to her boring voice-over. Getting Fatman Scoop’s name wrong doesn’t help either. Westlife perform the number one live in the studio, but then the show ends somewhat aimlessly, with Kash talking to a non-plussed competition winner on the phone, 90 seconds of the video vote winner by the Black Eyed Peas (which has already been on the programme before) and then goodbyes from Kash and Sabrina from Mis-Teeq, into a microphone that doesn’t work. It’s an appropriately anti-climactic ending.

This new look was, at best, a disappointment, and we’ll have to see how the programme works in its usual 30 minute format for a better idea of what the future might hold. It’ll need to get much pacier, certainly, with less of the padding and repetition that dogged this episode. However it does seem very much like change for the sake of change. The features are boring and the chat is pointless, and all the time spent on editorial features would have been better spent on more music. It’s as if the production team are almost embarrassed by the fact that the show just strings performances together, but that’s undoutedly what the audience wants.

Will this revamp see ratings rise? The answer is almost certainly no, because it’s still opposite Coronation Street on Friday nights and thus handicapped before it’s even started. Indeed, the only revamp that could help the show would be an unpopular overhaul of Corrie. Peters says he’s sick of people saying it should be back on Thursdays, claiming they say so purely for nostalgic reasons. But almost any slot would be better than the one it occupies now, at the wrong time on the wrong night of the week – especially when BBC1 precede it with programmes like Open All Hours, hardly of major appeal to Pops‘ target audience. Tuesdays or Wednesdays would be just as good as Thursdays – or if they really want to be up to date, why not Sundays so they can reveal the new chart first? It’s perhaps unfair of BBC1 to put pressure on Pops to change when a better slot would have much more of an effect.

Still, next week’s Top of the Pops sees a performance by Sting. So much for “All New”…


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