I Love 2000

Steve Williams on the TV nostalgia boom

First published March 2004

You may be surprised to hear this, but a few decades ago people really looked forward to seeing stuff on TV for the umpteenth time. In the pre-video age, repeats and clip shows were the only way to see again moments that had a big effect on the viewer. The likes of Tiswas and Ask Aspel regularly took requests to show various film clips over and over, something that was an important and hugely welcome feature. Nowadays, of course, it’s possible to have virtually all your favourite films and TV programmes on tap, able to view whenever you feel like it. So how come the past few years have seen more archive programmes than ever before?

During the 1970s and 1980s, archive television would normally consist of the same films wheeled out every six months, and last autumn’s sitcoms filling gaps in the middle of summer. Only very rarely did the normal everyday programming of the past get another outing – no doubt thanks to the fact that very little actually still existed in the archives. It would normally only be wheeled out on special occasions, such as BBC Television’s 40th anniversary in 1976. The following year, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee was used as an excuse for BBC2 to show what they considered a “significant” programme from every year of her reign each evening during the summer. This is perhaps most notable for the fact that the chosen programme from 1976 was Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, with an edited version of an episode from six months previously broadcast for an hour on peak-time BBC2. Truly this was a golden age of television.

Similar programmes were mounted for the likes of BBC Television’s 50th anniversary in November 1986 – when BBC1 broadcast a three-hour clip show on Saturday evening. However it was, appropriately, the first day of the 1990s that saw the transmission of perhaps the first nostalgia show as we know it. The A-Z of TV, broadcast that night on Channel 4, was a three-hour programme of archive clips, split into 26 chunks and presented by 26 hosts. The segments ranged from John Sessions taking the piss out of old swashbuckling yarns of the ’50s, through Beryl Reid’s pick of classic game show moments, to Duncan Campbell reviewing notorious banned programmes. A mix of the trivial and the serious, the programme was well received enough for a follow-up, 1001 Nights of TV, to go out exactly 12 months later.

As we progressed through the ’90s, more and more of these theme nights appeared in the BBC2 and Channel 4 schedules. The closure of the BBC’s Lime Grove studios in August 1991 saw a day of BBC2 devoted to programmes made at, and about, the building. In February 1992, Channel 4 went even further, and gave over 13 Saturday nights to TV Heaven, with Frank Muir presenting three or four hours of complete programmes and extracts from a selected year. This inevitably led to BBC2′s answer that August – the legendary TV Hell, five hours of the very worst from television’s past. The centrepiece of the evening was The Official History of Hell, an hour-long A-Z of useless moments, contextualised with comments from those involved and those who watched. Already a formula was in place that would be used many times over the next decade.

By this point, the BBC’s Music and Arts department, who through The Late Show were responsible for many jaunts through classic TV, had spun off into a dedicated archive unit based in Manchester, initially under the control of John Whiston. Their basic role was to find new ways of presenting old shows. The most obvious form was via theme nights. Alan Bennett, for example, got to herald a BBC2 season of his work in 1992 by taking over the schedules for a Sunday evening and presenting his favourite programmes; some in clip form and others shown in full. This proved to be a success, and it’s not hard to see why. The BBC got an evening of programmes very cheaply, but it looked better than just flinging on unconnected repeats. It also got fans of the original shows tuning in as well as those who liked the personality choosing them. If they were particularly well done, they sometimes even got some critical acclaim. Hence, many more followed, with evenings programmed by David Attenborough, Billy Connolly and, at Christmas 1993, Reeves and Mortimer. The latter was to have far-reaching effects, as the producer, while thinking of ways to present the archive material, suggested that Vic and Bob front a TV-based quiz show. This became Shooting Stars, and one of the BBC’s most successful comedy shows of the ’90s was born. As well as the personality-led evenings, others based around a theme were shown too – on subjects as diverse as childbirth, TV cops, football and romance (on Valentine’s Day).


The next step forward came on Monday 8 May 1995. On the 50th anniversary of VE Day, Channel 4 – themselves no stranger to the theme night – decided to provide an alternative to the commemorative programmes on other channels by devoting a day to something entirely different; glam rock. This saw screenings for various films (including the legendary Never Too Young to Rock, starring Sally James and Mud), a ’70s-themed panel game fronted by Jack Dee, and a new comedy-drama, The Token King. The centrepiece of the evening, though, was The Glam Top Ten. The first non-sport production by Chrysalis Sport, previously best known for their coverage of Italian Football for C4, the 90 minute show was at face value simply an excuse to show some more old clips. But there was more to it than that.

As with all the Top Tens to follow, most of the aspects were there from the start. The central thread was a countdown of the 10 most successful artists, based on record sales during their heyday. All 10 received a short video biography, mixing well-chosen archive footage and new interviews with the stars themselves and various other celebrities, writers and fans who were around at the time. Other acts who hadn’t quite made the cut were featured throughout the show, and the whole programme was linked by celebrities with a connection to the genre – in this case, DJs Tony Blackburn and Alan Freeman. Just as important, though, was the script, normally written by a comedy writer (here it was Geoff Deane, later to write the sitcom Babes in the Wood) and packed full of irony and caustic comments about the acts and the clips we saw. Rather than a chin-stroking analysis of the genre, The Glam Top Ten was a celebration of it, glorying at the ridiculous aspects and laughing with (and sometimes at) the acts about their exploits. It could be sincere when the subject demanded it, but basically the show was light-hearted entertainment. It was a popular and critical success, and got a repeat later in the year, but at the time it was very much a one-off.

Indeed, it wasn’t until September 1998, over three years later, that another episode was commissioned. The reason was a Channel 4 theme night based around disco, and therefore The Disco Top Ten was wheeled out, this time on a Saturday night. The format was more or less identical to the previous show, with Antonio Fargas from Starsky and Hutch on presenting duties and the same humour apparent in the script and the choice of clips. Soon after, Channel 4 commissioned a whole series from the Chrysalis team, to run on Saturday nights from March 1999. Five new episodes were made, padded out with repeats of the glam and disco instalments (the former had to be substantially updated, not least as The Sweet’s Brian Connolly, a major contributor, had died since the first transmission). New programmes were produced on heavy metal, new romantics, country – presented by The Dukes of Hazzard – and, perhaps most memorably, Keith Chegwin’s countdown of the worst ever singles, headed by Agadoo.

The final programme of the run wasn’t based on any musical genre – instead Neil and Christine Hamilton presented The Top Ten Scandals, a rundown of the most shocking new stories of the past. Series editor Steve Gowans said that this programme intended to demonstrate that the format didn’t have to be used for just music, claiming that in later runs they hoped to celebrate classic TV or sport. The series was a huge success, and it’s not hard to see why. The shows had a natural hook, grabbing viewers curious to see who was number one. The 90-minute duration also meant that each artist could be covered in some depth, though not for so long that it became boring. The scripts were always witty enough to ensure the show appealed to those who didn’t much care for the genre under discussion, and the clip research was always spot-on, with all sorts of hilarious moments unearthed. Perhaps the masterstroke, though, was the scheduling. Saturday nights was the ideal slot for those who had grown up with the music, and were now thirtysomethings with young children who tended not to go out anymore. It was the ideal accompaniment to relaxing on a weekend evening.

Inevitably, Channel 4 commissioned more music-based shows from Chrysalis. The network’s Summer of Love season in August 1999 was marked with a similar show celebrating the hits of 30 years previously, and the Top Ten brand was back with a Christmas show and then an extended nine-part run from January 2000, covering even more genres of music from Eurovision to stadium rock, love songs to comedy records.

By this point, though, it wasn’t the only nostalgia show. The BBC Manchester archive unit were still churning out documentaries and theme nights – indeed at times in 1998 it seemed as if there was a BBC2 theme night virtually every week, with such diverse subjects as Evil Knieval and Bridget Jones getting an evening of shows. There was also Politically Incorrect Night on Easter Monday, a night of programmes including a documentary about Miss World and Peter Kay introducing crass pop videos. Meanwhile in the summer of 1999 the department took over the production of Match of the Nineties, a series mixing football highlights from each year of the decade with contemporary pop, new interviews with the people involved and humorous narration from Mark and Lard. This model would be used again come the following year.

September 1999 saw Channel 4 count down The 100 Greatest TV Moments, again on a Saturday evening. This show was based around a poll carried out via Channel 4′s website and The Observer, and was put together by the features department at Tyne Tees Television. Graham Norton fronted the 150-minute show, linking the clips and interviews with stars and pundits. Inevitably there were further instalments, starting off the following April with a quest to find the nation’s 100 Greatest Adverts. Each show also managed to generate many column inches reporting and analysing the findings of the survey, and also led to much discussion around the nation’s watercoolers and internet message boards after transmission.

Now it was time for BBC2 to get in on the act. July 2000 saw the launch of I Love the Seventies, a fairly obvious attempt to fill up Saturday evenings during the height of summer. For 10 weeks, the night would be devoted to a different year of the decade, with notable films, a popular comedy series – such as The Les Dawson Show and The Likely Lads – and a rerun of the 1995 series Match of the Seventies. The centrepiece of each evening was a new hour-long documentary, celebrating that year’s fads, fashions, idols and events, fronted by a star who was in the public eye at the time. Each programme was produced and directed by a different person, though each was clearly part of the same series – all featured mock-up Super-8-style footage to illustrate some of the products being talked about, and all the contributors spoke to an unheard interviewer in front of a stylised backdrop.

As with Top Ten, these contributors ranged from those involved, to various journalists, comedians and broadcasters. Some of these, such as Peter Kay and Johnny Vegas, appeared regularly because they could be relied upon to be funny, others such as Jamie Theakston and Wayne Hemingway appeared regularly seemingly as they just talked more than everyone else. Then there was Stuart Maconie, the writer and broadcaster who appeared more than everyone else, always with a witty remark or interesting observation. He’d regularly appeared on Top Ten and the 100 Greatest shows (indeed, he scripted most of the latter), but it was I Love … where he became a star. Some, who’d never heard of him before, were soon asking who he was and why he commented on everything, but others, who’d long been fans of his writing and radio shows, realised that he was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of wit and perception.

I Love … was a Top Ten-style hit, with a festive episode and compilation at Christmas, and various extracts from the episodes repackaged into five-minute programmes to fill gaps on in the schedules. Now BBC2 had a nostalgia “brand” to rival C4′s, and though they had aspects in common, there were differences between I Love … and Top Ten – the C4 show tended to be the more overtly comic, with its gag-packed script, while the Beeb variation normally let the pundits and clips provide the humour. I Love … was also more of a continuing series while each Top Ten tended to be a distinct programme with its own unique contributors and style. Both were undoubtedly well made, though, and both excellent entertainment on a Saturday night.

Soon, however, it seemed as if the two were merging into one never-ending, multi-channel show. In October 2000, Top Ten returned with a series of four programmes counting down the greatest hits of specific years, while in December, the I Love … team produced Platforms at Christmas for BBC1, a look at festive hits from the ’70s. Suddenly the two seemed to swapping material. Then there were new, oddly similar series springing up on other channels. Sky One produced TV Years, a romp through what we watched during the ’80s, with many of the usual suspects involved. Even ITV had a go with Smash!, an unsatisfying attempt to rush through the history of pop in half-hour chunks. Nostalgia TV had exploded.


Over Christmas week 2000, Noddy Holder appeared on television three times on three different programmes to repeat the same anecdote about Slade’s Christmas record. At the start of 2001, it got even more crowded. In January, I Love … returned with, inevitably, I Love the Eighties. The programmes were expanded to 90 minutes, and while often as entertaining as their predecessor, with equally evocative archive material, they often seemed a bit over-frantic and overloaded with pundits – as OTT proved, some of the later ’80s episodes contained nearly 100 different talking heads, making it hard for any of them to make much of an impact. However just three weeks into the series, a new run of Top Ten began – at exactly the same time on Saturday night.

A foolish scheduling clash, this inevitably led to comments that we had become overloaded with nostalgia shows. The clash helped nobody, with the two programmes endlessly being compared, and viewers who would happily have watched both being forced to choose between the two. In the event, I Love … was a convincing victor over Top Ten, with the latter being moved to a later slot around 10pm midway through the run. A bigger problem, though, was that pundits were becoming convinced that nostalgia shows were on every channel, every night of the week, based entirely on this scheduling clash – not helped by the fact that whenever Top Ten wasn’t on, there’d often be a 100 Greatest instead. This came on top of those criticising Maconie, Kay and the rest for not being funny, or not knowing enough about the subject, and complaining that the shows were only concerned with trivia. However, I Love …‘s executive producer Alan Brown countered that “You could do a socio-political examination of the ’80s, but not for a Saturday night. The programmes are meant to be a treat … looking at the things you did for fun”.

Nevertheless, come 2001, virtually every comedy show or newspaper columnist was making jokes about there being so many nostalgia shows on telly, that soon enough they’d be doing programmes about what happened last week. For a period between docusoaps and reality TV, nostalgia TV was undoubtedly the most-criticised and most-parodied genre on the telly. Perhaps the best example of this was I Love the 100 Best Top Ten Lists of The Fast Show Ever, a compilation from The Fast Show broadcast on New Year’s Day 2002, where the archive clips were interspersed with new material featuring reminiscences from “pundits” including, memorably, “Stuart Balonie”.

The genre’s image wasn’t helped by the next big nostalgia series being slightly disappointing. Unsurprisingly, I Love the Nineties followed in August 2001, to much derision from those who felt the decade was far too recent to get nostalgic over. However, BBC Manchester had already produced a similar programme, Goodbye to the Nineties, broadcast on the last day of 1999. This 90-minute special was incredibly entertaining, with excellently-chosen clips expertly linked together. I Love the Nineties, however, was nowhere near as well received, relying on obvious clips and uninspiring talking heads – not least as the likes of Maconie and Kay didn’t appear. Ironically, the 1999 episode was perhaps the best of the lot. While maybe it’s true that the fads and fashions of the ’90s seemed too recent to take the piss out of, perhaps a more obvious reason why it failed to impress as much as the two previous runs is that, having produced 30 programmes of at least an hour’s duration in 16 months, it was always going to be hard to keep the quality high throughout.

Meanwhile on Channel 4, there was a change of emphasis for the Top Ten series come September 2001 (again opposite I Love … on Saturday nights). After three series, they were running low on musical genres to cover (though there were some one-off musical episodes still to come), so the new run was renamed Top Ten TV and, as had been suggested a few years earlier, celebrated notable stars of the small screen. Sadly, this series, and another run the following year, were much less successful, with later episodes being scheduled fairly late in the evening. One reason for the disappointing viewing figures could be that most of the shows revolved around countdowns of fictional characters, and while in the music-based shows there was always an excitement in seeing what would be number one, here it was never really explained how the countdown was compiled, seemingly just being a list of names in any old order. Nor did being number one seem anything special. Then at the beginning of 2002, Channel 4 announced that they felt there had been too many nostalgia shows scheduled, and they would only get commissioned now “if they are really special”.

Despite this, though, many more nostalgia shows were churned out by both channels throughout 2002. Indeed, the I Love … brand was utilised many more times. As well as many new documentaries – often as part of theme nights, on subjects such as Kung Fu, Jamaica and the Muppets – the name was also used to link together sundry other programmes. Hence, in November 2001, a couple of programmes from 1998′s Blue Peter Night were mixed with some new links and short features to create I Love Blue Peter, a concept reused to create evenings on Top of the Pops, Monty Python, Morecambe and Wise (which included an old Omnibus documentary) and The Two Ronnies – the latter the cheapest yet, simply including the whole of Two Ronnies Night from 1999 but with new links at the beginning and end from Mark and Lard. The I Love … brand was also used to bind together the “cult TV” aspects of the BBC’s website.

March 2002 saw Class of …, a new entertainment show with ZoĆ« Ball reuniting former schoolmates and quizzing them, with clips from the archives, about what had happened when they were young. The Manchester production team also moved over to BBC1 for a new series – well, sort of. In May 2001 there’d been a one-off documentary, When Liverpool Ruled the World, to herald the team’s appearance in the UEFA Cup Final. This led to other documentaries on tennis and boxing, and in March 2002, a whole six-part series of When X Ruled the World. Despite the name and channel change, these were virtually identical to I Love … – the same clips, the same talking heads (including a return for Stuart Maconie), even the same typeface on the captions – with programmes on disco, heavy metal and hippies among others. Although the programme didn’t return for a second series, more similar documentaries followed for BBC1, under the generic brand name of There’s Only One … (FA Cup, Manchester United, Robbie Williams …) throughout 2002 and 2003. A whole new series followed in the autumn of 2002, the Talkback-produced Fame, Set and Match, which traced the careers of five people with a common theme (breakfast TV presenters, child stars, scandal-hit Tory MPs). This seemed more like Top Ten, with a sarcastic script and fast cutting, than I Love … and was vaguely entertaining though failed to be recommissioned. Despite suggesting otherwise, too, Channel 4 continued to regularly commission Top Ten and 100 Greatest countdowns, and endlessly repeated them too.


It seems that, despite a slightly fallow period, nostalgia shows are still very much with us, with an enormous number rolled out over Christmas 2003. The BBC Manchester team produced I’m Dreaming of a TV Christmas, a tribute to the fixtures on 25 December throughout the years, that turned out to be one of the best examples of the genre ever, full of interesting interviewees and evocative clips. From January 2004, the team were also charged with producing a major BBC2 series finding Britain’s Best Sitcom. Other BBC departments were getting in on the act too, notably BBC Scotland whose That Was The Week We Watched took a week’s schedules from years gone by, showed clips and talked to the people involved. The same department in Glasgow had previously produced Comedy Connections, the programme tracing the history of various sitcoms, which was recommissioned for a second series in 2004.

Over the festive fortnight, Channel 4 meanwhile counted down both The 100 Greatest Musicals and The 100 Greatest TV Treats of 2003 (which received nothing like the criticism I Love 1999 garnered, despite obvious similarities). Hotbed Media, too, had started a new run of programmes attempting to find the 100 Worst in various categories – The 100 Worst Pop Records followed on from The 100 Worst Britons, though both were fairly miserable programmes which failed to entertain or inspire very much. Meanwhile the Chrysalis team – now renamed North One Television after the Chrysalis group sold their TV assets – continue to produce archive-based documentaries, the most recent being the Channel 4′s The Ultimate Popstars, an unashamed big long list counting down the most successful charts acts of all time, filling three and a half hours of a Sunday night. With all this activity, it looks as if, as more and more people who grew up with telly end up working in the medium, we’ll see a steady stream of nostalgia shows over the next few years. Perhaps one day, too, we’ll look back at I Love … with amazement at how telly of the past covered telly of the even further past.

There is one footnote to the great nostalgia explosion of the early noughties, though. The BBC sold the format of I Love … to America, where VH-1 produced their own series based on the ’70s and ’80s. In August 2003, the American website TV Barn, seemingly having seen enough of these, suggested that VH-1 might like to produce “I Love Last Week” next.

Surely that joke is our finest export since A Flock of Seagulls? Hey, remember them?