Tuesday, May 03, 2005


The death has been announced of Johnnie Stewart, the man who created Top of the Pops. It was Stewart who created the basic rules of the chart show - you get on if you're number one, or if you're going up the charts, and weren't on last week. (TOTP watchers still suggest that it was the first bending, and then breaking, of these rules in the late 80s that started the programme on its march towards death-by-three-million-lost-viewers).

He conceived the programme with Bill Cotton in 1963, approaching Jimmy Saville to be the first presenter when the show aired for the first time in January 1964. Savile, of course, is convinced it was all his idea:

We did a programme called the 'Teen and Twenty Record Club' with all sorts of people on it as a pilot. When the BBC said they liked it, it was at the behest of the children of the BBC moguls who were being forced to acknowledge pop music. The BBC, being the BBC, rejigged it and said they liked it and they want to do it but they are going to call it 'Top of the Pops'.

I got a call from Johnnie Stewart. He said: "My name's Johnnie Stewart, I’m working on Top of the Pops based on your thingy, can you work with me on it?"

So for the first six weeks before TOTP, John and I had the enormously difficult task of trying to decide what was going to be in the top ten six weeks hence. And out of the eight records we played on the first show six of them were in the charts and that was as big a miracle as you could get in the pop world!

At first, the programme was tucked into a 25 minute slot, although Stewart once said in an interview that he'd have been pleased with just ten minutes, as it was better to leave people wanting more. Stewart co-wrote the original theme music, versions of which survived unti a year after Stewart left the show. He had taken an extended break before he quit permanently in 1973; during this time set designer Stan Dorfman had been promoted to producer, and made the sort of tinkerings with the format subsequent producers were to try with - innovations dumped the moment Stewart returned to the helm. (Much more about Ver Pops can be found in Steve Williams' piece on Off The Telly)

Stewart - whose greatest moment prior to inventing modern music television was producing Terry-Thomas' TV show - retired to Ibiza. He was 87.


The Bastard Son of Tom Browne said...

I'm proud to be one of the "TOTP watchers" mentioned here - once it became the domain of pluggers and playlisters it was doomed, and lo, in accordance with prophecy, its days are numbered...

And talking of which, has anyone dared brave the new Radio 1 Top 40 show on Sunday nights lately? It's been on the slippery slope for years now of course, but they don't even play all the new entries anymore, which is surely ridiculous... for many acts (cool or otherwise) this is their only chance of getting primetime Radio 1 airplay, and now even *this* is being denied them... instead we get endless bloody DJ drivel, competitions, phone-ins, adverts for other programmes, nobody-cares album run-downs, and less than half of the 3 hour running time actually dedicated to the Top 40!

"Back in the day" (as the young people say) the Top 40 (or Top 20 if your memories go back that far) had the simplest format known to man - all 40/20 records played in descending order, no ads, no filler - easy. Easy, and the most-listened to radio show, not just the UK, but in EUROPE! If anything didn't need fixing, this was it...

And yes, I *know* that music marketing has changed beyond recognition over the years/decades, but if there's anywhere where (formerly) straight-ahead music programmming like TOTP and the Top 40 should be able to thrive, surely it's The Nation's BBC?

simon h b said...

You're spot on, of course, with the New Top 40 - actually, it all went a bit odd when they moved it being announced on Sundays, which really took something away from the sense of event: it might be neater, but it doesn't really have the same sense of being connected to the everyday world when it dribbles out during Antiques Roadshow.

I've never been totally convinced by the arguments that simply playing the records doesn't hold the audience's attention - indeed, they're more likely to stick through the Ken Dodd because it's a sign that when their beloved Carcass are on they'll get a fair crack, too. Once you start selecting, it becomes no different to any other show on the radio.

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