Wednesday, June 21, 2006

TOP OF THE POPS UNLOADED: A NATION MOURNS

It's hardest, of course, for the Top of the Pops site to deal with the news, as it admits:

OK, not the most upbeat news story we've ever run, but the BBC has announced that Top Of The Pops is to close, after a run of 42 years on TV.

Oh, bum.


Generally, though, the coverage of the axing of the Pops amongst people whose jobs aren't tied to the brand is summed up by a nostalgic tear, coupled with a grim sense of the inevitable.

It's Chop of the Pops barks The Sun:

For decades TOTP, with its theme tune of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love, was compulsory viewing for kids.

Well, no; they never used Led Zep actually, but never mind.

But audiences dwindled away. Beeb chiefs considered axing it in 2003, but it was saved by a revamp which brought in star interviews and non-chart acts.
That failed to stop the rot and last July it was shunted from its high-profile Friday BBC1 slot to a Sunday night slot on BBC2. Viewers halved.

Actually, it wasn't in a high-profile Friday slot on BBC1; it was going out opposite Coronation Street and so in the worst slot in primetime broadcasting. And the non-chart acts had started appearing long before 2003 and… oh, never mind. Jimmy Saville pops up with a quote or two – we imagine he's been waiting a long time for this day – and Mike Read offers his scintillating take on the axing:
"It was a situation that was obviously coming. The show could have done with creative thinking. They needed to woo people back.”

They needed to bring the audience back, did they? What a pity you'd not been taken on as executive producer, Mike. That would have been a useful insight.

Meanwhile, the Mirror goes with Stop of the Pops:

In recent years TOTP has had several facelifts and relaunches. But ratings continued to plummet and last year BBC1 chiefs shunted it into a Sunday night graveyard slot on BBC2 where even fewer tuned in.

The graveyard slot of, erm, seven in the evening.

Jimmy Saville turns up to offer his opinion, but the paper manages to connect much more directly with the show's history:

Former Pan's People dancer Babs Powell said: "It's the end of an era but sometimes it is best to remember things fondly."

Babs, sadly, doesn't mention which things it's better to remember with pain and hatred and disgust – although the era of the Zoo dancetroupe might fall into that, we guess.

If you really want a considered opinion, of course, you need to ask a former pipe man of the year:

Dave Lee Travis, host into the 80s, said: "There are plenty of outlets - MTV, iPods, videos, a million ways to access music. It's no wonder it was squeezed out of the modern world."

"Are we going to watch Top of the Pops tonight? No, I've got an iPod."

It's the Daily Mail which gives us the first sighting of the Jackie/Jocky Wilson story.

The Mail manages to get through to Jimmy Saville – he appears so often in the papers today we suspect that he might have had to get the bloke from the Grumbleweeds to pretend to be him on the other line – but Tony Blackburn actually manages to offer an opinion based on having watched the programme at some point in the last ten years:

'I remember seeing a show with Jeremy Clarkson who was very, very funny,' he said.

'But he had a rap act on and said, "Well, that was really awful." And I thought, "The kids won't like him saying that." Then they had Bucks Fizz on.
'It went down well with the mums and dads but they were trying to be all things to all people.'


He's not entirely right, of course – the strength of the Pops was that it used to have a democratic approach to who got on the television – if you sold enough records, you were in. It was the all-things-to-all-people approach which meant it worked, because the rules which brought you Ken Dodd also offered up the New Model Army; and if one show might wind up with three football teams doing their records on, the same structure could bring the famous multi-Madchester edition. I can't think of any other TV show in the pre-multi-channel era which (providing you didn't say anything rude about the Queen or mention sex) was quite so simple for people to aspire to appear on.

Later revamps lost that, and the problem with the show cited by Blackburn isn't that it had Bucks Fizz next to a rapper, but that somebody was making those choices rather than relying on the caprice of the charts to create that sort of gear-shift by accident.

The Daily Telegraph seems sad to see the back of the programme, even although for much of its 42 years on air TOTP has surely been the sort of thing the paper rails against:

Iit is almost inevitable that the moments seared on your cerebral cortex correspond with your own teenage awakening, that special period when pop suddenly flares in the adolescent psyche.

Luckily, though, Neil 'My mate Bono' McCormick comes to his outraged senses:

Mostly, of course, it was a sea of dross in which genuine pop idols fought to stay afloat among the flotsam and jetsam of the hit parade while being insulted by self-glorifying presenters patently out of touch with the music (whoever imagined that David "Diddy" Hamilton was an appropriate host in the era of punk rock?).

But July 30 will be a sad day for all of us who grew up under its spell; for every overgrown teenager who secretly dreamed of the day when they, too, might be at the centre of that set, surrounded by gawky teenage dancers and sneered at by DJs in dubious knitwear while cameras zoomed frenetically in and out and your lips moved, almost in sync with the song.

At least we've still got a month and a half to fulfil our ambitions.


Neil, nobody is going to buy your People I Don't Know Are Trying To Kill Me single.
Not even if it gets a personal endorsement from Ian Blair, telling us that purchasing it is the only way to ensure our freedoms. The date with Fearne Cotton isn't going to happen.

(We noticed while we were waiting for the telegraph to serve up the page that it was calling in data from bs.serving-sys, which seems to be a surprising level of self-awareness on the part of the paper.)

The Times headline is pretty poor: The fat lady gets ready to sing for Top of the Pops - it's not an opera programme, is it?

Arctic Monkeys refused to appear recently, believing that the show had little relevance to fans who had discovered them through internet file-sharing.

Not, of course, that The Times has any reason to even imply that MySpace has killed the Pops, oh no. Right, boss?

Last night Chris Cowey, one of the show’s former producers, said: “ToTP doesn’t belong to the BBC — it belongs to the nation. It hasn’t been given the respect it deserves.”

This is true, to an extent – it has been thrown into dark corners and hidden in the schedules – but it's not solely the BBC's fault the audience for it has slipped away.

The nation, of course, cannot be relied upon to value the things which make it what it is.

The Guardian's Culture Vulture worries over what this, and the death of Smash Hits, means for our pop health:

today's pubescents have no dribbling recollections of Pan's People, the literal-minded dance troupe who acted out songs as artists sang them.

But that's their loss. Naff or not, TOTP provided the rest of us with lasting memories. My definitive one is being newly arrived in London and watching it for the first time, when Wham! were on doing their first hit, Young Guns. They wore espadrilles without socks, a fashion revelation to me.


Okay, so the implication is that the end of the show might kill off our souls, but at least our chiropodists will be less outraged.

Meanwhile, the media-centric Organ Grinder also sheds a tear or two:
Nobody really cares anymore but its legend will live on.

There's a shed load of stuff in the Guardian webpages and on their blogs, to say nothing of the other papers, which hardly feels like nobody actually cares.

For an international readership, Reuters tries to explain the show, by calling upon Paul Gambaccini to sketch in the background:

Former host Paul Gambaccini said it was required listening for generations of pop fans, but has suffered because famous artists are releasing fewer hits each year.

"It was the news of pop music," he told BBC radio. "Nowadays, the major artists don't release hit records more than once every two years -- consequently the news isn't very interesting."


Yes, there have been months where presenters had little more to do than turn up, look into the camera and say "No new Eric Clapton record this week, either. So now, Top Gear…"

Perhaps surprisingly, The Independent didn't bother contacting Jimmy Saville and instead spoke to Janice Long:

"My memories are just feeling so incredibly lucky. For me, the main thing was to be standing there next to the bands you'd worshipped for such a long time."

The most astonishing thing is that Janice was, apparently, the first woman to present the show – and they reckon it used to be behind the times.

Obviously, most of the papers have reached for a fact-box of great TOTP moments, most culled from TV Cream's Pops feature, we'd imagine.

Meanwhile, the blogs mark the news in their own way:

Through Chromewaves we learn of Tripwire's flowers-in-clingfilm instant YouTube memorial to the show.

"If it means we don't see Jimmy Saville on TV any more, even better" comments a visitor the The Pie Shop, apparently not noticing that the only time in the last five years Saville has been near a camera has been to deliver eulogies to TOTP. (Alright, and Celeb Big Brother).

Lost In London fixes the axing in a context both pop-cultural (Smash Hits, The Face) and televisual (Grandstand, most notably – actually, at this rate, there aren't going to be any sacred cows left for future executives to axe.)

Out of touch, bumbling and puzzled as to what makes teens tick; the BBC's 'Auntie' tag has never seemed so apt.

Really? But most of the people who are upset at the end of the show are amongst the nasal-haired and waistline-expanded of middle-age; the teens aren't really that bothered. Dumping a format older than their parents which they don't watch is hardly going to upset them, is it?

We were very taken with Interstate4Jamming conflating the Pops sunset with Dan Rather's exit from NBC. Even the summation of Dan's leaving could fit the slow, two-month wind down of TOTP:

"Almost everyone I heard Tuesday said that while Rather had likely stayed longer that he should have at Black Rock, the company's decision was a classless move, at least the way it was done."

FreakyTrigger's Do You See squirms at having to agree with Noel Edmonds:

Top Of The Pops, as a show, may not be packing them in like it used to. And much of that is due to the music television on demand. Nevertheless it was THE music chart show, and as such it lent far more legitimacy to the Official Radio One chart than just being on Radio One did. Radio One is a silly pop radio station, Top Of The Pops was on BBCTV, after the news, and as (shudder) Paul Gambacini says rightly, it was the News Of Pop. So its very existence lends a degree of legitimacy to pop music. Maybe pop music itself does not need this legitimacy, but the BBC does: if it wants to hold on Radio One and even Radio Two. By completely ditching pop to the commercial broadcasters, it is signing the death knell of Radio One. Again not necessarily a bad thing - but probably a bad thing for the BBC.

It's a strong point – the weekly round-up of singles sales could be seen as providing a public service, in the same way the classified football results or the stock market closing figures are, and broadcasting it in the face of apparent apathy could even have made the Pops claim a position on a par with BBC Parliament, which broadcasts non-stop coverage of MPs you don't recognise discussing things that don't affect you. Although they do have a dance troupe to liven up the Agricultural select committee these days.

However, the BBC isn't abandoning pop – there's the Jools Holland thing still, the coverage of Glastonbury, 1Xtra, Radio 2's slow journey across the musical landscape. I don't think you can say that taking TOTP off the air is going to harm the Corporation's claims to cover pop music in a serious way, and certainly not that it leads from that that Radio One must be doomed. Indeed, it illustrates nicely why Radio One is so distinct from its commercial rivals – it's changed, adapted, grown and expanded over the last forty years in a way that TOTP has failed to do. Back in 1980, you couldn't really explain what the difference between the bulk of Radio One and the TOTP worlds were. But imagine, say, Ras Kwame or Gilles Peterson trying to be pressed into presenting the TV show in the way that, for example, Peel, Long or Jensen were able to be. Radio One no longer expects its presenters to be able to put in a turn as light entertainers, and is happy to leave them to what they're good at.

Popjustice is just heartbroken at the waste:
But it is mostly a bad thing because - unlike Smash Hits - it could have been turned around. It wouldn't have been easy, but it was possible.
Oddly, nobody seemed this upset when Big World Café was axed.


9 comments:

Robin Carmody said...

The other curious thing about Freaky Trigger's comments is that, if one defines "legitimacy" in terms of being known about and liked by people in the (loosely-defined) "establishment" and positions of authority generally, pop music can claim far more "legitimacy" than it ever could in TOTP's glory years. The axing of TOTP can't reverse that.

karlt said...

I think in this context, Mr Trigger is talking about the regard that musicians and music fans held the show. For many years an appearance on TOTP was an indication that you'd made it, despite the fact that there were music shows with more credibility (the Oxford Road Show, for example). The axing of the show isn't much of a surprise, but it's longevity certainly is- ITV tried for years to create a rival for the show (Supersonic or The Roxy anyone?) with varying levels of humiliating failure. The Roxy, of course went through several reconfigurations with increasing desperation, much like TOTP.
Personally I'll miss it, but in its 1970's/80's incarnations, the 21st century version was a very different animal.

RobinCarmody said...

Fair enough, Karl (and indeed it's been good to see Oxford Road Show / ORS performances in BBC Four's reruns of Sounds of the Eighties, ditto Whistle Test), but the article is talking in terms of a "legitimacy" couched in Reithian terms of elite institutionalising. I'd wonder whether that concept is particularly relevant anymore to anyone, especially to the pop generation who now run the BBC.

Much of the excitement created by TOTP in, say, its first twenty years had a lot to do with the fact that pop music was never even mentioned on Radio 4, or in the Daily Telegraph. If it had been, TOTP would have seemed much less of a thrill, much less of an event. Even in the second half of the 80s, TOTP's otherness was rapidly diminishing in line with the era's cultural attack on those who resisted pop culture as a matter of principle. It simply ceased to be *necessary*.

Tomsk said...

TOTP's problem was that they never had the guts to ditch the 'chart' format despite the blatant evidence that the single died on its arse at least 10 years ago. Then they botched the re-launch by handing it to possibly the least qualified music-TV producer imaginable - Andy Peters. C4's Popworld showed that with the right combination of presenters, right slot and right format it's perfectly possible to do an accessable to all, prime time music show in 2006. Shame no-one at the bbc had the guts or wits to 'make it happen'.

Pete Baran said...

It think I was talking more about cultural legitmacy than with the establishment, but I'll take your point and run with it.

When we look at the pop the establishment likes, it is already being well represented by Jools Holland. The beauty of pop music is that it is almsot impossible to like it all, the metal hates rap hates boy bands. And that is what you got on TOTP. A certain kind of pop music (lets call it Rock) has legitimacy, and the BBC in prefering a live music performance show tags its colours to that mast.

Fine. Radio One has had this battle internally and knows it cannot ditch Rachel Stevens completely. But if the BBC admits that commercial broadcasters do music TV better than them, then why not make the leap with regards to its pop music radio stations? Its an easy leap to make.

Lost Boy said...

Hi. I came across this post completely by accident, but write Lost in London and think you may have taken my comments slightly out of context. I said that the BBC was out of touch because they can't seem to make a music show aimed at teens be watched by teens, not bwecause they axed TOTP. This is kind of irrelevant now because te show has been almost revived, except now it's called TOTP2 and features mainly vintage clips with the odd new performance. So the middle-aged fans are, I assume, happy and the teens still aren't watching.

simon h b said...

Fair enough, Lost Boy, although TOTP2 isn't Top of the Pops - it's a fairly different beast, and has been running for about ten years; but, yes, it is aimed at an older audience.

Lost Boy said...

Hello again. Sorry, I didn't seem to make myself clear. TOTP2 has been revived in place of the original. TOTP2 has, as you say, been running for ten years, but was axed itself in 2004 (I think) to an outcry (not from me- there's only so many times you can see Slade do Come On Feel the Noize). Since TOTP1's departure, TOTP2 has been revived and now features the odd performance from current chart artists. I predict that Top of the Pops will be brought back in some form, though God only knows what. The point remains that the BBc aren't really tryign to come up with a music show aimed at teens,] and seem to have given up citing MTV and the internet as reasons why. I'm not remotely nostalgic for TOTP, but it's a shame the BBC can't be arsed connecting with young pop music fans. I'll shut up now.

simon h b said...

I agree with the broad point you're making - there had been plans back when the BBC started planning its digital portfolio for a "Radio 1 TV" channel, but that seems to have been dumped somewhere along the line.

The reason they're holding off coming up with a teen pop show is probably because even MTV can't make shows aimed at teens work. There is, though, much more music on Blue Peter than there was when I was a kid. I'm not sure if that's a good thing.

Does CBBC still have its chart rundown on a Sunday night?

[Just on TOTP2: TOTP2 wasn't axed in 2004, but "rested" by Roly Keating; and the old series always used to include current chart acts in amongst the archive - usually the sort of bands who were more Radio 2 than Radio 1, and mainly to make use of footage shot for the international variants of the show.]

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