Top of the Pops: turning back time is no solution

Apr 1, 2011
Johnny Dee

The BBC should be making a new show, to mark the current boom in pop music, says Johnny Dee

From tonight, BBC Four is re-screening classic episodes of Top of the Pops just as they were broadcast from April 1976, the year the BBC started video-taping the show. This is fantastic news for nostalgists such as myself, but it will also be a reminder of a not so fondly remembered truth about this one-time British television institution - it was rubbish.

The fact that the first repeat, from April 1, 1976, features such luminaries as Sailor (Girls Girls Girls), Abba (Fernando) and Brotherhood Of Man (Save Your Kisses For Me) pretty much says it all. Top of the Pops was a show you watched regardless of whether you liked anyone on it.

When I was a kid in the 1980s, the bands I liked were rarely allowed on the show and when they were it was if they'd landed in enemy territory and planted their flag - it felt like a victory.

When bands outside of the regular pop sphere did find themselves in this strange populist land they would employ two tactics to survive the ordeal - perform while drunk or refuse to mime (the reason why The Clash never appeared on the show) and deliberately perform out of sync.

Seeing your favourite band on Top of the Pops was always fraught. First you'd have to endure the likes of The Goombay Dance Band or Dollar, then there was the distinct possibility that they'd be humiliated.

I'm still scarred by the treatment given to two of my idols - Echo & The Bunnymen, who were upstaged by a random man on stilts, and Dexy's Midnight Runners. who performed Jackie Wilson Said in front of a backdrop photo of darts player Jocky Wilson. The people who ran Top of the Pops were, to be frank, idiots.

Even so, watching these shows again - without the soundtrack of my parents tutting ("Is that boy or a girl?") or Steve Wright reminiscing (thankfully these are pure repeats not TOTP2-style compilations) - will be a pleasure. If they could do the same with Tomorrow's World, which was always on just before TOTP, that would be great too.

Nostalgia aside, the repeating of Top of the Pops highlights the complete lack of pop music currently on terrestrial TV. There is none. The BBC's only regular music programming is Later With Jools Holland and although this late night muso gathering has hosted the likes of Jessie J and Adele, it is hardly pop music TV as we once knew it.

This is particularly sad because we are living through a pop boom. Some may bemoan the rise of auto-tuning and talent show winners but there is no denying that pop music is better, more crafted and more relevant today that it has been for decades. The BBC shouldn't just be repeating old episodes of Top of the Pops - they should be making new ones.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why this is unlikely to happen - the main one being TOTP's dramatic audience decline in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In its final years of 2005 and 2006, viewing figures averaged just 1.5 million - a long way from The One Show's 4.98 million, for example. After many attempts to revive its fortunes, nobody cared for it anymore.

The other barrier to its revival - or the creation of any other potential BBC pop show - is that The X Factor, for all its faults and manipulation of the music charts, has raised the bar too high. When Rihanna or Lady Gaga or Katy Perry appears on the Sunday night results show their performances come with all the pyrotechnics, backing dancers and stage lighting you'd expect if you were to see them at the O2 Arena.

The BBC can't compete with that, which is probably why they're happy to stick with Jools until the end of time.

It's a shame really. We've denied a generation the chance to watch loads of rubbish chart acts they hate in the hope of seeing someone quite good.

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