Top of the Pops Was Popular, but Was It Any Good?
The BBC TV music show was an audience favourite before suddenly going out of fashion in the noughties. How come?
The high concept:
Hits from the pop charts “performed” before members of the Great British Public, herded in front of television cameras for the delight of the nation.
None of your Old Grey Whistle Test esotericism here, thank you very much, we’re talking (potential) hit singles and the dreamy icons that record them.
Top of the Pops (or TOTP in its gawky abbreviated form) straddled decades, was successfully formatted and sold around the world, generated a magazine (called Top Of The Pops — which was just like Smash Hits) and grew a viewership cult, before withering on the television vine.
A 25 to 60-minute popular musical compendium with the charts at its starry centre.
So what happened?
Top Of The Pops had distinct personas in different decades. In the 60s it was groovy, came originally from a church in Manchester, and then drifted south to be where the beautiful people were. Everyone who was anyone appeared on it; the show had dancing girls, lots of flashing lights and was very popular with the masses.
In the 70s it was broadcast in colour, featured Radio 1 DJs (who treated it as their private television estate) and showcased very poor lip-syncing, as well as countless nervously giggling teenagers.
Success continued into the 80s when the show took on more of a “party” atmosphere. Come the 90s, TOTP would enjoy something of a late credibility renaissance, as guest presenters added a certain excitement to the format; the golden mic’ was introduced and Brit Pop briefly made it the place to be seen and heard, for a while anyway.
TOTP was then moved around the schedules (the shift from Thursday nights confused the television audience and meant there were no bike sheds on Friday morning behind which the show could be ridiculed).
Cue audience drift.
Come the noughties, an ill-advised re-launch in the hands of Andi Peters and Ferne Cotton finally killed off the show and the remaining loyalty of its once-reliable if increasingly cynical audience.
The diminishing importance of the pop charts may also have had something to do with TOTP’s fall from grace in its later years, as did the ability of the BBC to make a hash of its more popular and valuable franchises (think Great British Bake Off, Doctor Who etc.).
Hit or miss?
Both a hit and a miss at different times and in the hands of different producers. During its heyday (i.e. the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s) TOTP had a large audience and generated equally energetic amounts of vitriolic abuse from those who saw it as mainstream, patronising and inauthentic.
In its sad, dwindling final years not even the critics could be bothered.
Remembered mainly today for what?
The Top Of The Pops Christmas Special (which was longer, and filled with more hits, as well as the presenters wearing Christmas cracker hats); the mistakes that somehow made it onto the programme; the occasional glimpse of genuine international superstars in front of its cameras (the Beatles singing I Feel Fine, The Jackson Five belting out Rockin’ Robin, Madonna in a wig) and the excitement Thursday night would bring because that was when TOTP was on.
For all its (many) faults, Top of the Pops was a clarion call to the masses that the weekend was on its way, and the BBC’s slightly uncool, if strangely wonderful, gift to the nation.
Top of the Pops