Long runners

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The Independent Culture
Age: 30. First broadcast New Year's Day 1964 from a converted church in Manchester. The presenter was Jimmy Savile. A six-week run was expected.

Frequency: every Thursday night of the year, bar a week off after the hour- long Christmas edition.

Timing: used to begin after Tomorrow's World (many Britons learnt all they know about science whilst willing Michael Rodd through his closing five minutes). The Pops now starts at seven sharp, making it impossible not to eat your tea in front of it.

Ratings: the oft-quoted peak of 16 million is a deceptive benchmark, given that in those dark days of yore TOTP was the only pop programme on television. It still gets three or four times the audience of its nearest rival, The Chart Show. As outgoing producer Stanley Appel points out: 'The Controller would be happy if all his programmes got an audience of eight million.'

Formula: the recent decline of the singles market led to some disastrous attempts to meddle with TOTP's traditional reliance on the Top 40: by discriminating against dance music and bringing in tedious album charts and 'exclusives' of Elton John going to the shops. But over the past few months this geriatric tendency has been gloriously put to the sword. The present format - live or live-ish performances in the studio, Nos 40 to 11, then Top 10 chart rundowns, brief snatches of upwardly mobile 'breakers', live satellite link-ups and the occasional video, with an exciting montage to liven up the closing credits after the No 1 - is the snappiest ever.

Current status: buoyant. Alan Yentob has guaranteed TOTP's future and new producer Ric Blaxill has so far demonstrated an admirable blend of flexibility and respect for tradition. 'Ric wants to get the show to feel good,' says a BBC publicity officer, 'and whatever it takes, he'll do it]' This February's change in the way the chart is compiled, with Millward Brown taking over from Gallup and singles now leaping straight into the Top 10 and then plummeting right out of the chart the next week, has also been highly beneficial.

Presenters: the ebullient Tony 'Laters' Dortie and Mark 'A superb track there from Tasmin Archer' Franklin have been given their cards and Radio 1 DJs reinstated for the first time in two and a half years. In theory this is a good thing, but the 1 FM types do have an annoying tendency to plug their own shows while simultaneously implying that they are only hosting TOTP as a favour for a friend. The occasional employment of sexier guest presenters in the Take That mould should keep them on their toes.

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? VAT on tampons, Fascism in Europe. Oh yes, and Simon Mayo.

Most legendary incident: way back in 1967 - in the good old days before live vocals - Jimi Hendrix came on to mime to 'Purple Haze'. But all that emerged from the speakers was Alan Price's 'Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear'. 'I like the voice, man,' Jimi is alleged to have commented, 'but I don't know the words.'

Great moments of the last three years: Mark E Smith drunk in charge of a microphone. New Order live from the set of Baywatch. The Manic Street Preachers simulating fellatio.

Social function: this has three main elements. The first, whereby TOTP acts as a battleground for generational conflict, has undergone subtle changes over the years. Where adult anger used to focus on the Rolling Stones as an argument for the return of National Service, it is now more likely to be set off by the lack of good tunes like they had in Sham 69's day. The second, as an arena where new cultural forces can prove themselves, has been devalued by the declining number of sales needed before a band can appear. The programme's third role, though, is as clear as ever: when you no longer care if you miss it, you know you are old.

The bottom line - how good is it? At the moment, very good indeed. You used to be able to count on about one decent show every four weeks; now almost every other one is a winner. And anyone who yearns for the way things used to be can always find a pub that gets UK Gold. Ben Thompson

(Photograph omitted)

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