Keep the dry ice, bring back Pan's People: Top of the Pops is under fire again. William Leith works out what's wrong with it

THEY wouldn't let me in the Top of the Pops studio to watch the programme being made this week: the person dealing with the press never seemed to be available. 'She's on holiday,' I was told, and, strangely, a replacement had not been appointed. What was happening? Were the people at Top of the Pops being obstructive because of newspaper reports like the one in the Guardian which said: 'It is thought likely that the show will be killed off next year'? 'Look,' said the producer Stan Appel, 'we're not facing the axe. It's just a rumour. A rumour started by the press, some of whom don't like us.'

Or is there more to it than that? There is definitely something wrong with Top of the Pops; it doesn't really work any more. And this is a major problem for the BBC, because Top of the Pops is supposed to be a seven o'clock flagship - the programme that catches millions of viewers early in the evening, in the hope that they'll stick with the channel. But now Top of the Pops can only attract seven million viewers, half the audience it used to have in the Seventies.

'And now,' says Femi Oke, one of the grinning, young, bland new presenters, 'are you sitting comfortably boys and girls . . . because its time to rave with Urban Hype.' And the camera zooms across the floor to the stage surrounded by the familiar studio audience, and the music starts to pulse away and the camera frames the band . . . and, all of a sudden, you can see what's wrong with Top of the Pops.

Whatever poor old Stan Appel does with his cameras, he can't make these people look good on TV. Six or seven kids come up all dressed in elaborately unattractive clothing, some standing still behind synthesisers, the rest of them stomping around, doing their enigmatic dances, out of time with each other, all obscured by dry ice. The song, called 'A Trip To Trumpton', is a metronomic mixture of yelling vocals and shrieking synthesisers. This was the sort of thing that prompted Top of the Pops spokesperson Ann Rosenberg to say, last year: 'Basically the singles chart is dominated by dance orientated music which people in their twenties don't like to watch'. And this is what caused the controversial Top of the Pops 'relaunch'. Pop music - no longer just pop music, but 'dance' music, 'rave' music, 'house' music - was getting too boring. As Ann Rosenberg said: 'We need to reach more people. We will even have performers such as Pavarotti if necessary.'

They never had to do this in the Sixties and Seventies, they never worried about the Beatles and the Stones being boring, or Roy Wood, who shook his absurd mop of hair into the camera, or Pan's People, who jigged around in Lurex hot-pants. They were watchable. Chart music in the Sixties and Seventies may have been quaint, even silly - but at least people were interested. So when, in 1964, Bill Cotton and Johnnie Stewart devised Top of the Pops, they decided to arrange it by using a set of formal guidelines to reflect the market-place. Top of the Pops simply played the music which sold - the Number 1, the highest climber, the highest new entry. It was like a news bulletin from the pop world.

This worked fine when the singles market was lively, when it was newsworthy. But in the Eighties people started buying music on different formats; compact discs and tapes - and videos. Now you can get on Top of the Pops with a sale of a few thousand singles. The programme, therefore, is not full of personalities any more - it's full of kids who have made a record on their synthesisers and whose mates have gone out and bought it. And they're not visually exciting kids, like the big-personality punks of the late Seventies. 'And without personality, there's no TV,' says Mat Snow, of Q magazine.

Last autumn, the BBC tried to stop the rot. 'We wanted a change,' says Stan Appel, 'because the public were moaning about the content.' The chart was boring - so Top of the Pops would, from now on, look outside it. Miming was dated - so singers would sing live over a backing track. 'As far as I'm concerned,' says Appel, 'if an artist makes a record, he should be able to sing - it's not my fault if they can't sing properly.'

And can they sing properly? Has the relaunch worked? On Thursday, as well as the dull spectacle of Urban Hype hopping around in their dry ice, we had a drab performance from Dina Carroll, and Joe Cocker (my God it really was him) - none of it exactly easy on the eye.

'We try to have live bands in the studio; we try to steer away from video,' says Appel. But sometimes he just can't help it. For instance, last week, Appel could not have Roy Orbison on the show - Orbison being dead - so he was forced to use a video. The video was brilliant - sexy young models, big motorbikes, extraordinary sunsets, no scene longer than a couple of seconds. It was compulsive. It reminded me of MTV. And this is what they're trying to steer clear of? Some BBC executives apparently want to give the programme a last chance with a second relaunch. I bet I know what it's going to look like.

(Photograph omitted)

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