Johnnie Stewart

Creator of 'Top of the Pops' - 'the simplest show in the world and murder on the ears'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lorn Alastair ("Johnnie") Stewart, television producer: born Tonbridge, Kent 7 November 1917; married 1946 Sheila Williamson (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died East Dereham, Norfolk 29 April 2005.

The television show Top of the Pops seems an obvious and simple format - a TV show in which the artists perform their current chart hits - but, surprisingly, the programme did not start until New Year's Day 1964. Its producer Johnnie Stewart created a programme which became an institution and, as the charts were on-going, it never needed to be rested.

Stewart was born in Tonbridge in 1917. He was a good musician himself, playing the piano, and in 1937 he joined the sound effects department for BBC radio drama. Stewart was a wireless operator in the Middle East and then worked in intelligence during the Second World War. On returning to the BBC, he produced several music programmes including Sing It Again and BBC Jazz Club and he was especially proud to have secured Frank Sinatra as a guest for Cyril Stapleton's Show Band Show for a mere £50.

In 1958 Stewart transferred to BBC Television and produced Juke Box Jury, hosted by David Jacobs; in 1963 he produced a 90-minute television special, Terry-Thomas Says How Do You View, capitalising on the comedian's appearance in the big-budget film It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The disc jockey Jimmy Savile hosted the very popular Teen and Twenty Disc Club on Radio Luxembourg, and, in 1963, the BBC producer Barney Colehan thought his format could be adapted to television. He recorded a pilot with Savile and, in subsequent discussions, it was decided to make it a chart show, produced by Johnnie Stewart. Stewart came up with the title, Top of the Pops.

The programme was broadcast from a converted church in Dickinson Road, Manchester. With a limited budget, the studio had no facilities for artists to perform live and all the early shows were mimed. Radio Times turned this into something positive:

They will mime their songs. This is a departure from normal BBC practice, but the rule is being relaxed because the purpose of the programme is to let you hear the discs exactly as recorded, though within the setting of a television programme.

Top of the Pops was first broadcast between 6.35pm and 7pm on New Year's Day 1964 with Savile as the host. It featured a rundown of the charts and his assistant, Samantha Juste, was seen putting on records for the performers. Stewart was confident that the series would be a success and it was expanded to 12 programmes, and then indefinitely.

Their timing was perfect. Because of the explosion of British beat groups, the charts were filled with local product, and it was relatively easy to get them to perform. Allan Clarke of the Hollies was somewhat reluctant, saying, "How can you rock'n'roll in an old church?" In an early show, a record was played at the wrong speed when the Swinging Blue Jeans were about to mime.

For three years, Stewart used four different presenters, Savile, Alan Freeman, Pete Murray and David Jacobs. Savile realised that he was only on screen for a total of two minutes in each show and so he made himself as flamboyant as possible; once colour television was introduced, he even had tartan hair. The programme turned Savile's "How's about this then?" into a catchphrase and, during that first year, Freeman became known as "Fluff" after announcing "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" as "Cast Your Wind to the Fates".

Stewart devised simple rules: the programme would always end with the No l record and that was the only record which could be repeated from the previous week. He would always include the highest new entry and the highest climber and nothing going down was permitted. Quality was not the issue: the record-buyers determined the content, although Stewart did include a "Tip for the Top". Stewart's only mistake, and this was probably out of his hands, was not to record and store all the programmes. Many classic performances have been lost and all that remains are Harry Goodwin's still photographs, which were used in the chart rundowns. It was Goodwin who took the silhouette of Stewart that ended each programme: Stewart was seen as pointing out instructions with his forelock flopped over his face. Many assumed that the still was of Billy Fury.

Unlike ITV's rival programme, Ready, Steady, Go!, the programme was screened at peak time and, although aimed at the young, it attracted a family audience, as parents would comment on the current tastes. In a brilliant but now politically incorrect move, Stewart created a female dance troupe, which became Pan's People, with Flick Colby, Babs Lord, Ruth Pearson, Dee Dee Wilde, Louise Clarke and Andi Rutherford. When Rutherford became pregnant, TOTP made a big presentation of introducing the new member, Cherry Gillespie.

The audience was an important ingredient of Top of the Pops although this could lead to security problems with the stars. In more recent times, cheerleaders have been introduced to stimulate the crowd, but then the screaming was genuine. As Stewart put it, "Top of the Pops was the simplest show in the world and also pure murder on the ears."

Stewart sometimes felt antipathy towards the music he was promoting. In 1965, after the Small Faces had appeared on Top of the Pops, Stewart thanked them politely. Their leader Steve Marriott felt insulted by Stewart's patronising comments and told him to "fuck off". Stewart altered his rules so that the Small Faces could never play Top of the Pops again.

Presenting the show from Manchester created problems as many of the bigger acts did not want to travel there. In 1967 Top of the Pops moved to the Lime Grove Studios in west London. The fresh crop of presenters included Stuart Henry, Emperor Rosko, Simon Dee and Kenny Everett, who were all connected with the new Radio 1 station. John Peel made such a mess of presenting a programme in 1968 that Stewart told him he would never work on television again: later, Peel proved to be a witty host with ironic comments on the charts. Stewart started the Top of the Pops review of the year, the first of which was broadcast before the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day 1967. He produced Alan Freeman's magazine show All Systems Freeman.

The Musicians' Union felt that asking artists to mime was depriving their members of work, but Stewart argued that many of them could not create the same sound live. In the end, Stewart asked Johnny Pearson to form a Top of the Pops orchestra with experienced session musicians. In 1971 Pearson had his own Top Ten record with "Sleepy Shores".

Because of his long association with the BBC, Stewart was given a year's sabbatical in 1971 and went to North America. His set designer Stan Dorfman took over and amended Stewart's rules, adding an LP spot, which one week included a 10-minute piece by Yes. When Stewart returned, he reinstated his original concept. His return coincided with another flurry of patriotic record-buying, with groups like Slade and T. Rex doing well. The new presenters included Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis and Tony Blackburn. When Stewart left the programme in 1974, one of the first moves by his successor, Robin Nash, was to replace Pan's People with a boy-and-girl dance troupe, Ruby Flipper, but an all girls' unit, Legs & Co, was soon installed.

In 1978 Stewart produced the pop quiz Cheggers Plays Pop, with Keith Chegwin, and also worked in South Africa on a local version of Top of the Pops. He retired to Ibiza but returned to the UK when his health deteriorated. There have now been over 2,000 Top of the Pops and, although the show is criticised from time to time, this is more a reflection on the current state of the charts than the programme. Stewart could feel satisfied that nobody had found a better way to present a chart show.

Spencer Leigh