Thomas Sutcliffe: It's all over now, guys and gals

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The Independent Online

I enjoyed Noel Edmonds' remarks about the axing of Top of the Pops, but before we get on to them I wonder if we could possibly think of something better than the word "axing" when it comes to the termination of long-running programmes. The cliché always summons to mind an image of commissioning editors running berserk through the corridors of Television Centre, clutching bloodied hatchets. Top of the Pops huddles in the corner, terrified and screaming, like Shelley Duvall in The Shining, and then suddenly the door splinters and the controller of BBC2 thrusts his leering face through the gap and chants: "Here's Roly!"

The opposite is usually true - the programme in question has been in a coma for months, and after much huddled consultation with colleagues, whoever is in charge decides to turn off the life-support and begins working out how to break it to the loved ones. Come to think of it, that is the other cliché for such events --- pulling the plug - and although it is a cliché, and thus inherently reprehensible, it does at least get a bit closer to the anticlimactic fade of such stories. You don't need an axe, for goodness' sake: they're nearly dead. All you need to do is withhold everything except palliative care.

Anyway, back to Noel, who, alone among the veteran presenters of Top of the Pops, declared that he thought it was terrible news. "I think it's a dangerous thing to throw out one of the most recognised brands in TV today," he said. "It's a tragedy when a broadcaster doesn't understand such a powerful brand."

Two thoughts occurred to me when I read that. The first was that there might be a little bit of transference going on here and that Noel was recalling his own unhappy expulsion from the Eden of Saturday teatime. When they finally open him up, they will find "Crinkley Bottom" inscribed on his heart - and, notwithstanding the success of Deal Or No Deal, the old wound still smarts when the wind is in the wrong quarter. The other thought was that there's an opportunity here for the BBC to claw back some of the money they unconscionably wasted on Mr Blobby. One assumes they own the rights to the format - and since Edmonds has deep pockets, he could easily afford to put his money where his mouth is and make a bid for them, much as Richard Branson tried to buy Concorde from British Airways when it was taken out of service.

He should perhaps remember the fate of the Mr Blobby theme parks before he acts, though - because there are few things as fickle as the affection of the British public. It could also be very expensive to misjudge the true nature of the recent coverage of Top of the Pops - all those wistful remarks from presenters and the fond recollections of viewers, in which personal and pop nostalgia are often inseparably intermingled.

Because what we're looking at here is a good funeral, rather than a popular outcry for a stay of execution. Everybody (except perhaps Noel) knows the coffin lid isn't going to be unscrewed. It's over - and the only thing that remains is to enjoy the funeral tea. The way you do that is to share memories, tell stories about how you met and the quirks you recall and - above all - to relish the sense of interconnection this passing has suddenly thrown into relief.

What's interesting about quite a few of the valedictions is the way they yoke together the worlds of pop fandom and pop stardom, with a number of performers confessing that they made their first appearances on the show as dazzled children, and were amazed to find later that they were on the other side of the portal. And, just as at a properly consoling funeral, nobody would dream of dwelling on the deceased's bad points.

There is a danger with a media funeral, as opposed to a real one, that someone will get so carried away by the eulogies that they'll start to think of resurrection. Nobody should be fooled by the ceremonies of mourning, though. For whatever reason, the programme lost its vital spark and the decline is almost certainly irreversible.

You can tell when that's not the case with a show, because, however much it is reviled in print, or abused by those that watch it, the viewing figures stay steady as a rock. Take Big Brother as the most obvious current example - quite impervious to the casual complacency with which we treat those we expect to be around for ever. It isn't anywhere near as well-loved as Top of the Pops. It just happens to be a lot more popular.

Perhaps, on second thoughts, we do need "axing" in our vocabulary, but only if it involves a non-metaphorical axe.

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