Heaven knows I'm happy now: Top of the Pops is back this Christmas

Fiona Sturges welcomes the return of the show that changed her life

Thursday 18 December 2008 01:00 GMT
The first episode of Top of the Pops, presented by Jimmy Savile, was on New Year's Day 1964 and featured The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, and a filmed contribution from the week's No 1 act, The Beatles
The first episode of Top of the Pops, presented by Jimmy Savile, was on New Year's Day 1964 and featured The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, and a filmed contribution from the week's No 1 act, The Beatles

The year was 1984. It was a damp Thursday night, and I was a moody 11-year-old marooned on the sofa in a dark corner of the West Country watching Top of the Pops. Aside from my dad's assertion that Abba "had a few good tunes", music wasn't on my parents' cultural radar. My limited introduction to pop had thenceforth come via my older brother's record collection, but Marillion and Genesis just weren't doing it for me. And then there he was, a skinny Mancunian staring insouciantly from under his quiff, casually batting balloons into the audience while crooning: "The rain falls hard on a humdrum town, this town has dragged you down". Halfway through the song he ripped open his shirt to reveal the words "Marry Me" scrawled on his chest in eyeliner. It was The Smiths' performance of "William, It Was Really Nothing". For me it was the moment that sparked a life-long obsession, both with The Smiths and pop music in general.

I'm not alone here. Most people over a certain age with a passing interest in pop had their own Top of the Pops epiphanies. For successive generations, it offered a window on to a world to which you were not yet privy, a world of ambisexual singers, dancing goons, poseurs with guitars and peacocks in preposterous outfits. It was a pioneering pop show that allowed fresh, exciting and sometimes terrifying artists to barge into the nation's living-rooms and strut their stuff.

Nearly 45 years after it all began there are moments that remain etched on the collective consciousness. Arthur Brown with his head on fire; David Bowie singing "Starman" before he had his teeth seen to: a wild-eyed Kate Bush wailing about Heathcliff; the Boomtown Rats tearing up a picture of John Travolta; Adam Ant flouncing through "Dog Eat Dog"; Soft Cell's Marc Almond, a deviant imp in bondage gear, singing "Tainted Love"; a pregnant Neneh Cherry bouncing along to "Buffalo Stance"; Nirvana's Kurt Cobain singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; the Spice Girls doing "Wannabe" with Marilyn Manson looking on.

It has long passed into cliché that Top of the Pops was an institution, as crucial a part of the television schedules as the six o'clock news, and a rite of passage for aspiring pop stars. Which made it all the more shocking when, two years ago, the BBC gave it the chop, blaming falling single sales, the internet and rival music shows. But now Auntie has changed her mind and commissioned two Christmas specials. Corporation executives are reportedly pulling out all the stops to attract some of music's biggest names in order to remind viewers what they've been missing.

So what exactly have we been missing? Given that the show disappeared so recently, it almost seems like it never went away. Then again, the strength of feeling that accompanied its demise must surely act as a measure of its cultural significance and the affection in which it is still held.

In its heyday Top of the Pops attracted audiences of 15 million. The first episode, presented by Jimmy Savile, was on New Year's Day 1964 and featured The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, and a filmed contribution from the week's No 1 act, The Beatles. Since then it has inspired some of our biggest icons to start bands. Paul Weller has confessed to standing in front of it playing air guitar; The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr's galvanising moment was seeing Marc Bolan prance his way through "Metal Guru"; Noel Gallagher saw Marr on the programme and "wanted to be him". To serious musicians, the format may have been tacky but that didn't stop them queuing up to appear on it. In industry circles, the received wisdom was that if you didn't get on Top of the Pops, you didn't have a hit.

Simplicity was the key to its success. It was one of music's most democratic institutions, driven neither by musical preference nor the quest for originality. It had none of the cutting-edge pretensions of Later... nor the flagrant hard-sell of now-defunct CD:UK. Instead it simply showcased the bands that were popular at the time.

But nostalgia is a powerful and often addling force. While Top of the Pops had its brilliant moments, it also plumbed the depths. Cast your mind back to St Winifred's School Choir, Waddle and Hoddle, Jasper Carrott doing the "Funky Moped", Terry Wogan doing "The Floral Dance" or Cliff Richard doing anything at all. And what about Pan's People, the Seventies dance troupe brought in to fill the void when bands couldn't get into the studio? This group of synchronised lovelies were said to send teenage boys into accelerated puberty though their routines were curiously sexless affairs.

It's worth noting that before Top of the Pops all that was on offer to the young and music-hungry was The Old Grey Whistle Test, a title which might have been lifted from a yellowing science journal and was about as exciting. For nearly two decades Top of the Pops had the pop monopoly; it wasn't until the arrival of MTV that it was revealed as the creaking, poorly produced bastion of light entertainment that it ultimately was.

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There were some momentous catastrophes too, such as All About Eve's miming debacle in 1988. The studio techs forgot to turn the monitors on and singer Julianne Regan sat for the first two minutes of "Martha's Harbour" with her mouth clamped shut. Complaining of a sore throat, Marillion's Fish abandoned the mime game altogether and held up cards displaying the lyrics to "Kayleigh". Then there were the presenters, for many years a succession of boorish, hirsute and studiously uncool Radio DJs with disturbing nicknames such as The Kid and The Hairy Cornflake. In the late Eighties a new, more glamorous breed of host was drafted in though beauty rarely went hand in hand with talent, a fact demonstrated by Anthea Turner who introduced The KLF as KLM.

Even in its golden era each Top of the Pops brought myriad disappointments. For me, it was both essential and unbearable viewing. There were editions where no bands played that I gave a hoot about. I couldn't understand why The Smiths weren't on every week while a friend felt the same way about Duran Duran. But this was also one of the show's joys – the furious debate that took place in schoolyards on a Friday morning: "What do you mean The Smiths are miserable?" "Wham? Gay? I don't believe you!"

But in its last sluggish decade Top of the Pops yielded to a slew of bland presenters and cardboard cut-out pop bands. Efforts to revive the brand using guest hosts, flashy visuals, simpering interviews and video links to exotic locations were met with ever-plummeting viewing figures. Its termination was cruelly drawn out. First the show was switched to a Friday night – the outrage! – and later to BBC2. When it was finally put out of its misery, I, like so many others, felt a surge of sadness despite the fact that I hadn't watched it for years.

So what now for Top of the Pops? One imagines that the Christmas editions will make scant impression on teenage viewers weaned on digital telly and YouTube. But those of us for whom it provided a fleeting but life-changing moment decades ago will welcome it like an old friend, albeit one with slightly antisocial habits.

The two special editions of 'Top of the Pops' will be shown on BBC1 on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve

The hits

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – "Fire" (1968)

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown took a literal approach to their hit as their eponymous singer, the self-proclaimed "God of hellfire", appeared in Hallowe'en face-paint and a burning helmet.

Neneh Cherry – "Buffalo Stance" (1989)

Cherry caused controversy after performing her paean to female empowerment, complete with gyrating dance moves, while eight months pregnant. The media condemned her but the song earned her a Grammy nomination.

Nirvana – "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)

Kurt Cobain got the hump when his band were told to mime playing instruments during a performance of their hit. His response was to sing in a growly Ian Curtis drone and change the opening line to "Load up on drugs, kill your friends".

The Flaming Lips – "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt 1" (2003)

The psychedelic rockers frequently performed surrounded by people in animal suits but viewers were astonished on this occasion when a dolphin removed its head to reveal Justin Timberlake.

The misses

Gilbert O'Sullivan – "Get Down" (1973)

How best to interpret Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1973 hit with its lyric "You're a bad dog, baby"? Pan's People cavorted around four real-life pooches on platforms in the studio, to the incredulity of viewers.

St Winifred's School Choir – "There's No One Quite Like Grandma" (1980)

Having sent it to No 1, the public can only blame themselves for this ghastly number. Even so, its performance on 'TOTP', in which legions of gap-toothed kids soppily sang the praises of grandma, was a nadir in the show's history.

Barry Manilow – "Bermuda Triangle" (1980)

Ol' big nose belting out "Bermuda Triangle" while standing in an inflatable paddling pool quite possibly purchased from Argos that morning was not the programme's finest hour.

All About Eve – "Martha's Harbour" (1988)

Performing a mimed version of their hit, All About Eve were unable to hear the song in their earpieces. Thus, singer Julianne Regan sat silently on her stool wondering why everyone was staring at her.

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