Sure, there’ve been other shows. The Simpsons made me laugh. The Sopranos made me cry. And as for The Dukes Of Hazard, I look back now and realise that was nothing but a foolish infatuation. But I don’t think anyone forgets their first true love - and mine was Top Of The Pops.
Can you really love a television programme? Yes, and Top Of The Pops showed me how. How you could think about it day and night. How you could build your entire week around it. How you could go dry in the mouth and all of a quiver whenever it was in the same room as you. This was the early to mid-eighties – the show’s golden era, when it could draw audiences of more than twenty million. Punk was dead and a new generation of flamboyant, shamelessly poptastic chart acts came along to brighten the musical landscape. Each week, a random pairing of the show’s brilliantly strange stable of hosts would preside over the action and the top acts in the world would swing by their White City studios to mime with gusto in front of an unfeasibly exuberant studio audience.
But while this madcap carnival of pop unfolded, little squirts like me sat at home in open mouthed awe, letting our Findus Cripsy Pancakes go cold on our laps. We felt like we’d gained fleeting access to the greatest party ever thrown. Here are just some of the things that made it so special.
The Sneering Introduction
Something miserable like Nationwide had just finished. Suddenly, it was our special time. The posh-sounding continuity announcer could barely be bothered to hide his contempt as he said: “And now on BBC One, it’s time to learn about the latest developments in the pop charts from Jimmy Savile and Janice Long…it’s Top Of The Pops.”
“Shut it Grandad!” I’d think to myself. “The kids are taking over your precious BBC now you crusty posh twat!”
The Opening Titles
And with that, the intergalactic sound of a disco-lazer gun would blast from the TV’s dusty speakers. Zzzeeeeeeoooow! It was the most exciting noise I’d ever heard in my life. TV screens spun through a cosmic vortex. Manic synth merged with frantic sax and galloping electro drums. A pink, seven inch single with the words Top Of The Pops emblazoned across it thundered towards my stupid face, then exploded into a million tiny pieces. “Yee-ha! Everybody shut up, Top Of The Pops is starting!”
“Hey hey!” shouted Jimmy Savile as an opening gambit. What kind of a way is that to introduce a prime time television show on the BBC? The ONLY way! Forget today’s earnest music presenters with their trendy haircuts and nerdish knowledge of Danish guitar bands. Savile was dressed in an ill fitting white tracksuit and didn’t have a flaming clue what the hell he was on about, much less a care. But did it matter? Not a jot. He wasn’t there to bore us with details; he was there to whip us into a hysterical state of pop fueled dementia. And boy did he know how.
As did the rest of that era’s barmy and ridiculous menagerie of hosts. Janice Long in her jump suits; Bruno Brooks with his perm; Gary Davies wearing a white silk scarf like he was straight off down The Ritz with Pepsi and Shirley once the show ended. And let’s not forget silly old Dave Lee Travis. I once saw him introduce a band while buzzing around the studio on a motorized monkey bike wearing a fireman’s helmet. You can’t plan that kind of televisual magic. It just happens.
We all remember the fluorescent tube lighting and the dry ice. But perhaps the sexiest aspect of that funky dungeon of pop was the raw, postindustrial styling. Think about it: in the real world, Mike ‘Smithy’ Smith would have just looked like some sort of spoddy Jehovah’s Witness. But perched on a scaffold balcony clutching a microphone he was somehow hot enough to marry Sarah Green.
YouTube any Top Of The Pops clip from 1983 and tell me Ecstasy only made it to these shores five years later. The BBC producers must have been putting something fishy in the fizzy pop because those youngsters, with their wedge-hair do’s and dodgy jumpers, were having it big style.
The Studio Audience
YouTube any Top Of The Pops clip from 1983 and tell me Ecstasy only made it to these shores five years later. The BBC producers must have been putting something fishy in the fizzy pop because those youngsters, with their wedge-hair do’s and dodgy jumpers, were having it big style, every single Thursday of the year. Their true moment of glory came during the presenter links when they would all crowd around in front of the camera, pouting and trying to cop a sly feel of Peter Powell’s arse.
Once, David ‘Kid’ Jensen thought it’d be fun to introduce Hot Chocolate by spontaneously shoving his mike in a young lady’s mug and asking “What d’you think of Hot Chocolate?”, “I can’t stand them!” she responded instantly. You should have seen the look on Errol Brown’s face.
“Give me time, to realize my crime,” sang George, all impertinent and sneering. I blinked in amazement. Who in the hell was this? What was it? “I’m sorry but I refuse to accept that she is a man,” said mum. “She is mum,” insisted my older brother. “I read it in The Mirror,”
“Well,” said mum, trying to draw a line under the discussion. “If she is then I think it’s disgusting.” Me, I kept my mouth shut and grinned at the madness of it all. Mum might not have got her head round it yet but I felt sure I had seen the future – and it was wearing dolly pink blusher.
Adam And The Ants knife fighting backstage! Frankie Goes To Hollywood being thrown out for lewd stage antics! George Cole and Dennis Waterman threatening to walk after the presenters failed to treat their Christmas hit ‘What’ll I Get For Christmas (For Er Indoors)?” with sufficient respect. Yes, even this brightest of shows had its darker moments. Perhaps none darker than the moment John Peel introduced Pete Wylie’s Wah! Heat by saying “If this doesn’t go to number one, I’ll come round and break wind in your kitchen.” It’s a wonder the license fee managed to survive that one.
Streamers, flags, t-shirts and even pom-poms – the stuff those cavorting teenagers waved amidst that heaving crowd seemed like precious treasure to my jealous eight year old eyes. Then, one day, my brother reached the top of their four-month audience waiting list. When I caught a glimpse of him swaying to Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ I got so excited I did a bit of wee in my jimmy-jams. When he brought me home a plastic TOTP bowler hat I very nearly went one step further.
The Chart Countdown
Okay mum, dad, Uncle Arthur – you all know the rules. If it’s a song you like, you whoop. If it’s a song you hate, you boo. And if it’s a song you either haven’t heard of or are just indifferent towards, just say “Hmmmm” and mutter something non-committal. Ready? Okay, take it away Simon Bates! “At forty it’s a chart entry for Starship with We Built This City.” Altogether now: “Yeeeeaaahhh!!!”
Yep, life under the yolk of Thatcherism was tough alright. But those glittering pop-Gods knew how to gently ease us through it.
Pop music is supposed to be fun. And not necessarily in a Black Lace sort of a way. In the mid Eighties, every band that passed through those TOTP studios seemed conscious that they were there to help people at home momentarily forget their worries. Some viewers had lost their jobs. Some were striking miners. Others, like me, had forgot their PE kit that day and been forced to play rounders in their pants and vest.
Yep, life under the yoke of Thatcherism was tough alright. But those glittering pop-Gods knew how to gently ease us through it. Back then, pop stars were game for a laugh. Even Depeche Mode and The Cure could be cajoled into wearing Santa hats and having fake snowball fights on the Christmas episodes.
As John Peel put it shortly before he died: “It wasn’t cool – because most people aren’t cool. There was something attractively provincial about it. The fashions weren’t hard nosed and the dancing wasn’t particularly good. If you watched it you wouldn’t feel excluded. If you watched similar things now you’d think that unless you were fantastically good looking, had huge tits and were prepared to wear virtually no clothing then you could barely exist as a human being.”
This is an extract from ‘Shouting at The Telly – Rants And Raves About TV By Writers, Comedians and Viewers’ Edited by John Grindrod (Faber)
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