Over the last six months or so I’ve come to wonder if I’m the only person who thinks that, just maybe, the BBC has gone a little bit over the top regarding the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, and not just because in the popular imagination it’s a programme about a man in a scarf being chased around a wobbly set by aliens and monsters made out of egg boxes, play-doh and used toilet rolls. For in their eagerness to force feed us an endless stream of back-slapping and self-congratulation regarding the programme’s half century, BBC bosses have coyly played down the fact that only one episode was made for sixteen of those years as a result of it being axed by, er… BBC bosses.
On top of that they’ve had several problems to contend with that are presumably why they haven’t repeated many older episodes: firstly there’s the problem of how special effects mean TV sci-fi doesn’t age particularly well; the original Star Trek episodes may have been given a multimillion dollar makeover (admirably spent on a CGI toupee for William Shatner) but even if the BBC did something similar for Doctor Who they’d probably just re-render the Daleks using CGI toilet rolls. Oh, and then there’s the small matter that nearly a hundred episodes of this legendary show, this most beloved jewel in the BBC’s crown, have been wiped because no one at the time thought they were worth keeping.
At the same time, though, the BBC was suspiciously quiet about the fact that another of its most famous programmes was also heading towards its half century. For the 1st of January 2014 marked fifty years to the day since the first ever broadcast of Top of the Pops but, apart from a few late-night repeats, they hasn’t made as much of a hoo-hah about that show’s anniversary. For some strange reason, it’s almost as if the BBC don’t want us to remember the programme ever existed...
There are several plausible explanations as to why not much has been made about this particular milestone, though; perhaps they also wiped so many early episodes that they don’t feel there’s enough surviving material to make a representative documentary, or maybe, having gone through the episodes they still have they’ve realised that once they leave out anyone who’s since been accused of sexual offences they only have about fourteen minutes of usable footage from the 1970s. But I like to think there’s another, more simple, explanation: that they looked back over the programme’s history and just realised what a terrible show it was. ‘But wait!’ I hear you cry. ‘All the great bands played Top of the Pops! It was a British institution!’ Well, let’s look at the evidence, shall we…?
I can’t deny that the first episode was of a high standard, featuring both the Beatles and the Stones, but even by the early ‘70s the programme was considered uncool by pretty much all of the good bands and even this early on in the programme’s history the BBC evidently decided its role should be to document the very worst output of the music world; and whilst it had some inkling that not all viewers found their musical appetites entirely satisfied by Little Jimmy Osmond and the Bay City Rollers, their solution was to feature songs like the Clash’s ‘Bankrobber’ but accompany them with Pan’s People doing a dance whilst dressed as burglars. Burglars who, for reasons unknown, dressed in lycra. Still, the show continued to be popular into the ‘80s even if its producers evidently spent 95% of the show’s budget on garish neon computer graphics and ensuring that even if a half decent artist turned up to perform they were contractually obliged to mime along to their latest hit as badly as possible, with a clause insisting they perform another take if the performance looked even mildly convincing.
Then came the ‘90s. Now, if you were to outline a conspiracy theory saying that the BBC was part of a concerted effort to destroy popular music during that decade you could easily use Top of the Pops as evidence, for its producers seemingly searched the globe to find the worst possible music they could and then mercilessly promoted it not only there but on Radio 1; every song seemed to be an interchangeable Euro-pop atrocity featuring female singers belting out inane lyrics whilst a muscular, mixed-race Dutchman clad in tight lycra performed a frenetic dance routine that made him look like a coked-up maniacal version of the Duracell bunny, and occasionally contributed a line to the ‘song’ that didn’t quite scan, like ‘everybody rock yourself!’. The visuals were a day-glo nightmare of garish primary colours and headache-inducing strobe lighting that I can only assume was there because the BBC had been told their funding would be slashed unless they induced at least forty epileptic fits per programme. Indeed, the programme prevented me from getting into music sooner by giving the impression that there was nothing available except 2-Unlimited, M People, Culture Beat and too many other unspeakable musical monstrosities to list. It was never admitted but I suspect the programme was secretly sponsored by the British Association of Lycra Manufacturers.
The show inexplicably limped on into the 21st century but if you wanted to see how far the programme had fallen since it started you only had to look at the calibre of artists who were appearing: I’m pretty sure that by 2005 all you’d get to see if, for some reason, you decided to tune in would have been Blazin’ Squad and the Crazy Frog. Performing a duet, probably. The BBC struggled to understand why the show wasn’t popular anymore (clue: possibly something to do with the quality of the acts) and hit upon the only logical solution: dose Fearne Cotton up with Sunny Delight and set her loose around the studio like a hyperactive toddler screaming ‘OMG, aren’t Westlife AMAZEBALLS!?!?’
And when that, inexplicably, didn’t turn the show’s fortunes around the long-overdue decision was finally made to axe it (apart from the occasional, highly unwelcome, Christmas special). There were a few murmurs of discontent from old people who, whilst holding a certain amount of nostalgia for it, hadn’t watched it in decades anyway but the overwhelming reaction from the younger generation was along the lines of ‘yeah, wha’ever, I don’t even watch it anyway, so am I bovvered?!’ It would be nice to think the final show featured all the greats coming back to honour the show that had made them stars, but I imagine it really did feature the aforementioned Blazin’ Squad/Crazy Frog duet.
So, in conclusion, I think the BBC was entirely justified in making little of Top of the Pops’ fiftieth anniversary and focusing its energy on Doctor Who instead, even if its exact reasons aren’t entirely clear. The end of a national institution? Hell, no. Good riddance, I say. I only wish that Top of the Pops had somehow been physically buried, because then I could go and dance on its grave. Very energetically. And, of course, clad in the finest day-glo lycra.