Hanging on at number one

Pop - Richard Cook celebrates the long life of the toothless grandma of pop television

''Everybody's on Top of the Pops," sang the Rezillos in 1978, and after 38 years and 2,000 editions, they still are. The names are different, and so are the clothes, but, oddly, little has actually changed in this ancient programme, which these days vies with the likes of The Archers for the nation's affection. Music TV programmes do one of two things: they die quickly, or they last practically forever. Just as American Bandstand ran for decades in the US, or The Old Grey Whistle Test went on for even longer than the average Yes or Genesis album, Top of the Pops seems immortal. Its simple formula is so bombproof that it's scarcely ever been tinkered with. Johnnie Stewart, the ferret-faced producer who ran the programme through its early years, decided that only performers with records going up the charts should be featured, and nobody should be on two weeks running - unless they had the number one, which was always at the end of the show. Four decades on, it's exactly the same.

Leafing through Jeff Simpson's Top of the Pops 1964-2002 (BBC Books), there's the usual amusement to be had observing the frightful outfits, the dance groups (Go-Jos, Pan's People, Legs & Co, Zoo) and preening pop idols of long ago. But "long ago" is not so long in this game. The Spice Girls now look as historic as fresh-faced tykes like the Rolling Stones, peering out of the Sixties section. The rapid turnover of pop idols might be what has kept the programme from going stale. It hasn't so much charted changing tastes and fashions as merely played the recording angel, observing each screamed-over icon with patient amusement.

The biggest changes have much more to do with what lies behind the programme. It was born out of what was even in 1964 a whiskery, light-programme mentality. With the pirates just starting to broadcast and Radio 1 still a long way off, pop baffled BBC barons. They recorded the first two years of the programme in a disused church in Manchester ("How can you get rock'n'roll in a church?" sniffed Allan Clarke of the Hollies). Groups had to toil up to a city without a motorway link. Sometimes, half of a group might not even turn up. Yet inside two years, the show had regular audiences of 20 million. When it moved to London, following a Musicians Union insistence that groups play live on the programme, it chimed in with the onset of swinging London and Radio 1. If Top of the Pops has ever had a golden age, it was probably around that time. One show early in 1967 had Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, the Four Tops, the Monkees and Alan Price. Pop historians wring their hands that hardly any of the Sixties programmes have survived under the BBC's notorious tape-wiping policy.

By the Seventies, TOTP had become less like a BBC variety programme - not all that different to, say, The Good Old Days or The Val Doonican Show - and more of a shop window for record company acts. As the record business itself grew up and there was more money at stake, the programme's importance to the industry became more serious. Record pluggers haunted the BBC bar. Simpson suggests that the entire glam-rock movement was spawned out of competition to get on to TOTP. When punk finally arrived at the end of the decade, the presenter Tony Blackburn was appalled: "I tried to block it out of my mind." But as soon as punk bands began appearing on TOTP, they were part of pop's mainstream. Even Cliff Richard, then a mere lad of 40 or so, was surprised that the punks were actually not "wild bullies who spat on people".

Probably everybody watches Top of the Pops with some degree of religiousness before they either get too bored or too old. There's nothing exciting about it: it's more like the conveyor-belt sequence from The Generation Game, adapted for a pop audience. When the notorious producer Michael Hurll arrived at the start of the Eighties, his aim was to make the programme "more like a party". Instead, it ended up more like a noisy, extended commercial for Thatcherism, where upwardly mobile groups of negligible quality such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran paraded as if they were rehearsing for a Lloyd Webber musical. For a while, around 1990, the show seemed dead on its feet, but a move to another studio, a renewed insistence on groups playing live after a long spell of miming and - most crucial of all - the new wave of boy bands and teen idols fixed some fresh dentures for the toothless grandma of pop television. It scarcely seems credible now that, for most of its life, the programme had relied on pensionable presenters such as Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis; but old-timers were finally banished and Radio 1's youth line-up was ransacked for comperes.

If TOTP has value as social history, it's in the faces of the multitude of boys and girls who have passed through its doors to gawp at nine-day wonders with microphones. In the disused-church days, maybe they felt they could identify with pop stars who'd struggled to even get to the venue themselves. Now, though, they are sadly remote from these deities. Consider Jennifer Lopez and her 2001 appearance on TOTP. She required a 60-strong guest list, ten dressing rooms, three personal chefs and her own hairdresser operating the wind machine which blew her tresses around during her brief performance. Now that's what I call showbiz.

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