Shiny Shelf

All Old Top of the Pops

By Eddie Robson on 28 November 2003

‘Top of the Pops’? That’s square, daddio. That was your granddad’s pop music show. These days the kids are watching ‘All New Top of the Pops’, which is in no sense a forty-year-old-show trying to arrest a rating decline by pretending to be something radically different.

Supposedly the axe has been hanging over the BBC’s flagship music programme for a couple of years now, although I suspect that this is at least partly a gambit to stop people from taking it for granted. At the time of writing I haven’t seen the ‘All New’ show yet, as it launches this Friday (28th November), but I’ve heard an awful lot about it. The old format will be overhauled, we’re told: it’s going to be broadcast live rather than being pre-recorded on a Wednesday, and will feature more in the way of news and interviews.

Okay, the live aspect is interesting: if the ‘Pop Idol’ and ‘Fame Academy’ contestants can do it then a professional act should be able to manage, and it might give the show a buzz (although I strongly suspect that it’ll go out with a slight delay in case of pre-watershed behaviour). But as for adding more non-music coverage… wasn’t that what they did for the last overhaul? Chatting to the stars backstage, going ‘behind the music’? And did it work? No. The ratings have continued to slide.

The idea that ‘Top of the Pops’ is somehow outdated, that it needs to change in order to appeal to a new audience, baffles me. I watched it when I was very young and never considered the programme’s long history: I just watched because Duran Duran were on. I’m sure that older viewers complained that the show was not as good as it used to be, just as they do today: whether the show itself has declined or not, the criticisms come mainly because people always believe that pop music is not as good as it used to be. (The debate over the recent decline in singles sales is too lengthy to go into here, but suffice to say that if ‘TOTP’ underwent a revival then the British singles market might well follow.)

‘TOTP’ has been constantly changing throughout its lifetime: it changes every week. The whole point of the show is actually a kind of emptiness, a complete lack of fixtures: it isn’t a formula, it’s a space for whoever has a single in the charts (or whoever might be able to get one there). The show’s editor works to reflect/predict what the audience will respond to, and this is the key to its periods of success and its periods of failure.

The problem with recent ‘TOTP’ is that it has become callow. The show used to set the musical agenda but now it merely follows it, often at a slight distance: any bold manoeuvres we’ve seen from the programme have come too late to have any impact. Witness its attempt to jump on the ‘electroclash’ bandwagon by having Fisherspooner play one week. Six months earlier, this would have been eye-opening: as it was, electroclash had already failed to stick and the scenesters were moving on to something else.

I freely admit that I fondly remember Britpop-era ‘TOTP’, when the fast-track from the indie pub circuit to mainstream was fully operational. ‘TOTP’ made itself an essential component of this, plucking likely candidates from the pages for the music weeklies and putting them up on stage. It’s true that in the process a number of less deserving acts were promoted, but it was well worth it for the number of times the show picked up on something genuinely exciting.

More importantly, this policy made ‘TOTP’ surprising. People still talk about the week in 1996 when Bis, an unsigned Scottish bubblegum-punk band, were invited on to play their new single, ‘Kandy Pop’. Opinion was divided as to whether the record was any good or not, but it got people talking in a way that ‘Top of the Pops’ rarely does these days. And the single, which until then had only excited the interest of half-a-dozen students in Stirling who listened to John Peel, made the Top 30.

The ratings decline of ‘TOTP’ is therefore a vicious circle: as less people watch it, so the records featured on it don’t really sell any extra copies, so it becomes less vital, so less people watch it… and the show was dealt a major blow in this battle to stay relevant when it was moved from Thursdays to Fridays. The BBC denies this, insisting that there is no good reason for ‘TOTP’ to be on a Thursday and it’s only mindless traditionalism that suggests otherwise.

Nonsense. The current Friday 7:30pm slot pitches ‘TOTP’ directly against ‘Coronation Street’, a battle which it has no chance of winning (in spite of Corrie’s similar ratings slide) and this is the single biggest factor in its decline. At the very least it should be moved back to 7pm, where it would be well placed to ensnare the ‘Hollyoaks’ audience. As the schedule stands there are no compelling reasons for anybody under the age of 18 to leave the TV on during the half-hour before ‘TOTP’.

The most promising thing about ‘All New Top of the Pops’ (I bet the new title doesn’t last six months) is therefore that it has a new editor – Andi Peters, who has delivered terrestrial’s biggest ‘youth’ TV success in years by turning a barren stretch of the Channel 4 schedule into the popular T4 strand. Earlier this year his predecessor Chris Cowey complained that the charts were ‘full of crap’: either he wasn’t doing anything to change that fact or his efforts were meeting with failure. Whichever it was, it was a clear signal that he shouldn’t be doing the job any more. The BBC has high expectations of Peters: I’ll be judging him not on the gimmicks that surround the ‘All New’ show, but on the mix of music that he introduces.

Whatever happens, ‘Top of the Pops’ should never, ever be cancelled, because the BBC needs a pop music show and any replacement would effectively be ‘TOTP’ under a different name. It would be like cancelling the evening news and launching a new programme called ‘Recent Information’.

Line Break

By Eddie Robson

Comments are closed.