Shiny Shelf


Top of the Pops: The Final Countdown

By Eddie Robson on 31 July 2006

I don’t normally review a programme which I stopped watching a quarter of the way through, but in this case I’d like to air my reasons why. Throughout its 42-year history, ‘Top of the Pops’ has been about bringing all the week’s pop happenings together and reflecting NOW. It has from time to time introduced a ‘classic clips’ slot which always felt like an irrelevant digression, however good the clip was.

I therefore feel it was fundamentally wrong-headed for TOTP’s final edition to be an exercise in nostalgia: a compendium of material from the past, linked by ancient DJs. Much of it, like Bowie doing ‘Starman’, is brilliant but not exactly a rare treat – it’s been on TOTP2 a dozen times. This stuff should have been reserved for a proper documentary on the show, but the BBC already had one of those in the archive from a few years back and stuck it on again later in the evening. Instead of allowing TOTP to go out doing its job one last time, the BBC decided to celebrate how good it used to be – playing to its critics instead of saying thank you to those who stuck with it.

And that’s why I turned it off, because it had nothing to do with why I watch TOTP. In many ways it sums up how the BBC has failed to understand one of its oldest institutions, regarding it as a relic which survived on nostalgia, which young people aren’t going to be interested in. But I watched TOTP in the 1980s and I didn’t know or care that it was a twenty-year-old show.

Many have claimed that, because singles sales have been declining for years, TOTP isn’t important any more. Yet, with the chart belatedly having decided to include purchased downloads, it’s just starting to become interesting and relevant again. In any case, the charts were only ever a loose framework on which TOTP hung this week’s selections. Until the show started being aired directly after the chart was announced on Sundays, anybody who gave a toss about the charts would have seen them already. The interest was in catching a round-up of everything that was going on in pop that week, and I see no reason why that should have become obsolete. Pop music is still popular.

The BBC’s given reason for cancelling the show is that it cannot compete with the many dedicated music channels that are now available. This is ridiculous for two reasons: firstly, the BBC shouldn’t be competing with those channels, and secondly the majority of those channels are not available to the majority of viewers. Freeview has just two music channels, both fairly poor. I also feel that they serve a very different purpose to TOTP, which was more concentrated: watch for half an hour and you had a snapshot of what music people were buying. Many music snobs will dismiss that as irrelevant, but it’s something I’m very interested in.

One of the questions that’s most often asked of anybody who is unhappy with the loss of TOTP is ‘Yeah, but when did you last watch it?’ The assumption is that it’s one of those touchstones that we don’t watch, but it gives us a cosy feeling to know it’s still there. But that’s not the case for me: I still watched it most weeks, right to the end. My despair at the demise of TOTP has nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s because there is now no place for pop music on the BBC, because no replacement is being lined up.

Any replacement would just be TOTP by a different name, because the format was simply to get a bunch of currently-popular artists to play their latest songs, and anything you add to that just detracts from the appeal (witness the embarrassingly awful interviews they tried doing on TOTP in 2003). And these days everything on TV seems to be based on a high-concept format: it’s as though nobody wants to suggest simple ideas because they’re too obvious, not clever enough. But music television doesn’t have to be high-concept. At the risk of sounding horribly mawkish, it should just be about the music.

Don’t be shocked, though, if in a few years somebody has the ‘high-concept’ notion of reviving TOTP, and it returns to prime-time BBC1 with massive fanfare. A few years off and a high-profile comeback did wonders for ‘Doctor Who’.


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By Eddie Robson




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