Do Call For A Comeback: Top Of The Pops

Why we need the weekly show more than ever…
Top Of The Pops

At its very end, Top Of The Pops got it right. Well, apart from the whole having Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis amongst its swansong episode presenters thing, anyway.

The series’ final ‘proper’ show went out in July 2006 with not one live act on the bill. Archive footage from across TOTP’s 42-year history took centre stage. Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ was number one – quite the change from The Beatles’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, sitting pretty at the top spot when the show first went out at the dawn of 1964.

The formal announcement of TOTP’s cancellation, in its weekly format, came in June 2006. The then-director of television for the BBC, Jana Bennett, said: “The time has come to bring the show to its natural conclusion.” Her reasoning – well, the BBC’s reasoning – was that TOTP could not compete with the 24-hour music channels available on satellite networks.

And that might’ve been the case. Certainly, a half-hour condensing of the week’s most relevant pop music couldn’t compete in terms of box-ticking completeness compared to channels (then) dedicated to the promotion of the art form. And with the Internet’s growth to consider, too – YouTube was founded a year before TOTP’s cancellation – it stands to reason that a bunch of suits with little to no actual connection to the music industry would think: time to pull the plug.

It’s the antithesis of the public service broadcasting ethic, though, to admit defeat when facing rising commercial opposition. The facts underlining the termination of TOTP as a weekly television presence may have made for convincing reading – and, let’s face it, when doesn’t a much-scrutinised corporation like the BBC, funded by you and me, miss a chance to trim a little budget (writes a man who lost a job providing content to the BBC courtesy of such a decision).

But did everyone who loved pop, or who had even the slightest interest in what was charting that week, or what their kids were listening to, or tuned in simply through a ritualistic need to do so – be honest, something had to account for the numbers, however small, tuning in during the Tim Kash-fronted year of 2004 – have those rival channels in 2006? Was the Internet the 24/7 streaming bonanza then that it is today? Smartphones weren’t abundant, and ‘net-ready TVs were hardly commonplace. The ritualistic killing of a once-proud, once-marquee BBC brand was, with the benefit of hindsight, somewhat hasty.

Except, they didn’t kill it. TOTP as the old guard had always known it was gone, the sight of Fearne Cotton gurning over an intro to the latest single from Sean Kingston mercifully rendered KIA in the weekly battle for ratings. But TOTP as a wider brand maintains to this day. TOTP2 is an on-going thing, the side-line to the original main show now the star TV attraction with 18 new episodes broadcast in 2012.

Of course, when I say ‘new’… TOTP2 is, essentially, what the final episode of TOTP proper morphed into: archive and anecdotes, glinty-eyed nostalgia dressed up for consumers remembering a better time, with better charts, and better pop. Men in proper suits, not slappers in skimpy thongs. And so on.

Boring. We already had the earnest stuff. We’d been through The Old Grey Whistle Test. We still suffer the infernal, seemingly immortal Jools Holland bumbling his way through stock introductions for stock indie bands playing stock indie rock on Later… – seriously, when was the last time a Later… performance was something you talked about with your work colleagues the next day?

Not any time recently, I’d wager, because a) every time I tune in, during the adverts of anything else I’m watching at the time, there’s either some overly-falsetto-ing diva getting into a dizzy spin over nothing or a bunch of bearded no-marks blithering on about Serious Emotions (or some old blues dude going bananas at the piano – then, I grant you, my attention snaps into position); or b) nobody’s actually watching.

Whisper it, but when TOTP went out, it registered almost four million viewers. Okay, so it was the last show, but still: who watches the last show of any series that they don’t care about? That figure shows that an audience was there, just that the BBC had royally messed up how to best communicate with it. Later… is now in its 43rd series and its figures are…

Well, I had a look, for ages. And came back with nothing for this series. But in 2000 Later… drew a high of around 600,000 viewers per episode. It’s unlikely to have climbed much higher than that, even without the ‘competition’ that TOTP used to offer. If it’s climbed at all, of course – many of us are watching television through devices other than our TV sets, and we’re doing so at times that suit us.

Anyway, there’s a point to the Later… diversion: competition. It’s what sent TOTP to the grave, but might be reason enough to warrant its return from the afterlife. With Later… the only established license-fee-funded music TV show out there, what is the nation’s public service broadcaster saying? That what is presented on the show, via a sequence of mostly static studio performances, represents the very zenith of what the contemporary music scene can offer? That this is the state of music in 2013? I mean, it was great to see Lorde and Kanye on there the other week, but really? The criticism that Later… has received since TOTP’s dismissal from the airwaves has been consistent: too little of substance, too narrow of spectrum, and too late of broadcast (ironically). It needs something to butt up against to realise its own shortcomings, and that something certainly doesn’t need to be another show in the same mould.

Which is where TOTP steps in. The BBC has a real opportunity here. Speaking as a (in title, if not mindset) Professional Music Critic, I am inundated with new music videos and tracks every day. Can I watch them all? No chance. But I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by peers who, between hundreds of them, manage to filter out the Very Best Stuff, which typically finds its way onto sites like Clash. Sometimes something catches the eye and ear and immediately leaps out. But it’s a rare day that something truly remarkable is found on my rummages (so thank goodness for those with the hours in the day to go through all of this).

Imagine, as the final TOTP was, a new TOTP without the tired cycle of studio sets, presenting instead the week’s best videos – from the top 40 and beyond, into new buzz-worthy blog acts and encompassing much-hyped comebacks, too (you know Boyzone have a new single in November? I know, right?). Stick it on BBC Three – there’s next to naff-all of cultural relevance on that channel right now, especially not around the 7pm mark – at the time of writing, tonight’s 7pm slot is filled by a 15-minute repeat of Pop’s Greatest Dance Crazes; the day after, another 15 minutes of Great Movie Mistakes. You see where I am going. How hard is this, guys?

The BBC can be the Very Best Filter for the cavalcade of cutting-edge pop to come spilling into the industry’s inboxes. Who, in the music world and beyond, wouldn’t want to get home, switch on their TV and see a run through of the best videos to have gone live of late? (Off with your ‘viral’ intentions, marketeers – that shit doesn’t just happen by design.) No overpaid presenters. No comedy voiceovers. Robert Webb and Rufus Hound can just stay the hell away, thanks. Captions will suffice – we get by on YouTube just fine with information that’s written rather than fed to us in whatever passes for credible lingo at the time of TX.

This is cheap. It can complement what’s being broadcast through the BBC’s music-playing radio networks – hell, use the captions to promote the fact that Band X is on Zane’s show later that night, perfect. It’s a (I think) necessary alternative to Later…, and the best possible counter to the mountains of shit that drowned TOTP in the first place – a simple, easily packaged digest of the top of the pops. What’s not to understand about that? What’s not to like?

The brand isn’t dead, so use it. Use it to make people thrilled, as they should be, about pop in 2013. Regular people. People who aren’t tweeting links to the latest lyric video by an R&B singer who’ll lose everything once that sample he never cleared comes back to bite him in the arse. People who just want to sit down and relax when they’re getting a pop fix – not be shouted at by over-zealous microphone-swingers whose existence without the pop around them would be substantially less-profitable. People like me. Are you like me? It’s probably best that you’re not. But there are a lot of people like me – people who actually like to be shown something from time to time, rather than having to search for it.

And if you see where I’m coming from here, at least, then it’s high-fives all round. Cup of tea and a sit down, with Lady Gaga’s big shiny balls and Miley Cyrus’s raspy mouth muscle for entertainment. Just don’t stick that Thicke fella on, alright? My dinner’s only just gone down.

Words: Mike Diver

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