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Top Of The Pops - Back From The Dead...ish

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Fraser McAlpine | 16:24 UK time, Thursday, 20 November 2008

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Well, what a day I've had! Exciting things seem to be going on, and it's all to do with my old job, so forgive the personal details, as they are entirely relevant.

The Story So Far:
From 1998 until 2006, I worked on the Top Of The Pops website, a popular spin-off from the nation's favourite music TV show ever. Then the show was cancelled, then the site was cancelled, and ChartBlog was born.

You'll probably remember the end of TOTP. Since then, people like the Ting Tings or Andy Burnham, the minister for culture, have demanded that the show be put back on the air, but not really with any expectation that it would. It just seemed like a good thing to say, to wonder how hot new acts could measure their success, now that the kudos of their TOTP debut was out of the question.

Of course, the Pops was never entirely removed from our screens (and I'm not just talking about re-runs on Dave). At the time it was cancelled, press releases went out explaining that TOTP2 would keep mining the archives, and that the traditional TOTP Christmas Special would, of course, continue to be a mainstay of the festive scheduling. As important as the Queen's speech.

Then, on the 28th of October this year, the BBC announced that the Christmas TOTP would be cancelled. A spokesman said: "This year it was felt that pop music would be better represented over Christmas by an eight-part series of TOTP2 that will reflect some of the year's key hits and possibly the Christmas Number One."

This did not sit well with Simon Cowell, who (possibly jokily) said this, a mere two days later: "If the BBC wanted to do a deal, and I can get ITV to buy it and broadcast it, I'd put it on ITV."

And now, just 20 days after THAT, the BBC has announced that there now WILL be a TOTP Christmas Special after all. Actually, there will be TWO of them! One on Christmas Day and one on New Year's Eve. And they will be hosted by Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates. Which is only right and proper.

Fearne & ReggieFearne told BBC Newsbeat that she does not believe that this will lead to a full TOTP revival. She said: "I think the people who have always loved TOTP are always going to want it to come back, but I don't think it will. The music industry is so different these days. The chart is so different - Reg (Yates) and I doing the Chart Show are both very aware of how it's changed over the years."

So, suddenly, after two years of consigning TOTP to the dusty attic of TV history, the 'brand' is being talked about again, and people seem to want a bit of Toppy in their lives, but not too much. Nor does anyone believe that ANY music TV show can have the cultural impact of Top of the Pops in its '70s heyday.

But is there a place for a show LIKE Top of the Pops in the late 2000s? Well, that's an interesting question.

I've met some of the people who were involved in the cancellation of the show, and they're all basically in agreement that it was dying and needed to be put out of its misery (the website was going great guns, by the way!). Audience figures were dwindling, a half-hearted redesign hadn't helped and the move to Sundays on BBC2 didn't suddenly turn the show's fortunes around (which is hardly shocking news).

Also, people just kept saying that the charts were becoming more and more irrelevant, what with downloads and all.

Now, the "what with downloads and all" argument is kind of weird, given that the introduction of downloads to the singles chart didn't happen until after the show was cancelled and has done nothing but improve the way songs move around the chart.

Still, it's true that people don't really care whether a song is at No.2 or at No.12 once the chart has been broadcast on Radio 1, published across the web, put in newspapers and so on. Which means that a television show which is entirely based on a countdown towards the No.1 spot which happened a few days previously, is going to be as archaic as a Flat Eric puppet (ask your ravey older cousins).

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Then again, saying that TOTP is a show about the charts is like saying that Top Gear is a show about cars. When it was still running, TOTP was a show which showcased the most notable things going on in music in a seven day period, with very little in the way of editorial slant. It was up to the audience to decide who was good and who was bad.

It would be wrong to say TOTP had NO editorial slant, but then, as a mainstream television show aimed at a family audience, that's only to be expected. But broadly speaking, if they were on the show, TOTP loved them. The end.

What was (and is) genuinely exciting about the show was that you could see performances from the people whose songs had been bought by the most people in that week, all together at the same time. Metallica could sit happily next to S Club 7, Eminem could appear next to the latest X-Factor winner, and it would be fine, because that's Top Of The Pops.

Later With Jools Holland, by comparison, is a cherry-picked programme, made up of a certain type of act who can perform live with no frills. They also shine a light into dark corners, showcasing musicians that would otherwise be ignored. Neither of these things are very TOTP, and that's why the two shows complimented each other rather well.

Pretty much every other music show you could care to name picks the acts which suit a certain demographic of audience, which is strange, because if there is one thing mp3 players and playlists have allowed people to finally admit, it's that we all like a massive variety of music, and we love to bash radically different songs against each other, to see what happens.

This simple idea is not represented on television any more.

And in an era where every light entertainment programme has to have some kind of exclusive interactive element, it seems easy to mock TOTP's quaint reliance on a sales chart. But is there any real difference between totting up the amount of times a song has been purchased and counting X-Factor votes? And what if we factored in the amount of times a song has been listened to on MySpace, or YouTube?

It really doesn't matter what the measuring device is, what matters is that every week (or fortnight, or at worst, month) a flag is hammered into the ground, and a TV show is made which represents the very NOWNESS of popular song. It would be partly a shared celebration between the artist and their fans, and partly a source of family arguments as to who is good and who is not good.

That seems to me to be a decent concept for a TV show. It doesn't have to be edgy or boring or cool or bland or sarcastic or nicey-nice or mean-spirited or witless or smartarsey, it just has to get the acts on, let them do their thing, and end with a climax of sorts. Easy!

Look, this was (to my mind) the last great TOTP performance. Isn't it brilliant?

Top of the Pops is still available in website form...


  • Comment number 1.

    What we need, Fraser, is Chartblog TV; snippets, "blogs" if you like, put out every weekday at about 7pm or so, when people are just sitting down with a nice cup of tea and can view us lot talking to some popstars or just some popstars having a bit of a sing'n'dance or whatever's their bag. After all, here we take all comers provided their song charts (and indeed sometimes if it doesn't) and have a family-friendly yet entertaining approach to the world of music...


  • Comment number 2.

    I am ALL FOR THIS!

  • Comment number 3.

    Come on Street Team, get campaigning!

  • Comment number 4.

    YES PLS.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm in no street team but i LOVE the sound of it!!


  • Comment number 6.

    Right, team, holler as loud as you can...

    CHARTBLOG TV!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 7.

    That Guillemots song is so sad-happy, isn'it?

  • Comment number 8.

    1. If it is going to come back, I think one of the things that might help is changing the presenters. I don't think it's a coincidence that viewing figures fell with them in charge. They certainly fell by 1.

    2. The BBC seem to have treated TOTP like Beeching did the railways, moving it to Sundays so no one would watch it then saying no one watches it so justifying cancelling it. But just as the branch lines may not have been profitable, they were still important to someone, and TOTP is the Blaenau Ffestiniog Line of pop music.

    3. I am aware that I am stretching a very thin metaphor to breaking point in number 2.

    3. I love the Guillemots in an almost illegal way.

    4. My favourite TOTP performance was the KLF doing Last Train to Trancentral in hooded outfits with horns on. Or Kurt Cobain's bizarro version of Smells Like.. or the Orbital making a mockery of the whole miming thing by playing chess while their song was on (Blue Room?). Or the Dexys Jackie / Jocky Wilson thing. Or Captain Sensible doing Happy Talk with a plastic parrot on his shoulder... or...

    oh just bring it back already.

  • Comment number 9.

    I am aware that there are two threes in the last post. Good job I'm not in charge of the top forty.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think, like most cases, that you only realise how much you like something when it's gone, and I feel like this about TOTP! (I used to watch it every week!)
    And I LOVE the idea of Chartblog TV as well. Bring it on!

  • Comment number 11.

    Love the way you try and compare Top of the Pops with Later with Jools Holland - Jools has real musicians with decent back catalogues, as well as quality up and coming acts - TOTP has Daniel Beddingfield.

  • Comment number 12.

    He shoots, he misses!

    Not that there is any competition between the two shows, but TOTP had those musicians you were just describing AND Daniel Bedingfield. That's the entire point. You're not supposed to love all of it, you're supposed to make your own mind up. Think you can manage that?


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