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Pop TV - From Hit Parade to Later...

Jeff Evans

Guest blogger

Manchester's finest, the Hollies, appearing on Top of the Pops in1968

There was Ready, Steady, Go!, then there was Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. But what about all those lesser-known shows that have chronicled rock and pop over the years? Jeff Evans, author of Rock & Pop on British TV, takes another look. 

Talk to DJ and presenter Bob Harris, and he’ll tell you that there is a solid backbone to the history of rock and pop music on British television.

“There's a timeline of great TV programmes,” he says, thinking back first of all to the days when he was a young rock'n'roll fan, starved of television coverage of his favourite music. “I remember when Six-Five Special first started and I thought how great it was that we’ve got some kind of dedicated programme. Then suddenly Oh Boy! [arrived]. It captured the excitement of rock'n'roll in the most amazing way. Then in the 60s, Ready, Steady, Go! 'The weekend starts here'. Ready, Steady, Go!, for me, is just about the best music show I've ever seen on TV. Then Whistle Test and now Later. That's the lineage.”

Bob sums up very succinctly the direction of travel that pop music on television has taken, and pinpoints the shows that have really driven the genre. He could have added, of course, the evergreen Top of the Pops to complete the line-up, and more that have already been comprehensively covered in an earlier blog, but then there are so many, less obvious great music shows that scarcely get a mention these days. Perhaps it’s time to pay them the respect they deserve as we glance back over the history of music on TV.

To do this, we need to start before the dawn of the rock'n'roll era. Hit Parade, which emerged in 1952, was based on a US format and was the first purposeful attempt by the BBC to bring life to televised music. Up to this point, dance band shows added little visually to what could be heard on radio, so Hit Parade introduced a resident troupe of dancers and singers to put together little vignettes to tell the story of each song in a more dynamic way. But what is important, historically, about Hit Parade is that it featured a popularity chart. This was compiled from sheet music and record sales, along with radio requests, and predated the first published record chart in the UK by 10 months. With its chart countdown, Hit Parade set the pattern for Top of the Pops and other shows in decades to follow.

Not Six-Five Special...

Later in the decade, programmes like Six-Five Special and Oh Boy! were the first to embrace the excitement of rock'n'roll, and then the family-orientated Juke Box Jury cornered the market in reviews of new releases. A number of similar formats followed on ITV. The popular Thank Your Lucky Stars had a “Spin a Disc” segment, in which Birmingham teenager Janice Nicholls sprang to fame by declaring "I’ll give it five" in a strong Birmingham to show her approval for various discs, and the London weekday ITV franchisee Associated-Rediffusion created Needle Match, a contest between the latest releases from the UK and the US. Arguing the case for British releases was a young Oliver Reed, while David Frost was the production assistant charged with collating the jury’s votes.

It's time to jive at the old Six-Five... Jon Pertwee perhaps not taking the skiffle craze too seriously on Six-Five Special, though Adam Faith gets the joke...

Ready, Steady, Go! may be the 60s show that people most fondly remember, but it was predated (some would say inspired) by Discs A Gogo, a programme created by Television Wales and the West (TWW), a tiny ITV provider. Discs A Gogo began in 1961 and ran for five years, right in the midst of the British beat boom. It took as its premise a cellar coffee bar (Gogo’s), where kids mingled around artists introduced by DJ Kent Walton. It wasn’t shown across all the UK but that did not deter all the big acts, from the Beatles down, from heading to Bristol for the weekly recordings.

With programmes like Discs A Gogo, ITV was leading the way in coverage of pop music and it took the BBC a while to catch up. Juke Box Jury apart, pop music on the BBC was confined largely to children’s TV shows. The Lenny the Lion Show that began in 1957 had always enjoyed some musical content but this was pushed to the fore in 1962 when the show became Pops and Lenny. Similarly, Crackerjack always aligned itself with what was going on in the record charts, not just featuring many of the latest hit bands and singers – anyone from Tom Jones to the Who – but also by creating a medley of chart songs to finish off each show, with humorous new lyrics added for good measure.

Not Top Of The Pops...

The arrival of Top Of The Pops in 1964 swung the balance back in the BBC’s favour, and the corporation built on this with a series of other shows that began to feature pop culture as a whole, beginning with the magazine show A Whole Scene Going in 1966 and continuing through the early-evening arts programme How It Is in 1968. The latter was produced and presented by Tony Palmer whose seminal Omnibus film All My Loving, shown in the same year, contained highly disturbing newsreel scenes of graphic violence, it illustrated how political the music world had become, and revealed how pop artists had found a powerful, influential voice.

This intellectualisation of pop and the recognition that it could now be discussed in the same terms as classical music or even fine art encouraged the BBC to introduce new BBC2 shows that were spun off the arts review Late Night Line-Up. These began with Colour Me Pop in 1968 and continued with Disco 2 in 1970, both titles somewhat misleading as to the programme contents as they both focused on album music rather than the singles chart. The progression then continued into The Old Grey Whistle Test, which became a bulwark of rock on TV for 16 years.

On the pure pop front, Top of the Pops had seen off Ready, Steady, Go! and ITV needed to find a competitor chart show. The only problem was that the commercial channel had rarely looked beyond children’s television as a means of doing this. Granada drove the issue forward, with Muriel Young – formerly host of the kids’ series Five O’Clock Club – producing a long run of teenybop shows that included Lift Off with Ayshea and Get It Together, fronted by former Basil Brush straightman Roy North. There were also programmes featuring the Bay City Rollers, Arrows, Marc Bolan and Paul Nicholas.

The iconic Old Grey Whistle Test graphic later received 6 months' probation for this unprovoked assault on Betelgeuse

LWT also chipped in with Mike Mansfield’s Supersonic but none of these shows troubled the hegemony of Top of the Pops and consequently didn’t encourage the BBC to do much more with music. With The Old Grey Whistle Test taking care of the album audience and Top of the Pops handling the singles chart, everything was sewn up, leaving room for just a few showcases for performers with broad appeal such as Cilla Black and Leo Sayer.

The punk movement derailed television pop during the mid-70s. Top of the Pops, despite baulking at the Sex Pistols early on, soon embraced the new music but Whistle Test took a while to get on board, for the simple reason that punk was a singles-based phenomenon and until punk bands produced albums they couldn’t appear on the show.

Not Whistle Test...

Over on ITV, future Factory Records founder Tony Wilson turned his music show So It Goes into a weekly punk/new wave fest. This was followed soon after by a show called Revolver, which was set in a fictional fading dancehall that had reluctantly decided to present live bands in order to survive. Resentment rained down on the pogoing audience from the hall’s “manager", comedian Peter Cook, who snootily addressed the mob via a video link from his office.

As the 80s arrived, the BBC was working hard to bring music to young people in a more down-to-earth way through pop magazines such as Oxford Road Show and Riverside. The intellectual slant continued through Eight Days a Week, which brought together musicians, journalists, video producers and the like, to discuss new releases, gigs, films and music books. This was also the decade that saw the start of The Rock'n'Roll Years, which chronicled the events of the years 1956 onwards by cleverly overlaying news footage with the hits of the day.

The Old Grey Whistle Test moved with the times and trimmed its name to Whistle Test, but it struggled to maintain its relevance because of the whirlwind that was The Tube, Tyne Tees’ chaotic but electric version of Ready, Steady, Go! for the 80s. Broadcast live on a Friday night, The Tube had its share of disasters but it delivered a real buzz for anyone into music in this era.

Eventually, Whistle Test conceded defeat, a move hastened by the arrival of Janet Street-Porter who needed the budget for her youth television plans, based around the DEF II strand.

Lookin' cool, Jools - his Later... series, like many of its BBC2 pop and rock predecessors, was a spin-off from a late night arts review, in this case, The Late Show

DEF II had a strong musical bent, with offerings that importantly shed light on, for instance, house, hip-hop, soul, funk and reggae. It also included the French import Rapido, a flippant show hosted by Antoine de Caunes who hammed up his Gallic accent to add to its quirkiness. More relevant to the developing indie scene was Snub TV, a show set up by two former Rough Trade records employees. Making a virtue of their lack of funding, they took the programme to the bands and filmed them on breaks during rehearsals, paring music television back to its essentials. The show gave breaks to bands like the Stone Roses, just as the “Madchester" scene was unfolding.

Not TFI Friday...

The Britpop 90s were most memorably covered on television by Channel 4’s controversial magazine The Word and the "weekend starts here" buzz of TFI Friday, although the show that many music fans rated most highly was The White Room, developed by former Tube executives Malcolm Gerrie and Chris Cowey. The idea was to strip away all the frippery that had descended onto television’s coverage of music, eschewing the special effects and the clever camera tricks to just film artists in the simplest of settings – literally a white room with no distractions. Gerrie reckons it could have become Channel 4’s Later and still be giving Jools Holland’s BBC2 show ­– which started a couple of years earlier – a run for its money today if the channel had kept it going.

In the new millennium, music on television became less mainstream and more fragmented by target audience. In most cases, it was either shown on Saturday morning for kids – via shows like The Pop Zone and CD:UK – through the night in Channel 4’s 4Music strand or lodged in one of those new-fangled digital channels. There were still some shows that managed to stand out, not least Popworld, which was devised as part of a multi-media commercial package. Its developer, Simon Fuller – former manager of the Spice Girls – conceived the idea of a Popworld website that marketed CDs, downloads, concert tickets and just about anything a young music fan could want, and the Channel 4 show was just one facet of this. The programme was far more than just an advert for the online presence, however, and its subversive presenters Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver drew a huge audience for the way in which they poked fun at the stars of the day.

The digital era and the arrival of the red button and live streaming have now changed the face of music on television for ever. The BBC’s coverage of Glastonbury, which began in 1997, exemplifies this better than anything, giving fans arguably a better – if somewhat different – experience at home, or out and about on their phones, than actually going to the festival, by offering a choice of viewing from across several stages. There is very little of what we might describe as "traditional" television music coverage available, at least on mainstream channels - Later with Jools Holland being the best example - but it’s never been easier to get your fix of music, with television no longer the only medium capable of delivering a visual take on what’s going on in the music world.

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