Tyne & Wear

How The Tube changed the TV landscape

Jools Holland and Paula Yates stood by a wall bearing The Tube logo Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Jools Holland and Paula Yates had first met on the set of Top of the Pops in the late 1970s

Forging a reputation as the most rock 'n' roll show on TV, The Tube gave British viewers early glimpses of Madonna, REM and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. An exhibition is offering fans a trip down memory lane - but just how did the anarchic programme change the entertainment landscape?

Bonfire Night, 1982. As bangers and Catherine wheels lit up the early evening sky, Channel 4 began beaming its own brand of fireworks into unsuspecting homes up and down the country.

From studios in Newcastle, the fledgling station lit the blue touch paper on a music show that would establish itself as the most controversial of its time.

A mix of music, comedy and chat, The Tube set out to thrill and excite with an off-the-cuff style a world away from the BBC's more staid offering, Top of the Pops.

The programme, produced by Tyne Tees Television from its Quayside base, would clock up more than 100 episodes across five series and make stars of its co-hosts Jools Holland and Paula Yates.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Mod chart-toppers The Jam appeared on the first episode and - perhaps fittingly for a show ushering in a new era - performed This is the Modern World

"It threw a lot of the rules of TV out of the window in a natural, spontaneous way," says Holland. "It wasn't fake.

"We all thought we'd do one series and that would be it. None of us realised it was going to be such a success.

"Music shows up to that point had been very earnest. We knocked the earnestness out of it."

Almost three decades on, producer Chris Phipps says the show's legacy is still evident.

"All music shows are of their time. Ready Steady Go! was brilliant for the beat boom of the 60s, The Old Grey Whistle Test was great for the album-led 70s and The Tube was perfect for the narcissistic, early MTV generation. I don't think it would be right for today.

"But TFI Friday, to all intents and purposes, is The Tube - the set, the crowd, that whole chaotic feel. You also see it in the irreverent style of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton.

"It's an attitude, and it all started with The Tube."

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Frankie Goes to Hollywood, fronted by Holly Johnson, hit the top spot in the charts with Relax after being given their big break on The Tube

Previously best known as the keyboard player with Squeeze, Holland was performing with The Police at New York's Madison Square Garden when his then-manager Miles Copeland - brother of Police drummer Stewart - received a call enquiring about his interest in auditioning for the presenting gig.

"They'd got Paula as well. We both went along and showed off, thinking we were brilliant," he recalls. "Actually, we were incompetent, unprofessional and, in a word, rubbish.

"[Television executive] Andrea Wonfor said everyone who watched the tapes thought we were hopeless. She told them, 'I agree with everything you're saying, but you can't stop watching them'.

"Paula was ravishingly good-looking, but she wasn't a bimbo. She was so funny and devastatingly sharp and intelligent."

Image copyright Chris Phipps
Image caption Yates interviewed Dave Stewart of Eurythmics when the team travelled to Los Angeles

Their "unbelievable chemistry" was crucial to the show's appeal, according to Michael Metcalf, who started out as a production assistant before taking on directing duties for the fourth series.

"Jools was Mr Cheeky Chappie. What you saw was what you got and people respected him.

"Paula was made for people to have an opinion about. I loved her. She knew most of the acts. They would purr with her."

The pair's unconventional style had critics frothing. DJ Andy Kershaw branded them "Mr Smug and Mrs Smutty".

"The press went for it by the throat, especially for Paula's attitude," remembers Phipps. "She was the first 'tabloid-style' presenter - gossipy.

"It was like a whirlwind and it was live. The feeling was, 'What the hell is going to happen? Are we going to get to the end of the show?' There was a frisson about going on air without a safety net at half-past five. It was organised chaos."

Tunnel vision

Image copyright Rex Features
  • The programme took its name from the circular covered walkway leading to the studio. It was first broadcast five days after Channel 4 launched
  • While Holland and Yates were its main anchors, other presenters included Leslie Ash - who covered Yates' maternity leave - and Muriel Grey
  • The audience was made up of the same people every week. They had been given 'punter's passes'. "If you had a fresh audience, they'd spend an hour looking in wonderment at all the equipment," says Phipps. "You don't want people gawping at the cameras."
  • Comedian Vic Reeves made his first television appearance on the show, while Rik Mayall and French and Saunders also appeared
  • Memorabilia including one of the two neon Tube signs and a piano played by Holland and the show's guests was auctioned off by Tyne Tees when it relocated to Gateshead. Both its former City Road HQ and the Egypt Cottage have been demolished

More troubling for the show's producers was the reluctance of London-based record companies to send their acts 250 miles north.

Audiences, though, were won over by the live performances from Tyne Tees' Studio Five and interview segments from what became known as Studio Six - the Egypt Cottage pub next door. The Rose and Crown, opposite, was another favourite with Holland and guests.

Additionally, the team travelled across the globe with features filmed as far afield as Japan, Jamaica and the United States.

Within 12 months the labels could no longer ignore The Tube's success and A&R men fought to sign up the little-known bands given their big break by the programme.

"We treated the whole thing as a gig," explains Metcalf, who credits the show with being his "calling card" that led to stints on The Big Breakfast and GMTV.

"Top of the Pops was very safe. They all mimed and the presenters were very slick. For us, the sound was as important as the pictures."

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Fine Young Cannibals and The Housemartins all found chart success after being showcased, while a young Madonna made one of her earliest British TV appearances thanks to a broadcast from Manchester's Hacienda nightclub in January 1984.

A mix-up with her record company over expenses meant the production team had to hand her a cash-filled envelope to pay for her train journey back to London.

"A lot of those bands wouldn't have been signed for at least another year - if at all - without having been seen on The Tube," contends Phipps, who booked many of the artists after moving from the BBC's Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham.

Image copyright Chris Phipps
Image caption Los Angeles was one of the many glamorous places visited by the team. Bryan Ferry, left, and Malcolm McLaren are pictured here with Chris Phipps

So much of a hit did the show become, he believes it marked "the beginnings of the cultural rebirth of the Quayside and the city".

Along with Metcalf, the Midlander has provided memorabilia for an exhibition running at Newcastle's Discovery Museum until the end of June. One of the show's original neon signs sits alongside video interviews with key figures, photographs and an assortment of paraphernalia.

But despite its success, the show could never escape controversy.

In 1987, Holland swore during a live trailer broadcast on children's TV. It was one of many incidents to draw complaints and marked the beginning of the end.

"It was inadvertent, a genuine slip of the tongue," he states sheepishly. "I was banned for six weeks or something. I got a letter from [moral campaigner] Mary Whitehouse. I wrote back apologising. I quite agreed. I was sorry, I didn't mean to cause offence.

"Nowadays you can't turn on the telly without hearing swearing. Did we open the floodgates? I don't know. Is that our legacy? I hope not.

Image caption BBC2's flagship music show Later... with Jools Holland launched in 1992. Yates was a guest in 1994

"It's part of my history and means a lot to me. I also think it's important in British broadcasting history. Being made in Newcastle was one of the most important things. I don't believe it would have been as good if it had been done somewhere else.

"Everybody 'got it' and the team behind it - Malcolm Gerrie, Andrea, her husband Geoff - were very good at giving us freedom and keeping us away from anyone [at Channel 4] who wanted to interfere."

He admits, though, the programme had run its course.

"It was consistently pushing the boundaries, but by the end it was getting contrived. People would say, 'Let's do this to be wacky,' but that doesn't work."

Duran Duran were the final band to perform and Yates, with her closely cropped peroxide blonde hair and powder blue dress, brought proceedings to a halt.

"So here it is, the moment we've all been dreading - it's the last moment of The Tube. It's been wonderful... you're going to miss us when we're gone."

A metal shutter slammed across the Studio Five exit. The door was closing on one smash-hit TV show. It would soon open for others who followed in its footsteps.

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