Still the toppermost of the poppermost

The BBC is ignoring its iconic music programme’s 50th anniversary. Is there any future for TOTP?

Rita Ora on Top of the Pops Christmas show in 2012

Rita Ora on Top of the Pops Christmas show in 2012


Two iconic TV programmes are celebrating their 50th anniversary, but only one – Doctor Who – got the full red carpet treatment. The other, Top of the Pops, has become the weird family member no one ever talks about. But of the two shows, TOTP had the bigger cultural impact.

The BBC has no plans whatsoever to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the once must-see music show due to the malevolent shadow cast by one-time main presenter Jimmy Saville. TOTP 2 (archive recordings) is still broadcast, and the annual Christmas special is still in place, but for all intents and purposes the programme, its memory and its legacy are now dead. It’s premise – bands perform their current hits and a rundown of the charts with the last song always being the No 1 – is sadly missed from the schedules.

During its 1970s peak, TOTP changed lives. When an alien with luminous hair and half of the local Boots chemist make-up counter on his face appeared in a figure-hugging satin jumpsuit and sang about something he called “a hazy cosmic jive” on July 6th, 1972, so many now famous bands were formed the very next day. David Bowie’s version of Starman that night remains one of the most influential music TV spots of all time.

Sure, it could be really awful: grown male presenters were called “Kid” and “Diddy”. Some Irish people of a certain age still haven’t recovered from the trauma of seeing Foster and Allen on the show dressed in leprechaun suits. But we survived that, just as we survived Waddle and Hoddle’s Diamond Lights knowing that Classix Nouveaux could be up next. You could enter into secondary school when Bohemian Rhapsody was No 1, finish your Leaving Cert, move to Australia for a few years and come back to find that Bohemian Rhapsody was still No 1.

And then there was Cliff, blessed bloody Cliff with his hair that never, ever moved. Richard appeared on TOTP a record 24 million times (okay, it was actually only 160, but it seems like more).

But what larks along the way: The Sex Pistols appearing with Pretty Vacant and a musical world turning on its axis. Kurt Cobain singing “Load up on drugs, kill your friends” at 7.30pm. The Undertones posting the shortest ever song with Here Comes the Summer (about 86 seconds). Google “All About Eve Martha’s Harbour Infamous TOTP Appearance” and see exactly why the show was so special.

Madchester was born on the show when The Stones Roses appeared next to The Happy Mondays in November 1989. Bono did his best Siouxsie Sioux impersonation on Fire. Toto Coelo (they were the punk Spice Girls) were in bin bags for I Eat Cannibals. Mick Jagger danced like a drunk geography teacher on Get Off My Cloud. Acid house giants The KLF were majestic with Last Train to Trancentral.

A series of unnecessary “revamps” before it was shunted off to BBC 2 left the show’s demise inevitable. And in 2005 it was no longer “still number one, still Top of the Pops” and the axe fell.

Simon Cowell is still thinking about buying the name and putting it back on TV screens again – which can only be a good thing. Teenage pop dreams are so hard to beat.

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