Entertainment & Arts

Top 10 pop picks as TOTP turns 50

TOTP logos
Image caption The logos and presenters changed over the years, but TOTP was always based on the week's Top 40 singles chart

Fifty years ago, direct from Manchester, Top Of The Pops made its debut on the airwaves.

The weekly pop countdown ran for decades, racking up more than 2,000 episodes, featuring the likes of U2, Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Bob the Builder - sometimes on the same show.

In fact, Top of the Pops is that rare beast: A programme which is still part of the BBC's annual Christmas Day ratings battle but was taken off the air due to unpopularity seven-and-a-half years ago.

The recent scandal involving arguably its most famous presenter Jimmy Savile has cast a cloud over the show's history - and further set back any discussion of a revival.

Nonetheless, its half-century has several pivotal moments. True to the show's chart-based format, here is a top 10.

1) The first episode (1 January, 1964)

Image caption The Rolling Stones were the first band to play TOTP

In a converted church, renamed Studio A, in Dickenson Road, Rusholme, Manchester, BBC One screened a show based on Radio Luxembourg's Teen and Twenty Disc Club, commissioned by producer Johnnie Stewart.

The first artists to perform were The Rolling Stones, playing I Wanna Be Your Man, followed by Dusty Springfield, The Hollies and The Beatles - who were number one with I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Although the show was shot and broadcast live, all of the artists mimed.

Image caption The weekly top 40 was prominently displayed on the set during the first episode

The debut episode was hosted by DJs Jimmy Savile, Samantha Juste, Alan "Fluff" Freeman and Pete Murray.

"At the time, I was intending to go back to my acting career," Murray told the show's official biographer Ian Gittins. "But Johnnie was very persuasive and told me it would only last six weeks."

It lasted 42 years, or 50 if you factor in TOTP2 and festive specials.

2) The first football squad (21 May, 1970)

Image caption A suited and booted England World Cup squad perform on Top Of The Pops in 1970

The democratic nature of the Top 40 meant that one show could house Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Clive Dunn (14 January, 1971), Roberta Flack and Benny Hill (28 December, 1972) or the Outhere Brothers, Michael Jackson, Pulp and the Levellers (7 December, 2005).

So, it was only on TOTP that you could find a squad of footballers alongside multiplatinum recording artistes.

Arsenal's squad was recording singles in the 1930s, but it was England's national team who debuted TOTP's first football song when their 1970 anthem Back Home spent three weeks at number one.

But it wasn't just teams - there were also footballers who fancied themselves as pop stars, with Kevin Keegan, Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle appearing on the show.

Ian Wright appeared as a presenter (February 1997) but not a recording artist. His single, Do the Right Thing, missed the Top 40 four years earlier, making No 43.

Steve Archibald holds a record for appearing twice on the same show, with two squads - for Tottenham Hotspur's FA Cup final, and the 1982 World Cup with Scotland.

3) The first Christmas Day episode (1967 - missing; 1973 - on tape)

Image caption Slade opened and closed the 1973 Christmas show, playing Cum On Feel The Noize and Merry Christmas Everybody

TOTP made its debut in holiday season, and there were often episodes during Christmas week - but the first ever Christmas Day special has been wiped.

Broadcast in 1967, it took stock of the year's biggest hits. A "part two" from Boxing Day does exist, however, and was repeated on BBC Four in 2008.

A montage of talking heads opened the show, with Bee Gee Robin Gibb petulantly declaring: "I would just like to give a pound to someone who can stand up and explain to me I Am The Walrus, by The Beatles."

The first Christmas Day episode to be preserved for posterity came in 1973, and was hosted by Noel Edmonds and Tony Blackburn.

In a 2011 interview with the Daily Mail, Blackburn attributed the show's success to "chiefly, a lack of pretention".

Appearances from Little Jimmy Osmond, Suzi Quatro, the Simon Park Orchestra and two performances from Slade (Cum on Feel the Noize and Merry Xmas Everybody) back up his theory.

4) The first and last appearances of Legs and Co (21 October 1976, and 29 October, 1981)

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThis was Legs and Co's first appearance on Top of The Pops, where viewers were asked to name the group... Answers were written on a postcard

Even though Strictly Come Dancing's professionals often perform routines to current hits, Top Of The Pops' all-female dance troupes now feel anachronistic.

But they were born of necessity - during the show's first two decades, the dancers filled in for artists who couldn't (or wouldn't) make it to the studio, from The Smurfs to The Clash.

Legs and Co were the longest-running troupe, succeeding Pan's People and Ruby Flipper.

They made their debut in October 1976 as the "Top of the Pops dancers", with a routine set to the Average White Band's Queen of My Soul.

For three episodes, their name was listed as "??????" on the closing credits, until the BBC invited viewers to write in with a name.

The writing was on the wall in 1981 when TOTP's new producer, the late Michael Hurll, relegated Legs and Co to backing dancers.

Their last lead performance was on 15 October, 1981 to The Tweets' The Birdie Song; and on 29 October they danced behind Haircut 100 during their performance of Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl).

The advent of the music video in 1983 saw off TOTP's final dance troupe, Zoo.

5) Madchester (23 November, 1989)

Image caption The Stone Roses played Fools Gold, while the Happy Mondays were joined by Kirsty MacColl for Hallelujah

The Beatles and The Stones were on the first ever episode, and guest presenter Blur's Damon Albarn once introduced Oasis - but, for many, the best example of TOTP alighting upon a musical movement was in 1989.

The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays made their first appearances on the same show, signalling "Madchester" as a cultural and commercial force. "It felt like Manchester was taking over," Mondays singer Shaun Ryder wrote in his autobiography.

Those two groups were in no way symptomatic of the quality of that week's Top 20, which included Milli Vanilli, Kaoma's version of the Lambada, Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers and New Kids on the Block's first UK number one, You Got It (The Right Stuff).

6) Early tapes wiped (date unknown)

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionTapes of David Bowie performing on Top of the Pops in 1973 were feared lost, before being rediscovered in 2013

If you can remember the Sixties, according to Robin Williams, you weren't really there. The rest of us are hardly helped by the unnamed BBC executive who wiped hundreds of programmes from the show's archive.

Those wrongs are occasionally righted by occasional discoveries, including a 1976 episode featuring ex-Blue Peter presenter Lesley Judd dancing with Pan's People.

In 2011, cameraman John Henshall, while looking through old tapes for his showreel, discovered test footage of David Bowie performing Jean Genie from January 1973.

7) Tony Dortie takes over (3 October, 1991)

Image caption Tony Dortie and Mark Franklin on the Top Of The Pops set in 1991

For most of its history, Top of the Pops was presented by Radio 1 DJs - but in 1991 children's TV presenter Tony Dortie and local radio DJ Mark Franklin were recruited to the show as part of a revamp, which also saw bands instructed to perform live, whether they liked it or not.

Dortie's catchphrases of "Peace Out" and "Laterz" were not to everyone's taste but he lasted three years before Radio 1 presenters like Simon Mayo and Bruno Brookes were put back in charge.

From 1995, producers drafted in guest presenters from pop stars (Mark Owen, Jarvis Cocker, Malcolm McLaren, The Spice Girls), to sporting figures (Chris Eubank, Frankie Dettori and, most bizarre of all, Sue Barker and Colin Jackson co-presenting from the Winter Olympics).

There were also comedians (Punt and Dennis, Rufus Hound, Jack Dee) and TV personalities (Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson all co-hosted with Fearne Cotton in its final 12 months).

8) Andi Peters' relaunch (28 November, 2003)

Image caption Blazin' Squad's performance of Flip Reverse was a centrepiece of the 2003 relaunch

At the turn of the millennium, TOTP received a series of wounds which saw it to limp towards its eventual demise

Former BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey moved it to Fridays, and scheduled it against Coronation Street. It then moved to Sundays on BBC Two, where it was pitched against Emmerdale.

Many pop fans regarded the appointment of Edd the Duck's former associate Andi Peters as executive producer as a mortal blow - perhaps unfairly, given that he had successfully launched pop music strands Ozone and T4 earlier in his career.

Taking over in 2003, Peters decreed that, like The Seekers, the Labour Party and The Avengers before it, the TOTP brand was in need of a name change.

His debut, hour-long All New Top of the Pops was hosted by former MTV presenter Tim Kash, who looked petrified throughout.

The programme featured an interview launching the solo career of Victoria Beckham and a performance from Blazin' Squad accompanied by 100 hooded fans in the "donut" at BBC TV Centre. Critics were not kind.

Kash was quietly shelved six months later in favour of Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates - who continue to present the show's infrequent special episodes today.

9) Acts who turned it down (various)

Image caption The Clash famously refused to appear on the show

While most bands would sell their own mothers to appear on TOTP, some deliberately avoided the show.

The Clash preferred Tiswas ("because Tiswas was cool" the late Joe Strummer helpfully told Q magazine) and Will Young's record company pulled him out the show after he won Pop Idol because producers would not let him play two songs.

Even though a re-versioned cover of Whole Lotta Love was the show's theme tune for a while, Led Zeppelin didn't release singles and therefore were ineligible for the show.

The Arctic Monkeys released the UK's fastest-selling debut album in 2006 but refused to appear just at the point the show needed them.

"It didn't start as a big thing. It just didn't feel right," Alex Turner told 6 Music's Steve Lamacq. "And now even if we did want to do it, we can't because we've said no once and it's hard to go back on that."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionNew Order performed Regret on the Californian set of Baywatch, complete with a cameo from David Hasselhoff

And The Magic Numbers stormed out of rehearsals in 2005 after presenter Richard Bacon said they had emerged from a "fat melting pot of talent" - perceiving the comment as an unwelcome jibe about their weight.

But some bands adored Top of the Pops, and made it work to their advantage even when they were unavailable.

When New Order couldn't make it to the studio to play their 1992 hit, Regret, they chose to record a performance on the Baywatch set instead.

10) Simon Cowell offers to buy the rights

Image caption Simon Cowell recreated some of the atmosphere of Top Of The Pops when he introduced live performances to Sunday night's X Factor results show

The fact Doctor Who, Come Dancing and Open All Hours can all find new life years after their cancellation may breed some optimism about TOTP's permanent return.

Many pop stars have called for it to be resuscitated including Damon Albarn, Olly Murs, Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, Ellie Goulding and Noel Gallagher who told Radio Times in 2012: "I'd bring back Top of the Pops in a heartbeat."

Even presenter Fearne Cotton has eschewed BBC impartiality to call for its return in 2009, declaring: "Let's get a petition, let's get banners and let's picket outside!"

"People don't have a platform these days. TV-wise it's difficult for bands and artists to do promotion at the moment."

One potential saviour comes in the form of X Factor mogul Simon Cowell, who made a public offer to buy the rights to the show at the 2008 National TV Awards.

"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," he said. "I would rather it came to us than just sit in the dustbin."

Charlotte Moore, the latest controller of BBC One, has yet to declare her position.

The Christmas and New Year editions of Top Of The Pops are currently available to watch again on the BBC iPlayer.

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC