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Series / Top of the Pops

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The 19982003 series logo.

"Yes, it's Number One, it's Top of the Pops!"

A long-running music programme from The BBC that ran from New Year's Day 1964 to July 2006; it still turns up on special occasions, such as every Christmas Day and several Comic Relief nights.

It was presented by disc jockeys from BBC Radio 1 for many years (including legendary indie rock DJ John Peel) but most viewers associate the show with Jimmy Savile, who presented the first episode, co-hosted the last, and appeared regularly as a host for 20 years.

For a large part of its history, the artists performing on the show were required to lip synch their performance. Some (like Jethro Tull, Belle and Sebastian, Blur, Oasis, The Cure, Nirvana and Marillion) had fun with this, intentionally miming their vocals and instruments poorly. The Smiths, in fact, gained their first major breakthrough with their anarchic miming of their first UK Top 40 single "This Charming Man" on the show. Before the "lip sync-only" rule was removed, there were a handful of performers (namely New Order, David Bowie, John Lennon and Billy Bragg) who performed one of their songs ("Blue Monday", "Starman", "Instant Karma" and "Between the Wars", respectively) live on the program. These performances were always made into a big deal. Suzi Quatro's band really went to town on this: during a performance of "Devilgate Drive", the keyboards player left the piano and got up and danced, whilst the piano appeared to play itself. The drummer soon joined in, whilst the thunderous drum-playing continued with no obvious musician at the drum kit to provide this. Suzi herself took both hands away from her bass guitar to emphasise the point she was miming. Meanwhile three hundred clearly bored and embarrassed kids just sat there, listlessly clapping out the beat and still getting it wrong.

Spun-off in the 1990s and early 2000s to various series:

  • Top of the Pops 2 (Originally a mix of the main programme, new music and archive show performances, Re Tooled as mainly archive with the arrival of Steve Wright (1997-2009) replacing Johnnie Walker (1994-97) before being replaced by Mark Radcliffe (2009-2017). Usually shortened to TOTP2. Aired from 1994-2017)
  • Top of the Pops Saturday/Reloaded
  • Top of the Pops on THREE
  • Top of the Pops Plus
  • Top Of The Pops - The Story Of 19xx
  • Top of the Pops (Year) - The Big Hits. (Hour long Clip Show of the big, and not so big hits, of a particular year. Starting with 64-75 in 2011 and currently up to 1999.)

Not to mention various adaptations in other countries around the world (although an American adaptation flopped, perhaps because trying to sell this to the home of American Bandstand and MTV was the televisual equivalent of trying to sell snow to Eskimos or coal to Newcastle).

Sadly, the entire original show is now trapped in the shadow of the discovery that Savile abused his position at the BBC and with various charities to become the British Isles' most prolific sex offender (although according to Operation Yewtree, the investigation into celebrity sex offences, he probably wasn't the only ToTP presenter to abuse his position this way; colleague Dave Lee Travis was tried on similar allegations, and was convicted on an indecent assault charge, although it was not directly connected to ToTP). The stories of Savile's crimes only became widely known to the public a year after his death in October 2011, so he was never brought to judgment for them during his lifetime. Not surprisingly, his episodes are no longer seen in reruns, and any footage used for news/archival purposes is heavily blurred to edit out audience members out of fears that anyone in the audience was a potential victim.

This show provides examples of:

  • Book Ends: Jimmy Savile presented the first episode. At the end of the series, he co-presented the last, and the final scene showed him pulling a switch as though to cut the power. This is grim in hindsight, of course — Savile is now an Un-person in the eyes of the BBC and much TotP material featuring him as linking man has been locked up in the archives, unlikely to ever be screened again.
  • B-Roll Rebus: Dance troupe Legs and Co, on the show from 1976-81, relied so much on literal dancing that it was often joked that viewers could identify the song with the TV muted.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Jimmy Savile, at least onscreen.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • John Peel, who was brought on to bring his indie rock cred to the show in the 1980s, and spent much of his time as a presenter snarking about pop hits: "That's one of the very best things since Napoleon's retreat from Moscow - Keith Harris and Orville."
    • TOTP2's Steve Wright had his moments as well. Then Mark Radcliffe took over, the snark level went up, and even the text box (During the songs on TOTP2 a little box would appear at the bottom of the screen with facts about the songs or artists) got in on the act as well:
      Text Box (While Club Tropicana by Wham! is playing) "...Andrew Ridgeley decided a change of look was needed - God's know why..."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: There is a suspicion that in the old days of Lord Reith as Director-General, the BBC felt compelled to meet its mission statement of seeking to educate the viewing British public, whether the British public wanted to be educated or not. Thus, in The '70s, British youth avidly and impatiently waiting for its weekly fix of exciting live bands on Top Of The Pops at seven-thirty on a Thursday evening had first got to sit through the worthy, earnest, and often rather dull science and technology magazine show Tomorrow's World, which began at seven. It was the TV equivalent of Greens Precede Sweets.
  • Fanservice: Resident dance troupes Pan's People and follow-ups Legs and Co; arguably most of the female presenters in the late 1990s: Zoe Ball, Jayne Middlemiss, Gail Porter, Lisa Snowdon...
  • Guest Host: Played with at various points of the show's history.
  • Invisible Backup Band: Common with solo acts, as most artists appearing on the show were lip-syncing.
  • Is This Thing Still On?: Jeremy Clarkson was a guest presenter of one episode late in the programme's life. After an American hip-hop group finished performing he asked his co-presenter the trope question, then proceeded to refer to the song as "bloody appalling."
  • Long-Runners: 42 years for the weekly programme, 52+ years overall thanks to the Christmas specials.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Averted especially with straight repeats. The show's policy was to broadcast whatever was trending in the charts at the time- which includes all the stuff that most people have forgotten and in some cases, preferred to forget. Even though it's essentially a Clip Show, Top of the Pops 2 sometimes lampshaded this, with Steve Wright sometimes saying words to the effect of "yes, we really did listen to that back then!" or "yes, this one really was a hit!"
  • Nothing but Hits: Unintentional deconstruction, in a way. The show's remit was, as mentioned, to focus on current singles chart hits, as opposed to The Old Grey Whistle Test which focused on more "serious" rock music and the like, perhaps catering to slightly more niche interests. So in a very literal sense, the show was about "nothing but hits". But because of the rules governing what they had to show, this meant whatever was trending in the charts, as mentioned above. Ironically, the music people associate most with the 70s (apart from disco), appeared on the Test, while most of the hits TOTP showed back then have been almost forgotten.
  • One-Liner: John Peel. "And if that doesn't get to Number One, I'm gonna come and break wind in your kitchen." Said song, Pete Wylie's "Sinful", only got to #13.
  • Retool: Often when a new producer was appointed. Either made the show good (Ric Blaxill) or awful (Andi Peters). Also the TOTP 2 retool mentioned above.
  • Take That!:
    • The TOTP crew insisted that Nirvana play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the show, and Kurt Cobain wasn't too fond of the focus on "Teen Spirit" already, so his Creator Backlash mixed with an imitation of Morrissey and made one of these moments to the crew of TOTP.
    • Many towards the "lip sync" rule: Suzi Quatro's performance was just only one of them, along with the aforementioned performance of "This Charming Man," by the Smiths. Tracey Ullman decided to perform her song "They Don't Know About Us," whilst singing into a hairbrush, and basically any artist who decided not to even bother with the microphone....
  • Transatlantic Equivalent:
    • American Bandstand (in fairness, this started in the 1950s). Other similar programs included Soul Train, Dance Party USA (on the USA Network when they were a tiny network with little original programming), and Club MTV.
    • They did try to make an American version on CBS' late-night schedule in the late 80s, and it even featured performances from the UK version; it didn't last long because, as mentioned in the main description, bringing TOTP to the home of Bandstand was like selling snow to Eskimos. Producer Lou Pearlman attempted to bring the show back around 2006, but he got hit with lawsuits (in an eerie coincidence, he was also accused of molesting underaged children), and combined with the cancellation of the UK version it didn't come to pass. However, VH1 and BBC America occasionally aired the show.
    • Canada also had their own equivalent, Citytv / MuchMusic's Electric Circus, which originally began with a hip-hop/rap focus before shifting over to EDM and dance music.
  • Un-person: After the exposure of Jimmy Savile's serial predations, the BBC is understandably reluctant to ever show any footage including him. Unluckily, that includes major portions of the show's history, including the first and last episodes.
  • Vinyl Shatters: The early '80s titles end with a vinyl record exploding into fragments in mid air. (Although this clearly wasn't dramatic enough, as the titles were later updated to have an exploding TV instead).