As anyone who’s attempted to sit through an entire episode of In the Night Garden will appreciate, my mind tends to wander when I’m watching the bedtime hour on CBeebies with my toddler. I often wonder about how much he will remember of this, when he’s older, and what kind of memories he’ll conjure of watching TV with his daddy by the time he’s a teenager. I become similarly reflective whenever I watch old episodes of Top of the Pops from the 1970s on BBC4. If you were to ask me about my first TV memory, TOTP would be my instant reply. There’s a family legend that I would insist upon watching it each week, but would inevitably be sound asleep on my father’s knee by the time the number one record came around. This was the early 1980s, New Romantic era, and another legend has it that I used to cry whenever Adam Ant came on, but got excited whenever any of the Kids From Fame spin-off records were featured. In fact, one of my earliest TV memories is of a week in which they played the video of ‘High Fidelity’ from Fame, which was then followed by the show proper.
As a five-year-old, in what a quick google tells me must have been the summer of 1982, I had a kind of epiphany about how TV shows all fit together and pour into each other.
I think these anecdotes go some way towards explaining why the BBC’s broadcasts of old Top of the Pops shows in their entirety (well, almost, but we’ll get to that) are much more affecting and fascinating to me than the various compilation packages (such as Top of the Pops 2) that circulate on nostalgia channels, or the standalone performances and videos that are so easily accessible on YouTube. For some reason, I could hardly breathe when watching last year the episode re-broadcast during the week I was born: here, transported through a 35-year portal, was a snapshot of the kind of ordinary television my father might have sat distractedly through as he waited to be called into the maternity ward. In a way, it was a similar present to getting one of those newspaper reprints from your day of birth. Or discovering that your off-air VHS recording of a movie has inadvertently captured some bit of non-fiction or lifestyle show that will never see a commercial release or YouTube upload, and may even be beyond the reach of academic researchers (and hey, now you’re an academic and writing about this kind of material, it’s like you’ve offered a gift to your future self).
The BBC began its cycle of calendar-corresponding TOTP repeats in April 2011, beginning with an episode from 1 April 1976, then broadcasting shows as near as possible to their date of original transmission. Although the show had been going since 1964, April 1976 marked the point at which the BBC had archived entire episodes, as opposed to just selected snippets. I’m still cross with myself for failing to answer a question on this very topic when I was a contestant on a Radio 4 quiz show last year. In a specialist round entirely devoted to Top of the Pops (not that I knew this in advance of the recording), I was asked to name the other BBC show where an otherwise lost fragment of TOTP history had survived for posterity (it was Doctor Who, by the way).
Like being plunged headlong into a long-running soap or serial, it took a little time to adjust to the production and industrial logic of these ‘prehistoric’ editions (for me anyway) of the show, and to see beyond the elements of kitsch – the dancing troupes, cheesy DJs and primitive video effects – that have long been a staple of comedy clip shows. Like the many fans of the show who take to twitter and blogs to comment on the unfolding series, I have taken pleasure in observing the subtle format changes, the on-going attempts to find décor and editing styles appropriate for new musical styles, the ephemeral quips by presenters about contemporaneous weather, politics and culture, and the personnel changes of the in-house dance troupe. When I identified the male guest cameo in Legs and Co.’s routine to ‘You’re the One that I Want’ as a member of the vanquished Ruby Flipper group, I had the sort of satisfaction usually reserved for identifying walk-on parts in old sitcoms.
From a musical perspective, the sheer range of styles and performers in the pop charts of the late 1970s, and therefore in the TOTP studio, is something to behold. To take the episode first transmitted on 8 June 1978 as just one example, there really is something for everyone: cheesy pop (Brotherhood of Man), rock (Manfred Mann, Rolling Stones), soppy ballads (David Soul), French pop (Plastic Bertrand, bopping with Legs and Co.), folk rock (Lindisfarne), soul (Maxine Nightingale), novelty records (‘Loving you has made me bananas’: no, me neither), heavy meal (AC/DC) and at number one, Boney M, a band whose music haunted my school discos.
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but the collision of iconic, well-remembered moments of pop/TV history with unremembered banality is often disarming. In the spirit of verisimilitude, I try to resist the urge to skip the tedious numbers – they are usually a cue to get up to speed with the fact-checking and witticisms of the bloggers/tweeters. For instance, did I know that the keyboard-player of the Heatwave would later become the co-writer of Michael Jackson hits like ‘Thriller’?
Or, hang on, isn’t that Cheryl Baker in the line-up of a UK entry for Eurovision, a few years before she was in Bucks Fizz?
Whereas viewers of the curated ‘package’ show Top of the Pops 2 get this kind of trivial information through on-screen captions and voice-over commentary, here the audience is given a space to navigate their way through musical and personal history at their own speed and time.
It’s hardly surprising that the TOTP repeats generate a rather nerdish commentary, and statistics about past/future screen appearances of songs and performances are readily available to the curious. The show can also be appreciated as one long shaggy-dog story, with records climbing up and falling down the charts at a speed that is almost glacial compared to the modern charts; indeed, one of the reasons cited for the demise of TOTP in 2006 was that a vastly different consumption and broadcasting culture had emptied the charts of any sense of anticipation or relevance.
However, this impulse to impose narrative logic can also be seen in the BBC’s own contextualising framework for the show. For every calendar year covered by the repeats, BBC4 have broadcast a documentary covering the key developments of the upcoming twelve-month period, cueing viewers in readiness, for example, for the first stirrings of emergent genres (most notably, in the 1976-78 period, punk and disco), the dominance of particular performers, and the novelty records that nestle between more significant and fondly-remembered songs.
The BBC have wielded their scissors in other ways. In order to fit BBC4’s contemporary scheduling, the 7.30pm broadcast of the show requires up to ten minutes of material to be excised from the original running-time of 40 minutes (this material is reinstated in late-night repeats). Furthermore, there are occasional copyright issues that led to awkward edits: for instance, a performance from the Eurovision Song Contest seems to have been cut from a May 1978 edition.
But, as readers of this blog are probably well aware, Top of the Pops has subsequently been tainted by association with one of the bleaker stories in recent British popular culture history: the un-masking of the DJ Jimmy Savile as a predatory paedophile. As soon as the myths solidified into fact, the BBC took the decision not to include the Savile-fronted episodes of TOTP in its repeat cycle. At the time of writing, the shows involving Dave Lee Travis (currently under investigation as part of Operation Yewtree) have also been embargoed. The Savile fall-out provoked some discussion by fans online about the ethics of the BBC’s stance, and there was some expectation that the repeats would simply be terminated.
This was not necessarily a hindrance for more devoted fans: many TOTP shows are available online, and blogs devoted to the subject were able to point viewers towards sites featuring the material that was now un-broadcastable. It not difficult to find off-air recordings from repeat broadcasts on other channels (such as UK Gold), thus allowing the BBC’s sanctioned TOTP project to be supplemented by the efforts of armchair archivists. But I have to admit that my dedication to the show took a severe knock at this point. As much as the completist side of me wanted to join the dots and access this embargoed material, these shows now carried a distinctly unpleasant aura. The scholar in me regretted how wider events had interrupted and jeopardised a unique broadcasting experience, and one that opened up a popular audience to a new kind of relationship to the archive. On the other hand, I could happily live without me or my family having to see Jimmy Savile ever again. And try as I can to overlook it, there is still something unsettling about the way that the male DJs cosy up on-screen to awkward, blushing teenage girls while they do their links. Whereas once the show was a guilty pleasure in the flippant sense – a Life of Mars-style window into prehistoric attitudes – it can now feel just a bit grubby. The BBC’s self-censorship is mirrored by own decision not to include images or clips relating to Savile in this blog. It seems a little crass, given the scale and reach of his abuses – and the issues they raise about social and institutional attitudes – to lament the impact of all this upon scholarly and archival endeavour. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to experience an uncomfortable frisson when seeing excerpts from Savile-fronted shows used as illustrations in the news coverage of the scandal: invariably, the faces of child participants were blurred out, giving the impression of a body of material that was now permanently marked as transgressive and out of bounds.
Still, as I write this, and despite the interruptions caused by real-life events, the BBC’s little TOTPexperiment is still rolling on beyond its second year. I’m a little surprised that it has received no critical attention (to my knowledge anyway), as it surely raises potent questions about the uses and ethics of the television archive. It is not unusual for fans of cult shows to embark upon a communal re-watch around set times that mirror an original scheduling pattern, but I’m not aware of any other attempts by public or commercial broadcasters to carry out this kind of real-time repeat run. One comparable example that springs to mind here is the laudable decision by the BBC Parliament channel – presumably as a way to fill empty schedules – to re-broadcast live coverage of historical events in their entirety: recent examples include the coverage of the 1979 election night footage, and the Queen’s Coronation, in celebration of its 60th anniversary.
This is all quite pertinent at a time when the emergent model for consumption seems to be that of the box-set or on-demand marathon. The TOTP repeats are the opposite of instant gratification: at this rate, I will have to wait ten years before I get to see the shows I genuinely remember from my youth. As a scholar too, it is often a necessity – whether for the purposes of close textual analysis, or merely to hit a deadline – to splurge on numerous episodes of a particular show, and in so doing lose a sense of the rate at which narratives and styles evolve, and how audiences perceive these shifts in real time. Given that TV studies is becoming increasingly concerned with questions of memory, legitimacy and shifting broadcasting/reception patterns, Top of the Pops surely makes a fruitful case-study. I would write more substantially on it myself, but I don’t want to put pen to paper until I’ve seen right through to the end of that episode featuring the Kids from Fame. And maybe I can watch it with my son. By my reckoning, and barring any other unforeseen scandals, that’s due to be broadcast in July 2018. What’s the rush?
James Leggott is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Northumbria University. He has published on various aspects of British film and television culture. His most recent publication is an edited collection on the comedy of Chris Morris (BFI/Palgrave). He is the editor of the Journal of Popular Television.