BBC Two television’s Story of Light Entertainment reached its fifth episode, a programme on pop music and television. Its focus on the presenters and the participants meant it missed a vital ingredient; its impact on those who week by week watched the programmes, no matter how bad the quality of their content.
Top of the Pops was unrivalled in its popularity, fifteen million viewers at its peak: seven o’clock on a Thursday evening and there could be nothing allowed to interrupt the viewing of the programme. It wasn’t just in England, staying in Belmullet in Co Mayo, the far west of Ireland, in August 1982, there was an urgency to finish the evening meal. The television was turned on and there was the face of Kid Jensen, or maybe he was David Jensen by then. In an age before globalisation, when Ireland was a country very different from Britain, it seemed odd to be watching the BBC and a programme that seemed to capture the mood of the years of youth in the 1970s.
How many episodes of Top of the Pops did I watch? Five hundred maybe? Could it seriously have been that many? Starting in 1972 and finishing in the mid-80s, even if one week in four had been missed, then the total would have well passed the five hundred mark.
Out of five hundred programmes, how many are remembered? How many performers’ acts still remain in the memory?
Hardly any. Blondie’s Heart of Glass remains fresh in the memory as does Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive, but what of all the others? There must have been ten acts on each programme, and even if one allows for the fact that some would have appeared repeatedly if they were at Number One, there must still have been some three to four thousand different appearances over the dozen or so years I watched the programme. There must have been memorable performances, but most seem to have disappeared.
Abba’s video of Knowing Me, Knowing You remains in glimpses, as do the novelty acts. It was a mark of the power of Top of the Pops that it held on to its viewers despite showing such acts as Lieutenant Pigeon singing Mouldy Old Dough, Benny Hill’s performance of Ernie and Clive Dunn’s rendition of Grandad. It is hard to imagine now that there would not have been millions of people reaching for remote controllers rather than listen again to ‘Shaddap You Face’.
The Story of Light Entertainment contended that pop music has made a television comeback in programmes such as ‘The X Factor’, yet such programmes are a combination of reality television and game show, rather than being analogous to Top of the Pops.
Choice has eliminated the possibility of such a programme re-emerging. It is hard now to imagine the power it once possessed.