10 years of “Top of the Pops”

In 2011 BBC4 started to screen repeats of the old BBC1 music show “Top of the Pops”. On Friday 1 April that year they showed the episode that was first broadcast exactly 35 years earlier. Brotherhood of Man were at #1 with “Save your kisses for me”. As the year progressed they continued to show episodes exactly 35 years after their original transmission. Week by week we were able to see again whole editions that had not been broadcast since the spring, summer and autumn of that memorable year. “Fernando” by Abba took over from the Brotherhood of Man at #1 for 4 weeks. Then JJ Barrie, The Wurzels, The Real Thing and Demis Roussos all topped the charts until 6 weeks of Elton John and Kiki Dee (“Don’t go breaking my heart”) and another 6 weeks of Abba (“Dancing Queen”) took us up to mid-October.

Many of these episodes are unlikely to be shown again. Those hosted by Jimmy Savile will, rightly, never be given screen time. The extent of his crimes only began to emerge after his death in October 2011.

For a few years the episodes continued to be broadcast exactly 35 years after they were originally shown. In the summer of 2012 we could relive 1977, with #1s from Donna Summer, Brotherhood of Man (again) and Elvis Presley in the weeks immediately after his death. Moving into 2013 there were gaps in the schedule. Any shows involving Savile or Dave Lee Travis (who was under investigation at the time) were pulled. Still, there were plenty of opportunities to see the videos for the two songs from “Grease” that dominated the charts that year. Between them, “You’re the one that I want” and “Summer Nights” spent 15 weeks at #1 in 1978.

BBC4 has continued to screen these archive editions of “Top of the Pops” but at some point in the last two years the approach has changed. Most weekends multiple episodes are shown, making the chronology less straightforward. If things had carried on as they were we would currently be enjoying the charts from October 1983 (“Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club at #1 for 6 weeks) but those editions were shown some time last year. We’re now up to May 1986. We have had over 10 years’ worth of shows squeezed into 7½ years of 21st century time. I had got used to reliving the seasons with a 35-year gap but here we are in the first week of October and the music is from late spring. John Peel has reminded us that Liverpool have just won the League and Cup double. Dr and the Medics (“Spirit in the sky”) have just replaced Spitting Image (“The Chicken Song”) at #1. It’s a little confusing, and I have added to the confusion with my own viewing habits.

These “Top of the Pops” repeats have been on series record since we got our replacement multi-channel box at the end of 2015. I have been more diligent than usual this year watching and clearing the shows from 1985 and 1986 but still have dozens of them from as far back as 1981 clogging up the hard drive (figuratively). In recent weeks I have watched many of them in real time (still unable to fast forward) and deleted them. Most of them have been from 1981 and 1984. There wasn’t much that I wanted to keep. Any cherished performances or videos can be found on YouTube, like this one (“Fade to grey” by Visage). For me it evokes early 1981 more clearly than any other song. There were three posthumous #1s for John Lennon around that time, in the 11 weeks after he was murdered, but the voice of Steve Strange (who died in February 2015, aged 55) is the one that takes me back. There were several episodes from summer 1981 (“Ghost Town” by the Specials at #1) that I didn’t see first time around. I was in Spain for 6 weeks, and we were still many years way from owning a VCR.  There were shows from the summer and autumn of 1984 that I remember well: 9 weeks of “Two Tribes” at #1 followed by 3 weeks of George Michael (“Careless Whisper”) and 6 weeks of Stevie Wonder’s only solo UK chart-topper (“I just called to say I love you”).

I wonder when the month of the original broadcasts will match up once again with the month of their BBC4 repeats. Early next year perhaps, with the first weeks of 2019 accompanied by the sounds and images of 1987 (Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley at #1 with “Jack your body”). It’s not a year that I recall with much fondness musically, but as long as the repeats are being screened I’ll keep on watching. There might be some pleasant surprises.




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