Top Of The Pops (BBC 1964-2006)

One of the true legends of TV Top of the Pops sprang up in 1964 to cater for the pop explosion that swept the UK in the wake of the arrival of The Beatles. The show was originally only scheduled for a short run and the first host was DJ Jimmy Saville, in fact the format changed very little over its forty years with chart acts appearing in the studio to mime along to their latest hits.

Everybody who is anybody has appeared on the show from The Beatles to ZZ Top although one band to famously refuse to appear on the show was Led Zeppelin (despite the ironic fact that a re-recorded version of their song Whole Lotta Love by CCS was used as the theme tune for years).

Cliff Richard is the performer with most appearances on the show (over 70 although quite a few of these are no longer in existence, in fact there are hundreds of missing episodes of the Pops thanks to the BBC’s junking policy of the sixties and seventies). There have been over a hundred and fifty different presenters over the years (mostly DJs but latterly kids TV presenters and the like, the show reached its 1000 episode in 1983 and reached its 2000 in 2002. One of the most looked forward to editions was the hour long Christmas day edition screened just after lunch time each year.

One of the best remembered aspects of the show was its use of dancers who performed when acts couldn’t appear the most famous of these were Pan’s People (who first appeared in 1968 and their last appearance was in April 1976, dancing to Four Seasons ‘Silver Star’) who consisted of Babs Lord, Ruth Pearson, Dee Dee Wilde, Louise Clarke and Andi Rutherford. Later Cherry Gillespie and Sue Menhenick replaced Andi and Louise. After Pan’s People there were Ruby Flipper and Legs and Co but by this stage video was starting to feature on the show on a regular basis.

In November 2003, the show saw one of its most radical overhauls in what was widely reported as a make-or-break attempt to revitalise the long-running series. In a break with the previous format, the show played more up-and-coming tracks ahead of any chart success, and also featured interviews with artists. The new show was hosted by MTV presenter Tim Kash until his contract expired in August 2004. It was not renewed due to his apparent lack of popularity with TV viewers. The show was co-hosted by Reggie Yates and Fearne Cotton every Friday night until 11 July 2005.

By November 2004, viewing figures had plummeted to below three million, prompting an announcement by the BBC that the show was going to move, again, to Sunday evenings on BBC Two, thus losing the prime-time slot on BBC One that it had maintained for forty years. This move was widely reported as a final ‘sidelining’ of the show, and perhaps signalled its likely cancellation. At the time, it was insisted that this was so that the show would air immediately after the official announcement of the new top 40 chart on Radio 1, as it was thought that by the following Friday, the chart seemed out-of-date.

The first edition on BBC Two was broadcast on 17 July 2005 at 7pm with presenter Fearne Cotton. After the move to Sundays, Cotton continued to host with a different guest presenter each week, such as Rufus Hound or Richard Bacon. Viewing figures averaged around 1.5 million.

The first show Top of the Pops began on New Year’s Day 1964 in a studio (converted from a former church) on Dickenson Road in Longsight, Manchester, which the BBC had bought from Mancunian Films in 1954. DJ Jimmy Savile presented the first show, which featured (in order) The Rolling Stones with “I Wanna Be Your Man”, Dusty Springfield with “I Only Want to be With You”, the Dave Clark Five with “Glad All Over”, The Hollies with “Stay”, The Swinging Blue Jeans with “The Hippy Hippy Shake” and The Beatles with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, that week’s number one. Savile rotated with three other presenters: Alan Freeman, Pete Murray and David Jacobs.

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THE LAST SHOW (30 July 2006)
Edith Bowman co-presented its hour-long swansong, along with Sir Jimmy Savile (who had presented the first show), Reggie Yates, Mike Read, Pat Sharp, Sarah Cawood, Dave Lee Travis, Rufus Hound, Tony Blackburn and Janice Long. The show was recorded on 26 July 2006 and entirely featured archive footage and tributes, including The Rolling Stones – the very first band to appear on Top of the Pops – opening with The Last Time, the Spice Girls, Wham!, Madonna, Beyoncé Knowles and Robbie Williams. The final artiste on the show was Christina Aguilera introducing her video for Ain’t No Other Man, before the show closed with Sir Jimmy turning the lights off in the empty studio.

The BBC have also had a show called TOTP2 which shows archive footage from as early as the 1960s of musicians on earlier Top of the Pops shows. It has been shown on BBC2 since September 1994, although the network’s controller, Roly Keating, announced in the summer of 2004 that it was being “rested” (repeats, however, continue on the digital channel UKTV G2 with re-recorded dialogue). Other spin offs include TOTP @ play on Uk Play (1998-2000), TOTP The New Chart on BBC Choice (1999 -2000) and TOTP + Plus on Sundays on BBC2 (2000-2001). A more recent spin-off was Top of the Pops Reloaded (previously Top of the Pops Saturday), showing on Saturday mornings on BBC One. This was aimed at a younger audience and was part of the BBC Saturday morning lineup.

Europe The TOTP format was sold to RTL in Germany in the 1990s, and aired on Saturday afternoons. It was very successful for a long time, with a compilation album series and magazine. However, in 2006 it was announced that the German show would be ending. Domestic versions of the show continue to run in France, The Netherlands and Italy. An edited version of the UK show can also be seen on BBC Prime, the weekend after UK transmission.

United States Top of the Pops had short-lived fame in the United States. In 1987, the CBS television network decided to try an American version of the show. It was hosted by Nia Peeples and even showed performances from the BBC version of the programme. The show was presented on late Friday nights and lasted almost a year.

In 2002, BBC America presented the BBC version of Top of the Pops as part of their weekend schedule. The network would get the episodes one week after they were transmitted in the UK. BBC America then tinkered with the show by cutting a few minutes out of each show and moving it to a weekday time slot. Viewer interest was gone and the show was taken off BBC America’s schedule.

On January 23, 2006, record producer Lou Pearlman made a deal to bring “Top of the Pops” back to the airwaves in the United States. It is expected to be similar to the 1987 version, but it will also utilize the Billboard magazine music charts, most notably the Hot 100 chart. It was supposed to be planned for a possible 2006 or 2007 launch, but with the cancellation of the UK version no word on whether this US edition will go forward as it has yet to find a production company or distributor to partner with.

New Zealand The Top of the Pops brand has also been exported to New Zealand which for many years had to rely on music-video only shows to demonstrate its Top 20 (as well as the occasional season of the UK version of TOTP) as the world’s top acts found New Zealand just too far away from the major markets to visit regularly. This all changed when the New Zealand government suggested a voluntary New Zealand music quota on radio (basically a threat that if the stations did not impose a quota themselves then one would be imposed on them). This worked and suddenly the amount of indigenous music played on radio stations shot up, as did the number of New Zealand hits in the top 20. Therefore a new version of a show like Top of the Pops became feasible for the first time, and the show was commissioned by TVNZ. The show began in early 2004 with host Alex Behan. The hour-long show (as opposed to the 30 minute UK version) which was broadcast at 5pm on Saturdays on TV 2 (New Zealand) contains a mixture of songs recorded in the Auckland TVNZ studios as well as performances from the international versions of the show. The New Zealand Top 20 singles and Top 10 albums are also featured. Alex stayed as host for two years before Bede Skinner took over. Despite a popular fan base in early 2006 TVNZ announced that Top of the Pops had been axed.

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Elton John performing on the show in 1973.

The longest ever performance was of Green Day’s Jesus Of Suburbia broadcast on 6 November 2005, it lasted 9 minutes and 10 seconds.

The shortest performance was Super Furry Animals with Do or Die clocking in at 95 seconds.

Cliff Richard has performed the most on Top Of The Pops, recording approximately 75 performances, only 42 of which still exist.

The most complaints the show received for a single episode was in 1994 when Manic Street Preachers performed their song “Faster” in a manner that was seen as intimidating and featured lead singer James Dean Bradfield wearing a balaclava such as would be worn by an IRA terrorist.

The first unsigned band to play Top Of The Pops was Scottish twee pop group Bis.

The show’s final relaunch with Andi Peters as producer was widely considered the point where Top Of The Pops was jumping the shark. It noticeably had Victoria Beckham promote her new song “This Groove”, with a performance 7 times in the first 8 shows, including the (pre-recorded) Christmas special.

In 1980, the then fledgling heavy metal superstars Iron Maiden became the first band to play live on the show since The Who in 1972, when they refused to mime to their single “Running Free”.

Super Furry Animals once got the whole audience to sit down during a live performance of theirs.

Because of the BBC’s former policy of deleting old programmes, nearly all of the episodes from the first ten years of the programme’s history have been lost, including all of The Beatles’ appearances.

When Elvis Costello performed “Radio Radio” on the show, he changed the lyrics to criticise Tony Blackburn, who was the presenter that week.

When John Peel first presented the programme in 1968 he forgot the name of Amen Corner who were appearing that week. Possibly because of this, his next appearance as presenter wasn’t until Christmas 1981.

Although the original four presenters are still alive, five presenters of the show have died — Stuart Henry, Kenny Everett, occasional presenter Caron Keating, John Peel and Tommy Vance. In addition, the creator of the show, Johnnie Stewart, died on April 29, 2005.

John Peel was once given 15 seconds to interview Debbie Harry about her new single. Annoyed by this ridiculous time constraint, he deliberately asked an overlong question so that she would not have time to answer. This was done with the full co-operation of Harry who, apparently, was amused by it.

In May 2006, following a special Red Hot Chili Peppers concert recorded in the car park of BBC Television Centre, Hammersmith and Fulham Council (which governs the area the centre is located) informed the BBC that in order to legally conform to an Act of Parliament which came into force in 2004 they needed to have a special licence to continue to admit members of the public to any future performances.

Prior to the matter being resolved the BBC requested the assistance of their own staff members to fill-in as audience members for this and other music shows.

German singer Nena shocked viewers by appearing on the show with hairy armpits while performing her hit 99 Red Balloons. to this day, most radio DJ’s make reference to her performance after playing the song. The opening scene for the Spice Girls’ first and only movie Spiceworld shows the group recording a performance of their song ‘Too Much’ for Top of The Pops.

Although the show has officially finished it does return each year for a Christmas Day special.

production details
UK / BBC / 2203 episodes (mostly 30 minutes long) / Broadcast: 1 January 1964 – 30 July 2006

Creator: Johnnie Stewart | First Host: Jimmy Savile


Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.