I love Top of The Pops (BBC Four). I realised how very much I loved it when, a year after Jimmy Savile’s death, the nauseating truth began to unfold and any editions of the nation’s favourite chart show presented by the grim reaper were understandably taken out of circulation. (He hosted around 300 editions between 1964 and 2006, including the first and the last.) In 2012, the year Operation Yewtree began, BBC Four were in full nostalgic swing with real-time repeats of Top of The Pops on Thursday nights, by then most of the way into 1977, a chance for those of a certain age to relive their youth. Sinister, telltale gaps started to appear in what had previously been an unbroken weekly virtual reality experience. Gary Glitter, arrested that October and jailed in February 2013, was already persona non grata in archival terms, and had long since been wiped from pop history. But now, with good reason, we lost any editions the monstrous Savile hosted or co-hosted. The subsequent arrest of Dave Lee Travis in November 2013 removed another batch of Pops shows (he was eventually convicted of one count of indecent assault in 2014). The arrest and imprisonment of Rolf Harris made less of a mark on the archive as he’d stopped having hits by the late 70s (although the mid-90s edition where he performs Stairway To Heaven will most likely now not be shown – if we get that far).
Even though Paul Gambaccini was acquitted of any wrongdoing, his arrest in 2013 temporarily cast doubt over editions he presented. Disaster averted there, thankfully. And now Tony Blackburn has been sacked by the BBC (not arrested, by the way, but fired from the BBC because his testimony to Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Savile differed from the Corporation’s version of events over an allegation made in 1971 which Blackburn denies and which he claims the BBC never interviewed him about at the time, hence the disparity, hence the overreacton by Tony Hall). This, we have to assume, takes the many shows he presented off the table, which certainly includes a couple in the early 80s, otherwise packed with fabulous music from a peppy time when the studio seemed less like a mausoleum and more like a balloon factory. All of this makes you grateful for Peter Powell, John Peel, Paul Burnett, Simon Bates, Kid Jensen, Steve Wright and indeed any Top Of The Pops presenter never to have had a knock at the door from Inspector Knacker. (Incidentally, Blackburn has threatened legal action against his former employers and continues to broadcast on local commercial radio in Kent.)
We’re into the 80s now, so at least we can put history’s most sexually suspect decade behind us. The very glimpse of a presenter with his arms around teenage girls now makes us shudder, however innocently, even if it speaks of no greater crime than being an adult male working in the entertainment industry between the years 1970-79. The tactile culture, an implicit patriarchy where young women were still called “girls” or “birds”, was not helped by the weekly cavort by Legs & Co, all-female dance troupe, often scantily clad (some weeks, even into the 80s, Legs & Co are essentially in bras and pants), and, one may assume, filmed by all-male camera crews; the creepy male gaze in full effect. It really was another time, another place. I was a child during the 70s and not expected to be sexually anything, never mind sexually enlightened; I gorged on TOTP, weekly, because it had all the pop acts and bands on that were in the charts. It was a simple contract.
As an adult, I have been all over the BBC Four reruns. Top of the Pops has become again a must-see treat, every Thursday. With all the episodes that have been retired due to unforeseen sexual assault and predatory paedophilia, it’s an incomplete experience, but one that I still cherish; even if, let’s be brutally honest, there’s nothing to top the sheer plurality of a 1970s Pops, with its feverish mix of glam rock, rock’n’roll revivalism, punk, disco, soul, funk, novelty singles and end-of-the-pier holiday cabaret music sung by people who looked like your auntie and uncles. Apparently, there is still a chart, but it’s not on telly every week, and it’s bent out of shape by downloads and the X-Factor, and I haven’t heard of most of the people who top it (or if I have, I don’t much care about them, as they don’t seem to be able to make a record without one of the other people “featuring” on it).
To an extent, yes, I live in the past, and TOTP enables that illusion for 30 blessed minutes. The past is a foreign country, and a half-hour cross-section of its popular music gives me a Proustian rush and a snapshot of a more innocent time. (I realise the very idea of “innocence” is now tainted by grim findings, but you know what I mean). To give you a clue as to how far out of synch we are now with real-time TOTP, the editions now showing are from August 1981 – we’re five months into the future in the past! BBC Four have been occasionally showing two a week, as if to sweep these valuable time capsules under the carpet (or maybe just to clear the decks for the Proms and the more-important festival season). The writing may well be on the wall. The Top Of The Pops balloon may be about to go up. History has been rewritten by the victims, and we must respect that. But I so wish the BBC could afford to sit an editor down in a suite for a year and carefully edit out any sexual miscreants from archived shows, so that we could at least watch the music without the links.
For the record, I wrote about Savile in my other blog in October 2012, before Yewtree’s findings.
Stop Press: see comments below for insight into why editing out miscreants might not work.