Top Of The Pops 1977 reaches the Jubilee

Now. I’m one of those irritating people fond of airily declaring “oh, I never watch television” every time the discussion turns to the latest talent competition or Scandinavian crime drama or sensational soap denouement. I’d like to pretend that this not because I’m a typical middle-class highbrow elitist culture snob (I know that I am all those things), but because I haven’t got enough time because my free hours are taken up with more wholesome pursuits, like gardening, and cooking, and composing light operas and so on…the truth is however that much of my leisure time is spent listlessly flipping about on the internet, or solving excruciating Japanese number puzzles, or just failing completely to commit to the very basic chore of bothering to watch a series from the start, for however many weeks it runs for. And given that I’m equipped with a personal video recorder and fast enough broadband to effortlessly access the various helpful catch-up TV services that’s not really a very big ask these days.

I think my ennui concerning events televisual may be something to do with there just being too much damn choice of what to watch these days (my list of multi-season TV shows that well-meaning friends have insisted I simply must get up to speed with is so long that I’m paralysed into indecision every time I consider it, so never watch any of them). Whatever the reason, I find myself retreating more and more into watching stuff that I’ve already seen, or already know about. Pretty much the only new show I make any kind of effort for now is Doctor Who, more through decades-established habit than anything else these days (though it’s still holding my attention: see here and here), and lately I’ve been finding myself drawn to watching the repeats of one of the other must-see programmes from my youth, to wit Top Of The Pops, which BBC4 started repeating week by week last year. Like Doctor Who, and many other iconic shows from the 60s and 70s, the BBC’s archive of early TOTP is pretty patchy, with most of the programmes long-wiped – they do however hold a continuous archive from 1976, which is the point from which they started screening the repeats. They’re currently up to June 1977, an interesting month for a reason I’ll go into later.

The BBC have been harvesting choice performances from old TOTPs for years for presentation in compilation shows, but it’s a funny old business, seeing these unedited samples of soft rock, limp balladry, workmanlike soul and very occasionally searing pop genius again. I was eight years old in 1977 and would have been glued to the screen when TOTP was on, but most of these songs seem to have made no impression on me whatsoever – they’re formulaic, uninspired, well-crafted filler, usually delivered by uncharismatic session players. The soul and disco numbers are significantly better, even if there’s something a bit disquieting about watching talented singers working through tightly choreographed routines in matching brightly-coloured outfits. At least you can imagine people dancing to them, even if you can’t actually see anyone in the studio audience busting out any moves – one of the most endearing features of TOTP 1977 is the way that the ordinary (and reassuringly non-glamorously dressed) punters spend most of their time just sort of milling about looking resolutely non-excited about proceedings.

In fact, most of the time the most memorable, and not in a good way, aspect of these curiously washed-out shows is the attitude of the Radio 1 disc jockeys selected to present them. Noel Edmonds is smug and condescending. Dave Lee Travis is odious, lecherous, smug and condescending. Jimmy Savile is weird, and you can’t help worrying about the safety of the young ladies in the audience that have been shepherded into his proximity. Only Kid Jensen comes off as a halfway reasonable human being. TV presenters these days are often accused of being vacuous or cynical, but you can’t help feeling that we’ve come a long way. These self-important specimens are nearly enough to make you turn off, but not quite…sometimes, not often but sometimes, a jewel of a song comes down the sluice of mediocrity to remind you why you love pop music so much in the first place, most recently Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, which is, astonishingly given the amount of abuse it’s had over the years by the hand of Steve Coogan, still heart-rendingly affecting. Even the kitsch “memories” voiceover bit in the second verse. And the simple, largely effects-free, video is simply devastating.

So I’m going to keep on watching, for the next few weeks at least, to relive a particular memory. There was a Jubilee going on in 1977 as well, and I remember at the time being puzzled and alarmed by the presence of a record at number 2 that I’d never heard and nobody seemed to want to acknowledge. Have a good weekend, and God Save The Queen.

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