TV Pop Diaries

Popular Music on British Television

Home Intro Articles Credits Timeline Links 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

The 1980s


It's an easy assumption that the 1980s was the video decade, and that MTV made the decade their own. But that was in America. In the UK promo videos were a weekly, almost daily, reality of television with Top Of The Pops, Saturday morning kids' telly and even the tea-time shows resorting to record company provided clips. As 1986's Video Jukebox would prove the promo clip was nothing new with companies like Scoppitone providing colour film clips to film juke boxes across Europe, while in the UK independent production companies like Inter-Tel were enabling The Beatles to appear world-wide simultaneously by providing promotional clips from 1964's I Fell Fine onwards. The promo clip would be used almost like cartoons had been, filler material to be shown while hosts grab a coffee or a visit to the bathroom. Sadly, budget conscious shows like Top Of The Pops would sometimes use promo clips as an excuse to fill the show cheaply. One edition from 13th July 1989 only contained two studio appearances, with the rest of the show made up of promo clips.

The new decade wouldn't have the kind of technological seismic shift that colour television had provided at the beginning of the 1970s, but a new visual technology had been creeping in since the late seventies. Digital video graphics companies like Quantel and Reilly provided producers with new ways to move from one image to another. Instead or a cold edit or a wipe, the image could spin horizontally, vertically, change into a circle or an egg-timer, while later in the decade video ‘scratching’ would be used in many rap videos or in one case, to help create a TV host, Max Headroom.

While new technology was giving the image conscious British public something new to look at 'New Romantic' movement in London's West End provided a much needed meeting of new fashion and music. The first wave of punk faded quickly while its fashion became a new visual shorthand for London just as Carnaby Street had done before. Although many of the New Romantic players would become chart regulars like Rusty Egan, Steve Strange, Boy George and Marilyn they would not be given their own TV outlet like Oh Boy or Ready Steady Go. But the public need stars and Boy George from Culture Club would be called up to provide controversy and a good quote. If anyone was an accidental star it would be George. The first two Culture Club singles had received airplay, but had flopped. Then serendipity introduced itself when Shakin' Stevens cancelled a scheduled appearance on Top Of The Pops. Culture Club were invited to promote their third single, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. Even though it was watered down reggae and George's visual style style was reminiscent of Lene Lovich a few year's previously he was still a shock to many and an instant TV star. We needed George.

Attempts by the British record industry to remind us of its importance would lead to a series of regrettable award shows throughout the 80s. The Daily Mirror Rock and Pop Awards would in turn give way to The Brit Awards, created in 1977 to help promote the now discredited Britannia Music Club. Black dickie bow evenings out were compatible with the newly emergent money and status hungry yuppie cult, but felt awkward for a pop culture more used to very public displays of compassion or at the very least a knowledge of a world outside of the recording studio. Embarrassment would reach fever pitch with The Brit Awards in 1989 when the live broadcast went seriously awry when the wrong acts and presenters were cued up, but at least they were all present at the ceremony. An award ceremony a few months' later should rightly claim itself as the worst ceremony of all time. The Coca-Cola International Rock Awards, aka The Elvis Awards, was unique as virtually all the winners decided not to attend.

The most important event for the industry in the eighties would introduce itself on BBC1s Tomorrow's World in 1981. The show's Kieran Prendiville demonstrated the Compact Disc to, for once, an amazed public. First seen as merely another high-end audiophile product to be bought by American Psycho types, it slowly crept into all households by the end of the decade and revitalised an industry by persuading us of its fidelity and scratchless benefits at £15 a time. Adverts for Philips' player featuring DJ Mike Read playing the Thompson Twins and Sharp's system featuring Bucks Fizz persuaded us to part with hard earned cash for a player which in the end wouldn't last as long as the discs would.

A commercial alternative to ITV had been on the government's drawing board since BBC2 came on the air but no concrete proposal had been made until The Broadcasting Act 1980. As a result Channel 4 and the Welsh-language S4C would debut in November 1982. All programmes would be made by independent companies along with existing ITV channels. Among their first commissions was a weekly pop show and was given to Tyne Tees in Newcastle who had previously made The Geordie Scene and Razzamatazz. The show, initially titled TX105, later changed to The Tube would come live from Studio Five on Friday evenings from 5.15 (later changed to 5.30) until 7.00. Pop and youth targeted social issues would be the show's initial remit, similar in content to Something Else, but the latter would eventually be dropped. Comedy however would become an important feature in the show's style with French and Saunders, Rick Mayall and others helping out between the live acts and filmed pieces. The show began by filming the band X in Los Angeles in the summer of 1982 and later in the summer captured Frankie Goes To Hollywood in Liverpool before they even signed a recording contract. The show's sudden success led to a re-think at the Old Grey Whistle Test, followed by a re-brand and a re-design.

Much of pop television from the mid eighties onwards owed as much to The Clothes Show as to The Tube. Dress sense was now as important as it had been in the mod era with sharply dressed young ladies and gentlemen now filling the screens. The Style Council, Sade, Thomas Lang (a part time fashion model) all look as they were as much suited for the catwalk as a TV studio. If you had big shoulder pads, long coats, coiffured hair and liked being photographed at jazz clubs then there would be a place for you.

Despite the artifice a news report in November 1984 put everyone in their place. BBC1 News reporter Michael Beurk presented a report on the catastrophic famine in Ethiopia. The following day the images would prompt The Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof to suggest to Midge Ure of Ultravox that they write a song to help raise funds. By 2015 Band Aid, Live Aid, Comic Relief and Sport Relief have raised over one billion pounds.

Towards the end of the decade the charts saw an influx of cartoon-y bands like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Westworld, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, Pop Will Eat Itself among others, and all would find regular gainful employment on Top Of The Pops, but the public sensed that they were being short changed. They wanted ordinary heroes, not comic-strip super heroes. Their desire would be fulfilled, but they would have to wait a while as a seemingly insignificant American seaport called Seattle had something to say.