TV Pop Diaries

Popular Music on British Television

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The 1990s


The late eighties and early nineties found a music scene with no dominating sound, no heavy rock, no disco, just splinters. The evil empire of Stock Aitken Waterman was coming to an end, House music had given way to Rave culture, a regional mutation of which would become the wonderful Madchester/baggy scene. The overall view in Britain by this time was not to look beyond our own shores, but British rock weekly Melody Maker had begun to write about a new scene in America's North West, especially Seattle, but no-one here took much notice.


As we entered 1990 Channel 4's best efforts were to continue to entertain the Q magazine generation with Whistle Test revivalist shows like Rock Steady and Friday at the Dome. The CD buying public would soon have the vinyl inspired Seattle scene to deal with.


The first cultural stirrings of the new decade would eventually come in August 1990 when The Word debuted on Channel 4. No-one could have predicted the order of change the show would provoke, not just in giving room to bands like L7, Nirvana, Oasis and many others, by the sheer nerve and audacity of merely allowing things to happen. You can't re-do 'live' and shows like The Word could only work live. However it would take another ten years for the rest of television to catch on to what they were doing and the pale response would be 'reality shows' like Big Brother and Love Island, none of which were live.


In 1991 Top of the Pops got another re-boot, using a new theme Get Out Of That, and a new set design. One important factor about the show at this time is that they finally began to embrace the new NICAM stereo technology, many years behind America and other European countries, but the Pops did it right. The new look Pops was introduced towards the end of the reign of terror which saw Bryan Adams number one for sixteen weeks.


Just as the Pops was justly looking forward, someone at BBC2 thought it was an appropriate time to look back. BBC2's Sounds of the Sixties was the first serious look at the BBC's pop archives and was well received by fans and archivists alike, and inevitably would be followed by similar series devoted to the 1970s and 1980s. So popular was the format that it led to the creation in 1994 of TOTP2 featuring the best clips from that weeks’ Pops, while also playing clips from the archive.


Despite fanfares since the mid-eighties satellite and cable programming never became a threat to terrestrial TV in Britain, although several ideas were later adopted by network TV. BSB’s Happening With Jools Holland would later be shown by Channel 4, before Holland found himself briefly with a P45 with BSB’s demise. One of 1989's better ideas was the creation of The Late Show, BBC2's weekday arts review show. Music guests would be an irregular treat, but the acts were always well chosen and sometimes surprising, and it was suggested in 1992 that maybe a separate weekly show to highlight these kind of artists would be worthwhile. So The Late Show......Later debuted in October, hosted by Jools Holland and initially given a 35 minute slot. It was often criticized as being merely a new take on Whistle Test, but this show was exclusively live music, and no promo clips were featured. The show survives to this day.


The BBC, in collaboration With the European Broadcasting Union, broadcasts the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in widescreen, albeit for test purposes. It would take another several years for widescreen to become the standard, while high definition would also tested later in the nineties becoming a domestic reality by the mid 2000s.


Pop acts had been guests on comedy shows from Morecambe and Wise and Arthur Haynes onwards, but the cheesy sketches they had to sometimes participate in didn't always make it essential viewing. In 1993 Baddiel and Newman from The Mary Whitehouse Experience were given their own series on BBC2 and featured The Cure's Robert Smith in one sketch, wilfully for once. Pop guests started appearing in other comedy shows like Absolutely Fabulous, The French and Saunders Show, Jack Dee among others. The term 'comedy is the new rock and roll' actually meant something, for at least a fortnight.


New British bands like Suede, Pulp and Ride had started to appear on various shows, but no one had the notion that this was somehow the start of some new wave of British Pop. In reality it wasn't, they probably never knew each other enough to plan such a thing, but after journalists suggested that there were enough new bands to warrant this as a response to the American north-western Grunge scene, then a new 'scene' had to be created to replace it. Britpop. (Insert Hallelujah Chorus here).  While Britpop's lifespan was only slightly longer than Grunge it made us look in our own back yard for bands and show producers found potentially dozens of bands to fill air time.


In June 1994 Channel 4 decided to devote a weekend to cover the Glastonbury Festival. Up to that point no channel had taken on such a task, but with plenty of music on offer it seemed an easy job just to pitch up and point cameras at willing participants. They returned the following year, only to have the BBC pinch it from under their noses when the festival returned in 1997.


In March 1995 Channel 4's commitment to music continued with The White Room, the first pop show to be broadcast in Dolby Surround in the UK. Glastonbury's presenter Mark Radcliffe was the host of the show which was pitched somewhere between Whistle Test's live sets and The Word's live ambiance.


Damon Albarn, the Guardian readers' Britpop representative hosted Britpop Now in August 1995. Made by The Late Show production team it was a classic forty-five minute sampler of what was filling the airwaves at the time and worthy of preserving in amber.


The nostalgia business continues with Rock Family Trees on BBC2, a take on Pete Frame's books looking at the development of bands or regions, spoiled only by a bored sounding John Peel.


Moles in the media thought they had uncovered a new sub-culture in the mid nineties. Christened 'New Lad' TV shows were quickly developed trying proving its existence. TFI Friday, Fantasy Football League and Never Mind The Buzzcocks were among the results, but to be fair the participants quickly dismissed any collusion in the media's conceit and they all outlived it.


On the 14th June 1996 ITV's London franchise Carlton broadcast an edition of a long-forgotten late night show Hotel Babylon. This edition hosted the debut appearance by five young women designed to be the female Take That. The Spice Girls had been signed to Virgin and were on the plugging trial to promote their first single. Thankfully for them it wouldn't take as long to get onto Top Of The Pops as it did for Take That. The Spice Girls’ infectious spirit was what pop needed, and despite the group’s short life span nothing has come close to their influence since.


BBC2's ten part Dancing In The Street became the first serious look at the history of pop music since All You Need Is Love twenty years earlier and would inspire other later series and shows like Walk On By and the Friday night Legends series on BBC4.


In 1997 Top Of The Pops gets a new producer, Chris Cowey. His ex-Tyne Tees credentials gave the show some hope of continuing and expanding on the newly found groove that Britpop had brought, but it was in vain, and the show would take another ten years to die.


Channel 5's introduction in 1997 brought next to nothing to the party. The Pepsi sponsored Chart Show launched in 1998 was the nearest they would ever come, but hardly featured any clips of note.


It was about this time that TV shows started displaying a strange tag line on the end credits http://www.bbc.co.uk/etc. Many shows like Top Of The Pops would have their own web page which although not much more than basic promotion for the show would prove invaluable in promoting the show worldwide.


On New Year's Eve 1999 all the channels dedicated their programming to the new Millennium. Sadly, the year, the decade, the century and the millennium would be wrapped up with a poorly thought out party at the new Millennium dome in Greenwich, South London.


Summing up

Top of the Pops would have a few middling to good years before being given away to BBC2 like an unwanted pet that BBC1 had grown out of. Deciding that they didn't want it either they left it to die. Annual Christmas Day and New Year's Eve shows continue to be broadcast on BBC1.

Later with Jools Holland became the second longest running music show on TV, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017.

By 2018 ITV and Channel four have little or no commitment to pop music on any regular basis.

MTV and other satellite pop channels never had much, if any, impact in the UK, other than providing a few presenters who used it as an audition for terrestrial TV work.