TV Pop Diaries

Popular Music on British Television

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21st September 1971 - 24th March 1987

When BBC2 debuted in 1964 it was given it’s own daily, early evening arts show Line-Up, later to become Late Night Line Up. It would on occasion have rock acts among the critics and guest poets, usually representatives of the John Peel school of rock, rather than the top forty. However, despite it’s pledge to offer its viewers something new it took until 1968 before they took the plunge and actually gave the new progressive tendency it’s own show.

Colour Me Pop lasted a little over a year, while it’s successor Disco Two was only around for seven months before a rethink was on

the cards. Ex-Late Night Line Up Executive Producer Michael Appleton was tasked with finding the new presenters and a new programme title. The new replacement was the mysteriously named The Old Grey Whistle Test, and the chosen hosts were journalist Richard Williams and Ian Whitcomb, another journalist and occasional performer.

The theme music was Area Code 615’s harmonica driven Stone Fox Chase.

It followed the same formula as Disco Two with live acts and promo film clips, while film archivist Phillip Jenkinson provided silent movie and cartoon clips used for artists who wouldn’t or couldn’t appear (it was also cheaper for the BBC).

Recorded at BBC Television Centre Pres B, home of The Sky at Night, the budget for the first show was £500, with David Bowie receiving £24 for his appearance later in the series. Producer Michael Appleton said in 1972 that he had to turn down a film clip of the Yardbirds as it would have cost more than a quarter of the weeks' budget.

Since the studio was so small there was no set design, in fact quite the opposite. Colour Me Pop and Late Night Line Up would often get away with stripping the studio clean of any sets and just leave the walls bare, so all we saw were the exit and transmission signs, clocks, power points, cables etc and it was this style that Whistle Test adopted, again at great relief to the BBC accountants. Not all the bands played live as the studio was so small it couldn't accommodate the usual stage sized amp stacks, so some acts sang to a backing track if they could get away with it, but integrity won over and after a while all bands had to prove themselves and play live as well as sing.

The show proved so successful that a second series was commissioned, but this time the two hosts would be replaced by one. Bob Harris took over and Williams returned to a notable career in journalism (in the 1990s was sports editor for The Guardian). Harris, another former journalist and a Radio One DJ, settled in straight away with his tele-friendly manner and distinctive voice which earned him the nickname ‘Whispering’ Bob. It was under Harris’ editorial guidance that the show embraced the new American West Coast wave of singer / songwriters and the newly emergent Laurel Canyon family from Asylum Records, also acts like John Martyn, Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls, David Bowie, Tim Buckley, Brinsley Schwarz, The Move and others were all brought in to play tracks from their new albums.

Whistle Test had by the mid to late seventies become a familiar part of the BBC2 schedule with roughly forty shows per series running from autumn to late spring each year in addition to the now legendary Pick Of The Year shows around New Years’ Eve. It was also important that the show was broadcast late at night, the post TOTP viewer bedtime slot showed that you were a proper grown up and didn't need your parents’ permission to stay up on a school night.

In 1974, The Old Grey Whistle Test took the next obvious step, the first rock television broadcast in stereo when Elton John performed his Christmas Eve show for the BBC on television with a simultaneous Radio One broadcast. This proved so popular that a Sight And Sound In Concert spin-off series was launched in 1977. However popular or relevant, the new punk scene saw no allegiance with the likes of Whispering Bob. A singles based market was not initially welcomed onto the show until they started to make albums, so the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks etc were only given room once the debut album had landed on the producer's desk. The resentment was mutual since Harris and his friends had been personally thumped by a Sex Pistol and his chums outside a pub in London. Help was on the way in the shape of Radio One’s Anne Nightingale who shared presentation duties until Bob Harris’ departure in the ninth series.

BBC2 celebrated the 350th show and the beginning of the tenth series in 1980 with Rock Week, featuring documentaries, movies, concerts etc with a companion show with the best of the early days, including the legendary Jimmy Carter interview at the Capricorn Records’ party just ahead of his announcement of his Presidential candidacy.

Another Radio One Disc Jockey Paul Gambacinni joined briefly in the early eighties before being replaced by Smash Hits’ editor David Hepworth who brought the levity of the new wave of rock journalism with him. In 1981 an audience was brought into the show in order to give it a more concert atmosphere, but the idea was dropped by the next series while a new archive, spot Memorex Lane, was also introduced.

Nightingale was the next to leave in October 1982, replaced by Hepworth’s journalist colleague Mark Hepworth. The show now had serious competition from the new Channel Four series The Tube and the show had to be pepped up. The silent movie clips had been elbowed out in the late seventies to make room for more promo clips from the emergent video boom in Britain.

In January 1984 the series was given the biggest overhaul of all. Gone were the original opening graphic credits, and with it a new name, Whistle Test, while the archive section became Hindsight. In February 1984 Billy Bragg had been a guest on the show, and he had brought along his then road manager Andy Kershaw, who himself had been a band booker at Leeds University and got talking with the producers of the show. He was hired as a presenter and as a try-out was sent to the Donnington Monsters Of Rock metalfest. He passed the audition and joined as a member of the team for the autumn 1984 series. His musical taste became an important input into the series. His love of traditional style American and British rock along with the new music of Africa and other continents also found their way into the show. Other new presenters Ro Newton and (the man they call) Richard Skinner also joined.

The 1984-1985 series was easily the show at its greatest, but all was changed without much notice for the winter / spring 1987 series when it was reduced to 30 minutes instead of an hour, while the presenters were just paired down to the minimum, with no repeats later in the week. The Comfy Area however remained. On the 23rd September 1987 the BBC Light Entertainment department confirmed that the series would not be coming back.

Due to scheduling inconsistencies over the years the show had been shown on nearly every day of the week, a certain sign that the broadcaster never knew what to do with it. Janet Street-Porter’s ‘yoof’ programming was later targeted as the reason for the show’s demise.

Harris would later go back to Radio One and introduce a radio version of The Old Grey Whistle Test for Radio 2.