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Pop Music on British Television 1955 - 1999

When a second BBC television channel was proposed in the early sixties it was decided to counter the more populist BBC and ITV with a channel focused more on the arts and culture. A part of the remit of the new BBC2 would be a daily arts digest, based upon the evening's programming. Line-Up, later to become Late Night Line Up would run until the early 1970s and 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 its own show.

Colour Me Pop lasted a little over a year, while it’s successor Disco 2 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. A back story about ‘old greys’ whistling tunes as a test of a song’s memorability was invented, but it was more likely a silly ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ creation. The chosen hosts were journalist Richard Williams, previously seen on Disco 2 and Ian Whitcomb, another journalist and sometime performer.

According to Wikipedia “The original opening credits were played over a naked woman, painted in green, dancing to Santana's Jingo.” This was of course superceded by Area Code 615’s harmonica driven Stone Fox Chase and the Starkicker logo, the designer / creator of which still appears to be a mystery. The logo had become something of a cult item among the show's fans, with kids sketching it on school notebooks across the country. On the suggestion by record plugger Judd Lander producer Mike Appleton had badges made and given to everyone that appeared on the show, many proudly wearing them on guitar straps, or in the case of Ray Davies, stuck to his forehead. The first batch had been made by Lander and his PA who between them had made 300 for the show using a machine paid for by CBS Records.

There had been bookings for the first edition, but it was still uncertain who would appear, so the Radio Times in its description took no chances in announcing, "America and Lesley Duncan with any guests who may appear." It's uncertain when the Stone Fox Chase / Starkicker intro actually began, but it was in place when the Frank Zappa / 200 Motels special  was broadcast on 16th November 1971.

Apart from the in-vision hosts it followed the same formula as Disco 2 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).

The show was broadcast from BBC Television Centre Presentation B, a studio 32 by 22 feet, behind the lift shaft on the fourth floor, 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, and the budget, 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, leaving 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 could play live as the studio was so small it couldn't accommodate the usual stage sized amp stacks, so some acts sang live 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 he was sports editor for The Guardian), while Ian Whitcomb would return to America. Writing in his The Blue Moment blog Williams talked about The Rolling Stones' Montreux rehearsals in May 1972, "It was, I think, my last contribution as presenter of the OGWT before handing over, with considerable relief, to Bob Harris." While confessing "I thought the programme needed someone more extrovert to front it." Harris, another journalist and a Radio 1 DJ, settled in straight away with his tele-friendly manner and distinctive voice which earned him the nickname ‘Whispering’ Bob. Broadcaster Danny Baker later suggesting his voice "Was like a vibrator buried in six foot of sand." 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 a Harris favourite, Asylum Records. John Martyn, Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls, David Bowie, Tim Buckley, Brinsley Schwarz, The Move and many others were all brought in to play tracks from their new albums, sometimes to Harris' visible bewilderment, amusement and disapproval.

The show would experience the same problem that Top Of The Pops had where artists couldn't, or wouldn't, appear in the studio. In the case of The Pops a dance troupe would paper over the cracks, but that would be a ridiculous approach for Whistle Test, so film clips would be employed. Filmfinders, a company set up by BBC presenter Philip Jenkinson found near-perfect clips to help accompany the chosen track, and in the case of Trampled Underfoot by Led Zeppelin the clip chosen made its way onto the band's own DVD clips collection. The show gave new animators like Ian Eames valuable exposure, and his work for Pink Floyd is now synonymous with the band, and again has been included on the band's own retrospective DVD sets.

Talking to Music Scene magazine about who to invite onto the show Harris suggested "I find my radio programme helps a lot, for each Monday I feature two live groups and listening to them gives me some idea of who would fit into the television programme set-up."

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. Sometimes the show had to stick to its scheduled time slot, but when the wind was in the right direction the show would be given the final time slot of the day and therefore could be open ended if broadcast live.

In May 1974, The Old Grey Whistle Test took the next obvious step, it became the first rock television show in Britain to be broadcast in stereo when Van Morrison played The Rainbow in London. The show was broadcast on BBC2 and on Radio 1/2 on FM in stereo simultaneously. The term 'simulcast' was created and The Old Grey Whistle Test would be granted almost exclusive access until NICAM technology took over in the late eighties.

Another first for 1974 would be the annual Christmas Eve shows when Elton John played the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and again these shows would be simulcast. The idea proved so popular that a simulcast Sight And Sound In Concert spin-off series was launched in 1977.

Mike Appleton, talking to Sounds magazine in July 1975, claimed "... we work within an £800 a week budget which virtually decides who we have on the show." Talking about Bob Harris Appleton said "I chose Bob because I wanted a journalist to front the show. He had to have the experience of condensing everything and avoiding flannel. Bob chaired our discussion on the Night Assembly Bill, and that was it. Richard Williams was leaving to go to the States and Bob was in. We have discovered that our tastes in music are almost the same; it would be too difficult to do the show if Bob and I were always fighting over the programme's content. But when Bob really wants to have a band on the show we have a talk about it, then I go away and listen to them and decide whether or not to have them on." In the same article Appleton claims that the show gets about a hundred letters a week.

For the series beginning October 1975 a sidekick was brought in to help with the music news, but Andrew Bailey's presence would only be felt for a year.

The 1977 season kicked off in grand style with film of The Rolling Stones live in Paris in 1976. Harris and the production team had travelled around America during the summer, a bit like Blue Peter's annual summer holiday. The resulting filmed interviews and live clips were fashioned into a new fortnightly section called Portrait, featuring an interview and two songs of an artist, starting with Harry Chapin. Future Portraits would feature Carole Bayer Sager, Tom Petty, Andrew Gold, Jefferson Starship, Stephen Bishop, Andy Pratt and Rod Stewart.

By early 1978 the show was seen by about two and a half million people weekly, quite an audience for an album based show and a good showcase for new album releases, but this wasn't really reflected in the album chart. The business of the record industry was not the concern of the show, but in 1978 something happened which proved that the show could have an influence. Meat Loaf's promo clip for Bat Out Of Hell superceded anything that Queen could have come up with and was requested over and over again, and for the first time the show influenced the album chart, making the album a massive hit. Album sales at this time were about to go stratospheric, without the help of the Whistle Test. Both Saturday Night Fever and Grease would go on to be two of the biggest selling albums of the decade, but both were definitely pop, not Peter Frampton, not Carole King, not Wings. Bat Out Of Hell was just a one off.

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 artists 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 1’s Anne Nightingale who shared presentation duties until Bob Harris’ departure in the ninth series. Talking to The Stage in early 1978 Michael Appleton confirmed "Now that So It Goes isn't here, I'm using more of the New Wave material." Nightingale debuted in April 1978, but became a more permanent host when the show began it's eighth season in September 1978. She would host the show back in London while Harris would be on the road filming location reports. The set now boasted two stages each with its own designation Stage A and Stage B. The two Pick Of The Year shows at the end of 1978 would see Bob Harris host for the final time, although he would still contribute reports in 1979 and introduce Blondie on stage on New Year's Eve 1979.

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 featuring the best of the early days, including the now legendary Jimmy Carter interview at the Capricorn Records’ party just ahead of his announcement of his Presidential candidacy.

Another Radio 1 Disc Jockey Paul Gambaccini joined briefly in the early eighties, later joined by Smash Hits’ editor David Hepworth who brought the levity of the new wave of rock journalism with him. In 1981 a move to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith meant that an audience, albeit seated, could be brought into the show in order to give it a more concert atmosphere. Realising that their history was a part of the show's appeal a new archive spot, Memorex Lane, was also introduced.

Nightingale was the next to leave and by October 1982 she was replaced by Hepworth’s journalist colleague Mark Ellen. The show now had serious competition from the new Channel Four series The Tube and the show was to be pepped up. The silent movie clips had been elbowed out to make room for more official record company promo clips from the emergent video boom in Britain. By Spring 1983 a new series kicked off with a new opening credit sequence, along with an electro-pop version of Stone Fox Chase. This suggested a bigger change was being planned.

On the Pick Of The Year show on 23rd December 1983 hosts Hepworth and Ellen dropped the bombshell that not only would the Stone Fox Chase theme be dropped "quite a relief for us", but the show's title was cut to just Whistle Test.

In January 1984 the series was given the biggest overhaul yet. The branding people had a look around and decided that "old" and "grey" were not the kind of Now words to use if they were to compete with The Tube. Gone were the original opening graphic credits, and with it a truncated name, Whistle Test, while the archive section was re-Christened Hindsight.

Billy Bragg had been a guest on the show in February 1984 and had brought along his then road manager Andy Kershaw, who himself had been a band booker at Leeds University. Kershaw got talking with the producers of the show who were prepared to give him a try out as a presenter. In the summer he 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 and knowledge 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. They would all take it in turns to occupy 'Comfy Area' which looked a little like a Habitat showroom, complete with pastel shaded sofas.

The 1984-1985 series was easily the show at its best, featuring practically all the major players in the newly emerging 'Americana' back-to-basics movement like REM, The Long Ryders, Lone Justice, The Bangles and Green On Red. While The Tube used the best of new British talent Whistle Test stuck to its predominantly American roots as an alternative. The spirit of Bob Harris was still in the air. Whistle Test and The Tube rarely crossed paths, with The Test doing the right thing in acknowledging The Tube type acts, but at the same time ignoring them.

In 1985 the Whistle Test production team were about to be called in to help with the greatest show on earth, Live Aid. Bob Geldof had approached Midge Ure backstage at The Tube a few months' before and the pair put the Band Aid single together, but for the concert the BBC were given the task. The Whistle Test team were approached and helped assemble the artists and time slots as well as interviewing guests in the presentation area at Wembley Stadium.

Despite all the success and respect the show was earning things were about to change, and without much notice. For the winter / spring 1987 series the show was slashed from sixty to thirty minutes, with the presenting team similarly paired down to the minimum and with no repeats later in the week. However, the Comfy Area 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 broadcast on nearly every day of the week, a certain sign that the broadcaster never really knew what to do with it. BBC2 commissioner Janet Street-Porter’s ‘yoof’ programming was later blamed for the show’s demise. It wasn't even replaced with a youth-oriented alternative, but there was a series of short-lived dance and report shows.

Michael Appleton joined The Landscape Channel, a short lived New Age TV music channel, in 1988. Leaving the BBC after 34 years he told Music Week "It seems music is out of favour with the BBC."

Harris would later go back to Radio 1 and also introduce a radio version of The Old Grey Whistle Test for Radio 2 in the 2000s. However, he was brought back for the final special on New Years' Eve 1987 and for various compilations on VH-1 and BBC4 throughout the 2000s leading to a brand new three hour show on BBC4 23rd February 2018, leading many to ponder whether a new version of the show was a possibility, but by the show's fiftieth anniversary this hadn't become a reality.

A three volume retrospective DVD set was released in the 2000s by the BBC as, thankfully, most of the archive is still intact, as is full sessions from the show including still untransmitted clips.



21st September 1971 - 24th March 1987