The subject of one of Robert Elms’ radio programmes on BBC London this week was Top of the Pops, occasioned by the fact that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first edition of the show. Listeners were asked to phone in with their memories of the programme. Many of them chimed with a point I raised in my previous blog entry. It was family viewing that made Top of the Pops exciting: parents disapproving of performers that their kids liked; kids hating the easy listening of which their parents approved; the kids not getting the point of the dancing girls; the dads getting the point.
We do need to be careful that these recollections are genuine, though. Listeners memories seemed to have been clouded by their easy access to Top of the Pops repeats and clips. They also appeared to have been affected by analyses of the show’s most important moments. At times it was as though they were being forced to self-reflect on the impact of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ appearance. Another listener’s comments made me pause for thought. He recalled with fondness the Rolling Stones’ 1971 appearance for ‘Brown Sugar’, singling out the beauty of Mick Jagger’s pink satin suit.
But did he actually see it like this? Although Top of the Pops had been filmed and broadcast in colour since 1969, during the early 1970s most British households watched it on black and white TVs. By 1972 only 17% of households had colour receivers. It would be 1976 before colour sets outnumbered black-and-white ones.
These figures should also make us think again about glam rock and Top of the Pops. Looked at today, colour television appears to chime perfectly with this spectacular music. On YouTube we can see performances by Bolan, Bowie, Slade and the Sweet in all their technicolour glory. When these shows were broadcast, however, my family was among the majority who saw them in black and white. For me, what is being lost amongst the digital archive is how good these performances looked on monochrome TVs. In particular, the frequent employment of solarization processes had an intensity that is lost in the colour versions. In fact, the effects were so effective on black and white television that I’d like to know more about the priorities of the producers: was the glam Top of the Pops made with the monochrome audience in mind?