The end of an era
I entered the world of broadcasting in September 1963 when I was hired as a technical trainee at the BBC. The Beeb paid me a salary and, at the same time, trained me in the magical arts of broadcast engineering and sent me to college to learn all the electronics theory.
So there were no vacations during college breaks for me. I was shipped off to different locations in both radio and television, in studios, recording areas, telecine, outside (remote) broadcasts and transmission. It was a hell of a lot of fun for an 18-year-old.
I was fortunate to be rotated through Manchester at a time when the nearly new “Top of the Pops” program was on the air. Every Thursday evening, the studios at Dickenson Road (a converted church) turned into a zoo.
The week's top 20 songs were all mimed by the stars involved or were filmed video performances. Miming was de rigueur at that time because there was no way that a television studio could reproduce all the recording effects that were starting to be applied in the post production of vinyl.
Through the doors of “Top of the Pops” passed the big stars of the day, including the Rolling Stones, Petula Clark and the Who. After the second show aired, the head of BBC-1 took a call from the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, who asked the program to play the Fab Four's new single. The response was that if they showed up in person, they could play. They did, and it was tremendous publicity.
Throughout my time at the show, I witnessed events such as a raid from the Greater Manchester Police when the Jackson Five were found with drugs — and let off with a caution. Stars would fight in the canteen over nothing, nervous for their first appearance on the show.
Their concern was probably because the show was live at the time. Thirty minutes of on-air adrenalin pumped through the entire technical and production team.
When I was working a part-time job on the show, such as telecine, I would go down to the studio floor and dance with ladies. Knowing the camera angles that were going to be used, I was on camera regularly, much to the pleasure of my 90-year-old grandmother watching in London. “There's Paul!” Ah, technology.
The era of “Top of the Pops” has gone. The show was unable to fight all the digital pop channels with their music videos and huge budgets. The last program, a wrap-up of the 42 years of the show, was broadcast at the end of July. It was meant to be broadcast live — for the first time in more than 30 years — but the original host, Sir Jimmy Saville, had a conflict with an important event in Scotland.
Many people who wrote about the show's demise focused on its slow decay, with the ultimate insult being its move from the mainstream BBC-1 to BBC-2. But nobody talked about why the show had been so successful.
The first producer of “Top of the Pops” was Johnnie Stewart. He was hands-on and absolutely brilliant at his work; the show was his format. He did most of the directing but left the most important job of calling all the shots during transmission to the production secretary. Rarely did anything go wrong and, when it did, the viewer never got to see it. Stewart created an icon and deserves the credit for it.
The floor manager, Cecil Korer, was also a major player in the success of the show in the early days. And Harry Goodwin took wonderful still photos of the stars for many years on the studio floor.
So, “Top of the Pops” has gone, but it lasted 17 years longer than Dick Clark's “American Bandstand.” The program was a chronicle of an era, thanks to the largely unsung heroes behind the scenes. We will not soon see its like again.
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant on the West Coast.
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