Top of the Pops

This section focuses on the presentational and graphical aspects of the BBC's long running chart show, rather than the music, of which we are sure much has already been written! As this section relies mainly on the ongoing BBC4 repeats for images, it focuses particularly on 1970s and 1980s editions. This page looks at 1964-1980; the other pages in this section cover 1980-1984, 1985-1993 and 1994-2006.

Please note that I am not willing to get involved with trading or sending out copies of shows on DVD.


The BBC's long-running pop show Top of the Pops, aka TOTP, launched on New Year's Day 1964, in response to popular ITV music shows such as Ready Steady Go and Thank Your Lucky Stars. The BBC show would be based around the songs that were climbing the pop charts, which already had one broadcast outlet in Pick of the Pops on the Light Programme.

The BBC executives in London, however, seemed to want to keep the show at arm's length - it would be broadcast each week from the BBC North studios in Manchester, which happened to be based in a converted church. The producer was Johnnie Stewart, who would remain in this role for the next nine years.

Knowledge about how TOTP was presented in the 1960s is rather hazy due to the vast majority of editions from the decade having been wiped. Indeed, there are no complete editions in existence at all in the BBC archive until Boxing Day 1967.

However, the original title sequence was eventually discovered in the BBC archive at the end of a recording of the previous programme. (The images shown here are taken from the BBC4 documentary Pop Charts Britannia, where the clip was cropped for broadcast). The accompanying theme music was a percussion-based piece performed by Bobby Midgeley. A voiceover would then proclaim 'Yes, it's number one, it's Top of the Pops'. Four presenters hosted the show on rotation.

From the start, TOTP made no secret of the fact that all the performers featured on the show would be miming to their hit songs. Indeed, in the early days TOTP had its own 'disc girl', who would be seen putting the record on the turntable as each song began. This role was most famously performed by Samantha Juste, though she was preceded by Denise Sampey, and then Diane Hefforan.

To those who grew up with the TOTP of the 80s and 90s, it often comes as a bit of a surprise that the TOTP of the 60s and 70s mostly had the chart rundown right at the start of the show, giving away the identity of the record at number one before even a single song had been performed.

Initially, the chart rundown consisted simply of a camera panning up a physical board in the studio listing the Top 20 records, accompanied by a clip of the number one song. At this time, an official chart had yet to be established, so TOTP used the BBC chart, as also used by Pick of the Pops. This was compiled by taking an average of the charts published in several weekly music papers.

TOTP started on Wednesday evenings in a 6.35 timeslot, but in September 1964 it moved to Thursdays, around an hour later, where it spent most of the next 32 years.

In November 1964, the first dance troupe arrived on TOTP. Named the Go-Jos, after their choreographer Jo Cook, the group would provide dance routines for songs where the original artist was not available to perform in the studio. In the days before the dawning of the music video, other means of covering for the lack of a performer included TOTP producing its own filmed clips, or simply showing the audience in the studio dancing to the song (most shows up until about 1974 concluded in this way, then again from 1981-86).

TOTP had proved popular enough to merit a Christmas special in 1964, and this was recorded at BBC Television Centre. The show went to London again during the summer of 1965, before a permanent move was made on 20th January 1966.

As mentioned above, the dates that theme music and graphics changed in the 1960s is rather unclear, with different sources offering different information. However it appears that the move south coincided with the introduction of a new, guitar-based opening theme tune. A new logo and title sequence was introduced, possibly at the same time, featuring close-ups of instruments being played. The closing credits used a different theme tune, 'Top of the Pops' by the Dave Davani Five.

Shortly after TOTP moved home, it fell foul of the Musicians' Union, which was opposed to miming, insisting that artists performed live. As this proved to be impractical, a compromise was reached - bands due to perform on TOTP would be sent into a studio and given time to recreate their hit single, which they would then mime to on the programme. It is claimed that some artists would in fact spend their studio time dossing about, at the end of the session handing the Musicians' Union representative a copy of their original record!

Meanwhile vocal groups, and solo artists without a band, would now have to sing live, backed by the Top of the Pops Orchestra led by Johnny Pearson, along with TOTP's in-house backing singers, The Ladybirds. There was not enough room in TOTP's home of Studio 2 at Television Centre to accommodate the orchestra, so TOTP spent most of the rest of the sixties in Studio G at Lime Grove. It's interesting how the Musicians' Union seemed to expend so much effort on making life difficult for musicians...

At this time, the chart countdown sequence at the start of the programme was still accompanied by the sound of the song at number one, with no voiceover. However, the Top 20 was counted down in the 'wrong' order, i.e. starting with number one and finishing with number 20. The 'graphics', if you can call them that, displayed both the artist name and song title. Members of groups were pictured with their disembodied heads floating in the air, as seen in these examples which come from one of the few surviving sixties shows, 15th February 1968.

When Samantha Juste left the show in 1967, the role of 'disc girl' was dropped. In September of that year, the BBC launched Radio 1, and from now on many of the station's DJs would take their turn presenting on TOTP.

In 1967, the TOTP Christmas Special gained a prime Christmas afternoon slot, which it has continued to occupy ever since. Most years until 1984, a second festive round-up was also produced, and again in more recent years.

A new dance troupe made their debut on TOTP in the spring of 1968. Taking over from the Go-Jos, Pan's People would make an indelible mark on TOTP from the late sixties to the mid-seventies. They counted Flick Colby amongst their number, who would later move to a behind the scenes role as the group's choreographer, as well as all the subsequent dance groups until their demise in 1983.

The BBC's method of producing an 'average' chart was not without its problems, not least its tendency to produce joint chart positions. This issue came to a head in August 1968, when three songs all shared number one position on the BBC chart, and thus TOTP had to feature all three. And so in February 1969, the BBC, in collaboration with the Record Retailer paper, commissioned the British Market Research Bureau to produce a weekly 'official' chart. This would now feature on both Pick and Top of the Pops. By now, the latter had switched to revealing the Top 20 records in the more familiar reverse order.

Colour arrived on BBC1 in November 1969, and TOTP returned to Television Centre where it would now be recorded in colour. A new opening theme tune and title sequence were introduced, featuring a red neon logo. Here we have two variants, one in black-and-white from early 1970, featuring Pan's People dancing in front of the logo, and then from later in the same year, featuring dancing silhouettes.

Curiously, though, the closing credits retained the previous logo, along with the Dave Davani theme tune (though sometimes a song from the charts would be used as a playout). The chart rundown was expanded to a Top 30, however the song title was dropped from the graphics. The number one song continued to be played over the countdown.

In January 1970, TOTP was extended from its usual 25 or 30 minutes to become a 45 minute programme. The show would use its extra time to feature more new releases and songs further down the charts. It reduced back down to 40 minutes in September. For the remainder of the 70s, and early 80s, the show's length would mostly vary between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on what other programmes were scheduled that Thursday evening.

On 5th November 1970, TOTP launched a new opening title sequence, along with a stripy new logo. (We don't have a recording of the full titles, but the logo can be seen here behind Robin Nash). Most significantly, it would see the debut of TOTP's most famous theme tune, 'Whole Lotta Love'. Originally recorded by Led Zeppelin, it had been covered by Alexis Korner's musical collective CCS. However the version used on TOTP was, in effect, a cover version of a cover version, with the Top of the Pops Orchestra, featuring some of the members of CCS, performing a 40 second version of the track.

The new technique of CSO (colour separation overlay) was applied during the chart rundown, during which audience members would be seen dancing in front of a large screen in the studio. As far as they were concerned, they were dancing in front of a plain blue screen, but viewers at home would see still images of each of the acts in the Top 30, as seen in these cropped screenshots.

From the start of 1971 the countdown was moved to later in the show, and was now accompanied by a song other than the number one. It returned to the start of the show, straight after the opening titles, the following July. By the start of 1973 the countdown sequence had been replaced by a simpler series of stills, with the chart position, using a stripy numeral in the same style as the TOTP logo, and artist name superimposed over the bottom of the picture. The sequence was intercut with scenes of the audience dancing.

From January 1971 a new album slot was introduced, which would see one band or artist given the opportunity to perform two or three songs consecutively. The feature was dropped by August. Other regular slots in the early 70s focused on songs outside the charts, such as 'Tip for the Top', and a 'New Release' feature.

In April 1973, TOTP's transmission day moved from Thursday to Friday. The move wasn't popular, and in September 1973 it returned to Thursdays.

The same year saw the introduction of TOTP's most famous logo. It was designed by Bob Blagden, who took inspiration from the lettering on 1950s American cars. This style also extended to the closing credits. 'Whole Lotta Love' remained as the programme's theme, and the opening titles consisted of regularly changing filmed sequences, followed by 30 cartoon numerals which flashed past in quick succession, concluding with the new logo.

The format of the chart countdown remained as it was, being updated with a new font for the artist name and chart position. This style would be particularly long-lasted, remaining unchanged for the next six years. There were no captions at the start or end of songs, as there would be in later years.

Exactly when these changes took place is unclear, due to the number of missing episodes from that time, but it must have been at some point between February and June 1973. On 4th October, TOTP celebrated its 500th episode (several weeks late). By this time, original executive producer Johnnie Stewart had been replaced by Robin Nash, and it was during his tenure, which lasted the remainder of the decade, that TOTP's presentation style would begin to stagnate.

TOTP went off air due to industrial action for several weeks over the summer of 1974. When it returned, there was a change to the way the programme started. Up until now, the opening title sequence had been followed by a brief introduction by the presenter, and then the Top 30 rundown was played over a song from the charts. On the show dated 8th August 1974, the opening titles and countdown were combined, of sorts. The chart positions were illustrated by each of the 30 cartoon numerals from the previous sequence preceding either a still or a very brief video clip of the artist concerned. 'Whole Lotta Love' was used as the music, and the sequence concluded with the TOTP logo.

Presumably that type of sequence was too much hassle to put together week after week with the technology available at the time, because by the start of October, the show had reverted to a simpler chart sequence consisting of a series of still images, played right at the start of the programme after the presenter introduction. TOTP would not have another proper opening title sequence for the remainder of the 70s, and the TOTP logo was relegated to only being seen at the commencement of the closing credits.

Talking of which, by the mid-seventies, scenes of the audience dancing during the closing credits, which had been the norm since the early days of TOTP, had been dispensed with, and replaced with a boring kaleidoscope effect panning round the studio. The TOTP playout was designed such that the BBC1 network director could cut away from the programme at any point after the credits had ended, in order to keep the schedule running on time.

The BBC4 repeat run began with editions from April 1976, as it is from this point that the majority of shows exist in the BBC archive. It is perhaps unfortunate that this coincides with a rather drab period for TOTP, with the excitement of the early 70s glam period having faded. It was now not uncommon to see bored-looking audience members standing around with their arms folded!

Pan's People danced their last at the end of April 1976 - a new troupe was formed by Flick Colby and former Pan's Person Ruth Pearson, whose names were combined to produce the dance troupe's name, Ruby Flipper. Unlike their predecessors, Ruby Flipper was a mixed-gender group, which Flick argued would give more flexibility in choreographing the dance routines.

BBC management disagreed, however - as far as they were concerned, Pan People's appeal lay in the fact that they were an all-girl group. And so Ruby Flipper lasted less than six months, before Flick was ordered to form another all-girl dance troupe. The new group, who debuted on 21st October 1976, inherited the remaining female members of Ruby Flipper. TOTP viewers were invited to write in and suggest names for the group - the winning suggestion was 'Legs and Co'.

The shows from around this time often have a distinct 'light entertainment' feel to them. Though ostensibly a chart show, the shows from the late seventies would usually also feature acts that were well outside the Top 30. Some would go on to be big hits, while others had no real business being on a contemporary pop show for young people and would remain in obscurity, such as the Surprise Sisters, Glamourpuss, or something else that had recently been Noel Edmonds's Record of the Week on Radio 1.

Meanwhile, the nonsense of groups having to re-record their hit singles in slightly inferior form continued, with the Top of the Pops Orchestra remaining on hand to ruin everyone's songs for them.

On 21st July 1977 'Whole Lotta Love' was ditched as the theme to the Top 30 countdown; the rundown would now be accompanied by a song from the charts, just as it had been earlier in the decade. The leading zero disappeared for positions below 10 in early 1979. In July 1979, the countdown pictures shrunk from full screen to a box in a corner, and in 1980, the colour schemes would become increasingly lurid.

In December 1977 Elton John became the first ever solo celebrity presenter of a TOTP episode - something that would become in norm in the mid-90s.

Despite rapid changes in fashions and musical styles, the TOTP of the late 70s was making little attempt to keep up. By the end of the decade, little had changed presentation-wise since the early 70s.

During a period of industrial action by the Musicians' Union, which took the show off the air from several weeks from May 1980, a pilot edition for a new-look TOTP was recorded. New executive producer Michael Hurll had arrived, and he was intent on radically shaking up the programme for the new decade. TOTP was going to turn into a party!


Next page: 1980-1984


Text copyright © Robert Williams, images copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation