For sixteen years, British Rock TV was shaped by The Old Grey Whistle Test
Keith Badman profiles the series' classic years: 1971 to 1979
The Old Grey Whistle Test will always have a special place in the hearts of British music fans, s it was the programme that established serious rock music on our TV screens. During its 16-year existence - until its demise, as simply Whistle Test, on 31st December, 1987 - the show provided basic musical sustenance for the nation's young adults. It was often the only place where you could see underground acts, and it was always presented in a non-judgemental and extremely informative manner.
The Old Grey Whistle Test was not the BBC's first flirtation with a serious music programme. This honour went to Colour Me Pop (1968-69) and then Disco 2 (1970-71), both of which dedicated their BBC2 airtime to artists not usually featured in the UK singles charts. Disco 3 twice won a Melody Maker award for 'Best TV Programme' over its two-year existence. This appreciation of 'serious' music also briefly graced Top Of The Pops, when, in January 1970, shortly after its expansion from 30 to 45 minutes in length, a selected group would perform two or three tracks from their latest LP on the 'Album Slot'. Unfortunately, this innovative feature soon became a major deterrent for the majority of teenage chart-watchers and it was scrapped. With TOTP viewers giving the thumbs-down to grown-up rock, and both Colour Me Pop and Disco 3 now confined to the annals of TV history, there was a need for something new...
The Old Grey Whistle Test began transmission on BBC2 at 11:05pm on Tuesday, 21st September, 1971, fronted by the Melody Maker and Radio Times columnist and former Disco 2 presenter Richard Williams. He introduced live and pre-recorded studio performances (usually filmed earlier in the evening in Studio B at the TV Centre in Wood Lane, London) and an assortment of star interviews taped both in the studio and on locations.
In addition, the show frequently featured reviews of music films and books, and reports on concerts and festivals, besides showcasing choice archive footage of bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. (In 1976, the OGWT famously aired Jimi Hendrix's legendary lost 1969 appearance on Happening For Lulu, screened soon after its discovery at the end of a soon-to-be-wiped BBC tape about trains.)
Regular watchers will also fondly recall the specially selected new album tracks by bands such as Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and Eric Clapton, among others, which were played to incidental black and white footage - usually Mack Sennet comedies, bizarre ghostly images or early space exploration films.
For supergroups such as Zeppelin, the Who and the Stones, The Old Grey Whistle Test was the perfect way to reach serious rock connoisseurs who had long since outgrown chart-oriented groups.
Richard Williams explained the show's curious title: "Before a new record is released," he said, "a rough mix is played to the grey-haired doorman. If he can whistle the tune after hearing it once, it passes 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' and is released". Williams was also asked to explain the aims of the series: "The Old Grey Whistle Test will reflect the best of the new, but I want to put the music I play in its historical perspective. People now realise that pop isn't as ephemeral as they first thought - that it provides a soundtrack to our lives."
It may surprise many to learn that 'Whispering' Bob Harris was not the first regular host. The 26-year-old Radio 1 DJ did not join the programme until the start of series 2 the following year. Whistle Test producer Michael Appleton approached Harris, who had progressed to Radio 1 after editing Time Out, because he wanted to recruit another presenter with a journalistic background. Bob soon became famous for the way he introduced the show and the guests with the obsequiousness of a butler announcing that a particularly delicious dinner is about to be served.
Bob Harris, speaking in 1973: "On The Old Grey Whistle Test you are basically in an empty studio with three cameras, and it's a position that makes you feel very exposed. The thing that concerned me most before doing the first programme was the interviews. I thought Richard Williams had presented the shows incredibly well, and I have a great deal of respect for him. He had a few bad moments and I think that Jerry Lee Lewis gave him an unnecessarily hard time. It took me a few weeks to relax and become part of the show, in the way that Richard had done, and not just be the presenter."
Northampton-born Harris spent two years as a police cadet before moving into journalism, radio and then TV. At one time he was a keen rugby player - although he was forced to give that up at 19, on doctor's orders, because he had been concussed no fewer than 25 times in one season. "I like the spontaneity of Whistle Test," Harris admitted in 1975. "It's live, which makes it exciting to work on, and also honest in that bands come and actually play. The interviews aren't planned. On some of the interviews I have met the artists to be interviewed only half an hour beforehand, and it can be very hard, especially in front of a camera, to be loose and get a good conversation going. But I try to make them conversations in which I ask the kind of questions I know the people who are watching would ask.
"And because it goes out live, there have been a few strange interviews, to say the least, but I like to think there have been good ones, too. For instance, Bette Midler was marvellous, and when I met the Drifters, although I've got all their singles, I wasn't too sure about the structure of the band, so I had to read up on all their biographies before I interviewed them. The interviews I enjoyed most were with John Lennon in New York, Mick Jagger in Munich and Robert Plant in Brussels."
An infamous meeting with the starts occurred during the broadcast on 12th November, 1974, when Harris apparentlyh heaped criticism on Golden Earring, an act on that evening's show. His words greatly annoyed George Kooymans of the group causing him to blast, "Somebody ought to give that guy a kick in the balls!. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion but I'm not sure if an announcer should do more than announce the bands. It's like the announcer at a concert saying, 'And now for the shittiest band in the world...Golden Earring.' It just wouldn't be right." (Sadly, we can't tell how savage Bob's remarks were, as the original tape of the show no longer survives.)
Summing up, Bob recalled "Each week, Whistle Test had a £500 budget, and that included my taxi fares and meals. The show operated on a shoestring but Whistle Test had the highest rating of any show on BBC2 during its peak, and won the Melody Maker 'Best TV Programme' poll for many years. But off screen I didn't hang out with rock stars. I'm not a rock'n'roller; I'm an introvert and a shy person, I just wanted to provide as sympathetic context as possible. The Old Grey Whistle Test became synonymous with the kind of music which at that time, was called 'progressive' and it worked for a time." But in 1984, Harris was forced to sadly admit that, "The Old Grey Whistle Test went off the rails when punk arrived."
Thankfully, the survival rate of The Old Grey Whistle Test episodes, compared to other BBC music series of this time, is very high. The tapes of the early shows that still reside in the Beeb's VT library were actually recorded live during transmission. Many artists who appeared on the early shows will fondly recall the 'Hospitality (drinks) Cabinet' that, due to a strict BBC ruling, could not be delivered to room B 0055 at TV Centre until precisely 8pm before every show.
Although ITV made many attempts with their own serious late-night music show, none quite matched the initial impact of The Old Grey Whistle Test and without doubt, for its time, it was quite simply essential viewing.
Except for his appearance on the very last Whistle Test show on 31st December, 1987, and a special one-off appearance introducing a Blondie performance on the same date in 1979, Harris hosted his last proper Old Grey Whistle Test during series 8. His place was taken by Radio 1's Anne Nightingale. "I stayed one series too many," he admits. "I felt like the Ken Barlow of rock; people just didn't see me in any ohter role, and I was pretty exhausted. I'd also suffered from some really vitriolic criticism in the music press."
Following his departure from The Old Grey Whistle Test, Harris vanished from the BBC until January 1990, when he returned to host his first late-night Radio 1 broadcast. "For many," Bob recalls, "it seemed that I disappeared completely for the entire 1980s. I was almost a forgotten man. A low point from this decade came in 1984 when I was in a pub quiz team and this bloke came over to me and said 'Didn't you used to be Bob Harris?' This was an absolute low point, I have to say. Thankfully, that was the only time it happened."
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