Friday 9 December 2016

Television review: TOTP '75: is it safe to enter?

* Top of the Pops : Christmas 1975 (BBC Four)
* Music From D'Telly (RTE1)

Published 04/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration Jim Cogan
Illustration Jim Cogan

In a Hammer horror movie, ideally there is a scene at the start in which the tired traveller is in the forest and a thick fog has descended as he arrives at the door of a once-grand old house, a forbidding place which is opened by a broken-down servant who is called Maddocks.

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Everything about the place is telling the traveller not to go in there, the audience is urging him to move on, the broken-down servant is saying something like, "I wouldn't be coming in here sir, if I were you", or "There has been nobody living here for 40 years now, sir", even as somebody can clearly be heard in the background saying, "Who is it, Maddocks?"

Yet for all its terrors and its decrepitude, there is also something irresistible about the old place, perhaps a remembrance of some ancient glory. A sense that great things happened here once.

Which brings us naturally to the Tops of the Pops Christmas special of 1975, shown by BBC Four on Christmas Day. Which brings us indeed to the whole archive of music which the BBC and lately RTE has been using to entertain us but also to torment us, inveigling us into the terrible pit of nostalgia.

There is no Maddocks at the door saying "I wouldn't be coming in here sir, if I were you", but deep down we know the dangers. We know that if we watch any of these old Top of the Pops specials, or anything from "Rock at the BBC", or even "Irish Rock at the BBC", or "Soul at the BBC", or "Country at the BBC", or "Abba at the BBC", we will be presented with some sort of existential crisis.

Because anyone who is anyone has been "at the BBC", and has left behind some record of the event which at any moment has the potential to bring us back to our childhood in the most devastating way, through the potency of pop music.

And then all the great questions will arise ­- are we just old farts, or was that music really better? Or was it just the structure that was better, the weekly charts which seemed to mean so much? And did we realise how good it was at the time, or were we just too young to appreciate it properly - and if so, have our lives essentially been wasted?

When you've got a 1975 TOTP Christmas show featuring I'm Not In Love" by 10CC, by Ralph McTell, performances by Johnny Nash, Tammy Wynette, The Tymes, Mud, and of course Telly Savalas's spoken-word version of If, you are forced to confront these issues.

For the BBC too there is a problem with the Top of the Pops archive in particular, in that they have to find episodes which do not in any way feature Jimmy Savile - the character who takes us beyond the realm of Hammer horror into some forbidden domain into which not even a Vincent Price would dare to venture.

Nor will we be seeing Gary Glitter again, certainly not in silver-suited form. And yet our awareness of the unseen presence of a Savile or a Glitter gives us a sharper perspective, causing us to ponder how the worst of men can insinuate themselves into these places of enlightenment.

RTE is free of that problem at least, and it has shown an acute awareness of the intoxicating power of nostalgia with the never-ending show that is Reeling In The Years. Recently, it copped a lick from the BBC by going straight to the music archives for Music From D'Telly, presented by Pat Shortt, which contains multitudes, yet which persists with the maddening practice of fading out a song before it reaches its natural end.

But there is taste and discretion too, in these selections, and perhaps there is something well-intentioned in the editing of some of the performances. After all, to sit through the whole of 10CC's I'm Not in Love on that 1975 special is to find yourself lost in time in such a way, there is a danger you will never find your way back from it.

So when Music From D'Telly shows us some of a Rory Gallagher show, but not all of it, let us accept that they are probably doing us a favour.

That we just can't take any more.

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