Monday 21 January 2019

Television review: Old and Grey and Magnificent

  • The Old Grey Whistle Test Live: For One Night Only

Bob Marley and the Wailers in Spring 1973 on the Old Grey Whistle Test
Bob Marley and the Wailers in Spring 1973 on the Old Grey Whistle Test
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It's the word "Old" that reveals the genius of The Old Grey Whistle Test. It is now part of TV legend that the programme title was taken from a tradition they had in the Brill Building, whereby the songwriters would test their new material on the doormen, to see how quickly they could whistle along - if they could whistle a new song straight away, supposedly it would be a hit.

It was a title which paid tribute to the lore of the music industry, but still it had the word "Old" in it - and this programme that they were trying to invent for BBC2 was mainly going to be about rock'n'roll music, about albums in particular, which seemed to draw much of their energy from whatever is the opposite of Oldness.

If, perhaps, the English language contained only about 10 words in total, and one of them was "Old", you might understand why they felt they had no option but to go for it. But there are many, many words in that language, and yet somehow out of all those words, they chose "Old". And they also chose "Grey".

Old and Grey.

Now there is a natural and understandable anxiety with any new creative endeavour, as its makers strive to connect with what is known in the trade as the "target market" - or whatever they called it back in 1970. And there are no rules in that game, nothing officially written down, but if there was just one basic law it would go something like this : you don't use the words "old" and "grey" if you're doing something that is mostly of interest to young people.

Old and Grey would have perfectly suited the programme last Friday on BBC Four, The Old Grey Whistle Test Live: For One Night Only, because most of the people on it - such as the OGWT presenter Bob Harris and musicians such as Richard Thompson and Peter Frampton - are indeed old now. And if they had hair, it would probably be grey.

But they weren't like that during the Golden Age of Rock, and yet the BBC was still relaxed enough about its own brilliance - and there is no other word for it - to give such a programme an apparently misleading name, just because they sort-of liked the sound of it. They thought it had a bit of class or something, and as for the "target market" - who cares about such mediocre aspirations?

And then… and then my friends they did something else that they really should not have done, if they were trying to do this thing the "right" way. In their desire to make a programme which was a kind of TV version of magazines such as NME or Sounds, clearly they would have rock'n'roll bands playing in the studio, and that was fine, except they left out just one thing that you usually have when rock'n'roll bands are playing - there was no audience.

As Danny Baker explained on the "live" tribute show, rather than killing the whole thing, this somehow created the perfect atmosphere for an audience who regarded this as "their" show, taking place in this twilight zone, like a nightclub for like-minded people which they could visit once a week, in their own homes. It was an audience which at times rose to five million.

I had not known this, but I should have guessed that there would be large numbers for this music, what we now realise was perhaps the greatest outpouring of creative genius since the Renaissance. In one sequence on For One Night Only…, we saw highlights of performances by Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Who, The Jam, Emmylou Harris, Elton John, Tim Buckley, The Specials, BB King… oh, and David Bowie.

I rest my case, m'lud, and then at the end of these three hours of rocking and reminiscing, they played the OGWT performance that the viewers had voted for, the first British TV appearance of Bob Marley and The Wailers, doing an immortal version of Stir It Up.

It was just another night on the Old Grey… in 1973.

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