TV Shows We Used To Watch - BBC The Old Grey Whistle Test
'The Old Grey Whistle Test'. How did the show get it's odd name? Well, a number of years before the show started (and in the early days of the recording industry), legend has it that record company executives in London's Denmark Street would test the acceptability of their new tunes by getting a rather old doorman (dressed in a grey uniform, or, as also stated, with grey hair) to whistle them. If he could whistle a tune back after hearing it just once, it would pass 'the old grey whistle test'.
The Old Grey Whistle Test (usually abbreviated to Whistle Test or OGWT) was an influential BBC2 television music show that ran from 1971 to 1987. It took over the BBC2 late night slot from "Disco Two", which had been running since January 1970, while continuing to feature non-chart music. It was devised by BBC producer Rowan Ayers.
The show's focus on "serious" rock music rather than chart hits was emphasised by a lack of showbiz glitter: bands would often perform their songs in front of either the bare studio walls or plain wooden boards (actually the backs of set walls from other programmes filmed in the same studio).
As with many BBC productions, this was (initially at least) as much a matter of money as of style; other late night shows of the time, having only 'minority' appeal, also had to be content with spartan sets.
Another factor was that the programme was originally made in a studio known as "Pres B", which had been originally intended for in-vision continuity. The studio was only 32x22 feet (a little under 10 x 7 metres) which left little room for a set once the cameras and band were in.
The series' opening titles consisted of an animation of a male figure (known as the 'Star Kicker') made up of stars dancing.
The programme's title music, with its distinctive harmonica theme, was a track called "Stone Fox Chase" by a Nashville band, Area Code 615 (once played live on the show, in 1978, by Val Doonican and Charlie McCoy).
The first host was Richard Williams, features editor of Melody Maker, the music weekly. From 1972, the programme was presented by DJ Bob Harris (nicknamed "Whispering Bob Harris", due to his quiet voice and "laid back" style). He later became notorious among the younger generation for calling the New York Dolls "mock rock" and left OGWT in 1978.
Anne Nightingale took over as host in 1978 when it was felt the programme was behind the times in its failure to embrace punk.
This was acknowledged when The Adverts opened Nightingale's first show, T. V. Smith beginning with the words "At last the 1978 show" (a pun on the television comedy At Last the 1948 Show) and a sigh of relief that the programme was finally contemporary.
In December 1980 Nightingale faced the daunting task of presenting the show in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of John Lennon (who had himself appeared on the show in 1975). This particular episode consisted almost entirely of interviews with various people about Lennon's life and career.
In the early 1980s, Andy Kershaw, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Richard Skinner also took turns as presenters.
When a Japanese group called The Sadistic Mika Band appeared, a stagehand arranged for the name of the programme title (usually hung on the back wall) to be spelled as The Old Gley Whistle Test.
In 1983, the programme was moved to a live mid-evening slot. The title was abridged to Whistle Test and the title credits and music were changed.
The final show was broadcast at the end of 1987; material included "Hotel California" by The Eagles, live from 1977, and "Bat out of Hell" by Meat Loaf.
The executive producer of The Old Grey Whistle Test was Mike Appleton. Derek Burbidge and Kate Humphreys directed and videoed many of the artists. The audio was always of prime importance. Gregg Baily was the recordist for the show on location.
Although many assumed the bands were playing live, due to technical issues and the need to ensure performances were controlled, the bands often recorded the performance on the day of shooting prior to taping, and then mimed to this "live" track.
Other directors and camera operators were Martin Pitts in the USA, and for England, John Metcalfe and Tim Pope and many others. Location shoots all over the world were an essential part of the programme.
The programme hosted many seminal acts of the era, including the first British TV performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers as well as then little-known acts of whom any early footage is now considered precious, such as Billy Joel, Judas Priest with a long haired Rob Halford, Judee Sill, Heart and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Although many felt that the show had run its course by the time it went off the air, it had become the template for many successive "serious" British music programmes, such as The Tube, Later with Jools Holland and From the Basement
In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, The Old Grey Whistle Test was placed 33rd.
A parody of the show as part of Rutland Weekend Television in 1975, featuring Eric Idle as Harris, is the first known mention of fictional band, Toad The Wet Sprocket - a later reference on a Monty Python album gave rise to the band of the same name. The parody also featured "all-dead" musician Stan Fitch, whose silent, motionless performance was treated with quick zooms, closeups, and other visual effects typical of shows like Whistle Test.
The show's title was parodied in the comedy series Father Ted, in the episode "The Old Grey Whistle Theft".
The series was also parodied on The Fast Show, with Jazz Club, hosted by the eccentric (but quiet) Louis Balfour (a play on Bob Harris).
In 2006, the series was parodied in the sketch comedy show Snuff Box. The host was played by Richard Ayoade.
The BBC has released three DVD compilations from the show.
It’s sad – really, really sad – that there is no obvious equivalent to The Old Grey Whistle Test on television today. But perhaps a contemporary take on the show could yet present itself. Fingers crossed, or else what will this generation’s children rely upon for their televised musical education?
Have you watched any of the freely broadcast music channels lately? Terrifying.