The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (32 and 31)

Ooh, almost within the Top Thirty. And this time around, it includes two examples of Peak Beeb, so that’s nice. Here goes:

32: Pointless

(Shown 2656 times, 2009-2021)

Yes! For the first time in ages, a programme I won’t need to do a lot of research on because I’ve probably watched most of the episodes. Oh, wait, my memory. Okay, I’ll do research as well.

For the uninitiated, the premise of the programme is quite simple. A hundred people have been asked a series of questions beforehand (generally either a standard general knowledge question, or of the ‘can you name a’ variety), and the results of each straw poll logged. During each episode, pairs of contestants are asked those same questions, the goal being to provide correct answers that were given by as few of that hundred as possible – the highest score at the end of each round sees a competing couple eliminated. If a contestant provides an answer that nobody from the hundred had thought of – a pointless answer (hey, like the title of the show!) – during the main part of an episode, £250 is added to the running jackpot. If they do so during the final round, they scoop said jackpot, and it’s reset to £1000.

Simple. Didn’t need do put together a flow-chart or anything. Which isn’t always the case for daytime quiz programmes. Remember Golden Balls? I n case you’re even more uninitiated about Pointless, it’s spent the majority of the last eleven-plus years in BBC One’s prime pre-news weekday 5.15pm slot. And it doesn’t look like shifting from that position any time soon – at the time of writing, the Celebrity spin-off of the series is going out on primetime Saturday night BBC One. It’s hosted by Alexander Armstrong (who, between this, Hey Duggee, Dangermouse and all his other stuff, seemingly features at least once on every BBC channel per day) and originally co-hosted by Richard Osman (a longtime gameshow schemer thrust onto the programme after impressing in a pitch of the show to the BBC), with the show currently co-hosted by a rota of guests while Osman builds his global media empire. Oh, and it was originally going to be called ‘Obviously’, which sounds exactly like a programme title that would run for 20 weeks at 2pm then disappear forever, so it’s probably for the best that it changed.

With Pointless such an integral part of the schedules, it’s strange to think how it was once just another BBC2 quiz programme that aired for a few months, then made way for something else. That first run on weekday afternoon Two ran from 24 August to 6 October 2009, after which it was off our screens until the following March, with that 4:30pm slot going to Ready Steady Cook, Cash in the Celebrity Attic, A Question of Genius and Ben Fogle’s Escape in Time. However, Pointless proved popular enough to see Xander and Richard set up shop on BBC1 in July 2011 – and in the prime pre-news slot just vacated by The Weakest Link. They’ve barely budged since.

It’s not just the host channel that made Pointless such a different beast from what we know now. Despite having the same 45-minute runtime as modern-day Pointless, the format initially found room for a fifth pair of contestants, meaning an entire additional elimination round to cram into each episode. To make room for that, chat between Alexander, Richard and the contestants was stripped back to the barest of essentials, with the whole affair feeling that bit more relentless to the latter-day Pointless enthusiast. The head-to-head round took a decidedly different approach, too. Instead of the now-familiar ‘best of three’, a single open-ended question is asked (such as ‘James Bond films’ or ‘England managers since 1966’), and turns are batted back-and-forth between couples, who must try to keep their accumulative score as low as possible. Once a couple reaches an aggregate score above 100 (at the end of a pass, and the other remains below 100), they’re eliminated.

It’s like a different planet.

There are other little differences in the early episodes, too. For one thing, Alexander’s little podium seems a lot more prominent in those initial outings. There are lots of cutaways to the studio audience, which is something we never see nowadays (which at least made it easier to hide where it switched to an audience soundtrack during lockdown). The big screen containing all the answers had a decidedly postmodern ovoid look to it. The list of potential topics for the final round saw unchosen topics roll over to the next episode, though finalists were only given a single criteria on that topic. And – I recognise this might just be me here – the closer shot of contestant’s faces during the countdown sequence feels vaguely intrusive. Plus, at least in early episodes, more minutes are eaten up by Alexander giving illustrative examples of how it all works during his introduction.

Too close. Don’t like it.

Other changes to the format would come later. The ‘bonus booster’ round would appear midway through the 23rd series, itself repurposing a previously-retired question format where six possible answers are displayed, leaving contestants to work out which two might be pointless, which two might be correct, and which are completely incorrect. New question formats would appear occasionally throughout the run, such as asking contestants to identify pieces of music, or identify parts of a particular item. A further change to the format was likely influenced by outside events – the 2020 pandemic coinciding with couples now being allowed to appear in three consecutive episodes without winning, rather than the previous two. I can’t help but feel that was partly influenced by the need to have fewer contestants required on set for each day of recording, and while that’s a boon for the show’s contestants, it does dramatically reduce my chances of ever appearing on Pointless. There’s no way I’ve got as many as three personal anecdotes worth broadcasting to the nation.

The BBC1 17:15 weekday slot wasn’t exclusively the domain of Xander and Richard since Pointless arrived on BBC One, however. in July 2018, the Beeb decided to eschew repeats of Pointless and place episodes from the third series of Rick Edwards quizzer Impossible in that slot. That folly lasted until the end of the 2018 summer holiday period, and from the start of September Pointless would return to its rightful place. I’ve checked Hansard and can’t see any record of backbench fury in the Commons about this, but I presume that’s just a filing error in Westminster.

Pointless would also be bumped out of the pre-news slot for a couple of weeks in 2019, where the first few weeks of that year’s Strictly – It Takes Two leapt into the slot, Pointless having been bumped back to a 4.30pm home. Since then, however, the 5.15pm slot has remained Pointless, whether it be repeats or first-run episodes.

One curious thing I’d forgot about Pointless’ move to BBC1: the initial episodes were actually preceded by the first-ever episodes of Pointless Celebrities (which, for the record, had aired 524 times by the end of 2021, and which I’m not including in the broadcast count for regular flavour Pointless). 4 July 2011 saw “episode 1 of 5” of the celeb-based spinoff, with Julia Bradbury and John Craven among the participants. It wasn’t until a week later on 11 July 2011 that the regular Pointless would appear.

There is of course one major mystery about the series. Basically: who are the hundred people they ask all these questions to? Presumably it’s largely the same hundred people each time, rather than some luckless runner being sent out onto the high street with a clipboard the day before filming, but some of the responses do make one wonder how many of them function as a human being. I mean, I can’t bloody stand Private Eye’s ‘Dumb Britain’ column, which mocks members of the public getting general knowledge questions wrong whilst under bright studio lights and on camera, but The Pointless Hundred are presumably in a more relaxed environment. And yet – using an example from a few days ago – when asked ‘[which] anti-apartheid leader and future South African president was jailed for life in the Rivonia Trial[?]’ 67% of them said something other than ‘Nelson Mandela’. I do wish there were some kind of Pointless Patreon people could subscribe to, where you’d be sent a full .csv dataset of responses to each question.

Conversely, I do wonder how often a sole Pointless Hundredee that stops someone winning a final round jackpot by a single point punches the air in celebration. “YESSSS! That’ll teach you to revise all the chemical elements beforehand.”

I think part of the appeal of the series is that it really eschews the current trend for throwing large potential payouts at episode winners. Over on ITV, The Chase (which is very good, but must ONLY to be watched when BBC One are showing repeats of Pointless, of course) offers a potential – if tremendously rare – prize purse totalling six figures. With Pointless, the jackpot rarely creeps above £10,000, and only then if competitors in the previous ten episodes had been unable to land a winning answer in the final round. But, it’s not really about the money. It’s about getting that Pointless trophy for winning an episode.

And while I’m comparing the Whizzer of Pointless to the Chips of The Chase, I’ve got to mention the disparity between the two celebrity variants of the programmes. On Pointless Celebrities, the famous contestants are battling amongst themselves to win a pot of cash for their chosen charities. On The Chase: Celebrity Special, the premise of the programme means you’ve got an employee of the programme doing their very best to prevent £20,000 going to a children’s hospice (or whatever). While that is the entire point of the show, it’d quickly get boring if the Chasers clearly weren’t trying, still: ouch.

[UPDATE: With thanks to Guy Barry for pointing this out in the comments, there’s some information on how the “we asked 100” people are chosen on Pointless. Den of Geek has the goods.]

31: Top of the Pops

(Shown 2725 times, 1964-2021)

Another one that was always going to feature, it was just a matter of where. Plus, it’s a programme that may well have the richest history of any programme in this list. And not just because they happened to have Britain’s most notorious sex case hosting the first ever episode in 1964, and then – despite his reputation – asking him back again to co-host the last ever regular episode in 2006.

Anyway, now we’ve addressed the shellsuited elephant in the room, let’s look at Top of the Pops. A programme popular enough to have been broadcast on Christmas Day BBC1 almost every year since the 1960s (well, until 2022), but unpopular enough to have spent at least a decade at the end of its regular life gradually sliding down the dumper.

But, back to happier days for The World’s Longest-Running Weekly Music Show. Everyone (well, everyone over the age of thirty) has ‘their’ own era of TOTP, that period where it all felt a bit more personal to them, where it introduced them to so many songs they’d be straight off to Woolies to buy on Saturday morning. Where the presenters seemed the epitome of cool, and where the most thrilling place on earth to be was amongst the TOTP audience. These people can now be divided by those who still keenly tune into the TOTP repeats on BBC Four each Friday night, and those who’ve long dismissed the repeat run as being ‘past its best’ and who long for the manna of the Edmonds years.

The real cool kids know the Peel/Long years were the best.

Of course, anyone who really remembers the early years of ver Pops will be left wanting, as the Beeb famously failed to keep recordings of many episodes, because pop music was clearly A FAD and skiffle is due a comeback any year now. My spec script for a Doctor Who episode where The Doctor travels back to 1964 and strangles the blustery colonel behind that decision has been sent to Russell T Davies and I assume it’s currently in pre-production. As it turned out, the show initially conceived as a short-run series, ultimately ran for way more than 2,000 episodes. Pretty conclusive proof that the pop kids were right all along. Take that, squares.

A square, yesterday.

When devising the original programme, Pops creator Johnnie Stewart carved out the long-running commandments that would serve the series so well. RULE ONE: Each episode must end with that week’s number one record, which is the only record permitted to appear two weeks in a row. RULE TWO: Each episode should include that week’s highest new entry, plus (providing it hadn’t featured the previous week) the highest climber. RULE THREE: Any song travelling down the charts will not be played.

For much of ‘Pops lifetime, those rules were to be obeyed. At least most of the time – there were some exceptions, such as a reformed Sex Pistols taking centre stage at the end of an episode in 1996, rather than that week’s number one single. Some of those rules needed to be disregarded later in the run, too: by the mid 1990s, aggressive pricing (CD singles £1.99 or less on the week of release, £3.99 thereafter) and heavy pre-release airplay ensured that most singles’ peak position in the charts would be their debut position. As a result, singles rising up the charts were a true rarity, meaning falling singles would also need to get an airing if they were able to fill a half-hour each week.

From the initial 1964 line-up of hosts (Alan Freeman, Pete Murray, David Jacobs, J**** S******, plus Simon Dee, and Samantha Juste on disc-spinning duty in subsequent years), the host roster was boosted in 1967 following the launch of Radio 1, including familiar names like Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett and John Peel. The late sixties also saw the first celebrity guest co-hosts, such as Lulu and Alan Price, plus Monkees Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones.

The 1970s saw further new additions to the presenting line-up, including Noel Edmonds (from 1972), Kid Jenson (from 1977), Power Powell (also from 1977) and Dave Ni- I mean Simon Bates (from 1979). Giving my age away a bit here, but the Imperial Phase of TOTP arrived in the 1980s, along with a return to hosting duties for the peerless John “Depech-ay Mode” Peel, along with scouse sidekick Janice Long, Tommy “gravitas-on-legs” Vance, Gary “the mid-80s-on-legs” Davies and Mike “Keep Me Off the BBC4 Repeats” Smith.

During the 1980s, ITV tried to get in on the act with Tyne-Tees’ nationally-networked facsimile The Roxy, which threw everything it could at the screen (such as the first ever TV performance of Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin) the first but TOTP was far too ingrained in the national psyche for it to stand a chance. Any pop-based programming on rival channels needed a different approach to stand a chance, such as C4’s The Chart Show (later ITV, of course) or BBC2’s roaming pop travelogue No Limits.

When it came to the 90s (The Roxy, coincidentally, having been cancelled within about ten minutes of launching), the show decamped to Elstree and saw the production team accidentally leave the Radio 1 hosts behind, so they quickly ushered in a fresh line-up of hosts: Mark Franklin, Tony Dortie, Claudia Simon, Adrian Rose, Steve Anderson and Femi Oke. Viewers weren’t especially impressed by most of the new presenters, and by late 1992 only Dortie and Franklin of the new intake remained. However, this period did see a new wave of Guest Co-Hosts, with Smashie and Nicey, Bob Geldof, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and, erm, Mr Blobby getting a go at ‘helping’ Dortie and Franklin. A taste of things to come.

Over at Radio 1, new controller Matthew Bannister was transforming the station, mainly by bringing all his old mates over from GLR, and that meant new R1 faces Lisa I’Anson, Wendy Lloyd, Claire Sturgess and Jo Whiley subsequently got a go at hosting The Pops. BUT, a much bigger change came in 1994 (as BBC Four viewers are set to soon re-live), with The Golden Mic Era – a period where celebrity guest hosts took centre stage, with only the occasional episode hosted by Radio One stalwarts.

That particular era seems to get particularly short shrift from TOTP purists, but I must admit I bloody loved it. Why would anyone in their right mind rather have Simon Bates over Punt & Dennis, Jarvis Cocker, Harry Hill or even a returning John Peel? Even Lee and Herring got to host a couple of episodes, meaning at some point over the next year we’ll all get to see if Stewart Lee does a Mike Smith and blocks the repeat broadcasts of his episodes, probably just to annoy Richard Herring. Unfortunately, there was some absolute cackhandedness when it came to picking a few of the hosts, most obviously Gary Oh For Fuck’s Sake Glitter. But, that aside, it does make for a perfect time capsule of the period: Dennis Pennis, Jas Mann, Julia Carling and Louise Wener. Yep, 1996 in a nutshell. Plus, Hale & Pace hosted an episode in 1995, which I’d like to think was a promotional push for legendary misfire h&p@bbc, but that came years later – h&p were still firmly @itv back then.

Hale (L), Pace (R). No, hang on.

Anyone want to see a table of who hosted the most often during that Golden Mic era? Because you know I’m about to drop that information on you.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the mid-1990s.

By the year 2000, the idea of the guest presenters had fallen by the post-millennial wayside, and a more rigid roster of hosts took the TOTP reins. The firmest grip on said reins was Richard Blackwood, fresh from Channel Four, along with Jayne Middlemiss, Jamie Theakston and Gail Porter. Theakston would soon become main presenter of the series, but guest hosts would also make occasional appearances alongside the main hosts, including Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Mel B, Ben Elton, Vernon Kay and – oh bloody hell, J**** S******.

At this point, despite the show slipping in the ratings (and being scheduled opposite Coronation Street really didn’t help matters), in 2002 efforts were made to strengthen the brand by launching Saturday morning spin-off Top of the Pops Saturday, a clear attempt to arrest the runaway success of ITV’s hit chart show CD:UK. Even after a rebrand to Top of the Pops: Reloaded, the spin-off failed to find much of a foothold, and it seemed that the only reason it was kept around for four whole years was that nobody could think of anything better.

The main show wasn’t doing much better at this stage. To try and overhaul the programme, former Broom Cupboard resident Andi Peters was given the exec producer gig and tasked with rescuing the show. In came former MTV jock Tim Kash as main host and a more focused approach, but it all counted for little. In November 2004 came the announcement that Pops would be moved to a new slot on BBC Two, and a new night – Sunday nights immediately following the announcement of each week’s Top Forty. While the intent was that it would bring a fresh energy to the show, it would have surely proved a bit awkward for any acts booked to appear who’d just found they’d landed outside the forty that week.

This was clearly TOTP’s death spiral. At the time of Tim Kash’s debut in 2003, viewing figures were at a respectable 5.65m. Within a few weeks of the move to BBC Two, they’d slumped to just 1.5m. New exec producer Mark Cooper gave the guest presenter tactic another airing in 2005. However, a strange mix of guest hosts clearly designed to grab as many eyeballs as possible (Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, Sharon Osbourne, Peter Kay as Brian Potter) did little to delay the inevitable. And so, 30 July 2006 saw the last ever ‘regular’ episode of TOTP, with a selection of presenters both past and present returning for one last gig. Unhappily, it included – y’know, him. An undignified end to a pop institution.

Not that this was truly the end. Spin-off series TOTP2 would broadcast highlights of previous episodes for several more years, and Top Of The Pops itself would return for annual Christmas episodes each December 25th, along with occasional New Year episodes, with Fearne Cotton on hosting duties for pretty much all of them. However, history appears to be repeating itself, with a festive special of the show missing from BBC One’s Christmas schedule for 2022. Instead, an ‘end-of-year review show’ appeared on BBC Two on Christmas Eve. Is this the end of Ver Pops? I guess we’ll find out in December.

In 2017, a kind-of Pops did return to the BBC One Friday night schedule, perhaps emboldened by the success of music-based programming on BBC Four on that night – the focus of which being week-by-week (Yewtree permitting) Pops repeats – with Sounds Like Friday Night promising to reintroduce live music into the nation’s homes. However, it wasn’t much of a hit, and it disappeared after just two series.

Well, at least we’ve still got the repeats on BBC Four.

I’d expected writing about a pair of programmes I’ve watched hundreds of times to be easy. I was wrong. But which pair of programmes will be next in the rundown? TIME WILL TELL.

2 responses to “The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (32 and 31)”

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