There was a time when live music was a staple of primetime TV, and one brand cast a shadow over every rival: the BBC’s much imitated, rarely rivalled flagship chart show, Top of the Pops.
Then the internet happened – and TOTP died in 2006. For the last decade, every attempt to wrest the pop agenda back from YouTube and co has been met with failure and inevitable comparisons to what went before.
This week, the BBC brought back live music to the primetime schedules with a show that, its presenters are at pains to insist, has nothing to do with its famous forebear.
Sounds Like Friday Night, presented by Radio One’s Greg James and Radio 1Xtra’s Dotty, was a music show featuring live performances in front of a dancing audience in the BBC’s freshly revamped television studios. But both say it is much more that an imitation of Top of the Pops.
The half-hour show, which is being made by James Corden’s production company, will feature its celebrity guests in comedy sketches. And it will be co-hosted by a special guest each week, kicking off with singer Jason Derulo.
It is a feature that takes direct inspiration from Corden’s US chat show, where the Carpool Karaoke feature, in which celebrities sing along to their own songs in a car, has been so successful that it has spawned its own spin-off.
“We always knew you can’t bring a straight music show like Top of the Pops back,” said James, who emphasised that the show would live online as much as on TV. “In 2017, it’s about creating something new you can’t get from watching a video on YouTube, or just listening to a Spotify playlist. You have to create an event that draws people in.”
Guests on the opening show, which broadcast at 7.30pm on Friday, included singers Jessie Ware and Charlie Puth, while Foo Fighters frontman Grohl made an appearance in a comedy sketch with Corden. Future episodes will feature former One Direction member Liam Payne, Liam Gallagher and London Grammar.
In a world where people are bombarded with musical and JamesTV content at all times, said there was a contrasting appetite for curated shows such as this, where viewers had to make no choices and could just settle in for half an hour of entertainment.
Dotty said it was not a risky move for the BBC, as there was currently a gaping hole in terms of a light-hearted live music show on TV. The other musical offerings on the BBC scheduled for Friday night include a pre-recorded Tears for Fears concert, Stereophonics on Jools Holland, and a replay of an episode of TOTP from 1984.
“There are extremes of music TV at the moment, where you have The X Factor which is really disposable and you’ll have forgotten about it by Monday, and then there’s Jools Holland,” Dotty said. “But where’s the thing in the middle for people who don’t want that overly commercialised thing, but don’t necessarily want to sit down for the Jools Holland musical education?”
The BBC have toyed with bringing back a live music show for years, with a Top of The Pops revival fronted by Fearne Cotton and Dermot O’Leary rumoured back in 2015.
Over the decades, as well as being a family-friendly TV show, Top of the Pops also played host to some controversial and avant-garde performances, from the Stranglers destroying the stage to the KLF’s costumed appearance alongside Gary Glitter. James insisted despite its primetime slot and targeted family audience, Sounds Like Friday Night would be open to stirring the pot just as TOTP once did.
“Because it’s live, there’s so much opportunity for stuff to happen,” he said. “And whether it be a Madonna falling off the stage or some other mishap, because we’ll have such a mix of egos and artists, there hopefully will be those moments where people will go ‘oh my g*d, did you see what happened’. We’re hoping for a bit of controversy.”
“If the plan was to play it super-safe then they would never have got us to present it,” added Dotty.
While comedy sketches featuring celebrities have long been a staple of American late night shows, they have fallen notoriously flat on British TV, most recently on ITV’s widely panned Late Night Live.
James admitted he was aware of treading the fine line between funny and excruciatingly awkward. He emphasised that each sketch would be personalised for the celebrity involved, drawing from their own biographies, rather than just having “Dave Grohl on the moving piano, or something equally awkward and incongruous.”
Dotty said that the show would not be bound to the charts, as TOTP was, and not to a specific genre, but would be a reflection of music today, where the cross-pollination of genres and artists has meant urban radio stations such as Radio 1Xtra now have songs by Katy Perry on their playlists, while grime artists are often on Radio 1.
“People are consuming music in that way now,” Dotty said. “Music is crossing so many boundaries these days that there needs to be more platforms that embrace that. I’m quite hopeful that this show just embraces music lovers.”
She added: “Between Greg and I, we’ve got all the genres covered.”