TV Cream

TV: O is for...

Old Grey Whistle Test, The

Camera two gets ready for the five-minute stand-up bass soloPRIDED ITSELF on being the only place on television you’d be likely to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, which was probably a good thing too. PETER PURVES’s favourite programme. BOB HARRIS claims chief association with the thing, but it was actually started with IAN WHITCOMB and RICHARD WILLIAMS calling, or rather mumbling, the shots. Despite the noise, it always felt like you had to watch it in silence. Flourished during the years when “a pop song” could be 20 hours long. ELP, Yes and ELO turned up every week, either in the studio or “on film, midway through their latest rekkerd-breaking world tour”. Then punk came along and Sir Bob looked a little lost, so ANNIE NIGHTINGALE, DAVID HEPWORTH, MARK ELLEN, RICHARD SKINNER and ANDY KERSHAW took over, perching on monitors to introduce Gang of Four and Spizz Oil. The whole gang got put in charge of Live Aid, because they were the only people who the Beeb thought “knew how to introduce live music” – hence footage of Ellen, Skinner and co beaming their way into the homes of millions of bemused Duran Duran fans.



  1. Glenn Aylett

    June 14, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    It became Whistle Test in its last few years and was then cancelled in 1988 just before the next big phase in music, rave/house, which would have been unsuited to such a muso programme. Somehow I couldn’t see Mark Ellen enthusing over the new single from Black Box, or them cutting it live to sneers of derision from the presenters.

  2. Radio Cream

    July 20, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Maybe he could have introduced Happy Mondays? Or Inspiral Carpets? Or The Stone Roses, The Milltown Brothers, Jane’s Addiction, The Mock Turtles, Little Angels, The Black Crowes, Adamski, 808 State, REM, The Wendys, Primal Scream, New FADS, Flowered Up, Soho, Betty Boo, Del Amitri, Tears For Fears, XTC, Five Thirty, The Family Cat, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, The Boo Radleys, Nirvana, Babes In Toyland, The Chimes, Orbital, The Quireboys, House Of Love, Depeche Mode, Front 242, The B-52’s, Northside, Jellyfish, Carter USM, EMF, Ride, Lush, The Beloved, Lindy Layton, Aztec Camera, Banderas, The Dylans, Teenage Fanclub, Galaxie 500, The Pixies, Carmel, Ice Cube, that pillock who did Silver Thunderbird…

  3. Whispering Blob

    July 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I don’t think dance music would have been under Whistle Test’s remit anyway. Ah, Normski, have we forgotten you so soon?

  4. Glenn Aylett

    July 20, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    It could have evolved, Radio Cream, just as Bob Harris gave way to the new wave. However, the BBC seemed to want more specialised programmes such as Dance Energy and Snub TV in the same way Channel 4 had successfully developed genre themed shows in the mid eighties. Actually I’ve just seen you mention The Beloved, who apart from scoring some moderate hits in the early 90s, are also famous for two things: Geri Halliwell was spotted looking a bit gone dancing to one of their songs on Dance Energy in 1990 and Tess Daley was one of the dancers on Sweet Harmony, their biggest hit. Geri has never given her views on the merits of Blissed Out as an album.

  5. ansonort

    October 2, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Pre-MTV music videos, so if they couldn’t get the band in the studio they’d play their latest 10 minute-plus multi-titled surrealistic fairy-tale tune to an accompanying ancient silent movie in sepia tones. Truly, truly weird. Endless jokes on sketch shows about not being able to hear Whispering Bob.

  6. Richard16378

    August 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Queen’s first ever foray onto TV was their non-charting debut single Keep Yourself Alive which was visualised with lots of random film from the the 20’s & 30’s.

    Pop Quiz did a similar thing into the 1980s.

    Even Going Live seemed to fetch up some public domain footage from the archives late in it’s run.

    The “Call Going Live On 081 811 8181” jingle was played over lots of clips of women in cloche hats speaking into candlestick phones.

  7. David Pascoe

    August 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    “Despite the noise, it always felt like you had to watch it in silence.” Love this line and yet it sums up why the programme seems to be remembered in mostly arch, ironic terms. The fact that they seemed to be lighting it with a candle and a 20watt lightbulb didn’t help either.

  8. Glenn Aylett

    February 28, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    I always think it’s 1973 when The Old Grey Whistle Test is mentioned and Bob Harris introducing the latest one from King Crimson, even though the show successfully outlived is prog phase by about 10 years. It’s just everyone associates the show with long haired men in flares, cartoon graphics and songs that went on longer than the Vietnam War.

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