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Old Grey Whistle Test, The / Whistle Test (1971-87)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Old Grey Whistle Test, The / Whistle Test (1971-87)
BBC2, 21/9/1971-9/12/1983;
[as Whistle Test] 24/12/1983-31/12/1987
Over 500 editions, colour
ProducersMichael Appleton
 Trevor Dann
 John Burrowes

Presenters: Bob Harris, Anne Nightingale, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, Richard Williams, Ian Whitcomb, Andy Kershaw

Show full cast and credits

Music series featuring live acts and documentary reports on the contemporary music scene.

Show full synopsis

The defining music programme of the 1960s was Top of the Pops (BBC, 1964-), whose dominance reflected the pre-eminence of the 7" single and of pop's young audience. By the turn of the 1970s, the first generation of pop record-buyers was growing up, and its tastes were changing accordingly. As the hippy generation expanded its mind with drugs and new ideas, it wasn't just hair that was getting longer; music too was outgrowing the space available on 7 inches of vinyl. Just as the BBC's youthful Radio 1 balanced its daytime diet of frothy DJs and chart pop with John Peel's more challenging Top Gear show, it was clear that there was a gap for a serious, album-oriented music show on television.

The show which plugged that gap was The Old Grey Whistle Test. The idiosyncratic title derived from Tin Pan Alley slang - the test of a hit was to play a song to the doormen, cruelly nicknamed the 'old greys', and see if they could whistle it after one or two listens. Although presented at first by Ian Whitcomb and Richard Williams, the show took its tone from the ├╝ber-laidback presentation style of host 'Whispering' Bob Harris, and a scheduling advantage - BBC2's final slot on a Friday - which initially allowed it to extend its usual 25-minute running time to as long as 90 minutes.

Key to the show's identity were the live studio appearances - no Top of the Pops miming - from bands who took the opportunity to explore their album tracks rather than just their singles, and an eclectic choice of artists, embracing rock's mainstream and more progressive ends, blues, folk-rock, glam, soul and even reggae. Alongside now well-known artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and Bob Marley and the Wailers were others who gained rare British TV exposure thanks to OGWT, among them Captain Beefheart and Tim Buckley.

The late '70s eruption of punk came as a shock, not least to Harris, who had invested heavily in the kind of 'dinosaurs' punk sought to displace. Nevertheless, an accommodation was made, with Harris joined by Annie Nightingale and appearances by Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and X-Ray Spex. By the early '80s, however, it was clear that the 'Old Grey' label was attracting sneers, and in 1984 the show became Whistle Test, in which form, now co-hosted by David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, it continued until 1987.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1972: David Bowie - Five Years (4:55)
1976: Patti Smith Group - Horses (Land) (4:58)
1978: Siouxsie and the Banshees - Jigsaw Feeling (4:17)
1979: Magazine - Definitive Gaze (1980) (4:25)
1979: The Undertones - Jimmy Jimmy, (2:49)
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