'The Old Grey Whistle Test' at 40

by Gem Wheeler

28 November 2011

The British music show -- and pop cultural trope -- celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Though it's been off British screens since 1987, a new BBC radio series has been charting its rich history.

The tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley had an expression way back when: “the old grey whistle test”. If you played your song to the grey-clad doorman and he liked it, you had a hit on your hands. The people behind the long-running BBC music show of that name were proper musos—with all the baggage that entails—and the rather opaque title was exactly the kind of reference they’d appreciate. Whistle Test (or OGWT) may have disappeared from British screens in 1987 as a new wave of young pretenders took to the stage, but its lasting place in pop culture has been explored by a new BBC Radio 2 series. Each programme devotes a full hour to a year of the show’s history, featuring archive audio and new performances from relevant acts. 
After the brief tenure of original presenter, Melody Maker features editor Richard Williams, the face of OGWT became the iconic ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, who’s also presenting the radio tribute. His earnest, hippyish demeanour was an easy target for pastiche, and was clearly the inspiration behind The Fast Show‘s jazz-loving Louis Balfour, while the chinstroking, head-nodding approach associated with the show has passed into pop cultural lore. Harris’s distaste for the new sounds of the late ‘70s led to his departure in 1978, with his replacement, Annie Nightingale, felt to be a more suitable host. The show continued into the ‘80s, with a number of different presenters, until it petered out into mid-evening irrelevance before its eventual cancellation.

The show’s sparse, cramped sets and hushed atmosphere meant that musicians stood or fell on their own charisma. Antediluvian though Harris’s tastes were felt to be by punk fans, his era saw a range of memorable performances from the likes of Bowie, Bill Withers and Roxy Music. Later series featured appearances by Public Image Limited, a magnificently wired and frenetic Talking Heads and John Foxx’s Ultravox at their peak with 1978’s ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’. As someone once said, ‘Nice’.

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