When people call for Top Of The Pops to return, it's not really the era we're re-experiencing at the moment they're thinking of, and it's certainly not the last few years of its existence. No, the image that comes to the forefront is the party era of most of the 1980s - neon strips, bright lights, abandonment in dancing, judiciously handed out flags, dry ice for ballads, not as many party hats or deelyboppers as easy nostalgia suggests. All that came under the auspices, between 1980 and 1987, of Michael Hurll, who died on Tuesday.
For all the wonders of this current 1977 run, it's been often noted how sterile a lot of it seems in more than just musical ways, audiences stagnant, sets drab, presenters either going through the motions or using it as their personal pun depository. Taking over as producer after a nine week blackout, Hurll's changes were immediate - the TOTP orchestra was scrapped, the rundown moved from the start of the show and an element of star quality was introduced, whether through the not always successful run of co-hosts or the regular big name guest chats. A relaunch the following July, which brought in new titles and Yellow Pearl as the show's first permanently used theme tune in four years, was an opportunity to overhaul the show's whole look and feel. Whether influenced by the rise of the proper dancefloor scene or the uninhibited nature of US studio audiences, Hurll saw it as his duty to make the audience as much a part of the experience, and while that led down the not ageing well route of cheerleaders and dancers leading on and getting in the front of shot all the time, the redesign of the set to feature more of the crowd and cajoling of punters to let go and enjoy the entertainment gave it a fresh feel. It could have looked like a party you weren't invited to, but amid all that Hurll still recognised, as later holders of his post wouldn't, that whatever else happened the music was still the reason people tuned in. He wasn't afraid to make tough decisions, Jimmy Savile and Flick Colby, names and associated activities synonymous with the show, were both phased out in 1983; the playlist was firmly concentrated on records within the top 40, no matter who made them as long as they were available, perhaps making sore thumbs all the more memorable - if Gillan or Killing Joke did crop up, just turn the lighting down a bit.
But TOTP was never intended as a serious minded show, of the type that once having had an in-house orchestra as standard backing and would have Simon May in regularly might suggest, and a perhaps coincidental rise in new artists dressing up and playing about with pop imagery helped it seem more up to date and glitzy than previously. If it did ever start to seem too frothy there was always some way of undercutting it, whether that be a guitar group with ideas (the Smiths, the Associates) or a presentational attitude. John Peel had been one of many Radio 1 DJs given a trial run at presenting in 1968, made a mess of it and thought that'd be it for TV. Hurll convinced him to come back, and when he brought in presenting duos in 1983 his Rhythm Pals partnership with Jensen, the pair encouraged to raid the wardrobe department and come up with their own introductions, may be the show's most fondly remembered.
A man with an anecdote for pretty much every entertainer of a working lifetime that spanned more than half a century, Hurll's light entertainment expertise saw him relied upon to helm the Royal Variety Show, Comic Relief and the Eurovision Song Contest. The British Comedy Awards were his idea; also on his impressive production CV were Blind Date, the Late Late Breakfast Show, Crackerjack, Cannon & Ball, Entertainment USA, Seaside Special and The Two Ronnies, the latter simultaneously with his TOTP work, hence the accuracy of this sketch.
Janice Long has been among those paying tribute. Hurll's family have asked for donations to be made to Parkinsons UK.