Thursday, 20 September 2012

Michael Hurll 1936-2012

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.

12 comments:

eightiespopkid said...

A fantastic tribute. RIP Michael.

The Man said...

Guess who's the tall one standing at the back on the Celluloid Burp picture in the Two Ronnies/TOTP sketch?

Arthur Nibble said...

The man who gave us John Peel's thoughts on F.R. David and Haysi Fantayzee, so an icon in my book. RIP and thanks, Michael.

Bamaboogiewoogie said...

Thanks for letting us know about Michael Hurl, he sounds an interesting man. The show did need an overhaul in the 1980s and he was the man to do it (ironically borrowing some ideas from Ready Steady Go from the '60s).

I might be alone in liking the plodding late 70s shows and the 1980s ones although I always thought those over-cheerful cheerleader style dancers looked wrong dancing to The Smiths and Aztec Camera, etc, but it still gave the show a kitsch, almost camp edge and he was never afraid to experiment. I particularly recall the gay fan dancers getting down to The Pointer Sisters, Mick Jagger using the whole studio for his performance of Let's Work (and then the single stalled at number 31!) and FGTH's 9 week run at the top with Holly Johnson walking through the crowd. Mad days!

Noax said...

I know that I must have seen TOTP before 1980 as some of the shows we've seen this year and last bring up vague memories.

However, I'm pretty sure that it was only from 1980 onwards that I started watching it religiously. For that unadulterated pleasure, Michael Hurll, I thank you. RIP.

Incidentally, as well as seeing Wossy in the Two Ronnies / TOTP clip, is the clip at the very end underneath the logo the clip of all the Radio 1 DJs dancing to 'Friend or Foe' that we've seen before? It looks like it to me.
I'm sure there were other 2 Rons / Pops sketches too, weren't there? I can distinctly remember Ronnie B being 'Dave Lav Trellis' in one of them!

Simon said...

It's not Friend Or Foe, in fact I don't know where it's from.

Anyone who hasn't seen the sister blog On This TOTP Day really should, there's a lot of trawling of YouTube for clips and a lot are from this period because I only choose clips that are in some way interesting - I know Let's Work, a performance everyone who saw it seems to remember, is coming up very soon.

wilberforce said...

i'm really hoping this series lasts until the mid-80's at least, as although they got a bit OTT at times the early-to-mid 80's shows were highly entertaining... those that i saw that is! in 1983 i used to rehearse on thursday nights with a band that was so intense and focused on "making it" that the manager threatened to sack anyone who didn't turn up without good reason... so not only did the bassist not get to see his favourite band U2 that were playing locally the same night (having just broken into the big time), it being pre-video recorder i also missed virtually all the 1983 TOTP's! despite our dedication the band never got anywhere in the end so perhaps i'd have been better off staying at home...

wilberforce said...

regarding the two ronnies' totp skit, benny hill used to do send it up quite well from time to time too, but sadly i couldn't find any evidence on youtube...

Bamaboogiewoogie said...

I seem to recall The Two Ronnies spoofing TOTP on more than one series, they did one as The Two Jimmies with both of them dressed as Sir Jim!

Steve Williams said...

Yeah, The Two Jimmies was in 1982, I've got the Radio Times from that week, and Celluloid Burp were in 1985. It's testament to Hurll's professionalism he was so happy to take the piss out of his own show.

Pops under Michael Hurll is my absolute favourite era by a mile, and what I like about it is that for all its glamour and OTT presenjtation, it always seemed to have its tongue firmly in its cheek, hence the presence of John Peel. And Peel always said that Hurll never gave a toss when he did that Break Wind In Your Kitchen incident, and in fact encouraged Peel to go even further.

He was an incredibly prolific producer as well, Paul Jackson used to say that the Rons was the ultimate programme to produce because there were so many elements to it - stand-up, monologues, studio sketches, long filmed sketches, musical items, quickies, virtually every style of TV entertainment in one show, so the fact he was able to produce that plus Pops and the Late Late (which certainly looks a pain in the arse to put together from YouTube) concurrently is remarkable. In fact surely his finest hour was Christmas Day 1985 when he was responsible for four and a half hours of BBC1 with the Rons, Pops, Noel Up The Post Office Tower and, er, Roland Rat's Yuletide Binge.

Hurll's name was the first producer's name I ever looked out for on telly, such was his eye for the spectacular.

Steve Williams said...

I got my Ronnies sketches mixed up there, that one linked to with The Two Jimmies an Celluloid Burp was on 23rd January 1982 (a date I know because a former colleague was born on that day and on her birthday a few years back I brought in the Radio Times from that day, because you don't have to be mad to woerk in my office but it helps), whereas in 1985 was Dave Lav Trellis. Although he isn't online, Status Who are - http://youtu.be/Yq2OHOyJHnY

The best thing about these is that they're filmed on the actual set. It's not Friend or Foe at the end but clearly Mike Read is there in a dinner jacket. Judging by the sets, it's almost certainly filmed in late 1981, and cross-referencing the 1981 episode guide - http://z6.invisionfree.com/popscene/index.php?showtopic=1147 - I'm going to suggest it was filmed in the same session of the Pops of 26th november 1981.

Anonymous said...

legend of a guy great atmosphere and he done some 1991 and 1992 episodes and you could tell to even then