My interest in television has been inversely proportional to the number of broadcast channels available. In the United States where, with cable and satellite television in addition to the broadcast networks, an almost unlimited number of shows are on tap all hours of the day and night, it seems that, flip the channels as often as I might, there is never anything worth watching. But at 14, during our 1968-69 sojourn in England, I couldn’t get enough of it. In India there had been no television at all, so the three channels (two of them, BBC1 and BBC2, state-run, and the commercial ITV), broadcasting for just a few hours a day, seemed to serve up a feast of choices. I knew the schedules by heart, could recite them on demand, and spent as much time as I could glued to the goggle box, as my mother and my uncle Ted called it. There were three or four shows that I watched religiously: on Saturday nights, Opportunity Knocks on ITV; on Sunday afternoons, an American import, Lost in Space, on ITV, challenged by BBC in the same time slot with Land of the Giants, also from the United States; and a welcome break during the week, BBC1’s Top of the Pops.
Top of the Pops aired every Thursday evening, the same night of the week that my mother, who was working as a counter clerk at the Hoddesdon post office, had to stay late to balance the books. (She wasn’t allowed to leave until every one of her co-workers had accounted for everything they had taken in, down to the last penny.) The four of us children, my sister Sally and I and our two cousins Jacky and Carol, and sometimes our opposite neighbor Barbara as well, would gather expectantly in the living room, saving space for Mum on the couch, while cousin Jacky did gymnastics on the carpet in front of the little black-and-white set. When we protested that she was blocking our view, she would instead put long-suffering Tipsy the cat through her paces with a series of special cat exercises she had devised.
Uncle Ted claimed that he couldn’t stand the show, but insisted on watching it anyway, for the sole purpose of keeping up a sardonic running commentary about the antics of the performers, to our extreme exasperation. When they gesticulated with their arms, he would say, “Pulling the lavatory chain again,” and as they jerked their legs about, he’d say cryptically, “He’s had the operation.” He particularly delighted in commenting on Israelites, in which Desmond Dekker gyrated as sinuously as if he had nary a bone in his body.
In India, European and American songs tended to reach us a year or two late, and I’d never kept track of the pop charts before, nor have I since. Fortunately, 1968-69 was the best of times for pop music, although in truth we loved almost everything undiscriminatingly, including many songs that I cringe when I hear now. Such was the ardor with which I followed the show that to this day, when a song from that era is mentioned, I find myself murmuring, “six weeks at Number One in ’68” or “Banned by the BBC in ’69.” In 1968 the Beatles’ Lady Madonna and Hey Jude made Number One, as did the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash and Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as well as Lennon-McCartney’s ObBlaDi ObLaDa sung by The Marmalade and With a Little Help from My Friends by Joe Cocker.
In May 1968, just three months before we arrived in London, Paris had been taken over by students and workers, nearly bringing down the government and transforming an entire generation, but we knew nothing of all that. To us, Top of the Pops, broadcasting the Beatles’ seven-minute-long mantra-like performance of “Hey Jude,” the BBC’s sedate version of psychedelic special effects, and even the TV dance troupe Pan’s People (whose choreographed pieces accompanied the songs that couldn’t be performed live in the studio), was the epitome of cool.
By 1969, the cultural revolution and the increasing political ferment had managed to filter through even to our suburban living room, with John Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko displacing The Beatles’ Get Back from the Number One spot. Incidentally, while every teenage girl felt that the Beatles were singing directly to her, I was convinced that the Beatles had written two songs with me in mind. My sister’s nickname for me was Jude, and everyone else called me Jojo. But why was Jojo a man? I was confused. And were they telling me to “get back” to India where I once belonged? One of the boys at school seemed to think so, and teased me about it. (Recently I learned that McCartney had meant the song to mock anti-immigrant sentiments, but changed his mind and made the lyrics more obscure.)
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” was to be the Beatles’ last #1 hit, but it couldn’t be played on Top of the Pops, or on the radio for that matter, because it had been banned by the BBC for blasphemous language (“Christ, you know it ain’t easy”). My daring friend Cylla had a collection of all the banned singles, which included at least two more from 1968-69: Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s steamy Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus, and Max Romeo’s Wet Dream, which left little to the imagination.
Sweet, sing-song numbers like Sorry Suzanne by the Hollies, corny love songs like Monsieur Dupont by Sandie Shaw, and mellow ballads like Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) still rose to the top of the charts, but the times they were a-changing. Brian Jones died on the 3rd of July, 1969 and just two days later, at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park, Mick Jagger gave an awkward reading from Shelley’s Adonais in Brian’s honor and shortly afterward launched into a jarringly raucous rendition of Honky Tonk Women. Hyde Park was only twenty miles from Hoddesdon, but it might as well have been a world away. The closest we came to the experience was watching the video of the performance interminably on Top of the Pops, since it stayed at #1 for five weeks.
For all their teasing and protestations, I suspect that my mother and Uncle Ted enjoyed Top of the Pops as much as we did. Our tastes in songs quite often coincided, as in the Israeli duo Esther and Abi OFarim’s Cinderella Rockefella, belted out by a tiny woman with an enormous voice, or the young Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin’s nostalgic evocation of youthful idealism in Those Were the Days (sung to the tune of Дорогой длинною, a Russian song from the 1920s and produced by Paul McCartney for Apple Records). We certainly didn’t just sit and watch passively. We sang along loudly, cheered for our favorites, argued with the ratings, begged my mother for sweets (which she kept in a biscuit tin and dispensed very sparingly), and (in Jacky’s case), did energetic acrobatics on the carpet between acts. In our book, the only other live show that came close was Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks.