The Old Grey Whistle Test (usually abbreviated to Whistle Test or OGWT) is a British television music show aired on BBC2 that ran from 1971 to 1987. It took over the BBC2 late night slot from Disco 2, which ran between September 1970 and July 1971, while continuing to feature non-chart music. It was devised by BBC producer Rowan Ayers. According to presenter Bob Harris, the programme derived its name from a Tin Pan Alley phrase from years before. When they got the first pressing of a record they would play it to people they called the old greys—doormen in grey suits. The songs they could remember and whistle, having heard it just once or twice, had passed the old grey whistle test.
The show's focus on "serious" rock music, rather than chart hits covered on BBC1 by Top of the Pops, was emphasised by a lack of showbiz glitter: bands would often perform their songs in front of either the bare studio walls or plain wooden boards (actually the backs of set walls from other programmes filmed in the same studio). As with many BBC productions, this was (initially at least) as much a matter of money as of style; other late night shows of the time, having only 'minority' appeal, also had to be content with spartan sets. Another factor was that the programme was originally made in a studio known as "Pres B", which had been originally intended for in-vision continuity. The studio was only 32 by 22 feet (10 m × 7 m) which left little room for a set once the cameras and band were in.
The series' opening titles consisted of an animation of a male figure (known as the 'Star Kicker') made up of stars dancing. The programme's title music, with its harmonica theme, was a track called "Stone Fox Chase" by a Nashville band, Area Code 615 (once played live on the show, in 1978, by Val Doonican and Charlie McCoy).
The first host was Richard Williams, features editor of Melody Maker, the music weekly. From 1972, the programme was presented by Disc jockey Bob Harris (nicknamed "Whispering Bob Harris", because of his quiet voice and "laid back" style). He later became notorious among the younger generation for calling the New York Dolls "mock rock" and left OGWT in 1978.
Anne Nightingale took over as host in 1978.Annie Nightingale presenting Whistle Test c. 1980
In December 1980 Nightingale presented the show in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of John Lennon (who had himself appeared on the show in 1975). This particular episode consisted almost entirely of interviews with various people about Lennon's life and career.
In 1983, the programme was moved to a live mid-evening slot. The title was abridged to Whistle Test and the title credits and music were changed. The programme's run ended with a live New Year's Eve special broadcast through to the early hours of New Year's Day 1988; material included "Hotel California" by The Eagles, live from 1977, and "Bat Out of Hell" by Meat Loaf.
The executive producer of The Old Grey Whistle Test was Mike Appleton. Tom Corcoran, was the studio director. Derek Burbidge and Kate Humphreys directed, the series location inserts. The audio was always of prime importance. Gregg Baily was the recordist for the show on location. Researcher Alma Player. P.A. Rosa Rudsinska (spelling needs confirming).
Many viewers assumed the bands were always playing live. However, owing to technical issues during the show's early years, and the need to ensure performances were controlled, the bands often recorded the instrumental tracks the day before. The vocals were then performed live, "99 per cent" of the time. However, after 1973, the show changed to an entirely-live paradigm.
Other directors and camera operators were Martin Pitts in the USA, and for England, John Metcalfe and Tim Pope, John Burrowes in the UK along with David Croft. Location shoots all over the world were an essential part of the programme.
The programme hosted many seminal acts of the era, including the first British TV performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers as well as then little-known acts of whom any early footage is now considered precious, such as Billy Joel,Judas Priest (with a long haired Rob Halford), Judee Sill, Heart, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The Whistle Test was also the British television debut of the American glam punk band New York Dolls. Although host Bob Harris derided the group as "mock rock," comparing them unfavourably to The Rolling Stones, their performance influenced the following Punk Rock scene such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash as well as alternative bands like R.E.M. and The Smiths and the Glam metal scene of the 80s.
A parody of the show as part of Rutland Weekend Television in 1975, featuring Eric Idle as Harris, is the first known mention of fictional band, Toad The Wet Sprocket – a later reference on a Monty Python album gave rise to the band of the same name. The parody also featured "all-dead" musician Stan Fitch, whose silent, motionless performance was treated with quick zooms, closeups, and other visual effects typical of shows like Whistle Test.
In 2006, the BBC released three DVDs. The first concentrated on the early and mid 70's. The second DVD completed the timeline, as it dealt with the late 70s and 80s. The third DVD, however, covered the entire history. The DVDs also featured spoken intros by the presenters introducing the songs.
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