The Old Grey Whistle Test

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Old Grey Whistle Test
Starkicker logo
Created byRowan Ayers
Presented byRichard Williams, Ian Whitcomb, Bob Harris, Annie Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, Richard Skinner, Ro Newton
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Executive producer(s)Mike Appleton
Original networkBBC2
Original release21 September 1971 – 1 January 1988

The Old Grey Whistle Test (usually abbreviated to Whistle Test or OGWT) was a British television music show.

It was commissioned by David Attenborough[1] and aired on BBC2 from 1971 to 1988. 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, the show was devised by BBC producer Rowan Ayers. The original producer, involved in an executive capacity throughout[2] the show's entire history, was Michael Appleton. 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. Any song they could remember and whistle, having heard it just once or twice, had passed the old grey whistle test.[3]

On 23 February 2018, a one-off three hour special of The Old Grey Whistle Test was broadcast on BBC Four, hosted by Bob Harris to mark 30 years since the final episode aired.[4]


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 produced in a studio at BBC Television Centre in west London known as "Pres B", which had been originally designed for shooting little more than in-vision continuity. The studio was only 32 by 22 feet (10 m × 7 m)[5] which left little room for a set once the cameras and band were in.

The original opening credits were played over a naked woman, painted in green, dancing to Santana's Jingo. When Richard Williams was replaced by 'Whispering' Bob Harris, the series' opening titles theme was changed to the now more famous animation of a male figure made up of stars (known as the 'Star Kicker') dancing, the programme's title music, with its harmonica theme, was a track called "Stone Fox Chase" by a Nashville band, Area Code 615.

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 distancing himself on air from Roxy Music's first performance on the show and calling the New York Dolls "mock rock"[6][7] and left OGWT in 1978.

After Harris's departure, Anne Nightingale took over as host; in December 1980, Nightingale presented the show in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of John Lennon (who had appeared on the show in 1975). This particular episode consisted almost entirely of interviews with various people about Lennon's life and career.

Annie Nightingale presenting Whistle Test c. 1980

Following the departure of Nightingale in 1982, Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and Richard Skinner also took turns as presenters. 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. Andy Kershaw joined the series as a presenter in 1984.[8] The same four presenters co-presented the BBC's television coverage of Live Aid in 1985.

The series was cancelled in early 1987 by Janet Street-Porter, who had been appointed head of Youth Programmes at the BBC,[9] the series 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.

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 percent" of the time. After 1973, the show changed to an entirely live format.[10]

On 23 February 2018, the BBC broadcast a special programme, hosted by Bob Harris, to mark the 30 years since the legendary series was last broadcast, this live studio show featured music, special guests and rare archive footage. It featured performances from Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson, Albert Lee and others. Bob Harris chatted to Whistle Test alumni, including Dave Stewart, Joan Armatrading, Ian Anderson, Chris Difford and Kiki Dee, as well as fan Danny Baker.[11]


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), Wishbone Ash, Judee Sill, Heart, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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 1980s.

The show became the template for many successive "serious" British music programmes, such as the BBC's Later... with Jools Holland and From the Basement as well as OGWT's independent television rivals Alright Now, Revolver and The Tube.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, The Old Grey Whistle Test was placed 33rd.

The Arctic Monkeys referenced the show in the track Four Out of Five, from their 2018 release Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.


A parody of the show as part of Rutland Weekend Television in 1975, featuring Eric Idle as Harris, is the first known mention of the fictional band, Toad The Wet Sprocket – a later reference on a Monty Python album gave rise to the real-life band of the same name. The parody also featured "all-dead" musician Stan Fitch, whose silent, motionless performance was treated with quick zooms, close-ups, and other visual effects typical of shows like Whistle Test.

The show was parodied on an episode of The Benny Hill Show, originally aired on 24 September 1975, being called "Old Grey Whistle Tester", the host was parodied by Benny Hill.[12]

The show's title was parodied in the comedy series Father Ted, in the episode "Old Grey Whistle Theft".

The series was also parodied on The Fast Show, with Jazz Club, hosted by the eccentric (but quiet) Louis Balfour (a parody of Bob Harris).[13][14]

In 2006, the series was parodied in the sketch comedy show Snuff Box, the host was played by Richard Ayoade.

The Jon Holmes radio show on BBC Radio 6 Music had a feature called the Old Gay Whistle Test, a parody where a homosexual pensioner whistled a tune for the listeners to guess.

DVD series[edit]

In 2006, the BBC released three DVDs, the first concentrated on the early and mid-1970s. The second DVD completed the timeline, as it dealt with the late 1970s and 1980s, the third DVD, however, covered the entire history. The DVDs also featured spoken intros by the presenters introducing the songs.

Billy Joel included his 1978 performance on the show as part of The Stranger 30th Anniversary Edition DVD.

Archive status[edit]

Out of an original total of 445 episodes, 16 episodes are missing, a further 54 are incomplete and one exists on a format inferior to the original, from 2018, a number of episodes have been made available on YouTube.

See also[edit]

  • Sounds of the Seventies, a 1970s late night BBC radio show which concentrated on albums rather than singles, and rock rather than pop.
  • Top of the Pops, a British music chart television programme, made by the BBC and originally broadcast weekly from 1 January 1964 to 30 July 2006.


  1. ^ "Sir David Attenborough: 'This awful summer? We've only ourselves to blame...'". The Independent. 13 July 2012. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  2. ^ Credits of the programme
  3. ^ Spencer Leigh, Frank Sinatra: An Extraordinary Life, chapter 5 (Carmarthen: McNidder & Grace, 2015. ISBN 9780857160867).
  4. ^ UTTON, DOMINIC (22 February 2018). "Witness the revival of The Old Grey Whistle Test". Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  5. ^ "TV Studio History". "TV Studio History". Retrieved 6 March 2010.
  6. ^ Stevie Chick (13 June 2011). "The New York Dolls play 'mock rock' on British TV". The Guardian.
  7. ^ Simon Price: There's no going back to the Old Grey Twilight Zone The Independent Sunday 21 August 2011
  8. ^ Duerden, Nick (29 September 2012). "Andy Kershaw: The DJ who came back from the wars". The Independent. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  9. ^ Kershaw, Andy (2012). No Off Switch. Virgin. p. 213. ISBN 978-0415892131.
  10. ^ "For One Night Only, The Old Grey Whistle Test - BBC Four". BBC. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  11. ^ "BFI Film & TV Database: The Benny Hill Show[24/09/75]".
  12. ^ "Bob Harris - Whispering Campaigner". Retrieved 27 October 2009.
  13. ^ "Bob's On The Beat". Oxford Mail. 24 July 2009. Retrieved 14 August 2017.

External links[edit]