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Whistle Down the Tube

Whistle Test

One Two go see the Test.

Mark Ellen and David Hepworth (above) interview their Dad (below).

Did you see the new Whistle Test the other night? Did it look any different from the old Whistle Test? Because it was meant to...

The latest series of the BBC2 rock programme has had a facelift — "We've had the decorators in," as presenter Mark Ellen put it. In the light of competition from the Tube, the Switch and all the others, the grandfather of TV rock shows has been tipped out of its bath-chair and sent for a haircut.

Gone is the "Stone Fox Chase" signature tune, hopefully taking with it the last lingering associations with Whisperin' Bob Harris, and Joni Mitchell Live In LA (again); gone, too, is the studio audience, and the pretence that the show is broadcast live (the BBC cannot afford to pay its technicians to work that late). The old Whistle Test was pre-recorded in front of the audience, only stopping to correct drastic errors, or erase swear-words; the new Whistle Test is filmed during the day, edited in the early evening, and shown later the same Friday night. However, the most immediately apparent change is in the name: the Whistle Test isn't "Old" or "Grey" anymore, even if some of its production team still fit the description.

I was invited to the TV Centre in Shepherd's Bush to "sit quietly in a corner" and watch the first programme of the new series being put together. There are two production teams involved, both working under the editorship of Mike Appleton. Director for this first show was Tom Corcoran, whose beret and beard give him the appearance of a latter day Cecil B. de Mille. His producer was Trevor Dann, better known for his work on Radio One. These two alternate weekly with David Croft and John Burrowes, both of whom have worked on Riverside as well as the OGWT.

In the BBC, as everywhere, money is a problem. Since Musician's Union rates demand payment to groups of up to £100 per member, and £200 for solo artists, Whistle Test's flagging budget can only accommodate one live studio group per week. Given the experience of It's Immaterial while I was there, perhaps that's a good thing.

The band and their equipment are first into the studio on the day of transmission. Following previous discussions with the producers, they should find the stage set up to their specified plan.

It's Immaterial asked for ropes, chains and oil-drums, to suggest a dockside scene, which worked in the studio, though little use of it was made on camera, much to their disappointment. As the singer of the Liverpudlian band pointed out to me afterwards.

"For us it's a big day — we've come all the way down from Liverpool, put lots of thought and energy into these ideas... we would have liked a little more consideration."

The morning of the Friday is devoted to soundchecking the band. As there is no audience, there is no need for a PA; the band make do with monitors for onstage sound. Sound for transmission is mixed upstairs in the gallery (the sound-proofed area which includes the control-room as well as the audio facilities). Obviously a BBC engineer is at the controls, but he was watched over while I was there by the band's representative, Steve Baker of Eternal Records.

It's Immaterial visit the laundry.

It's here that we encounter our first major problem: while the Tube can brag about "96 channels of sound" the BBC does not quite have that capability. BBC TV sound equipment may be ideal for Newsnight, but as producer Trevor Dann pointed out, its deficiencies become apparent when it is asked to cope with live rock music. It's Immaterial sounded thin and weedy on the studio monitors, and even worse on my television's tiny speaker. Of course, it could have been the band's fault...

After lunch (2.30pm), the serious business starts. It's Immaterial ran through "Challo" twice to enable the director to rehearse his camera cues; lyrics and song arrangements are written in concise detail into the shooting script so while the band is playing a production assistant in the control room can count through the song: "six bars of percussion... two bars to vocal... four bars of guitar outro..." Taking his cues from her, the director calls his instructions ("Go to camera Four...") to the vision mixer, who actually twiddles the knobs; it's just like Mike Mansfield doing Supersonic.

"Challo" was recorded in one take. The second song, It's Immaterial's forthcoming single, was not so simple.

Technical troubles both on and off stage caused all sorts of problems, which were not aided by the singer's cold causing his voice to crack. The search for perfection was abandoned after the ninth attempt as tempers began to fray, and the third take was chosen. This was missing a rhythm guitar-part which was inaudible anyway, so the control-room was not too unhappy with the end product.

The constant repetition of one song can be something of a strain. As the tedium and annoyance grew, the mildly unsympathetic attitude of some of the technicians made itself apparent in quiet digs at the quality of the group on display. Although I would not have suggested (from my quiet corner) that their dislike for the music seriously hindered them from doing their jobs properly, it does demonstrate one of the failings of the BBC's specialist programmes. While a show like the Tube is made by people who work for the Tube, Whistle Test (and others) are made by people who work for the BBC.

The cameramen, soundcrew — all except the production team — are simply BBC employees who happen to be detailed to the Whistle Test for a day; on Monday they could be back with the Two Ronnies, lucky chaps. This professional disinterest was illustrated by the necessity of calling the tape operators at 6.30 to ask them (very politely) if they would mind running a little over schedule.

It was 4pm before "Gigantic Raft" was aborted, and the 'office set' prepared for the presenters, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. For some unfathomable reason, the group was told not to move their amps until shooting was finished, as they were needed for the backdrop; since the 'office' was equipped with charming pastel blue Venetian blinds, it seems It's Immaterial were detained (for a further three hours) under false pretences. In the 'office', magazines, including a copy of Rolling Stone presumably forgotten by Whisperin' Bob, were casually but carefully strewn about the table.

To the mild consternation of director Tom Corcoran, neither Ellen nor Hepworth had prepared a script, preferring to rely on their abilities to improvise within the framework provided by their camera and VT cues. One of the faults of the last series was the presenters' inability to look or sound relaxed on camera; but as Mark Ellen said of rehearsals for the semi-live shows: "We didn't really do any — we just fooled about."

So perhaps it's not surprising they perform better during pre-recording as the pressure is off, and mistakes no longer matter. In rehearsal and in the actual programme, the new approach seemed to work perfectly, with even rehearsed adlibs sounding fresh and spontaneous.

The new series appears to be giving Ellen and Hepworth more room for expressing opinions, which gives the Whistle Test character, something it has sorely lacked over the last few years. As both are involved in the Music Biz (Ellen edits Smash Hits and has written for Record Mirror and NME; Hepworth is managing editor of 17, has edited Smash Hits, and was once a record plugger) it's good to see them using their knowledge on air. While I was there, Mark Ellen mentioned news of producer Steve Lillywhite's engagement to Kirsty McColl. This caused a rumpus in the control-room.

"Are you sure that's true, Mark?" quoth Mr Corcoran, despatching production assistant Nick Kennerly to the telephone to confirm the rumour. Mark's news proved correct, and it was used in the programme.

Producer Trevor Dann, talking after the show, told me he hoped Whistle Test would exploit television's potential for items like that.

"TV's a great medium for immediacy, spontaneous happenings; you can do things on television that just wouldn't work on radio. For instance, I'd love to get Elvis Costello in on his own, with an acoustic guitar, sit him down and let him play a couple of his new songs. On radio, that would be no different from hearing another record, but on television it becomes real. Unfortunately the thing stopping us is budget — we just can't afford it." If they can't have Elvis, Whistle Test has nabbed one of his henchmen, Steve Nieve, so watch out for a possible surprise in forthcoming programmes...

Late afternoon on Friday (usual transmission day) is given over to filming the 'talking heads' at work in the office. An interview with Ian Gillan, who looked most unwell, went better in the run-through (which was 8½ minutes long) than in the filmed version (which was 5½ minutes long), indicating that the piece on heavy metal videos could have been longer. The producer put up his hand and claimed responsibility apologetically. As it was, the programme proved to be too long; during the evening's editing the first 45 seconds of the Eurythmics' beautiful video for "Here Comes The Rain Again" had to be surgically removed.

With Gillan successfully completed by 5.15, it was time to fill in the links — the introduction for the Gillan interview was filmed after Ian had left, Mark Ellen nodding hello to an empty chair offscreen. He managed that with a straight face, which is more than can be said for David Hepworth's voice-over for the Eurythmics. Once he had realised that "shot in the Orkneys" sounded like a painful accident, he found it remarkably difficult to get past that line without cracking up; even getting "a close look at the Old Man of Hoy" gained awkward connotations.

The programme finished with an excerpt from the following day's Sight & Sound simulcast of the Truth, live at Goldiggers in Chippenham. The link into the film clip did not betray the presenters' attitude to the use of this extra material; when I spoke to them in the bar after shooting had finished they confessed their annoyance.

"Using the Sight & Sound clip is really frustrating, particularly as it's only a trail for Saturday's showing. But what makes it worse is the bands that've been booked — the Truth, Gary Moore, the Europeans, Wang Chung — it's not exactly an inspiring selection."

David Hepworth put the problem into perspective. "Trouble is, it comes back to lack of money. The BBC is attempting to make two programmes for the price of one with the amount of money allocated to us. So we have to make use of the film to justify doing it in the first place." Privately I wondered if filming those bands was worth it.

Filming finished at 7pm, and all retired to the bar for half an hour, prior to a policy meeting, and another three and a quarter hours editing before transmission at 11.30. Checking my watch, I realised the Tube was just finishing, and asked the following week's producer, John Burrowes, what he thought of the competition.

"On grounds of finance, we can't hope to compete with the Tube, of course. Nor do we try. We are attempting to be fairly serious in our interviews — their's are just a joke. We are trying to approach our subject intelligently and entertainingly. I only hope we succeed. On tonight's showing, I think we're getting there."

According to Trevor Dann, Whistle Test's viewing figures for the last series were equal to or better than the Tube's, with around a million viewers on good nights. Given that this is the case (although I find it hard to believe), Channel 4's programme is still the yardstick for rock television by virtue of its sheer monolithic size. It must be galling to be judged against a programme with such a reputation.

Obviously, Whistle Test's biggest problem is lack of money. With the limited sources at their disposal, the production team attempt to do the best possible job. Use of videos in the first show was extensive, but they were edited together sensibly, giving the impression of fast-moving and intelligent arrangement. The producers cannot afford to do what they like, so they do what they can. Editor Mike Appleton phrased it rather more graciously...

"We see ourselves as more of a magazine than a music performance programme."

I made it home in time to see the finished product. It looked quite good — well-paced, varied and most importantly, entertaining. It's better already than the last series, and it makes the Oxford Roadshow look like Trumpton. I'm looking forward to the next show already.

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