Top of the Pops, nostalgia, and lockdown

Suddenly back at her childhood home during the pandemic, one writer explores how old Top of the Pops clips got her through lockdown – and closer to her parents

Article by Katie Driscoll | 26 Apr 2021
  • Top of the Pops

There is too much rosé (the Graham Norton brand your mum likes, because all mums love Graham Norton). There is your mum crying while Elvis sways his hips on TV and your dad snoring upstairs, long gone to bed because he thinks you’re both acting too drunk and loutish, screaming at Elvis on the TV and talking about death. Mum cries around this point, because Elvis makes her think of her dead mother and that makes her think of her dead father.

And then there is Top of the Pops, and the stories I make out of the threads of the past.

TOTP exists in a liminal space between reality and fantasy. We all know no one sang live, like they did on the objectively better, but not quite as campily kitsch, The Old Grey Whistle Test. In this liminal space are the lives my parents led, the dream world I escape to through grainy videos, and the photos of them during their prime: blonde, golden brown, always young.

I moved back home during the height of the pandemic. Nights spent in my teenage bedroom are also an existence in a strange in-between space. I am no longer a teenager, but I experience my youth redux, only this time I don’t have to hide any evidence of booze.

2020 had begun in earnest. One day I was walking around the Pont Neuf in a romantic haze, spring raining down on me in a cerulean stupor – and then, all of a sudden, we are washing our hands to the tune of Happy Birthday, afraid to touch handrails or get buses, and my dreams, along with everyone else’s for the near future, are dashed.

I went back to my parents' home near a secluded forest, where nothing happens. I watched all of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre and did Jane Fonda workouts. Spring came, and then summer, and the only things that sustained me were Friday and Saturday nights, when we basked in the nostalgic ritual that is TOTP.

Nostalgia was invented in the 17th century to describe the literal homesickness of Swiss mercenaries on military duty. In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes that nostalgia “shed these geographical associations and became a temporal condition: no longer an anguished yearning for the lost motherland but a wistful pining for a halcyon lost time in one's life. As it became de-medicalised, nostalgia also began to be seen not just as an individual emotion but as a collective longing for a happier, simpler, more innocent age.”

Nostalgia in the modern sense is an emotion that can’t be cured or resolved; its only remedy is time travel. YouTube is a window into these past worlds. It was where the ghosts of my parents’ TOTP singers lived perpetually, in a world of bleached jeans, teased hair and sultry vocals, never ageing. In this world, it is always 1985 or 1976, and COVID doesn’t exist. There’s only miming into a small silver microphone and pretending to play a synth keyboard. We climb onto the sofa to Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World and mimic the dance moves. My parents show me how they danced to Madness, to Wham!, my dad doing the ‘dying fly’ to the Sex Pistols or The Clash, because he was too cool for Wham!

The crowd are paid to dance in front of the stage, boundless energy and joy, no homesickness emanating from their bodies. 

I know which refrains to hit: the way Bryan Ferry, suave in a white suit – not yet the man who supports the Tory party or fox hunting – dances with a Valium sway and mugs to the camera to Roxy Music’s More Than This; the Bay City Rollers, always clad in tartan; how Stiff Little Fingers, zipped up in leather, scream-sing with a false bravado, the screen pulsating blue and black and grainy, an epileptic fit. There's Pan’s People, and then Legs and Co, skating through British cultural history with skimpier and skimpier outfits, from the disco days of the 70s to the more gaudy 80s. Kate Bush is witchy, emerging out of the gothic night. Mum’s screams of joy lead Dad to tell stories of them dancing at the Top Rank, a club that now only exists in name and mythic status. 

There are the same beats and rhythms to the same continuing weekends, and that’s where the comfort lies. I know what stories they’ll tell, what dances they’ll do, which videos to play that would get them to tell those same stories. These videos offer a peek into my parents' best years, and a way for me to get closer to them. They mould meaning out of a time when looking inwards, and to the past, was the only way through seemingly never-ending repetition and fear. Instead of regressing to my teenage self, I feel the freedom of getting to know my parents on equal footing.

I’ve now moved out of my parents’ house but whenever I feel homesick, or lockdown is getting me down, it's YouTube I head to and blurry videos of The Human League and Adam Ant and David Bowie on TOTP, as fuzzy as my heart.