Old Grey Whistle Test

The Old Grey Whistle Test (OGWT) was an influential BBC2 television music show that ran from 1971 to 1987. It took over the BBC2 late night slot from "Disco Two", which had been running since January 1970, 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 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 Another factor was that the programme was originally made in a studio known as "Pres B", which had been originally intended for in-vision continuity.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 (a little under 10×7 metres) 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 Starkicker, 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).

Old Grey Whistle Test theme

The Starkicker logo

Bob Harris on the Old Grey Whistle Test theme and name

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", due to his quiet voice and "laid back" style. He later became notorious among the younger generation for describing the New York Dolls as "mock rock" and left OGWT in 1978.

Bob Harris

Focus-Sylvia / Hocus Pocus 1972

ELO's Jeff Lynne interview 1976

ELO's Roy Wood interview 1976

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 %" of the time. However, after 1973, the show changed to an entirely-live paradigm.

Rick Wakeman-Catherine Howard 1973

The Old Grey Whistle Test become the template for many successive serious British music programmes. The programme hosted many seminal acts of the era, including the first British TV performance of then little-known acts of whom any early footage is now considered precious, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd for example.

Lynyrd Skynyrd-Freebird 1975

Anne Nightingale took over as host in 1978. 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 the early 80's, Andy Kershaw, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Richard Skinner also took turns as presenters. The same four presenters co-presented The BBC's Television coverage of Live Aid. 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, Derek Burbidge and Kate Humphreys directed, including the series location inserts. The audio was always of prime importance. Gregg Baily was the recordist for the show on location. Other directors and camera operators were Martin Pitts in the USA, and for England, John Metcalfe and Tim Pope and many others. Location shoots all over the world were an essential part of the programme. 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. 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 70's and the 80's. The third DVD, however, covered the entire history. The DVDs also featured spoken intros by the presenters introducing the songs.

Yes' Jon Anderson interview 1976