A much-loved 80s UK children’s TV hit, we take a look at the story behind Cheggers Plays Pop.
Before he took a fateful meeting just outside of London’s Victoria Station many years ago, the late and much-missed Keith Chegwin was an aspiring actor. Having starred in several Children’s Film Foundation productions, appeared in Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth, and narrowly missed out on working with Ginger Rogers, the young Cheggers was approached by BBC Manchester about hosting a show that would mix in pop music, children and giant inflatables. It was pitched as a marriage of the-then hit shows Top Of The Pops and It’s A Knockout, and the young Chegwin quickly signed on the dotted line. Work began on the programme, and all looked good.
Then the show was stopped after just one episode.
Such were the relations between BBC Manchester and BBC London at the time, that when the latter saw the former’s Cheggers Plays Pop broadcast for the first time, it ordered it straight off the air once the premiere instalment had been shown. The reason? It simply wasn’t the kind of material, it seemed, that fitted the BBC London ethos at the time.
Still, it didn’t take long for the decision to be reversed, and one look at the viewing figures later, the show was dragged back onto the air double quick. For BBC Manchester had a sizeable success on its hands, and Chegwin had a bona fide hit to his name.
What’s more, it was a hit that was to run for seven years, and cement its host’s name as a major force in 1980s children’s programming. That said, for a show so synonymous with the decade, it actually started its run back in 1978, although the bulk of its 81 episodes were shown in the 1980s.
The format of Cheggers Plays Pop was as straightforward as you could get. Two teams of schoolkids, backed by a raucous crowd of classmates (who Chegwin revealed sometimes had the habit of being little shits), would go head to head. Split into the red team and the yellow team, they would, across a series of rounds, answer questions about pop music, and prat about with an assortment of inflatables (pretty much standard, of course, for childrens’ 80s quiz shows). There was gunge, novelty buzzers, the Hotbox Quick Quiz and the chance to win the week’s chart on 7” record. What it’d all fetch on eBay now would simply make you wince.
Each show would take around 45 minutes to shoot, for a 30 minute programme. Editing facilities of the era meant it’d take 20 minutes to put a single edit in, and thus they tried to shoot it in an ‘as live’ style.
All of this, of course, was held together by the infectious Chegwin, who even at a young age was savvy enough to get his name in the title (albeit with no possessive apostrophe, just to annoy the grammatically inclined). As he told me once, “I got taught a lot of tricks in this business, and one of them is always put your name in the product, because it costs too much money to change it, so I learned that if I put my name in Cheggers Plays Pop they couldn’t get rid of me for a long time. Because it cost £25,000 to change the titles!”
It proved a wise plan. A whirlwind of energy, mania, and “wa-hey”, there’s little that tempered about Cheggers over the years, but surely this is the show where he really found his vocation.
Clearly having a whale of a time, while battling to control a studio full of mischievous children (and given that the show was filmed in blocks, in the days before editing was as easy as it is now, that was no small challenge), he very much stamped his mark not only on the programme itself, but also the consciousness of the huge audience it enjoyed. It was as if the man was built for audience-driven television shows, whether live or pre-recorded, and it’s hard to think of too many people who could have made quite a mark.
But Cheggers Plays Pop, no matter what it was called, wasn’t simply about its host. One of the killer features of the show, was the strength of the names is attracted to perform on it, a veritable who’s who of the top music acts at the time. You name it, they performed on it. Acts who turned up in the Cheggers Plays Pop studio included Freddie Mercury, Madness, Bad Manners, Paul McCartney and The Stranglers.
In fact, tales are told of how the producers were besieged by star acts trying to get onto the programme to perform their latest single, and they aren’t wide of the mark at all: Chegwin himself has admitted that many were turned away. Furthermore, more than one act was sent back home without having the chance to perform their latest, thanks to their behaviour when they got to the studio proper (I did ask Chegwin about this when I had once had the chance to interview him, but he grinned and wasn’t naming names).
Yet can you imagine all the major acts of today queuing to appear on BBC One just before tea time? It simply wouldn’t happen. Not least because there’s no kids TV on BBC One at teatime anymore.
So why were people so keen? In the pre-MTV days, there were very few slots available on national television – let alone a programme watched by millions upon millions of music-buying kids – to compete for. Factor in the early broadcast time, and the fact that the record shops would sometimes still be open by the time the end credits rolled, and for a long time Cheggers Plays Pop was a gig worth getting, that could fuel a hit single.
The programme was a pretty instant hit, and its audience would grow to 7 million viewers at its peak. It seemed an odd fit for the BBC, and the story goes that then-head of childrens’ programming, Edward Barnes, was reported to have said after the first series that “it’s the most vulgar thing I have ever seen, but I’ll recommission it”.
And he did. Nine series would be made.
The show finally ground to a halt on 7th November 1986, and Keith Chegwin moved onto many other projects afterwards (all but one of which he did with his clothes on). Off the back of this, and Swap Shop, he was a household name. But Cheggers Plays Pop simply won’t go away. There was once talk of a DVD game, which Chegwin refused to get involved with (although he did lend his name and voice to a trivia game for home computers and consoles in 2007), and then chat of a possible revival. Both ITV and the BBC expressed interest in the early 2000s, but disagreements with Chegwin over the format stalled a hope of a return. He wanted to bring back former contestants as part of whatever the new show would have been, along with some of the acts who previously performed.
Chegwin, tragically, died at the end of 2017, with many more TV programmes to make. But he left a huge body of work: he presented over 7,000 programmes in his career, and the affection many of them are held in remains testament to him. The 77 episodes of Cheggers Plays Pop remaining particular favourites…
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