The Top Town Trophy

The Top Town Trophy

Top Town was a radio and television series from the 1950s which is regularly credited as being a direct ancestor of It's A Knockout. This cannot be denied, although it can be said that in some instances, the link has been over-stressed. Top Town was, like It's A Knockout, an inter-town competition, but its focus was not on tests of physical endeavour. The series was a 'battle of entertainment' - essentially a talent contest: the town with the best variety acts winning each heat. 

The series was produced by Barney Colehan, who would later produce and help devise It’s A Knockout. Top Town was initially a radio programme which debuted in 1950 and featured just one team presenting their town's show each week. By 1954, the series had transferred to BBC Television (then the only television broadcaster in Great Britain). Many reference sources claim that Top Town debuted on television in 1956, from which time it was produced at the BBC’s new Dickenson Road studios in Rusholme, Manchester, but our researches clearly show that there were televised editions some two years earlier. The series ran into the early 1960s and returned unexpectedly to the BBC schedules for a brief time in 1987.

The 'big' TV year for Top Town was 1959 when there were 25 judges in 5 regional centres around the country, with civic leaders (mayors, provosts etc.) as the chair of the panel delivering the result. Local councils organised auditions with Barney Colehan coming along at the final ones to help each town put together a troupe and show. In addition, some 'friendly' matches were staged - for example, in 1955 Bradford took on Hull in an unscreened event.

   

The format for the series would eventually be mirrored by the first series of It's A Knockout, although the 'top towns' were from all around Britain, rather than It's A Knockout's initial North of England competition. Top Town was broadcast once a month generally, commencing with first round heats, leading to quarter finals, semi-finals and then a grand final where the Top Town Trophy - based upon a Marconi Mk 3 television camera - was the prize. However, in some years, there was no formal knockout competition, just a series of "one-off" head-to-heads between different towns.

The series was always transmitted live and only two editions have survived in the BBC Television Archives - the Leeds v. Soho 1st Quarter-Final from 1956 and an end of series retrospective from 1960 entitled Top Town Parade, which was presented by David Jacobs. These programmes are fascinating, if only as a snapshot of the 1950s BBC. Top Town was clearly very much influenced by Music Hall, with amateur would-be megastars singing, dancing, performing comedy routines or magic tricks, even animal impersonations. Clearly, the link to It's A Knockout and even Intervilles is tenuous in the extreme. 

The show was presented at various times by Peter Haigh, Peter West and David Jacobs, with each team being given half the programme to convince the judges that they were worthy of progressing to the next round. The judges panel - not seen until the very end of the programme - comprised 'professionals', representatives of the viewers and guest judges. Each edition would conclude with the judges given their impressions and passing their verdict. Alyn Aynsworth was involved on the music side, conducting the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra (and sometimes the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra). Occasionally, the series would leave the studio and go out on location - for instance, the 1956 Grand Final was held at the Royal Hall in Harrogate.

Barney Colehan with the 1956 Top Town Trophy

Producer, Barney Colehan with the 1956 Top Town Trophy

Top Town Illustration from Radio Times, August 1956Some competitors who went on to become professional entertainers. For example, during the radio years, Norman Collier (1925-2013), the comedian, was in the Hull team, as was David Whitfield (1925-1980), a tenor vocalist. Whitfield went on to have a Number 1 chart hit with Answer Me in 1953 and was just one place off the top spot a year later with Cara Mia. He also sang the theme tune to the TV series William Tell and also starred in several editions of The David Whitfield Show on television between 1957 and 1960. Collier meanwhile enjoyed a long career in comedy, though he was not to make his big breakthrough until 1971 at the Royal Variety Command Performance. He is best remembered for his very clever 'faulty microphone' routine and for his chicken impressions.

The series was quite a hit, so much so in fact, that it attracted attention from overseas. Producer Barney Colehan noted in 1976 that "when we started Top Town back in the Fifties, we found that foreign TV companies were coming over to watch. Then, in 1962, two French producers, Pierre Brive and Guy Lux, were so inspired by our local talent contests that they launched Intervilles on the French viewing public. They developed it into a series of made-up contests resembling extravagant outdoor party games. It was an immediate success". These things have a way of coming back at you, and it was not many years before Colehan found himself producing the British adaptation of Intervilles, It's A Knockout.

In the cold light of day, it does seem that Barney Colehan's opinion regarding the importance of Top Town in the scheme of things is somewhat overstressed. Intervilles owes considerably more to Campanile Sera (the Italian series also detailed in our Pioneers section) than it does to Top Town. It was certainly an influence on Intervilles, but clearly not the crucial one. That accolade belongs to Campanile Sera.

by Alan Hayes
with grateful thanks to Paul Leaver