The Beatles on Top of the Pops: The story of the band's only performance on the classic show

9 July 2024, 14:12

The Beatles at Studio 2 on June 16, 1966
The Beatles at Studio 2 on June 16, 1966. Picture: Getty Images

By Mayer Nissim

The one time when two pop institutions collided.

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The pop era had already well and truly started by the time Top of the Pops launched on New Year's Day in 1964.

The Beatles had already released their first two albums – Please Please Me and With the Beatles – and their third, Beatlemania-confirming LP A Hard Day's Night just a few months away.

Both The Beatles and TOTP went from strength to strength over the years that followed, with the Fab Four a constant feature around the top of the charts most weeks in the 1960s.

Naturally, that meant that The Beatles were a frequent fixture on the programme, but the odd thing is that they only actually performed on its famous stage just once.

Yes, really.

The Beatles taping their sole Top of the Pops performance at the show's studio
The Beatles taping their sole Top of the Pops performance at the show's studio. Picture: Getty Images

For most of their "appearances" on the show, the band would pre-record an exclusive performance in the BBC's studios, which isn't quite the same thing as rocking up to the programme's set itself.

That was the case for their earlier spots on the show, including the launch episode, which featured previously-shot footage of the band playing number three single 'She Loves You' and chart-topper 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'.

TOTP was first filmed at the broadcaster's Dickenson Road Studios in Manchester, before a brief stop-off at Studio 2 at BBC TV Centre in London before a longer stay at Studio G at Lime Grove Studios.

The Beatles filming 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain'
The Beatles filming 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain'. Picture: Getty Images

Later on, as the modern music video was slowly born, they would send in promotional clips to represent their hits.

But just once, The Beatles deigned to appear at the actual BBC studios to play (well, mime) their hits for the shows.

Brian Epstein had passed on the request from Johnny Stewart and for some reason, The Beatles broke with their tradition and said yes.

The Beatles - Paperback Writer

That fateful day was June 16, 1966, when they rocked up to Studio 2 in John Lennon's Rolls Royce.

They arrived at 2.30pm to rehearse, and then took the time to do some interviews and do some press snaps, before further rehearsals.

And live on the show between 7.30pm and 8pm on BBC1 (renamed a couple of years earlier from BBC Television after the launch of BBC2), they were introduced by Pete Murray and went through the motions on both sides of their massive double-A-side single 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain'.

The Beatles - Rain

Funnily enough, it was the band's stunning promotional films for those songs, directed by future Let It Be man Michael Lindsay-Hogg, that really gave the idea of the music video a boost.

While we'd love to post the full video of the historic performance... we can't. It most likely doesn't exist.

That's because in the days of expensive videotape, the BBC infamously wiped many of their recordings, with large swathes of the archived taped over in the 1970s.

The Beatles finally on TOTP
The Beatles finally on TOTP. Picture: Getty Images

Only around 20 full episodes exist from the first 500 shown, and most of those are from 1969 to 1973.

Naturally, there have been plenty of searches for a copy of the recording, either in official or unofficial hands. Sadly, they've come up short, and in 2000 the BBC admitted defeat.

"We don't know whether or not this particular piece of Top Of The Pops history has disappeared forever," said a spokeswoman.

John Lennon performs 'Instant Karma!' on Top of the Pops as The Beatles were breaking up
John Lennon performs 'Instant Karma!' on Top of the Pops as The Beatles were breaking up. Picture: Getty Images

"But unfortunately there was a time when BBC programmes were not archived as carefully as they are today and some programmes were sadly lost."

But nearly 20 years later, a precious 11-second clip was recovered. A family in Liverpool had filmed their telly with an 8mm camera while it was being broadcast live.

It ended up with a collector in Mexico, who contacted lost telly specialists Kaleidoscope.

The Beatles on Top Of The Pops - 15 April, 1965 - Surviving Extract - HQ Best Quality

"I think if you're a Beatles fan, it's the holy grail," said the company's Chris Perry at the time. "People thought it was gone forever because videotape wasn't kept in 1966. To find it all these years later was stunning."

Lost Beatles footage have shown up in stranger places than Mexico, though. A pre-recorded spot of the band performing 'Ticket To Ride' and 'Yes It Is' at Riverside was given to Top of the Pops for its April 15 show in 1965.

That show was wiped along with the rest, but a 15-second snippet of that film was used in Doctor Who episode The Executioners, from The Chase serial. The episode has survived, along with a clip of The Beatles doing their thing.