We lived in Drimnagh (south Dublin) at the time and as there were no local Ballet classes I was brought to Irish dancing classes instead, which did not impress me at all! It was not until we moved to Coolock on the Northside of Dublin and we found a Ballet class in nearby Whitehall, that my dream was finally realised. I was 8 or 9 years old.
I loved Ballet and was quite good at it although I was quite shy. Towards the end of my Ballet years I knew I wanted to do a more modern style of dance. I was influenced by Arlene Phillips and her Hot Gossip Dance Troupe. I also regularly watched Pans People on Top Of the Pops, BBC TV, every week! I knew I wanted to "dance on stage" in "shows" but I had no idea exactly what it was I wanted, let alone how I'd go about it.
Around the same time I became aware of an annual event on our own National TV...RTE. The National Finals of John Player Tops of the Town were televised live in June every year, and I LOVED IT! Oh, yes...this is truly what I want to do. I remember going to see Irish Life in a JPT Dublin Final in the Olympia Theatre in 1981, and seeing it live totally captivated me. A new dream to be realised! Little did I know that a certain someone backstage in that show would, in the future become a good show pal of mine.....
John Player Tops of the Town was founded in 1962 and began life in Waterford where it was simply called "Tops of the Town". It went nationwide in 1964 with John Player providing financial support. Local Community Groups entered alongside local Businesses, all across the nation in the Regional and National rounds. RTE came on board and commenced filming the National Finals in 1975. You could even say that John Player Tops was the X Factor/ Britain's Got Talent of it's time!
Love it or loathe it, JPT was an absolute institution. It was a much needed opening for talent in this country. Yes, you had your local Musical societies and Panto groups, but Tops was different! A Tops show was a Variety show with a difference. You had dance numbers, soloists, duets, production numbers and comedy routines all interspersed with each other. However, you also had a limited time-frame (55 minutes) in which to perform all this, so that made for very fast-paced and entertaining shows! There is nothing like the added edge of competition to add spice to your performance. However as it was competition, you never knew how many times you'd get to perform the show that you'd worked so hard on. If you were knocked out at local level the most shows you would do was 4, I think. But.... if you got to the National Finals, you had 6 glorious months of rehearsing and then performing! Ahh......the memories!
I got to "dance on stage" in "shows" after a fashion, by joining a local musical society, Panto Group and a fabulous local dance class! Lorraine Barry, Billie Barry's daughter started her own dance classes for teens /young adults and we eagerly signed up. Oh my God....this was exactly what I wanted. She is a fantastic Choreographer. Another dream realised. We danced with her for about 14 years, whilst also performing in numerous shows. Through this class we got to hear of the Aer Lingus show being choreographed by another Billie Barry daughter, Joan Kenny. Another fabulous Choreographer. Lots more shows came from this. Things were really happening!
All the while we (my best dance pal and I) were avidly following our friends in Bank of Ireland as they performed in JPT. Only dying to get up there ourselves! We got a chance in the early 80's when we performed with Telecom but the company couldn't invest properly in it, so we were knocked out in the early rounds.
The thing about JPT was that your chances of progressing to National Final level was greatly assisted by the money behind you. Money that paid for the best Production Team, Lavish sets and fabulous costumes. Unfortunately that meant that Company Groups tended to fare better than Community Groups but over time an attempt was made to redress that balance, and a separate Dublin Final was introduced for Community Groups. As the years went on Dublin had by far the biggest amount of Group entrants and another anomaly had to be addressed. The year that my best dance pal and I finally got to be involved in a show, that went all the way to the National Finals was 1989 ..... Aer Lingus. That year there were, as far as I can recall, 6 groups who were serious contenders. That was in comparison to some regional rounds that only had two group entrants, so this clearly needed addressing. Thankfully that year the rules were changed and 2 runners up, along with the regional winners went through to the National levels. That was very good for us in the Aer Lingus Show because we lost the Dublin Finals and went on to win the National Finals! Which only went to prove the necessity of the rule change.
We, my best dance pal and I, went on to do two more shows in John Player Tops getting to the National Finals with both shows. Namely, Irish Distillers in 1991 (Winners!) and Telecom again in 1992 (Runners Up). There are others with a far better pedigree than me and have been involved in Tops for far longer.
So, after all those years of yearning to be up there in a live JPT National Final did it live up to my expectations? Hell, yeah!! It was truly amazing and another dream realised!
To be in a Tops Show was entirely different from any other onstage experience. Rows over Dressing Rooms??? Dressing rooms....what Dressing rooms?! We had no time for that. We could never make it to a dressing room due to all the quick changes! We changed in the closest area to the stage we could find....behind the back cyc of the Olympia Stage for example! And woe betide ANYONE who touched your meticulously laid out costumes! Sometimes we wore layers of costumes so velcro is another strong memory! Other times we 'd just make it to the wings and changed there..... once we even changed onstage behind some scenery and came straight back on!! All done with military precision.
The best part of the JPT experience was touring in the Regional rounds. Yes, there was a serious job to do but after that there was the serious parties! Great fun. One lasting memory is the Aer Lingus aftershow party, in Jurys Hotel Cork (national semis) ..... party was in the dying stages at 4 am when out came Earl Gill and his trumpet players to rock the joint!
The scariest part was the nail-biting wait for the adjudicators to announce the Finalists, at all levels. And we can never forget the Adjudicators , especially the regulars like Jim Bartley or the Presenter of the National Finals, Marty Whelan, with his jet black hair!!
John Player Tops made a very significant contribution to community life in Ireland, and to the cultivation of theatrical knowledge and skills. Participation in Tops involved thousands of dancers, singers, musicians, comics, stage hands, set builders and painters, producers, directors, choreographers, writers, costume makers, fund raisers, committees, lighting and sound technicians. In fact (per a 1992 programme I have) it was estimated that 300,000 people had been exposed to or involved in all facets of stage work through the event to that date!
Involvement in JPT shows taught us all so much. Any professional group of people would be hard pushed to achieve we did. Stage sets were built and had to be adapted, at relatively short notice, for ever changing venues. We also had to cope with a quick turnaround between two shows in the interval. In the National Final you only had the 9pm news slot ( 20 minutes on a Sunday night) on RTE, in which to strike one set and set up the second show!
Aside: Anything could be forgotten in these get-outs ..... National semi in Cork 1992: in our Jesus Christ Superstar Finale of our Telecom show, Jesus Christ is seen hanging on the cross just before final curtain. In order to create the illusion of cross rising we dropped the set. Set is being struck....Jesus is still on his cross, high above floor level...backstage forgot cross and were preparing to leave when they hear a little voice..."eh...helloo..anyone there...can someone get me down!!" Hilarious!!
Fast forward a few years and John Player Tops is no more. Rumors of it's demise were ongoing for some time.The big companies began to pull out as John Players position as Advertiser was in jeopardy, due to the banning of cigarette companies advertising their products in any way. Companies were no longer willing to invest as the spend was getting crazier each year. Also another advertiser could not be found. The last two years of Tops saw Community Groups dominating the Finals....had Tops gone back to it's roots?? That was 1996 and 1997....when the roaring Celtic Tiger was just a kitten purring! Oh...the money that might have been found to keep it going! But maybe it had met it's natural end.
And so, to all us JPT performers??? Some are still involved in shows. Some went on to perform in the West End and some made it big on the home stage here in Ireland .... like June Rodgers, for example.
Some of my fellow performers have their own stage schools! Such as my best dance pal who is also a wonderful choreographer and choreographed a National Winner towards the end of Tops. With Greenhills I think, so it was possibly 1994 or 1997. Other friends of mine moved on to choreography and JPT was a great starting point for them.
My Show pal who was in Irish Life all those years ago, now has his own children's entertainment company... Really Grand Events.... and does rather well! My Director friend I talked about in previous show posts (Slice Of Saturday Night) is also a JPT stalwart , from a very young age, and he danced/choreographs/Directs/does lighting and sound...and even makes the Tea and sweeps the floor!!
As for me... well, I just choreograph the local Panto every year but in so doing I believe I, along with the rest of the production team, am helping to instill a love of the Theatre and live performance in children of Primary School age. I would love that to stay with them....I would also love for there to be something more out there for them to aim for.
What does today's 3 year old.....or 9 year old....or early Teenage budding performer yearn for when they look at TV??? To be on X Factor?? How achievable is that dream??
Was John Player Tops the X Factor for the ordinary people??
Some of us have been reminiscing about those halcyon John Players Tops days over on facebook. We grew up with Tops and made wonderful friends. My show pal, and his show pal recently set up a facebook page..here and we now call on all people with any involvement in John Player Tops over the years to drop in and say "Hi". We'll make you a cup of Tea, or pour you a glass of wine and you can share your memories ....and your videos/DVD's! We are urgently rounding up all videos.
You see 100 people signed up in the first 24 hours...just over a week ago. At the last count there was 314. And now there's talk of a mega Reunion!
Next thing you know there'll be a campaign to bring back JPT ...... in a new format...of course ;)
(*NOTE - Aug 2012: see here for exciting news of Tops of the Town revival in 2013!!)
PS: If you've had any involvement in Tops ...even if you just enjoyed watching over the years...please, please comment and share your memories. I would love to get as many perspectives on this as possible! Thank you.