How Jools Holland Became the Unlikely Gatekeeper of British Music

How Jools Holland Became the Unlikely Gatekeeper of British Music

'Later... with Jools Holland' is like seeing your dad drunk for the first time.
November 10, 2016, 12:05am

Illustration by Dan Evans

Culturally, the United Kingdom is a confusing place. It's like America, but with less orange demagogues and more antique shows; like mainland Europe, but with slightly better clothes and worse crisps. Dotted around our lumpen grey rock are an assortment of weird and wonderful celebrities – the flag bearers of our Isles. To foreign eyes they might appear confusing – inexplicable, even – so with that in mind, these seminars intend to elucidate who they are, and why. This is British Studies. Lesson 2: Jools Holland

Thank you for joining us for last week's seminar where we considered the ascension of heavenly host Noel Edmonds. This week we are continuing the series with late-night pianist, presenter and professional jazz-cat, Jools Holland. Despite his name sounding like a type of custard tart, or a badly approximated French character in a Carry On film, he is in fact the host of what is pretty much the only surviving music-based programme on British television.


To understand why this is the case, let's first look a little further back, tracing the story of how a spritely middle-aged bloke – the sort of bloke you could imagine being excited by a very good quality mustard – became the gatekeeper of musical taste-making on UK screens.

It used to be that music had a home on British TV, and that home was called Top of the Pops. When TOTP first started in 1964, it was a place for the artists of the day to perform their hot new single, accompanied by a small troupe of dancers in knee-high socks and waistcoats. Despite these bands mostly comprising of men with greasy brown hair and thin, deathly faces, punctuated only by teeth like shattered bits of toilet bowls (men my mum still inexplicably refers to as "gorgeous" whenever there's a documentary about the 1960s on BBC4), they were the rock and pop stars of the moment. As such, they were afforded a prime-time Friday evening slot before the nation.

Over the decades, TOTP received revamps and updates – such as in 1998, when the theme tune was changed to an on-trend breakbeat remix of a Led Zeppelin song – and in its wake inspired other spiritual flag bearers and precursors to MTV that sought to carry the youth programming flame onwards. This trend was most rampant during the 1980s and 1990s, when newer, edgier music shows began to spring up. Shows like The Word, Club X and The Hitman and Her put bands, singers and DJs in neon-lit studios, hosted by a newer, younger breed of host – like a pre-Really Wild Show Michaela Strachan, or inspiration-for-the-Pepperami-man Terry Christian. Another one of these young hosts was Jools Holland.

Back then, a thinner, harder-edged Holland, fresh from a stint in the band Squeeze, hosted The Tube – a music show so 1980s they probably had George Michael on a retainer.

At this point in his career Jools was sort of cool, actually. Wearing long coats and speckled skinny ties, videos of his early days present a young man who, while a bit wooden at times, doesn't look at all out of place fronting the zeitgeist of his day. He was once even risque enough to be suspended from the show for saying "be there or be an ungroovy fucker" during a trailer. Pretty cool, right? Only, then there's this…

Really, that should have sounded the alarms. Jools, hijacking what was supposedly the most anarchic entertainment show of its day in order to perform "Great Balls of Fire". That should have triggered a production meeting immediately. "Cancel everything! Now! It's Holland…he's not cool…he's a honky-tonk, baggy-trouser, razmatazz-man! He's not the edgy young host we thought he was… he's my dad! Abort recording! HE'S MY DAD!"

But they didn't. They let it lie. And now look where we are.


For you see, cable television happened, then YouTube, and before long the televisual graveyard was littered with the rotting corpses of every exciting, cutting-edge, youth-focused culture programme there ever was. As they died and diminished – everything from TOTP to CD:UK, from The Word to Popworld – only one presenter, and one format, stood firm.

Later… With Jools Holland.

Miles Davis once said: "Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around." And while that might have been true in the 1950s, it's probably fairer to say now that jazz is the big brother of wine bars. Wherever it goes, interesting cheeses and nice chutneys follow it around. Jools Holland is the king of this soft-edged dad jazz. This funky, "Hey, let's all go to a beat-poetry reading in the basement of a gastro-pub" jazz. The sort of jazz that's used to soundtrack light-hearted documentaries about economic downturn. The sort of jazz that says yes, you can wear a pinstriped blazer, blue bootcut jeans and a pair of leather loafers.

The atmosphere of Later…with Jools Holland is like an early memory of being allowed to stay downstairs for your parents' dinner party and seeing your dad drunk for the first time, trying to organise everyone into an under-the-chin orange relay. That is, if your parents' dinner parties featured performances from RAY BLK, or Tame Impala. And it's this jazzy atmosphere that drives his show, which has been running in short series since 1992 and is now on its 45th.


Later… presents the live acts in a very particular manner. First, Jools stands in the middle, like the gregarious vicar in new-age, open-plan church. Then, as the camera circles him, he proceeds to read the names of every guest in a voice that honestly sounds like he's shouting them through the window of a moving car. "LadiesandgentlemenitsALT-J!" the ringmaster, piddled on port, slurs at speed, as though rushing through the announcement in case he's got their name wrong. The camera whirls around the studio on a crane, past small clusters of bored, late-thirties audience members gently clapping.

"It'stheincredibletheeffervescentoneandonlyLAURAMVULA!" he cries, as though falling down a well.

And so it has been, and so it will continue. Groundbreaking artists, far and wide, from Kanye West to the Manic Street Preachers, Skepta to Dusty Springfield, Bjork to FKA Twigs, have all enjoyed their time in the jazz-dad's lair. Some of them have been lucky enough to enjoy a strange interview with the man, during which he normally resolves not to ask any interesting questions, instead focusing on the strangest of details, such as the time he had a newly reformed Blur on, where he seems unable to stop saying "ONLY ON THIS SHOW WOULD YOU HEAR THE SOUNDS OF MEDIEVAL SHEEP!"

But the luckiest guests have the pleasure of Jools joining them on stage. That's right – Britain's leading music show features the host playing piano with the guests:

None of this is an attack on Jools Holland. He remains a resolutely positive and totally benevolent figure on our screens – pretty much the worst thing you could say about him is that he was on Top Gear once. Yet he is an important figure to understand. Underground music in this country is now largely communicated via a man who looks perpetually on the cusp of "nipping to Oddbins". It doesn't matter if you're a grime MC railing against the establishment or a bee-bop trombone player who does covers of 15th century lute classics; if you don't impress Jools, you don't get on telly.

For that reason, we have to remain grateful to Jools. There's nowhere else on television you'd get Barry Gibb and Wiley in the same 30-minute period. Yes, it's a bit strange that this wide range of acts' only way of performing on television is under the watch of this fast-talking sax-addict, but without that the closest we'd get to live music on British television would be Song of Praise.