There is one group who were omnipresent and pivotal during the poppiest years of the 1970s in Britain. One group who were always there, who never missed a beat. One group who were always on Top Of The Pops. One group that always made a splash.
Pan’s People: Barbara “Babs” Lord; Patricia “Dee Dee” Wilde; Ruth Pearson; Andrea “Andi” Rutherford (later replaced by Cherry Gillespie); Louise Clarke (replaced when she left to get married by Sue Menhenick); and American dancer/choreographer Felicity “Flick” Colby.
Every – and I mean every – British schoolboy knew that line-up and could recite it like it was their football team.
“A handful of very dishy, very dolly dancing birds,” as they were described in 1974. To which I can only concur.
How many people do you think tuned in to TOTP just to watch Pan’s People? Taking a ballpark figure, I’d say about 40 per cent of the viewers. At the time, Pan’s People were astonishingly sexy, astonishingly ravishing. It was, in the most literal of senses, a turn-on.
There they were, every week, dancing their little socks off, giving, just giving . . .
To gauge what it was like, put yourself back in 1972. There’s Top Of The Pops – and nothing else. There’s no Chart Show, no other TV show. There’s no MTV, no VH-1, no anything. There are no pop videos. There’s just Top Of The Pops and cheesy groups miming along to their cheesy hits.
Top Of The Pops was incredibly powerful. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine quite how influential it was – It was like the youth club where everyone went to see what was happening and the DJs were like trendy scoutmasters, old geezers who tried to pretend that they were one of us when we all knew that they would inform on us to our parents given half the chance.
Even then, we knew that the DJs were a dreadful bunch, interested in only themselves, thinking they were the pop stars when really they were just cringingly embarrassing.
Dreadful as the DJs were, it didn’t stop TOTP from being absolutely unmissable. Everyone watched it, and if you didn’t watch it . . . well, you just did. You couldn’t not watch.
And one of the best things about TOTP for all teenage boys (and their dads) was Pan’s People.
Debuting in July 1968, Pan’s People appeared in the show where the pop videos would be now. There’d be a group who wouldn’t come on; maybe they were Americans or on tour or too busy, so what were they going to do to illustrate the song?
TOTP could play the song, but what could they do about the visuals? Send for Pan. So Pan and her People would come on and do a dance.
And they were incredibly sexy, incredibly . . . vibrant. Their little syncopated steps and that cute finger-wagging to the camera thing that they did. The flowing limbs and hair, the clothes wafting around their bodies, the skirts that were always, always split up the sides, the tassels that hung down over the exposed bits, cheekily giving a glimpse of the land beyond as they swivelled and swirled and danced and played.
We used to sit there and try and guess what song they’d have Pan’s People dance to. Mud? Nah, they’ll be in the studio. Sweet. Nah, they’d also be there. And so you’d think of some American soulster who’d be too busy doing Soul Train in America, which we knew was a brilliant show, but we never saw it. We once saw Bowie doing Young Americans on it, and he was brilliant, and it was brilliant. Top word, brilliant.
But Pan’s People, you’d always want them to be dancing to a fast song, something that they’d do a lot of the old swivelling and swirling to, and – by and large – they would.
Every so often, they’d dance to some soft ballad, and it would be soooo disappointing, soooo disappointing.
They’d waft around in these full-length chiffon things, trying to look all ethereal and sensual, but . . . listen; I don’t know how to phrase this. Let’s be bold. You never saw anything. There. Said it. We wanted hot pants and skirts with slits and tassels, not nonsense long chiffon things.
At best, the girls would have four days’ notice of the song they were expected to dance to – a provisional running order for the show would be drawn up on the Friday preceding the following Wednesday’s taping.
But a final decision could not be taken until the new week’s charts were published on Tuesday. If the selected (and rehearsed) record had fallen down the charts, then that was the end of it. Pan’s People would have to devise and learn a new routine for another song just 24 hours before filming.
It’s got to be said that there was an element of the underwear section in the mail-order catalogue (if you know what I mean) to Pan’s People.
When I was a young lad, I used to send away for mail-order catalogues (in my mother’s name, stupid), and then I’d be really cool when they came, not say anything. Invariably, my mum would open them and have a look. She’d never buy anything, but she’d look. When she went, I’d go and sneak a look at the underwear section. Pre-teen soft porn.
Well – and, listen, we’re being honest here – there was an element of that in Pan’s People. An element? Not ‘arf.
Everyone had their favourite PP, and they always did that looking at the camera – just at you – bit, and it was all a huge come-on. They each had their own colour and their own moves. They each had their own tics, little things they’d do that the others wouldn’t.
“Pan’s People – ‘The name? We got the name from Pan, the goddess of dance,” said Ruth.
“It was electric and thrilling, and I have wonderful warm memories,”‘ said Dee Dee, “For a young girl, it was the best job in the world. We were in the public eye, at the top of our profession and admired by millions. We all had a great time in the Sixties and Seventies.”
“I can remember being in that small intimate studio with Stevie Wonder, and it was magic. But it was also quite lonely as well at times. Men were keen to look, but they wouldn’t come near us”.
“We were so glamorous they thought we were unapproachable. And men will never approach a group of women, especially a loud, attractive group of young women.”
Flick Colby, the only American in the gang, said, “We were always much more than a dance team. We were a group, except that we didn’t sing. We were just kinda like session musicians.”
“We just got together because we all liked dancing. We just wanted to go out and start leaping around, so we did. As a dance group, Pan’s People always had something to say, which was always reflected in our dancing.”
In 1974, she said this: “The girls were all picked because they were good dancers, although good-looking girls obviously help any group along. The more they dance, the more sexy they are to watch. But Pan’s People have never been ‘teasers’. We’ve never tried the alluring technique.”
Colby left the public face of Pan’s People shortly after the group became established. As the choreographer as well as a dancer, she found herself spending too much time worrying about the technical side of the group’s routines and not enough concentrating on her own dancing.
She remained the power behind the throne, however, and she also decided not to replace herself. Pan’s People remained a quintet for much of the remainder of their career.
Kitsch is something that it’s impossible to be at the time that you’re doing it. You can only be kitsch in retrospect. Mostly that’s absolutely true, but – and I don’t know how they pulled this off – Pan’s People managed to pull off the unique trick of being contemporarily kitsch. There was a naïve charm that was innocence. What were they? Twenty?
Babs talked about her daughter’s boyfriend, asking her for a picture so that he could show his mates. “My daughter’s boyfriend wants a picture of her mum!?” And Ruth talked about being at a party and sitting next to Paul McCartney and who’s that walking past? Why, it’s Mick Jagger.
Pan’s People were perfect. Gorgeous gals in a pre-silicon age. They could have been you.
So what were they like, all those parties? What was it like, backstage at Top Of The Pops? Was it a laugh, Ruth?
“Was it a laugh? It was such a laugh, I can’t tell you.”
So, go on, what happened?
“I’d tell you, but to be honest, I can remember going out to lots of parties, but I can’t really remember the detail.”
You had a good time then?
“Oh, yes. It was fun.”
Pan’s People remained with Top Of The Pops until 29 April 1976, – their final dance was to Andrea True Connection’s More More More – after which they were replaced by Colby’s new ensemble, Ruby Flipper, that tried to adjust the gender balance by including guys alongside a mostly-new quartet of girls (Cherry, Sue, Floyd, Gavin, Lulu and Patti).
That didn’t really work, and within five months, it was an all-girl cast again, this time under the name of Legs & Co (Sue, Lulu, Patti, Gill, Pauline and Rosemary).
When Pan’s People disbanded, most of the girls left their dancing behind to raise families and pursue other careers.
Babs married actor Robert Powell and spent many years involved in fundraising (including taking part in the Round the World Yacht Race).
Dee Dee also married and set up her own dance studio. Ruth settled into working in local government, and Louise devoted her time to raising her family.
However, some of the girls remained involved in the production of TOTP – Flick Colby remained as the choreographer, manager and director for each of the three replacement dance acts, with Ruth Pearson co-managing Legs & Co and Cherry Gillespie and Sue Menhenick performing with Ruby Flipper.
Felicity ‘Flick’ Colby, already seriously ill with cancer, succumbed to bronchial pneumonia and passed away in May 2011. She was 65.
Louise Clarke died from heart failure at Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk in August 2012 after suffering from poor health for two years. She was 63.
Ruth Pearson passed away at the age of 70 in June 2017 following a battle with cancer.