The Old Grey Whistle test started in September 1971, first hosted by Richard Williams (although it he was quickly replaced by Bob Harris), the reins were then passed to a series of presenters who became UK household names. In case you were wondering, the theme is Val Doonican & Charlie McCoy playing Stone Fox Chase and as for the name:
"It was a 'tin pan alley' phrase from years ago. When they got the first pressing of a record they would play it to people they called the old greys. The ones they could remember and could whistle having heard it just once or twice had passed the old grey whistle test".
- Bob Harris
When the Whistle Test started it was a low budget programme; producers were given only £500 per show, which was low even back in the 70's. However this didn't stop the big artists appearing; for example David Bowie was paid only £50 to do 3 songs on the show, where as John Lennon would only go on if he was paid in chocolate biscuits. The list of performers reads like a Who’s Who of modern music, including such stars as Elton John, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, Captain Beefheart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Talking Heads, The Police, REM and U2. The BBC evidently didn't see that the programme would go anywhere and was scheduled for BBC2 last thing on a Friday night. This, however, turned out to be an advantage as the show could go on for as little as twenty five minutes to up to one and a half hours (these were the days before twenty four hour TV stations and the studios would simply shut down overnight).
Seven years later music had changed, punk was dominating the charts, Bob Harris was unwilling to present the program any more after being attacked by the Sex Pistols. This led to the show being taken over by Annie Nightingale who had previously presented for Radio 1. At last the BBC realised the shows potential when Polydor, Focus's record label had to switch its entire pressing plant to making copies of their record after the bands appearance on the show and the BBC finally got them a new, bigger studio. The show then went on the be presented by Andy Kershaw, David Hepworth and Mark Ellen. The show finally stopped recording in 1987 although several other musical programs have no doubt been influenced by it (The White Room, The Tube et al).
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the programme the BBC have released a two DVD set of some of the best performances from the show, including commentary from past presenters and an insight into some of the performances. I have the DVD's and would recommend them to any music fan (Talking Heads and The Damned really stick out in my mind as good performances).
All info gleaned from the BBC website or my dad :)