Ask many a 40 year-old these days if they used to watch ‘Today is Saturday, Watch and Smile’ and you’ll most likely draw a blank; ask many a 40 year-old if they used to watch Tiswas and overwhelmingly you’ll get the same answer: Yes! Produced at ITV regional franchise ATV at ATV Centre on Broad Street, Birmingham, Tiswas ran from 1974 – 1982 and rewrote the rulebook for Saturday morning television and has inspired many pale imitations but has never been equalled.
As I’m sure the more mature reader will recall, Saturday morning television back in the early 1970s comprised an eclectic mix of cartoons and badly dubbed foreign dramas along with endless re-runs of such 50s/60s US delights as Champion the Wonder Horse, Lassie and Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon. Splendid though such offerings were, they did little to ignite the enthusiasm of the children of the 70s. Whilst obvious with hindsight, it took ATV continuity announcer (and more recently High Sherriff of the West Midlands) Peter Tomlinson to identify an opportunity for a dedicated children’s’ show that would primarily serve as a wrap-around for the Saturday morning fodder providing links and introduction along with a few sketches. Fortunately, ATV agreed to the concept and Tiswas was born in January 1974 with Tomlinson as host.
Joining Tomlinson, and regular presenter John Asher, was young ATV news reporter Chris Tarrant whose initially minimal supporting role quickly grew to being the mainstay, and later producer, of Tiswas and under whose stewardship the program took-on an increasingly anarchic approach and evolved way beyond its humble beginnings as a continuity tool. The concept was, however, quite simple albeit innovative for the time: take Studio 3 at ATV Centre, fill it with children, a couple of presenters, a supporting cast of regulars from largely the adult world of comedy, add a few musical guests and a few sketches and broadcast the results live.
So what made Tiswas such a success and so fondly remembered over 25 years after it was last broadcast? There are probably way too many elements to mention here, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a fair few over the years, but I hope I jog a few memories with some that spring to mind from the list below:
The real halcyon period for Tiswas, I would argue, was between 1977 and 1981 with Chris Tarrant at the helm along with co-host Sally James. The introduction of Sally James to replace the departed Peter Tomlinson was initially resisted by Tarrant but proved a masterstroke as she proved a great foil for the general buffoonery of Tarrant by providing some semblance of order and structure to proceedings whilst being most young lads (and their dads) fantasy figure, something to which she somewhat pandered with a succession of tight jeans, thigh-high leather boots, fishnets and mini-skirts etc . . . certainly stuff you’d never get away with on kids’ TV today!
Supporting Tarrant and James was an ensemble cast predominantly featuring the then fresh-faced Dudley comedian Lennie Henry, Birmingham comedy entertainer Bob Carolgees and Liverpudlian comic/actor John Gorman. This trio provided the majority of the sketches and general mayhem, along with Tarrant and James, and created a swathe of comedy characters, more of which below. In addition to this trio were many regular contributors including comedians Frank (‘It’s the way I tell ’em’) Carson, Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning (I’m sure the latter two wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of children’s television these days) along with comedy mime artist and entertainer (and later Dr Who) Sylvester McCoy, eccentric inventor Wilf Lunn and ex-Python Michael Palin.
The Character Creations
A whole host of legendary characters were created and utilised on Tiswas, many of which were created by Lennie Henry who was making his name as a comedy impressionist at the time following his title-winning turn on ATV’s talent show, New Faces. Among Lennie’s creations that regularly featured on the show were:
Algernon Razzmatazz – a catchphrase-laden Rasta, replete with multi-coloured woolly hat, who enjoyed a diet of bread and condensed milk sandwiches and frequently shouted ‘oooookaaaaay’ in a rough Jamaican accent!
Trevor McDonut – an impression of newsreader Trevor McDonald with huge frameless spectacles that Lennie adopted for reading fake/amusing news items on the show. Lennie was even confronted by Mr McDonald himself in one episode!
David Bellamy – an impression of the popular TV botanist (replete with false beard) featuring a heightened pronunciation problem over the letter ‘r’ who featured in a lot of sketches with such catchphrases as “gwapple my gwapenuts” and various ones around rummaging in the “undergwoth”.
Of the non-Henry character icons of Tiswas, three others are of particular note and helped define the program:
The Phantom Flan Flinger – a hooded fiend, clad entirely in black along with hood, the anonymous Flinger would fling custard pies in the faces of all and sundry on the show, including many of the special guests!
Spit the Dog – a rather moth-eaten puppet dog of Bob Carolgees that largely did nothing bar make a spitting sound (and motion) at every opportunity, and at everyone who conversed with it.
Houdi Elbow – a Bob Carolgees character who was allegedly the most intelligent man alive but frequently displayed an altogether opposite impression.
Along with the cast, there were numerous recurring props and comedic devices that would be used to create mayhem on the set at every opportunity:
Custard Pies – shaving foam and food dye ‘pies’ on paper plates were continually rammed in the faces of the cast, the audience of children, the audience’s parents, TV cameramen and special guests. These became primarily the domain of the Phantom Flan Flinger although Tarrant and co were no strangers to their use.
Buckets of Water – endlessly thrown at cast, crew, audience and guests with little or no provocation (and in many instances, warning).
The Cage – a selection of the audiences’ parents would be placed in a cage for the duration of an episode and subjected to repeated pie and water bucket attacks by the cast.
Remarkably for a children’s show, and especially one that largely ridiculed and assaulted guests, Tiswas attracted the very cream of the entertainment industry of the day. In particular, musically Tiswas has a vast array of top acts to its name, many of whom were interviewed by Sally James, such as ELO, Genesis, Queen, Rainbow, The Pretenders, Cliff Richard, Robert Plant etc etc.
Whilst many shows, and indeed other children’s programs, have enjoyed big names from the world of music, none as I can recall have repeatedly rammed custard pies in their faces, thrown buckets of water over them or involved them in ridiculous sketches . . . largely ending-up with pies and water for good measure.
Whilst I’ve mentioned some of Lennie Henry’s catchphrases earlier, Tiswas was chock-full of terms and concepts that slipped into popular culture and vernacular . . . certainly whilst I was a schoolboy.
Compost Corner – a spoof gardening spot hosted by Chris Tarrant with Lennie Henry’s David Bellamy character. Every time ‘Compost Corner’ was mentioned, the audience, crew and guests would shout it back.
The Bucket of Water Song – a very silly song, and single by The Four Bucketeers (Tarrant, James, Gorman and Carolgees) extolling the virtues of throwing buckets of water over your head and those of others.
The Dying Fly – a craze which caught on of imitating a dying fly by lying on your back and waggling your arms and legs in the air . . . accompanied by classical music of course.
It might seem a bit dry ‘on paper’ but the combination of the above ingredients, along with a great deal of spontaneity, made Tiswas ‘The’ programme to watch on a Saturday morning: the BBC’s response, Noel Edmunds and Multi Coloured Swap Shop, just paled by comparison. The general mayhem was a joy to watch as a child and the sense, even when viewed through young eyes, that a hell of a lot of stuff was off the cuff and that anything could happen at any time made Tiswas compulsory viewing. One minute a competition would be launched and within the blink of an eye, Tarrant would leap up and chase a cameraman around with a custard pie in hand or mid-interview with a top pop act, a bucket of water would be flung hitting the interviewee full-on in the face!
With Tarrant departing the show in 1981, along with the main cast to make an ill-fated adult version of the show called OTT, Sally James was left to front the final series as a reshuffle of the ITV regions resulting in Central Television taking over from ATV saw the decision to discontinue the series. Interestingly, due to the fragmented ITV regions Tiswas was only seen around the ATV region at its inception with some regions only broadcasting the series much later in its run with Tyne Tees Television only taking-up Tiswas in 1981!
Sadly, Central Television saw fit to wipe the majority of the recordings of Tiswas to reuse the tapes back in the 80s and so only a few full episodes survive but for many the memories of the show linger on and for my money, Tiswas was one of the finest programmes to come out of Birmingham and single-handedly changed the whole approach to children’s television to which the likes of Ant & Dec, Dick & Dom etc can only aspire!