Nowadays, you know where you are with a Saturday morning show from week one. Bang, out it comes all over the country, with tabloid column inches and, increasingly, semi-clad female presenters adorning the front of single male 'entertainment' mags left, right and centre. With Tiswas, needless to say, things were very different. Here's a potted history of the show, which turned out every bit as chaotic and messy as the programme itself.
- 1976 : Is this what they want?
It was hardly an auspicious beginning. In ATVland at ten o'clock on the morning of Saturday 5th January 1974, just after Jobs Around The House : Damp, a children's programme with the long-winded billing 'Today Is Saturday or the Tis-Was Show' was broadcast from ATV's Studio 4 in Birmingham; a mixture of pop music, cartoons, sport, comedy and other child-friendly items, linked in a loose, off-the-cuff style by John Asher, with one Chris Tarrant 'bringing you the news behind the news'. It was an experiment, a trial run attempt to 'bind' the disparate elements of standard kids' matinee TV together in one coherent (or as it turned out, incoherent) programme. In between old Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker cartoons and episodes of Tarzan (Ron Ely vintage) Asher, Tarrant and a small invited audience introduced phone-ins, competitions, and such features as the Who, Which, What Year Constest and 'angonasec, along with a healthy dose of slapstick, old gags and improvised tomfoolery - all on a budget of less than 250 quid for a two-and-a-half-hour show. As the series progressed, they relocated to the now-legendary Studio 3, Tarrant began to share equal billing with Asher (as the 'Tiswas Twins') and the name gradually permutated to 'Tiswas (or Today Is Saturday)'. The show made it through its alotted eleven-week initial run, despite the uneasy climate of government-imposed broadcasting restrictions looming over all live programming at the time, and was deemed enough of a success to return for a full winter season on September 14th.
During the first proper run of the show (now called simply Tiswas), with Asher and 'Old Strawhead' Tarrant in charge (insofar as anyone could ever be in charge of the thing), alongside Peter 'Poochie' Tomlinson presenting film clips requested by viewers (mainly the fighting skeletons scene from Jason and the Argonauts as it turned out) in Tiswas Trailertime, and ATV head of sport 'Me, Myself, Yours Truly' Trevor East doing Tiswas Sportstime in a Derby County shirt. Also putting in their twopenn'orths were 'Not The' Peter Matthews, the show's compiler and editor, the odd unseen producer, and moonlighting ATV continuity announcer Joan Palmer. The flan and bucket ante was upped considerably throughout the next two seasons of the show, Tarrant and pals realising from copious kids' letters that this was, well, the sort of thing they required - a stern notice handed out to members of the by-now 50-strong studio audience read "The company cannot be held responsible for any mishaps during transmission caused by stray pies or other scripted missiles". But more serious items were introduced - 'crusading' causes such as water/road safety and the provision of better play facilities - alongside the semi-serious Tiswas Fascinating Fact File. This modicum of 'respectable' content kept the IBA wolf from the door... for now. This early era of the 'Was (remembered fondly by Midlanders, though of course unknown to the rest of the country) climaxed in June '76, when the 100th edition was marked with an entire episode broadcast from Hednesford Raceway, Cannock, in front of an audience of 30,000, with banger races providing an appropriate supplement to the usual schtick. The 'Was was clearly here to stay.
- 1981 : This is what they all want!
"Tiswas [had an] anarchic feel which really made an impact. On a basic level, one week, the show would start and Tarrant would be tucking into egg and chips as he started hosting it, another he'd be washing his hair in a bowl of water - at the time, one of very staid presentation, this was really something new and had the kind of impact you obviously couldn't reproduce nowadays ... but there was also a genuine feel of improvisation and the show almost about to fall apart. A common catchphrase and obvious in-joke was 'we don't just throw this programme together, you know' and it's apparently true that they didn't really rehearse and the cameramen never knew for sure what bit was coming next or what they were supposed to be doing. The other thing is that the slapstick in Tiswas in the Tarrant years was really *aggressive* - it was fairly alarming in kids' TV then, and would be unthinkable now. A lot of the regular guests, too, were adult entertainers with anarchic styles, whether Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Spike Milligan or Bernard Manning, which created a kids' show that was extraordinarily perverse and adult." - David Savage.
The next four years were the show's 'golden age', in that the popularity of the show snowballed and, one by one, the rest of the ITV regions, who subsisted on either their own less memorable Saturday shows (mostly started up as copies of The 'Was and/or attempts to rival the BBC's Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, which had kicked off in September of '76) succumbed to its undeniable might. One of these early efforts, '76's Saturday Scene on LWT, an otherwise uninspired mix of pop gossip and standard cartoon fare, was to provide Tiswas with a major new cast member in 'The Lovely' Sally James, who defected to ATVland for the start of the '77 season as a replacement for Peter Tomlinson (Asher had decamped the previous year). Also present alongside Tarrant and 'Truly Wonderful' Trev was recent New Faces victor and future hallowed Generation Game memory despoiler Jim Davidson, who turned out for a handful of shows early on in the '77 run, but made little impression. More worthwhile was local stand-up Jasper Carrott, who brought the Dying Fly dance to our screens. The old Tarzan adventures gave way to first Daniel Boone, then, more fittingly, Batman, and, to be frank, second division animated shows such as Dynomutt and Return To The Planet Of The Apes.
The following year saw the departure of East, his place filled by a selection of 'assorted loonies' including Vision On and Ken Campbell Roadshow veteran 'Sylveste' McCoy, ex-Scaffolder John Gorman (initially, like most of the team, only in character parts), and another New Face, Dudley-derived Lenworth J Henry. The show was becoming popular all over, by word of mouth and celebrity endorsement (to take two extremes, Kenny Everett regularly taped the show when he went down to London for his Saturday stint on Capital, while Bagpuss creator Oliver Postgate recently 'came out' as a flan fan). Celebrity guests were increasingly abundant as well, from Wheeltapperite comedians (Frank Carson, Duggie Brown etc.) to sports stars to 'pop and rock acts of the day', all too keen to get a broadside from Tarrant et al in The Cage. By now, the rest of the country had begun to take note. First to succumb was HTV, who had been showing extracts from the show for a couple of seasons, followed by Granada, Yorkshire, and the Scottish regions. By the end of the '70s, only the south of England and Tyne-Tees were still immune to the 'Was's charms, preferring to get by on a diet of Our Show and Bill Oddie's Saturday Banana, but even these had fallen into line by the start of the 1980-81 season (which saw fourth Bucketeer Bob Carolgees step up to the pie table). At long last, ITV had a national Saturday morning show to rival (in the sense of beat hollow) Noel 'out of work' Edmonds. The mood in the studio for these shows was triumphant - "This is what'll take over from Waggoner's Walk!" yelled Tarrant in typically sarcastic mode. What a pity they only had one season of classic Tiswas left...
: This is no longer what they want.
By 1980, Tiswas had proved itself. From the humblest of beginnings on ATV to (very near) full national coverage, its freeform approach made it incredibly popular, largely due to it being one of the first children's shows to capture the attention of adults too - something now deemed essential for a Saturday morning terrestrial show to do. But that was then, and the close-to-the-bone nature of many Tiswas gags, stunts and incidents set alarm bells ringing at the IBA, the ITV regulating authority. Efforts to tone down the Tarrant mix, under the guise of concern over the show's 'educational value', unsettled the remaining Tiswas Twin, and Tarrant jumped ship at the end of that year's season, along with Carolgees and Gorman, to start the abortive 'adult 'Was', OTT, at the other end of the Saturday schedule.
The final series began with a new, and less suitable, cast member in Gordon Astley, alongside a rather motley and ever-changing line-up including Den 'Darts' Hegarty, Clive 'Wizard' Webb and Fogwell 'Anklebiters' Flax, and many of the 'Was staples were, throughout the run, either done away with or toned down to an unrecogniseable imitation of past pomp. By the end the show consisted mainly of cartoons (with Woody Woodpecker and old Popeye shorts brought in to augment the staple Warners' fare) and the team sitting behind a desk reading out viewers' letters and cracking terrible '1001 Jokes for Kids' gags. The final ever edition, on April 3rd, which featured both Spike Milligan and Ted 'Foot and' Moult live in the studio, along with that surefire sign of trouble on live kids' telly, an elephant (see also Blue Peter, Saturday Superstore) was not definitely billed as such (in Granadaland, the continuity voice introducing hinted that it 'might' be the last ever show), but ratings were by now slumping, the much-loved ATV had metamorphosed into Central, and the mood was not upbeat. Astley struck a (folorn) note of hope by announcing that his 'Save Tiswas' campaign would be touring the shopping centres of the land, flogging t-shirts and getting kids to sign petitions to keep it on, but one final straw spelt the sure end of the show - after this series, Sally James was leaving. The very last line heard on Tiswas was an unidentified voice-over saying "How d'you like that! Her last show - and she didn't even say goodbye!" The show was not revived by Central the following autumn, and after an uneventful summer season of bits and pieces was replaced by the ill-fated Big Daddy's Saturday Show.
: Is this still what
There have been several mooted attempts to replay the Tiswas format, in various updated forms. As well as the likening of current favourite SM:TV to the 'Was at its heights, the short-lived '90s Saturday morning show Wow served up a version of both the gunge element of 'Was (hardly an innovation by the standards of kids' TV at that time) and the wanton disruption of the running order. More significantly, several TV companies have sought to fully revive the 'brand', drawing parallels with Noel Edmond's abortive post-House Party attempt to ironize Swap Shop (though tellingly, no Tiswas cast and production team members have offered their cooperation with such plans). In the spring of 2000 Carlton TV floated the idea of repeating some of the remaining Tiswas shows to beef up their anaemic late-night schedules, presumably in a re-edited form, on a thirtysomething nostalgia tip, as was the style at the time. Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry were reportedly less than happy with the idea of the shows being rerun, and the repeats never materialised. John Gorman was recently approached by another company with a view to putting together a new version of Tiswas, but, quite rightly, turned down the idea on the grounds that it was the chemistry of the original personalities that made it work, and that could not now be repeated.
REMEMBER THEM THIS WAY - The 'Was catalogue of misdemeanours.