When Told By An Idiot director Paul Hunter told writer Carl Grose that he'd appeared on 1970s Saturday morning TV madhouse Tiswas when he was eight years old, Grose thought he'd struck gold. The pair had decided to do a show based around the curious phenomenon of shows such as Tiswas which, while ostensibly made for children, were steeped in some very grown-up shades of anarchy in a way that made them cult viewing for students even as some parents changed channels to the BBC's altogether safer world of Noel Edmonds and Swap Shop. Hunter, alas, had come out of the experience unscarred.
“I thought initially we were going to making a show about our director exorcising his demons,” says Grose, “but as it turned out, he was mates with someone who's dad was a cameraman or something like that, and he said he remembers being in the cage and having water thrown over him, but after that it all gets a bit hazy, which was really rather frustrating for me.”
There is an exorcism of sorts in Never Try This At Home, the show that resulted from Grose and Hunter's line of inquiry, which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this week. In the show, the purging is more to do with the presenters of fictional programme, Shushi, who reunite to take part in a Jeremy Kyle style programme years after an on-air incident forces the show to be cancelled forever.
“What fired us up about Tiswas,” says Grose, “was that it went out live on ITV, it was very much made up on the spot and it was quite anarchic. But we also looked at a lot of other things, like Martin Scorsese's film, The King of Comedy, and Network, all these darkly humorous things about the media and celebrity. Never Try This At Home isn't a nostalgia show. It may be about children's TV, but it's for adults, and it's really quite dark.”
Most people of a certain age will have memories of Saturday morning TV, whether it was the caller telling 1980s band Matt Bianco exactly what they thought of them on Swap Shop, or else the little boy bellowing a wildly off-key rendition of Art Garfunkel's Watership Down theme song, Bright Eyes, while dressed in a rabbit suit on Tiswas. Other famous clips from Tiswas include a small boy asking Chris Tarrant if he can go to the toilet, and Sally James innocently asking Kevin Rowland where the name of his band Dexy's Midnight Runners came from.
Tiswas hosts Chris Tarrant and Sally James led a regular line-up of John Gorman, formerly of 1960s Liverpool poetry troupe turned chart stars The Scaffold, a young Lenny Henry doing impressions of TV botanist David Bellamy and a Rastafarian character with a fetish for condensed milk, and Bob Carolgees with his punk puppet, Spit The Dog. Tiswas also gave air-time to The Phantom Flan Flinger, and the phenomenon of the Dying Fly.
With guests including comedians Bernard Manning and Frank Carson, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and assorted members of Electric Light Orchestra, Michael Palin, future Dr Who and former Ken Campbell associate Sylvester McCoy, the anything goes approach of Tiswas fell somewhere between a working man's club, a performance art happening and a fringe theatre show.
“Just to have Sylvester McCoy on it being interviewed while pretending to be a car, there's something very punk about that, and there's a variety sort of feel to it as well.”
Under the name The Four Bucketeers, the Tiswas presenters had a hit record with The Bucket of Water Song, and so successful was the show that it spawned a late night show called. O.T.T. Despite similarly anarchic intentions, the show's adults only format never really took off, although it did find infamy when it featured comedy troupe The Greatest Show on Legs, whose numbers included the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, performing a naked balloon dance.
Given how much 1970s celebrities have come under scrutiny over the last couple of years since the late Jimmy Savile was exposed as a serial paedophile on a grand scale, much of the era's mix of innuendo and apparent innocence has been tainted. While not overtly referenced in Never Try This At Home, neither was this something that could be ignored.
“When we started working on the show, nothing had happened,” Grose explains. “Then everything exploded , and although we didn't want to make it about what happened with Jimmy Savile and so on, we had to include it somewhere. You can't help but look back at all that stuff that was on TV with tarnished eyes now, and you get a sense that during that period of history things were out of control to some extent. With all the Jimmy Savile stuff, the lack of responsibility was outstanding.”
Without Tiswas, however, television would have been a lot duller, and the spirit of its barely controlled chaos has arguably trickled down into the alternative comedy boom as well as theatre companies such as Told By An Idiot themselves.
For a hint of what audiences should expect from Never Try This At Home, Grose points to a letter the company received from Chris Tarrant.
“He's found out about the show, and we thought he was going to sue us,” Grose says. “As it was, he said that he hoped that we didn't stick to the script much, and that no audience member went home dry.”
Never Try This At Home, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 26-29
Waking up to Saturday morning TV
Tiswas – Tiswas began life as a links strand for the Midlands based ATV region, before becoming a fully-fledged programme in its own right in 1974. As other regions picked it up, the programme's anarchic reputation grew. Chris Tarrant co-presented the programme from early on, with Sally James joining the team in 1977. The programme ended in 1982, as senior management tried to re-focus what had become a cult programme for adults back onto children.
Multi-Coloured Swap Shop – The BBC's infinitely tamer response to Tiswas was hosted by Noel Edmonds with Maggie Philbin and John Craven, while Keith Chegwin acted as a roving reporter. The show's mix of celebrity phone-ins, quizzes and pop music was bolstered by Chegwin travelling the country to conduct a 'Swaporama', whereby viewers could meet to exchange items. Swap Shop
ran over six series between 1976 and 1982, and was replaced in turn by Saturday Superstore, Going Live! and Live & Kicking.
There were numerous other ITV Saturday morning shows across the regions in the 1970s. These included The Saturday Banana, presented by former Goodie Bill Oddie, and The Mersey Pirate, which was filmed on a boat as it sailed the River Mersey. Items included appearances by Andrew Schofield as Scully, Boys From The Blackstuff writer Alan Bleasdale's archetypal Scouse scally.
In the 1990s, other Saturday morning TV programmes showed Tiswas's clear influence. Between 1998 and 2002, SM TV Live was presented by Ant and Dec with Cat Deeley, while from 2002 to 2006, Holly Willoughby and Stephen Mulhern presented Ministry of Mayhem, which was later rebranded as Holly & Stephen's Saturday Showdown.
The Herald, March 25th 2014