The history of Tiswas in thirty minutes
A torrent of green gunge drops down on the unlucky inhabitants of the cage, as hordes of children cheer. Seconds later, we’re into a cartoon while the denizens of Studio 3 at Birmingham’s ATV Centre are preparing for the next muck-based atrocity. Among them is Chris Tarrant, the future game show host. Pop stars and sports personalities have clamoured to be part of this growing cult.
Saturday mornings haven’t quite been the same since the first edition of Tiswas hit the air in January 1974. Back then it was a midlands-only curiosity to link filler material, like scratchy episodes of Tarzan and old Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Yet, the spontaneous larking about of the presenters made this appointment viewing.
Left in the hands of producer Peter Harris who had to fill three hours on an incredibly tiny budget in an even tinier presentation studio, the live antics got sillier and sillier. Eventually, the first bucket of water was hurled at presenter Peter Tomlinson as a practical joke.
The vaudevillian leanings of the producer from his days as a theatre director also ensured a liberal use of the custard pie – a well-recognised weapon of slapstick comedy from stage and film.
The higher-ups at ATV were not impressed with the on-screen staff hurling muck about on a Saturday morning and ordered Tiswas to literally clean up its act, to set an example to children. The new producer, Glyn Edwards, an avid puppeteer, decided to sneak the flannings back in, reasoning that a nasty villain – The Phantom Flan Flinger – would be the anonymous rascal covering people in pie.
Ratings always kept increasing, a few other regions decided to take the show, although it would be a while before the nation knew of Tiswas. Most ITV regions were still broadcasting old films or doing their own children’s efforts, like Southern’s Saturday Banana or LWT’s Our Show.
By 1976, the BBC noticed a black hole in their midlands viewing figures, and hence got to work on their own Saturday morning show, helmed by some Radio 1 DJ, involving kids swapping things over the phone.
ATV had recognised their had a hit on their hands, and spent much of the 1970s trying to get Tiswas on the air in as many regions as possible. They had offered the show as part of a bundle with the station’s more well-known prime-time output to other parts of the ITV network.
The ITV strike of 1979 saw the third channel off air for months, but when it returned, Tiswas was broadcast in the London area (along with Yorkshire and northern Scotland) for the first time. Although it wasn’t fully national, this greatly transformed its fortunes. Chris Tarrant also secured his position as producer, with colleagues Sally James, Bob Carolgees, Lenny Henry and John Gorman established as part of the core team.
Merchandise became widely available and the growing attention of teenagers and students enabled the Tiswas team to tour the country with live stage shows. The Four Bucketeers even ended up on Top Of The Pops with the Bucket Of Water Song.
Tiswas’s seventh series hit the screens, regarded as their peak. The studio set featured cartoon caricatures of Chris, Sally, Bob and John. Big A-list stars queued up to be splattered.
The huge success of Tiswas led Chris Tarrant to believe there was something in making a late night version for a more adult audience, especially as he was keen to disassociate himself from any notion of being a ‘children’s entertainer’. Also, ATV was facing upheaval, with the IBA forcing them to restructure as Central – a new company to broadcast on the ITV network from 1982.
The Tiswas team had flung their last flans on 28th March 1981, the last show of the seventh series, with the exception of Sally James, who was still under contract to front another series.
When Tiswas returned that September, Sally was joined by midlands radio presenter Gordon Astley (intended to fill Tarrant’s role); former Darts member Den Hegarty (a crazy fearless presenter who embraced the madness); impressionist Fogwell Flax (for that Lenny-Henry-shaped hole) and Trevor James (who was accompanied by his parrot puppet, in a nod to Bob Carolgees).
Tiswas had been retooled from the rough-and-ready boisterous ‘rugby club’ atmosphere of Tarrant’s reign into a show focused on a child audience. The silliness and the mess were still there, but it wasn’t as edgy as before. This series had ensured Tiswas on the air in the north-east and Northern Ireland for the first time, where it was very well received. The show was nearly nationwide across the UK.
As the ITV network transformed at the start of 1982 there was relief that Tiswas continued under new franchise Central, albeit viewers served by other new companies (TVS and TSW) were cut off from the Birmingham flan fest as their regions tried out their own efforts. TVS persevered with Number 73 for a few weeks before conceding to viewer pressure and returned the south-east to Sally and her crew in its final few weeks.
What of Chris Tarrant and the others? They had begun 1982 with their late-night Tiswas, originally titled The Big Tis but ending up with the name O.T.T. (Over The Top) and a rather big outrage from the press.
With inspirations from Not The Nine O’Clock News and more than a few nods to the then-burgeoning alternative comedy scene, O.T.T. went live on Saturday nights in a post-pub time slot, with a boisterous studio audience of adults. Comedian Alexei Sayle would regale everyone with stand-up routines and there were many near-the-knuckle sketches.
The final scene of the first show saw three naked men (Malcolm Hardee’s Greatest Show On Legs) – dancing with balloons to protect their modesty. The rhythmic swaps of these balloons may have caused a nanosecond of genital exposure, that these days would go without comment on a post-watershed Comic Relief marathon, but the tabloids took a Mary Whitehouse angle and expressed fury over this televisual ‘filth’.
David McKellar who wrote a lot of Tiswas’s comedy material, came up with the idea of a mid-week afternoon show hosted by popular wrestler Big Daddy. Much of the show’s template was around making children’s wishes come true, an idea that did well for the BBC when fronted by an eccentic radio presenter (who isn’t viewed in a favourable light these days for reasons we don’t need to go into).
At Central, the new head of children’s television was Lewis Rudd (previous franchise holder ATV never had this position), who warmly received the ‘Big Daddy’ll Fix It’ concept. Unfortunately, with the words “that’ll be what replaces Tiswas”, it meant the flan-flinging festival of pop videos, sketches, competitions and film clips had come to an end.
Also under pressure was O.T.T., which did fulfil its plan of thirteen episodes, but the media furore was such that Central was not exactly proud of the show. Boots was a major shareholder in the new broadcaster and the wife of the retailer’s managing director had made it clear she was certainly not a fan of the risque shenanigans.
By the end of summer, Central brought forth details of its new live show for children. Big Daddy’s Saturday Show was deemed to fill Tiswas’s slot. The new morning show was staffed by the same production crew of Tiswas, using the same studio facilities, but you couldn’t expect custard pies, silliness or even Big Daddy.
A week before Big Daddy’s Saturday Show was due on air, the family-friendly wrestling hero pulled out of it, leaving Central mere days to reformat it as The Saturday Show. It would be a rather generic effort, although relying on pop music, star guests and competitions which had proven popular with Tiswas and other competing shows
Isla St Clair, who was positioned to be Big Daddy’s ‘straightman’ assistant, was instead joined by children’s TV everyman Tommy Boyd. The show did a couple of series in the winter/spring, but had lost out heavily to the BBC’s supermarket-themed efforts, fronted by Mike Reid and Sarah Greene.
As for O.T.T., that would only return the following year, under the conditions that it would be entirely pre-recorded to remove anything deemed controversial, and the production team would have to film ‘off site’ as Central denied them studios.
The end result was Saturday Stayback, a series of six episodes filmed in busy west midlands pubs with Chris Tarrant as host, usually joined by Bob Carolgees, Frank Carson and various people off the alternative comedy circuit. Roy Wood and Thin Lizzy made appearances to provide live music. It filled 30-minute slots and certainly succeeded in being post-pub TV, presented as a pub lock-in, yet it never got a large audience.
In something of a near reprise for Tiswas, presenters Sally James, Gordon Astley, Den Hegarty and Sylvester McCoy were reunited in Central’s Giltbrook studio in Nottingham to front a show for kids on cable station The Children’s Channel.
Although Tiswas established that Saturday mornings could entertain children, the many efforts to imitate its formula have nearly always fallen far short. Gunge became a huge staple of children’s television from the 1980s, albeit usually as some kind of automated punishment in a booth, which overrides the spontaneous organic chaos in favour of predictability, making it a repetitive mechanised stunt rather devoid of humour.
On weekday afternoons in the mid 1980s, as part of Children’s ITV, Tiswas stalwart John Gorman and Clive Webb were reunited in a crazy gunge-filled game show made in Newcastle. Sketches and muck-flinging were the order of the day for Tyne Tees’s How Dare You!
Bob Carolgees managed to also get presenting work on the Children’s ITV strand, fronting Granada’s pop-music-centric Hold Tight!, based at the Alton Towers theme park.
Sally James was recruited by BBC’s outpost in the midlands – Pebble Mill – to front talk show 6:55 Special.
For Chris Tarrant, he did outside broadcast stints on TV-am in its early days, when the broadcaster was verging on the edges of bankruptcy. However, he found much safer ground when taken on as a radio DJ by London’s Capital Radio, where he became a much-loved voice of the airwaves and had comedy written for him by Tiswas colleague John Gorman, which won a Sony Radio award.
It’s fair to say Tarrant was never out of work, presenting all kinds of shows, mostly on ITV, which would be rather hit or miss in terms of success. Of course, he’d certainly hit game show gold with something in the late 1990s.
Tiswas did return to the nation’s airwaves in 1988, in the very early hours of the morning, from London Weekend Television’s Studio 1 on the South Bank. Chris Tarrant and a pregnant Sally James were joined by Bob Carolgees and John Gorman, but not Lenny Henry, who was substituted by Frank Bruno). They all presented a live revival of the show as part of ITV Telethon ’88, a long charity fundraising event that lasted well over a day.
A celebrity-filled cage, along with soakings for the likes of Melvyn Bragg, was proof that the gang could switch the mayhem on again. However, with this going out at around 3am, it received a rather limited audience, although we’re pleased with it concluding with a chaotic rendition of the Bucket Of Water Song right outside the studios in London’s Upper Ground.
Much of ITV’s post-Tiswas efforts on Saturday mornings had certainly been experimental although not as popular as offerings from the other side. Some shows adhered to a strict theme, like a spaceship or ghost train travelling the UK. Other production teams would try a general show not tied to a leftfield concept in a doomed effort to beat the BBC, who were rather good at these things.
By the late 1990s SM:TV Live had been a hit on ITV’s Saturday mornings, making it their first effort since Tiswas to have concerned the BBC’s ratings. The show was something of a career revival for Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, who had almost sunk to obscurity after a brief time in the pop charts as their Byker Grove alter-egos PJ & Duncan.
The 1990s often had things termed as ‘the new Tiswas’, with SM:TV being one of them. Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast, a live effort of miscellany, was often cited as the other. It’s easy to see why, as it served a diet of pop videos, celebrity interviews and an air of mayhem.
Also in this decade, for those wanting the real thing, Tiswas became available on VHS in the form of three compilations. Each of these delivered around an hour of classic clips from Chris Tarrant’s years, although if you look carefully, the Tarrant-free final series is in there in tiny doses.
The photocall for the release of the first VHS compilation, the Best Of The Best Bits, took place in Trafalgar Square. A student drinking in a nearby pub was roped into dressing up as the Phantom Flan Flinger.
Photographers urged this phantom to slap a pie in Chris Tarrant’s face, to which he reportedly said to the stand-in phantom, “if you do, you’ll be wearing your private parts as earrings”. The temporary Phantom was Charlie Brooker, who has forged himself a nice career in television and writing.
As an ITV contributor, broadcaster Central had become more Nottingham-based. Their famous Elstree studios (home of Auf Weidersehen Pet and ATV’s Muppet Show) were sold to the BBC in the mid 1980s, who immediately started building on it, to make a regular soap set in east London.
Central’s own soap Crossroads had been a regular money spinner for the station, yet by the late 1980s, after the departure of a few familiar faces and an attempt to make it look upmarket, it was decided to can the soap. This caused a steep decline for the studios in Birmingham’s city centre, along with many other shows being migrated over to the new complex in Nottingham’s Lenton Lane.
When Central was bought out by Carlton Television in the 1990s, the fate of the Birmingham studios was sealed. The property was apparently riddled with asbestos and Carlton, which even without any studio ownership had secured the London weekday franchise from Thames, decided Birmingham’s output would be from new premises – a small office complex just a block away from the old ATV Centre.
Amazingly, the first wrecking balls did not hit the studios until the middle of the last decade. The history of Birmingham’s first purpose-built television studios is depicted in the documentary DVD, From ATVLand In Colour, which features contributions from Tiswas’s Chris Tarrant, Bob Carolgees, Peter Tomlinson and Gordon Astley.
The last time ITV would visit the studios would be in 2007, because of Tiswas. The gang had decided to make another reunion on the channel, which at one point, could have been farmed out to Sky.
Would such a reunion be a hit? Nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s had been fairly prolific, thanks to comedian Peter Kay and comedy character Alan Partridge who would give fleeting nods to Tiswas. The three VHS compilations got a reissue on DVD a few years earlier, and the launch of this fan website garnered coverage on ITV’s regional news.
The year before, Noel Edmonds had made a celebratory special which showcased the history of the BBC’s Saturday morning shows, with particular focus on his contribution.
It Started With Swap Shop carried a highly inaccurate title (Tiswas began over two years before the toy-swapping phone-in show, LWT’s Saturday Scene pipped months earlier in late 1973 and HTV’s Orbit had begun weeks before that, being the first UK Saturday morning show for children). However, Noel did acknowledge the competition, by having a chat with Lenny Henry.
As far as Chris’s plans for a revival were concerned, the derelict Birmingham studios were far from fit for a prime time show with an audience. Unsurprisingly, it was recorded at Studio 1 at The London Studios, the same place where a Tiswas reunion took place decades earlier.
Tiswas Reunited largely took the format of a typical An Audience With… special, many of which had been made by LWT in the same huge studio. In fact, the working title was An Audience With Tiswas.
Obviously, celebrity guests who had been on Tiswas were scattered throughout the audience, along with many Tiswas fans who got the opportunity to be there, thanks to this very website. The ITV production team also used this website to find keen participants ready to be housed in the cage.
The final showcase for the ATV Centre was a pre-recorded scene where Chris and Sally walk around the empty studios, reminiscing about the history of the Tiswas and also acknowledging the building was home to other shows such as Crossroads and Bullseye.
Airing after the first series finale of ITV’s new show Britain’s Got Talent, Tiswas Reunited received a respectable audience, and reportedly trumped the BBC in the ratings, something Tiswas couldn’t do as a partly-networked Saturday morning show.
The special ended up released on DVD, with some differences from the television version. Some of these were royalty-free replacements for familiar music used on broadcast, such as Queen’s We Are The Champions. Thankfully, this new version is longer and includes parts not seen on ITV and it has an extra programme chatting with stars and production crew.
Shortly after the reunion show, fans were promised another compilation DVD, titled Tiswas 2 – The Revenge Of The Phantom Flan Flinger. This doesn’t look likely to see the light of day, with Amazon designating a release date for the year 2099.
The last time Tiswas stars had a public reunion was in 2014, when TiswasOnline helped organise a 40th anniversary party in a Birmingham city centre bar, to which 100 fans were invited free of charge.
Present at Tiswas40 were Chris Tarrant; Sally James; Bob Carolgees; John Gorman; Matthew Butler; Den Hegarty; Ian ‘Sludge’ Lees; Ollie Spencer and many others. The event was filmed for a segment on ITV regional news.
For those living in the Birmingham and Black Country areas, they had the opportunity to see hours of classic Tiswas on new local TV channel Big Centre TV, which had launched on Freeview and cable in early 2015. It also could be received outside this area thanks to a live online stream on the station’s website.
Filling an hour-long slot on Big Centre TV’s Friday nights, Tiswas Pies Again was edited highlights of a typical Chris Tarrant show, sometimes bolstered by material from other editions.
On Saturday afternoons, the companion show The A-Z Of Tiswas aired, a five-minute compendium of clips based on two themes.
Many of these shows were put together from TiswasOnline’s own archives. Due to changes in Big Centre TV’s management, both shows concluded at their initial allotted run of twelve shows, meaning Tiswas Pies Again didn’t get a second series which would have covered the Tarrant-less final show and the A-Z compendiums ended at the letter L.
The DVD market saw more Tiswas being issued, as an edited version of the earliest surviving show appeared on a box set from Network to celebrate ITV’s 60th anniversary.
The show featured on the ITV60 box set is from 30th August 1975, back when it was an ATV-only programme made in an almost barely furnished studio. It contrasts very differently to how Tiswas is perceived by the wider public, especially as Chris Tarrant was absent for the edition because of a holiday and the Phantom Flan Flinger had yet to be invented.
Hosts John Asher and Peter Tomlinson appear rather sedate in comparison to Tiswas’s near-networked heyday, but there are still a few custard pies and water. Pop videos, film clips, Tarzan, adverts and other third-party material has been stripped out, yet everything is preserved in broadcast quality.
During the UK’s lockdown in 2020, to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Tiswas airs in an online form via streaming platform Twitch, due to the efforts of TiswasOnline.
All In A Tiswas began airing from 10:30 on the first Saturday of lockdown on TiswasOnline’s Twitch account and has been continuing every week since. These shows feature a charity appeal to raise funds for NHS Birmingham Children’s Hospital Charity, which Peter Tomlinson (the creator of Tiswas) has been formerly the patron. Over £1,000 has been raised so far.
The show format begins with half-an-hour of classic clips of Tiswas, from the earliest surviving show and including the final three series. From 11 am, the show goes live with some of the TiswasOnline team in the role of home-based presenters, chatting to guests live, with the Twitch audience able to ask questions and provide feedback.
Live guests have included Tiswas presenters such as Chris Tarrant; John Gorman and Sylvester McCoy. Other guests have included former cage residents and comedians.
After the chat concludes, viewers are usually treated to A-Z Of Tiswas and a live quiz, entitled Silly On Air, in which Twitch users can win a prize.