How we got Tiswas back on screen for 15 weeks

Chris Tarrant on Zoom

If you excuse this horrific pun, much of the world has been placed into ‘custardy’. This also meant having a lot of time on our hands.

As lockdown hit, I had an idea to do something Tiswas-related. After all, it wasn’t like we could go anywhere, plus people started embracing live online video.

TiswasOnline, as a website, had been sitting around in mothballs for years, but the people behind it had occasionally teamed up every few years for a project, like the 40th anniversary reunion party in Birmingham, and getting Tiswas broadcast on Freeview/cable channel Big Centre TV.

I proposed putting out a compilation of clips on Saturday mornings, followed by a video chat with us and fans. I didn’t really have a specific plan, and couldn’t pinpoint exactly which platform we’d be on. Facebook? YouTube? Zoom? All good suggestions, but after a chat with the rest of the team, I think it was Toby Riding who suggested Twitch, which has worked out pretty well for us.

Nervous about Twitch?

Now, Twitch is normally the place you’d go to see gamers playing Minecraft, Call Of Duty, Fortnite, that kind of stuff. It’s not the natural home for a four-decades-old Saturday morning show that’s centred on hurling shaving foam and baked beans into the faces of pop stars.

However, the platform proved to be really good, far less zealous than YouTube or Facebook when it came to the thorny issue of copyrighted content. We might have gained bigger audiences on these apps, but there always was the danger that our show could be unexpectedly blacked out due to a snippet of some music that’s in a ‘blacklist’ database.

Copyright is quite an obstacle. We sit on what is probably the largest collection of Tiswas recordings and we’re constantly told by fans to put things up online for them to see. The thing is, it’s not that easy. We’ve put a few clips here and there on our YouTube channel, but we have to draw a line on putting out much more than that. Ultimately, it isn’t our content, it’s legally the property of ITV plc, we’ve had a longstanding agreement with them to carefully promote the show but never to profit from it or devalue it.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped a few unscrupulous folk out there from putting up entire shows, or just taking things out of our recordings. It’s actions like that which means we’ll never see a second compilation DVD of Tiswas. Worse still are the ones selling copies online for personal gain, and the YouTubers stamping our efforts with their own home-made brand, like ‘DerekNumms1971’, and doing it in such appalling video quality too! (Come on, at least put the effort in!)

Tiswas presenter Gordon Astley speaking live on our first show

Anyway, in our fifteen years of existence, we’ve never made a penny out of this website. Quite the opposite, actually, a lot has been done out of our own pockets. Of course, we needed to get ourselves covered for this venture.

Getting the green light

Getting the endorsement from Sally James and her husband Mike was quite an achievement. They have been instrumental in the post-Tiswas years in keeping the show alive in some way, holding some of the rights of the archive and recovering quite a few rare recordings. It’s down to them that three Tiswas compilations got issued on VHS back in the 1990s, and they were key players in Tiswas Reunited.

I think we did well in making it a charity fundraiser. The choice was an easy one. Peter Tomlinson, the literal creator of Tiswas, had long been a patron of Birmingham Children’s Hospital Charity. I don’t think we could have found a more appropriate cause for what we were doing.

The end of our final live show, where all six of us gave our goodbyes.

Now, I never thought we’d raise that much, I wasn’t expecting us to hit three figures and I didn’t think many people would be watching us.

As we led up to the first show, Twitter was all of a buzz about it, helped by enthusiastic support from television presenter Suzi Perry (surely a 21st century Sally James?)…

…and a certain political party. Now, we maintain a rigidly apolitical stance as TiswasOnline, but I think we can agree that The Monster Raving Loony Party is the most befitting match for anyone into Tiswas.

Never a day to miss ‘cos…

We maintained a schedule where we threw out half an hour of classic clips from 10:30am, then went into a live chat, putting our faces out there to chat to people on Zoom, anyone connected to the show, really. Viewers could easily chat back to us, thanks to the live chat facility on Twitch. We got a community going, and, in an era where we all got accustomed to pub quiz nights from our laptops and Sophie Ellis-Bextor doing live performances from her living rooms, I’m really proud of that.

Amy Wake came up with the show title, All In A Tiswas. I ensured to get a fair mix of Tiswas material in the selection of clips we showed. I wanted it to ape the VHS/DVD compilations, but also take in the other eras of Tiswas.

The compilations are great, but very heavily concentrate on the ‘imperial phase’ years of 1979-1981 where Chris Tarrant hit the airwaves of nearly every ITV region. I brought in bits of the other eras, like when it was a midlands-only affair in the mid-1970s, with John Asher and Peter Tomlinson co-hosting it with Chris from a bare studio. Plus, the unfairly ignored final series, which did have some pretty good moments of pie-fuelled anarchy.

Peter Tomlinson
Peter Tomlinson on Tiswas in its ATV-only days

To be frank, when you sit back and watch a complete edition of Tiswas, there’s a lot of it that doesn’t really fit in with the perception that it was a completely chaotic hilarious show. There are very lengthy sections of reading out competition questions, answers and kids slowly reading out long greetings to their neighbour’s second-cousin’s pet cat. Oh, and the IBA-appeasing educational bits.

Like Monty Python, there are bits where you have to admit ‘that doesn’t really work’, but at least you know you’re only a few minutes away from something different.

Talk about… pop music!

One thing the compilations never included, were the Sally James interviews with pop stars. Some of these are absolute gold, an era before media-trained celebrities, where the questioning brought out some eyebrow-raising answers.

Sparks on Tiswas
Mael rights activists, Sparks

As Twitter tends to light up on Friday nights with praise for past editions of Top Of The Pops airing on BBC Four, I thought it’d be great to put in one of Sally James’s Almost Legendary Pop Interviews in each show.

From Phil Oakey’s rather spiky explanations of past Human League line-ups, to the Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ diplomatic near-silence on what their band name meant, this was a particular highlight where the Twitch chat would spark up with witty remarks and trivia. I always looked forward to this, it was like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crossed with Look-In.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buffered

Despite having a pretty brand new Macbook Pro from which to ‘transmit’ the clips and live Zoom sections, plus a professional background in video production and IT, our first show was plagued by connection faults.

We had hundreds of viewers, yet we went ‘off air’ around eight times on our launch edition. The audience persevered with it, and the next show had less than half the number of connection drop-outs.

My TiswasOnline colleague Toby Riding is far more well versed in IT issues than I, so, we constantly worked on solutions to fix the tech troubles we faced, and the show got slicker each week. We soon learnt that an Ethernet cable was crucial to keep things going at my end, as my domestic broadband router’s Wi-Fi wasn’t always strong enough to carry the show.

Some tinkering around with the software brought out better results. It was definitely a learning process, and with a lot of our calamities happening ‘on air’, I guess it added to that Tiswas ‘feel’. I was heavily stressed about it at the time, but we got viewer feedback to say each show was getting slicker and more professional.

Tiswas Hi

The first show started off with Matthew Butler and Gordon Astley as our live guests, questioned by myself and comedian John Dredge. We got some astonishing revelations in these interviews, and it was a pleasure to see over £100 put in over the weekend as we plugged our charity appeal.

I threw in a live quiz for the audience, with a Tiswas badge as the prize, and also, brought back the five-minute clips compilation A-Z Of Tiswas, which I had previously made each week for Big Centre TV.

Slowly, word spread and we managed to get hold of Tiswas stars like Chris Tarrant; Sally James; John Gorman and Sylvester McCoy. Oh, and other folk from TiswasOnline had a go at presenting, which was a welcome relief for me. I concentrated on pressing the buttons at the right time.

Essentially, we had come up with a ‘home-made’ Tiswas from our own bedrooms and just got by on the notoriety of it all, to get the actual stars involved. We’re certainly no replacement for the real thing, but I’m pleased we brought it back, instigated much laughter and raised over two and a half grand to help the NHS Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

Well, this is just my angle on it. The others at TiswasOnline will have their perspectives on how we turned Saturdays into Tiswas Day again.