Remembering Peter Harris

Peter Harris and Barbara Bradbury

Earlier this week, we learnt the sad news of Peter Harris’s passing. The former director had passed away in a care home on Monday morning.

While not known to the television-viewing public, Peter was very much a big deal behind the scenes. He didn’t just turn Tiswas into a highly-cherished TV hit. His work for ATV, and then Central, created quite a few well-known titles, including one that is internationally well known.

This flamboyant maverick was crucial to the very existence of Tiswas. While the true inventor of the show was ATV announcer Peter Tomlinson, it was the vision of Peter Harris to bring in the lunacy and slapstick humour it’s renowned for.

This all came at a time when some ITV franchises were realising they could get some traction by putting on proper shows on a Saturday morning, yet while all were low-budget affairs with the typical filler content of cartoons, competitions and music videos, Tiswas stood out with its custard pies and on-screen chaos.

I doubt Tiswas would have made a nationwide impact without Peter Harris’s influence. It could have ended up like many other efforts, just a footnote in ITV’s regional history.

What Peter meant to Tiswas

It was Peter Harris who took up directing Tiswas in its early days, when it was confined to just the midlands region.

As such a ramshackle show on a tiny budget, then lacking any professional comedy writers, the cast and crew would come up with sketch ideas. Unable to conclude many of the scenes, it was Peter Harris’s idea to just have someone receive a custard pie in the face. Peter had come from a theatrical background, and the classic slapstick trope had been a common staple of his stage upbringing.

While Tiswas is known for pie throwing, it was in fact a bucket of water that preceded the messy faces. Presenter Peter Tomlinson was reading out a serious item, where he announced local football matches that would be called off due to waterlogged pitches from a bout of seriously heavy rain that weekend.

Suddenly, a big splash! Peter Tomlinson was hit in the face by water chucked from a nearby bucket as the crew laughed. It was completely unscripted, taking Tomlinson by surprise.

As the presenters were regularly flanning and soaking each other each morning, word soon reached ATV management, who were not pleased at this water chucking and foam flinging debauchery.

Peter was given a stern telling off for water being thrown about and was told not to do it again. However, the next show depicted yet another soaking of guests and Peter was called into the offices for another dressing down. He managed to get away with it, by explaining it wasn’t water being thrown, but the contents of two barrels of beer. What makes this even stranger, is that he was telling the truth!

Peter would leave Tiswas to work full-time on another project, this time at ATV’s studios in Elstree. A puppeteer had been trying to break into prime time in the USA with his felt-based creations, but had very little success. Lew Grade had worked out a co-funding deal with American network CBS, where ATV could produce the show in Britain for networking on ITV, while CBS would do the same for the USA.

The puppeteer’s name was Jim Henson, and it was Peter Harris’s idea for the puppets to be situated in an old time theatre. Another theatrical piece of inspiration that became a trade mark of a show!

Yes, I think we can safely say The Muppet Show was a hit and Jim Henson did more than okay out of it.

A ‘crew video’ given to Muppet Show production staff features Peter Harris on the piano.

Later on, Peter Harris would return to the Tiswas fold by being the director of O.T.T.. He’d also work on that show’s spiritual sequel, Saturday Stayback.

Central had denied a second series of O.T.T., due to negative reactions from national newspapers, but were willing to give the team a chance under some strict conditions. It couldn’t be live and they weren’t given a studio.

Peter Harris, having grown up in a public house, came up with the idea to film it in local pubs.

It was also this background that had established another hit for ATV/Central, when the station picked up on a viewer suggestion for a game show.

“Viewers throw darts at a board with subjects on it and they have to answer questions on that subject” was the simple idea and it was up to Peter to flesh it out. Comedian Jim Bowen was told to turn up to a venue in the west midlands to ‘recce’ some ideas for this darts-based quiz.

He was rather surprised that the venue was a gay bar and inside, the incredibly camp Peter Harris was holding court, having sketched out floor markings. The two hit it off, and that was the genesis behind Bullseye.

Meeting Pete

I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Harris at his home near Edgbaston back in 2009, as I was co-producing a documentary, From ATVLand In Colour, with several other fans of ATV and Central.

We had already interviewed quite a few on-screen alumni from the midlands station, such as Chris Tarrant and Shaw Taylor, who all gave up their time for free. I think Peter Harris was the first off-screen person we filmed, but we already knew from tales of backstage goings-on that he was certainly a colourful character.

For this shoot – all of us being unpaid fans armed with production equipment that was more domestic than broadcast-grade – quite a lot of volunteers came along. More so than when we interviewed Chris Tarrant!

Frankly, to us, Peter Harris was ATV! He had the most eye-opening tales, some of it that could have landed us in legal trouble if publicly cited. The jaw-dropping anecdotes we heard means that he was Popbitch before Popbitch existed!

Only the ghost of the late Sir Lew Grade would have been a bigger deal. The surprising thing was that our crew were urged to include Peter, on a shoot with Bullseye host Jim Bowen, up in his Lancaster home.

Peter Harris signs an ATV DVD for Stephen Thwaites.

Thanks to Jim passing on contact details, a date was arranged to film Peter Harris over at his home, where Barbara Bradbury, former head of PAs at ATV, would also be interviewed.

Casting his eye over our crew of five, he remarked that we were somewhat overmanned for the task in hand. It’s not something we could argue against, but I don’t think any one of us regrets being there. It’s also the reason why we have plenty of camera angles for Peter and Barbara in the finished documentary!

We were astounded by how sharp-witted Peter Harris could be. He had an arsenal of catty remarks and his tales of getting his own way on various television productions could have easily made a book.

What’s surprising is that Harris stayed behind the cameras. The guy was a born entertainer.

Now, the very purpose of From ATVLand In Colour, was to focus on the history of ATV’s purpose-built studios at B1 2JP. We had got all that we wanted, and more.

However, we were quite stunned at the gold Kermit the Frog pendant around Peter’s neck. He was quite happy to show it off, a personal gift from Jim Henson.

For Lee Bannister and I, both fans of The Muppet Show, it sparked a lovely long conversation about Henson’s legacy and what working down at Elstree was like.

We didn’t plan to have stayed for more than an hour, but Peter Harris and his partner had laid on quite a feast for us. I think I consumed half my body weight in biscuits.

This also led Peter to showing off his ATV memorabilia. Some of his awards were homed in the lavatory!

An ATV ashtray, to commemorate their 21st anniversary.

In our filming, we had touched upon another famous puppet-based hit – Spitting Image – which Peter Harris had presided over. There’s certainly a streak of anarchic humour in his work for ATV and Central.

Puppetry was quite close to his heart, as one of his first ATV jobs was as puppeteer for 1960s children’s show The Tingha And Tucker Club.

In the early days, some of Spitting Image would be filmed in Birmingham. By the mid-1980s, the Broad Street HQ was no longer the priority for Central Independent Television, having sold off their Elstree studio complex to the BBC (bowing out as a German building site for series 1 of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). Nearly all of Central’s networked shows were made at Central’s newly-built studios in Nottingham.

This also brought out another example of Peter Harris’s genius. Years before Sky was taken seriously, he had warned Central’s management that satellite television risked taking work away from ITV stations and that there was money to be made in leasing out studios and crew to new channels starting out in a multichannel environment. Alas, like Cassandra of Greek mythology, his advice was scoffed at until the realisation hit that the mothballing of studios wasn’t such a great idea after all.

In this scene from BBC’s Filthy, Rich & Catflap, the TV director is played by Chris Barrie. The character is reportedly based on Peter Harris.

I asked Peter what the last TV work he did, and he told me it was on a Sky News show, hosted by controversial right-wing newspaper columnist Richard Littlejohn.

At the very mention of the host’s name, Peter’s partner was audibly disgusted, what with Littlejohn being known for being opposed to LGBT rights.

“Actually, I found him quite charming”, countered Peter.

Some of the From ATVLand In Colour crew with Barbara Bradbury and Peter Harris.

As we had the afternoon spare, we were then shown the full version of the infamous X-rated Bullseye spoof, starring Jim Bowen and various Central staff being outrageous. The sketch was filmed for the staff’s 1983 ‘Christmas tape’, a tradition carried on by many ITV stations and the BBC. Staff would swap these compilations of outtakes and specially-filmed scenes involving production crew and on-screen talent, quite a lot of it not being fit for family viewing.

A foul-mouthed version of Bullseye on Central Television’s 1983 Christmas Tape, not intended for public viewing, starring Peter Harris in drag.

We got to see the whole Bullseye sketch, including what didn’t make it to the Christmas tape, which was all unedited.

Thanks to Peter, we also ended up with more contacts for former ATV personnel, enabling us to get more interviews.

As a way of concluding this piece, ATVLand Productions have released their footage of the filming from that day, with plenty of anecdotes centred on Tiswas. Enjoy.

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