The idea that a celebration of Birmingham’s anarchic gunge-filled TV show would be fronted by a professor in a former Georgian church may not have made sense on paper, but Andrew Kelly from Bristol Ideas is no stuffed shirt and has put in some research to be a worthwhile host of what could well be the final ever reunion of Tiswas stars.
I’m Pete Prodge and this is my write-up of what we witnessed at Slapstick Festival’s Tiswas Reunion this past weekend.
It’s been 40 years since yer actual proper Tiswas has been on the airwaves, and aside from a couple of televised revivals (ITV’s Telethon ’88 featured a chaotic get together in the early hours of the morning and of course, 2007’s Tiswas Reunited was a full-on prime-time shiny-floor special), there’s not really been any television show like it.
With it being just about exactly four decades since Tiswas breathed its last, Slapstick Festival took the opportunity to get the four main stars of the show together. There’s no argument about it belonging here, with slapstick humour – particularly of the messy and wet variety – being extremely prolific throughout its Saturday morning outings.
The festival’s been established in Bristol since 2005, and unlike other comedy-based festivals in other major cities, the events are spread across the year rather than tied to a specific month.
Tiswas Reunited, the previous television outing for the Tiswas team, is pretty much the blueprint for tonight’s theatre show. The focus is of course on the four core presenters of the show’s ‘imperial phase’, the two series from 1979-1981 where all but a tiny fraction of ITV’s territories carried the show.
After a brief introduction from Andrew Kelly, the familiar ATV zoom 2 ident appears on the giant projected screen and we’re into the classic Tiswas opening titles that’ll you’ll know from the VHS/DVD compilations.
Chris Tarrant, who once described himself in his cover letters to television companies as “the face of the Seventies” is now a face literally in his seventies, but hey, he put in the effort to turn his arrogant boast into reality and that’s why he’s the most prolific name from the show. He’s here tonight in his vintage Compost Corner t-shirt and encourages us to shout out that very phrase.
Naturally, we go into how Chris found himself on Tiswas. A lot of us know he began as a newsreader on ATV Today, the serious minded evening news programme for the midlands and then was roped into doing a fledgling experimental Saturday morning show at weekends for an extra £25 on his wage. As Tiswas hit its stride in the midlands (and I’m surprised nobody pointed out that this part of the south west – the HTV region – was the first area outside ATV to broadcast Tiswas), the suits at ATV gave Tarrant the ultimatum to either continue with the serious business of reporting about bus crashes in Bilston or to mess around with buckets of water on Saturday mornings. Evidently he made the right choice.
When quizzed on his motivation for picking Tiswas, Tarrant just responds with “I hated Blue Peter”, to much laughter.
Probably the biggest laugh comes with Chris’s explanation to bash a certain myth.
“Bear in mind out of all the things I’ve done, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Tarrant On TV, etc, the first question I get asked is always about Sally James. And no, I DIDN’T!”
Plus he gets in a dig at the bilge that the BBC put out to compete with Tiswas, ridiculing Noel Edmonds’s “fourth division football manager’s haircut”.
Then, like Davina McCall welcoming a Big Brother evictee into the big wide world, we’re treated to a clips package. It’s Chris Tarrant’s best bits of course. Much has been taken from the official compilations and Tiswas Reunited, but we do begin with a fairly rare gem, with children’s singing group The Ramblers doing their 1979 hit The Sparrow, and getting a similar treatment from the Phantom Flan Flinger that was delivered to St Winifred’s School Choir.
Plus there’s the Compost Corner with Genesis and the sketch where Chris announces the show will become upmarket and very serious, which ends up the opposite way.
When the clips package ends, Chris remarks about how much he’s forgot, and reminisces about the last cast get-together – the one TiswasOnline helped organise in a Birmingham bar back in 2014 to celebrate Tiswas’s 40th anniversary – how he saw the television screens showing classic clips, seeing his younger self doing things that he had no memory of whatsoever and being astounded by it.
We then usher in the ‘first lady of Tiswas’, Sally James, and in this chat show format, Chris moves over to another chair.
Sally still doesn’t look that much different to how she appeared on the show and we’re quickly into anecdotes about Spike Milligan getting on the show simply by writing a fan letter.
Chris and Sally joke about the more inappropriate moments of the show, including the famous ‘marijuana in the cage’ incident that Chris attributes to Rick Parfitt. There’s also a reference to the time the girls of the Nappy Wanderers appeared with balloons tied around, well, let’s not go there, these were different times!
Clips are then shown: “Walk through a postcard, I don’t believe it!” and “A full bucket of semolina thrown full in the face”.
Bob Carolgees is the third guest, walking on stage with a massive red bag, as if we don’t know what’s in it. We’re straight into the clips first: Dressing Spit The Dog up in new fashionable clothes; The Blue Danube recital from Spit The Dog and Cough The Cat and the Knick-Knack Paddywack Give The Dog A Pie scene.
Now, there comes a time for a rather sad revelation. Bob explains that we’re not going to see too much of his puppet creations due to the exacerbation of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – a condition that makes it very painful to operate puppets on his arm, to the extent that he now can’t operate his furry friends for anything more than three minutes without his hand ‘freezing’ in agony.
Yet, he’s still prepared to put on the jacket and present Spit to us for a short time. We’re encouraged to sing How Much Is That Doggy In The Window, which gets the salivating canine out in the open for the first time in years.
While our time with his pet is brief, we get a few quick gags that have us all chuckling and then Spit’s packed away.
It’s not all celebration as Chris brings up the rather less-loved Cough The Cat.
Bob cites that he owes Frank Carson for his big break on Tiswas, as the puppeteer was brought on by the Northern Irish funnyman to just mess about for one show behind the main presenters and upon a review of the show, Chris knew he had to be brought back.
For a show ostensibly known for soaking people, John Gorman has a dry sense of humour. He’s our next guest who plays down the rapturous applause by handing out banknotes to Sally, Chris and Bob as he walks on. He’s rather deadpan about being here. “Well, this is what they want, isn’t it?” he utters with studied nonchalance.
Here’s the bit where we at TiswasOnline get to crow about one of our contributions. Slapstick Festival contacted us in January as they needed help getting in touch with John and so we immediately arranged that.
I’m also rather chuffed to be sitting by John’s offspring – his son and daughter have flown all the way from their homes in the USA to be here. As soon as I walked into the venue, his daughter recognised me despite never having met me before. We’ve been online friends for a number of years and it’s through her that we got John Gorman on our lockdown stream All In A Tiswas. Anyway, enough of me rambling on about our connections with the droll Scouse comic performer, let’s get back to the show.
John explains how he got on the show and his surprise to learn that the producer by the time he was appointed, was in fact, Chris Tarrant.
Of course, we get a clips package: Telling John Peel “I haven’t had a bite for a day so I was wondering if you could help” and The Amazing Memory Man.
Then we’re onto John’s role into taking Tiswas out to theatres as a live show, tapping into the large amount of adults who were part of the regular Saturday morning audience. Which reminds me that I never saw the theatre tour, what with being six years old at the time, but I suppose this is the next best thing, right?
Those of you who saw our lockdown chat with John will know of the chaos of the live theatre shows and he expands on cage volunteers going crazy with buckets of water and the scary story involving biker gang ‘Muffo’s Mob’.
To address the elephant in the room, or rather the comedian NOT in the room, Andrew Kelly asks the Four Bucketeers about working with Lenny Henry, who wasn’t available for tonight. Chris and Sally point out he had a bit of a rough start but there came a turning point where he really began to shine and his future on the show was secure.
We go into the clips of Lenny: Lenny as Tommy Cooper with Bob doing a magic trick; British Leyland production line newsflash and the Frank Spencer impression crisis newsflash.
“He’s been knighted for all that” quips Gorman.
One of the most famous scenes from Tiswas, summed up as ‘The REAL Trevor McDoughnut’, gets elaborated on by Chris and Sally.
And then we’re into moments that Tiswas afforded the cast. Like Bob Carolgees going on stage with The Tourists at a show, wondering why it was raining indoors and then realising that some of the crowd in upper tiers were in fact doing enthusiastic impersonations of his dog.
John summed up the show’s ethos as doing things they found funny, as opposed to doing what the management thought would be good for children.
Then we’re onto the talented children the show used to bring on, which is when Chris and Sally bring up the example of one five-year-old boy who went against the grain.
Matthew Butler’s rendition of Bright Eyes hits the big screen, and by the chorus, the house lights are back on as the man himself walks on in an adult-sized bunny costume, but (and this is one thing I never knew was going to happen) accompanied by his daughter wearing his actual costume from back in the day. After all, he was five and now his child has hit that age, so it’s a case of passing on the baton, or felt carrot, shall we say.
That’s where the show ends for an interval. It’s overran for a bit but there’s actually a lot more packed into the second part.