How Tiswas came to be

If you switched on ITV on Saturday mornings in the early 1970s, your local region would probably put out a lot of ‘filler’. Schedules could be filled with black and white films; adult educational programmes on DIY; ancient imports like Tarzan; repeats of things such as Captain Scarlet or the Count Of Monte Cristo; political party conferences and sports round-ups. We covered a lot of this output in our post about what non-midlands regions were showing on the first day of Tiswas.

In the ‘patchwork quilt’ of ITV’s regional map of the Seventies, your area’s schedule was fulfilled by one of fifteen franchises. This era preceded 24-hour broadcasting and breakfast television, with Saturday mornings generally launching between 9 and 10am.

How Tiswas came to be

Naturally, for broadcasters, weekend mornings felt like a graveyard shift when compared to the lucrative pull of prime times shows put on in the evening. It’s no surprise that Saturday mornings consisted of filler material and that commercial breaks were rarely seen. Viewership was really quite low, so ITV franchises rarely got to sell airtime to advertisers.

Grade times at ATV

It’s quite astonishing that ITV’s midlands-based broadcast franchise created a low-budget Saturday morning children’s show, when its ambitions were firmly rooted in popularity and profit at the other end of the television schedules.

ATV, being one of ITV’s ‘Big Five’ was renowned for its prowess in showbusiness. Many of its shows pulled in high ratings and its broadcast area – the midlands – was heavily populated. Profitability was strong for prime-time shows, like New Faces and The Golden Shot.

The company had its eye on the export market. While ATV had to make shows for evening viewing, some were made with transatlantic sales in mind, such as The Val Doonican Show, The Julie Andrews Hour and The John Davidson Show. Later on, their biggest success to be recognised in the USA would be The Muppet Show.

One of the most derided prime-time shows, yet still massively popular, was the soap opera Crossroads. It would be laughable to suggest this would have American networks in a bidding war for this quirky cheap-looking effort depicting life in a west midlands motel. However, it was a dependable money-maker for the company and went onto be their biggest revenue stream in the 1980s when the company transformed into Central Television.

Midlands Saturday mornings

Peter Tomlinson
Peter Tomlinson announcing on ATV in 1979. (Source: Ashmole Day Collection.)

When it came to Saturday mornings on ATV, there was no glamour. The time of the week was much the same affair as most other franchises. A tepid schedule full of adult educational programmes, old cartoons and dated films would be put out with an in-vision television announcer just linking them together.

At this stage, cinemas were still pulling a viable trade by putting on Saturday morning matinees. Viewing figures for weekend mornings were a tiny fraction of anything else, to the point that ATV didn’t even bother trying to sell advertising slots. Any breaks would be filled with public information films and trailers for what would be coming up later on in the day.

In 1973 there would be the creation of at least three purpose-made Saturday morning children’s TV shows elsewhere in the ITV network, and I’ll write about those in detail next week. However, as far as ATV stood, it was happy to leave Saturday mornings stuffed with these ‘filler’ programmes, each presented by announcer Peter Tomlinson.

While Peter would be a fairly conventional television announcer, he did have a silly side. On Friday nights when ATV would put on a horror film, he’d have the lights dimmed and would be seen clutching a teddy bear.

It was during those Saturday morning slots where he’d be trying to inject some excitement for another edition of the 1960s Tarzan series (starring Ron Ely), that he spontaneously tried out an idea.

Peter ad-libbed a competition for the viewers, inviting them to write in and the winner would get a t-shirt. The resulting mailbag was absolutely huge and took him by surprise. He tried the same trick the following Saturday. The response would be double the amount.

When an idea works, you carry it on. Peter Tomlinson went on for a few weeks with this on-air competition, with ATV management oblivious to its success.

With a huge flood of mail every week, Peter had the confidence to approach his bosses at ATV to show how viewers had taken to this live interactive experiment. What happened next was quite a surprise.

The inadvertent creation of Tiswas

It was decided that in the new year, the viewer interaction could be incorporated into its own type of programme. An ATV producer, Peter Harris, was assigned to flesh out this idea, which became known as This Is Saturday.

In spite of Peter Tomlinson being the unwitting creator of this show, he would not be the main presenter. In fact, he wasn’t down to present at any point. This didn’t stop him from showing up later in the first series.

Who did front this embryonic show? Well, ATV had found local actor and singer John Asher to be quite jovial. He was contracted for twelve shows, ending in the middle of March. Things wouldn’t pan out that way, but that’s another story for another blog.

50 years since Tiswas hit the airwaves

John wouldn’t be completely on his own. To show an educational side, which would appease the UK’s commercial television regulator (the Independent Broadcasting Authority – IBA), Chris Tarrant would be drafted in to explain ‘the news behind the news’ for a five-minute slot.

This was a fitting appointment, because Chris was already a news reporter on ATV’s regional weekday evening news programme, ATV Today. Turning up on a Saturday morning earned him an extra few quid.

At this point in time, Chris was typically assigned to the sillier stories on ATV Today. These wacky news items wouldn’t be out of place on ITN’s ‘…and finally’ slot at the end of their nationwide reports, raising a smile from viewers.

ATV was still very much strongly invested in their light entertainment output that was scored highly with British and American viewers. Regional output, a compulsory commitment as part of owning an ITV franchise, was a much lower priority for the company. Much of ATV’s regional news coverage rarely bothered to venture far from Birmingham, with the west midlands getting strong coverage, but the east midlands would only be occasionally featured. This oversight would be one of a few factors in ATV’s undoing by the early 1980s.

If ATV felt rather disinterested when it came to regional output in the evening schedule, then you can probably imagine how little the budget and resources were for this experimental children’s show being flung out on a Saturday morning.

Studio 4 at the ATV’s Birmingham HQ in Bridge Street was assigned to Today Is Saturday. This was a rather compact presentation studio, situated a floor underneath the one with the main three studios. Studio 1, with audience seating, was the largest, typically used for game shows like The Golden Shot. The smaller Studio 2 was practically dedicated to interior Crossroads scenes, while Studio 3 was of a similar size and could be used for the less popular productions. Half of it was taken up by ATV Today and eventually, Tiswas would find a home there.

For now though, the experimental Today Is Saturday had a number of weeks to run on a minuscule budget. This first series wouldn’t seen outside of the midlands and was scheduled to end for the spring and summer, where ATV would revert to its plain offerings of Gerry Anderson repeats, imported cartoons and continuing the staple serving of the late 1960s Tarzan series.

A second series for John Asher and Chris Tarrant wasn’t guaranteed, so how would these first few editions be received? We’ll reveal more in a future blog post.

Studio 4 at ATV/Central studios in Broad Street, Birmingham in 2008
A blurry photo of the TiswasOnline webmaster standing in ATV's Studio 4 in 2008, long after it had been repurposed to a fully blue screen studio for Central's west midlands weather reports.