The first series of Tiswas

Here’s where the flan-flinging Saturday morning juggernaut of live chaos started, right? You wanna hear about day one of the show, which probably started with Chris pouring a bucket of treacle over Slade and Elton John, while a tidal wave of bright yellow custard engulfed Birmingham and it stayed that way for seven and a half years until Tommy Boyd and Isla St Clair turned up.

Well, that assumption would be pretty much wrong. The first series was very much a sedate affair. No pies, no mayhem and even no studio audience. Most of all, no budget! Alright, there was some money in the pot, but as an experimental presentation strand and with news reporter Chris Tarrant only popping in because he got an extra five quid on his ATV wages, this was a world away from the Tiswas the whole nation got to know and love later on.

The first series of Tiswas

The sad truth is that no recordings exist of this first series at all. It was very likely not recorded in the first place, but recordings were made when Tiswas went to a second series, but only two editions (both from 1975) have ever been found.

I didn’t mean to start this article off on such a downbeat note, but I’d rather be honest about its humble beginnings rather than present a situation that fits the more common mythology. So if you think everybody was smoking naughty cigarettes in The Cage while the Phantom Flan Flinger submerged Blondie and Joan Jett into a vat of semolina, here’s the bland reality.

Oh, and I have to be upfront about the fact that I wasn’t even born until after the first series. However, I’ve spoken to Chris Tarrant, John Asher, director Peter Harris and quite a few Tiswas fans who watched it go out.

This is Saturday, watch and smile

First off, I set the scene for the very first show in the blog we published right on Tiswas’s 50th anniversary. It was almost completely presented by actor and singer John Asher in the very tiny Studio 4 at ATV’s Birmingham HQ, with Chris Tarrant popping in for a few minutes for a news-related piece.

“I had had a phone call from Barbara Bradbury, Peter Harris’s PA, asking me to come and audition” explains John Asher. He was very sprightly for a Saturday morning, but that’s what you expect and need from a children’s television presenter.

If you couldn’t access ATV, then you wouldn’t have seen any of this first series. Your local ITV region would likely be putting on things like a vintage film; a Hanna Barbera cartoon; an educational programme for adults about yoga/sport/DIY; Sesame Street or one of the Tarzan adventures starring Ron Ely. Some of them were even making their own Saturday morning children’s shows. I examined all 14 ITV morning schedules on the day Tiswas first transmitted, which gives you an idea of how moribund Saturday mornings were for most viewers in the early 1970s.

Tiswas 1975
The titles from series 2

In fact, ATV was putting out a rather bland diet of films, cartoons and Tarzan adventures prior to Tiswas’s existence, which I detailed in the eye-opening story of the show’s accidental creation.

Those components of the pre-Tiswas Saturday morning schedules would still be on air, albeit within Tiswas. John Asher would, in between live phone-ins with viewers, get to have a break as ‘ingredients’ like film clips, cartoons and the weekly episode of Tarzan got broadcast.

In essence, ‘Today Is Saturday’ was pretty much a presentation strand, much like BBC’s Broom Cupboard was for children’s TV in the 1980s. It just happened to be a lot more child-targeted and friendlier than the usual style of regional presentation.

A keen viewer of Saturday morning television was Chris Howles in Lichfield, who was eight years old when Tiswas debuted, but was already watching before the show existed.

“ATV showed a mixture of stuff on Saturday mornings” says Chris. “Tarzan, old films, Jackson Five and The Osmonds cartoon series, the Tomfoolery Show and sometimes Joe 90 or Captain Scarlet. I was already watching telly on Saturday mornings anyway and ready for something better.”

“Somehow I knew about this new programme for kids starting on ATV on Saturday mornings, I can’t remember if it was via a trailer on ATV (the most likely) or I’d read it somewhere in some TV listings If it was the later it would have been in either the Birmingham Evening Mail or occasionally I’d buy Look In magazine, so it could have been in there.”

Keep calm and carry on

Today Is Saturday, or the Tis-Was Show
'Today Is Saturday' - the early opening titles of Tiswas

“The main thing I can say was it was quite a slow and low key start.” says Chris. “From what I remember it was mainly padded-out continuity in between the same sort of mix of programmes they had on this time slot back in 1973.”

“I don’t remember Chris Tarrant having such a major role in the very early days; it was more Peter Tomlinson talking to camera and reading out letters. I didn’t know Saturday Scene and others had pioneered earlier in other ITV regions. Certainly by the time it had found its feet a year or so later it was THE program to watch and the madder it became the more popular it was, we all talked about it in the playground at primary school.”

“I’m also not sure at what point pop music started being featured, it might not have been at the very start, there certainly weren’t any bands in the studio early on but there might have been an odd pop promo film.”

The tiny confines of Studio 4 meant that when Chris Tarrant had to appear on screen, John Asher would have to present a pre-recorded item, and the two presenters would do a chair swap in the cramped space behind the only desk.

On these basic resources, the team were forming the embryo of a template that would be much aped by subsequent Saturday morning shows for decades to come. While Tiswas would eventually move to the familiar environs of ATV’s Studio 3 from the second series onwards, this experimental dip into child-targeted weekend television did have an interactive element – with live phone-ins.

Barbara Bradbury managed to sweet talk a few ATV employees into lending resources from other shows, sometimes overstepping company and union regulations. Her biggest success was getting to borrow the live phone system from game show The Golden Shot. Bob Monkhouse would use this so home-based contestants could yell out live instructions to guide a ‘blind’ cameraman to shoot at a prize target in the studio.

This wasn’t the only thing cribbed from The Golden Shot. The animated ‘flying spots in space’ sequence from that show’s opening titles was repurposed for Tiswas’s benefit.

As you can see, the embryonic Tiswas was far from the more slicker vehicle it would evolve into. With no budget for a custom-made anthem as we remember from the show’s early 80s heyday, the cheap option was to pick some jaunty library music. Composer Barry Stoller’s composition Atomic Butterfly was plucked from the De Wolfe Music Library. Also, this music supplier would come in handy for background music during competition segments, with The Noveltones’ The Gonk being used. One unexpected ‘downside’ would be its later association with a zombie horror film in 1978, as Dawn Of The Dead used The Gonk during its ending.

While the size of Studio 4 meant there couldn’t be a significant audience of children on screen in the first series of Tiswas, there were certainly opportunities for their inclusion through on-air calls.

Recently, an anonymous writer posted on a Tiswas Facebook group about being the first participant on the first show:

“I was the first person on the first Tiswas show which was a call-in show for the first couple of episodes. I was chosen by Chris Tarrant while we were in the Green Room before the show. Good memories of a fun day. It’s amazing to see how the show evolved from that day over the following years.”

This post is accompanied with two photos of the autographs. John has written “To… the first telephoner on “TISWAS”, Best Wishes” and while Chris’s contribution reads “Best wishes and hope the phone call’s a success”.

It wasn’t necessarily a hit with all midlands viewers, as some had been accustomed to the usual diet of cartoons and Tarzan which had been the schedules on previous Saturday mornings. It wasn’t made clear to everyone that this new brand encompassed those ‘ingredients’, as Tiswas fan Chris Sirett explains.

“The first show meant that Tarzan got broadcast later that morning with several of my friends missing it completely.”

Another thing to note was that this first series was totally devoid of the messy and wet slapstick that would go on to be a defining characteristic of Tiswas. No custard pies, no buckets of water and no sign of any Phantom Flan Flinger.

However, if you want to see how attuned Chris Tarrant was to slapstick humour back then, there’s this mute film clip made for ATV Today in January 1974, where Chris and fellow reporter John Swallow are very much in comedy mode as they cycle on a tandem in rural Warwickshire.

Team work

While John Asher began as the anchorman from the very start, it wouldn’t be too long before co-presenter increased his prominence, as noted by Tiswas fan Dave Clark.

“Chris Tarrant was taking an almost equal share of the presenting duties with John Asher by the last show. He certainly appeared for a lot longer than the five minutes suggested by the TV Times. His role just increased each week.”

A really nice touch was that the somewhat accidental creator of the concept got to play a role as the shows went on.

“Peter Tomlinson, who was ATV’s continuity announcer on the Saturday morning shift, started to get more involved, and was actually a co-presenter on shows eight and nine.”

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

Also assisting the show was Peter Mathews, an ATV film librarian who could find and cue up interesting film clips. He’d be handy for when viewers would request certain moments from the film library.

John Stokoe, who usually helped out on ATV’s continuity links, was assigned to writing duties. The producer was Peter Harris, a man with extensive experience in theatre and had already cut his teeth on children’s television as a puppet on ATV’s Tingha & Tucker Club.

Regular features at this time were all viewer-centric competitions, with the ‘The Who, Which, What Year Contest’ and ‘Surprises And Prizes’.

The early demise of the first series

Tiswas had battled a tiny studio and a minuscule budget to present a new kind of Saturday morning programme. It was also in a precarious position against the backdrop of Edward Heath’s three-day week, imposed from the start of 1974 which limited the amount of electricity companies could use.

Luckily, the show didn’t get impacted by these restrictions, which would eventually be lifted in early March 1974. However, by this time, the first series had already prematurely ended.

The reason is related to union regulations. Union power in the 1970s was far much stronger than it is today and was incredibly dominant in commercial television. Shop stewards could instigate a mass walkout of union employees if someone was seen to be carrying out a duty that a unionised employee was assigned. This would mean that actors couldn’t even move a cup off a table because it would be the job of the props worker, and that presenters wouldn’t even be able to help clear a studio or adjust lighting.

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.

In this particular instance, industrial action took Tiswas off the air because ATV treated it as a presentation strand while the unions took the view that it was a programme in its own right. It’s quite a grey area, with valid arguments for both sides. However, with assigned opening titles and a presenting team, it would be hard to make the case for it being traditional linking announcements.

The original intention was for Tiswas to have ended after a dozen shows, with 23rd March being the final edition of the series. What happened was that the ninth show (2nd March) would be the last viewers would see of Chris, John and Pete on a Saturday morning, until later in the year.

In the meantime, ATV reverted to a schedule of the components being presented in a conventional manner. The rest of March looked like this:

10:05 Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons

10:30 Joe 90

11:00 Funky Phantom

11:25 Cartoon

11:35 Tarzan

The return of Tiswas

After negotiations with the unions, ATV agreed to seriously treat the production as a show in its own right. It would return in September, a time for television networks to sweep their schedules with a metaphorical broom and bring in exciting new treats after the summer lull.

Thanks to union demands, Tiswas got its budget increased and would relocate into a bigger studio, upstairs in Studio 3. However, part of this studio was taken up by ATV’s regional news programme, which broadcast on weekday evenings.

Still, with more space, there could be more ambition. ATV’s confidence in this refuelled project was so high, that Tiswas got assigned to be on all year round. That’s right, every Saturday morning. Obviously, that didn’t last, but we’ll explain more in future blogs. Naturally, we’ll be taking a look at the second series pretty soon, which ends up being the longest of all series.