ON the rare occasions when work failed to intervene, my Saturday morning treat in the early 1980s was Tiswas, ostensibly a children’s show but with more than enough hilarious moments to satisfy an adult with a puerile sense of humour. Plus the sexy Sally James among the presenters. (My missus worked with her at London Weekend TV and testifies that she is a lovely person.)
Tiswas, an acronym for Today Is Saturday: Watch And Smile (although the insiders’ version was This Is Shit, Watch Another Show), began in 1974 as a small-budget gap-filler for the Midlands network ATV. Other ITV regions took it up as it gained popularity but it was not until 1979 that Granada in the North West joined the party and I was able to see what I’d been missing.
With Chris Tarrant as the ringmaster, Tiswas featured irreverent spoofs of BBC children’s TV punctuated by the ritual humiliation of the participants. Youngsters from the audience were placed in The Cage, where they were regularly drenched with buckets of water. Adults joined them there in later shows and there was a long waiting list to appear. Custard-pie attacks were de rigueur with frequent appearances from the Phantom Flan Flinger.
Alongside Tarrant and James, there was a young Lenny Henry (long before he took himself seriously), John Gorman from the Scouse group The Scaffold, and Bob Carolgees with his glove puppet Spit the Dog. The latter’s sole function was to expectorate loudly at all and sundry. It sounds pretty crude but was in fact a hoot. Bob and Spit went on to become pantomime stars and I saw them in 1984 at Manchester Palace Theatre’s production of Cinderella. They became a staple of chat shows and here they are spreading havoc on Aspel and Company with Twiggy reaping the whirlwind.
There was a gardening section, Compost Corner, with Lenny Henry impersonating David Bellamy – ‘Allo, Kwiss!’ Every time the title was mentioned, the audience would bellowingly repeat it, Crackerjack style.
Today’s achingly anti-racist Henry would no doubt rather forget it but he also appeared as newsreader Trevor McDoughnut, Rastafarian Algernon Razzmatazz and soul singer Theophilus P Wildebeest (the most fertile man in the universe).
The show I remember best came in 1980 and featured a near-toothless boy of five from Staffordshire, Matthew Butler, who encouraged by his Tiswas-crazed mum Pauline appeared in a home-made rabbit costume singing Bright Eyes from the film Watership Down. Tarrant, by now producer as well as presenter, had chosen the kid for the sheer awfulness of his singing at an audition. Little Matthew didn’t let him down and was invited back to perform Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. Excruciatingly. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
These days child psychologists would have a pink fit at the sight of Matthew and sundry other children drenched, splattered and generally despised. But the youngsters couldn’t get enough of it.
Post-Tiswas, Matthew tried to make a career out of his singing, wearing rabbit suits of increasing size, but the novelty wore off and he became a fireman. However, the internet and particularly YouTube revived public interest and he made further TV appearances before announcing that he was hanging up his ears owing to ‘unwanted attention by fur fetishists’. If you can bear the appalling puns, here is a Birmingham Mail story from 2012.
Tarrant, Carolgees, Gorman and Henry left Tiswas at the end of series 7 to work on an adult version, OTT, shown late on Saturday nights. It failed to take off and was axed after one series. Sally James remained at the morning show with a new team of presenters but it was never the same and flung its last flan in series 8 in 1982.
Comparing Tiswas with today’s anaemic, politically correct TV fare, I am amazed at its sheer unrehearsed energy and anarchy, gleefully held together by Tarrant in the most brilliant phase of his career. We shall never see its like again.
The world according to Ernie
When I lived in Blackburn, a fellow regular at my local pub was a baker named Ernie Townsend, who popped in several times a day for a refresher between taking batches of bread and buns out of the oven. He made a healthy living from his business, drove a big car with a personalised number plate and, in his fifties, had a young mistress named Mitzi.
One day when they were enthusiastically ‘at it’, he had a heart attack. Fortunately he survived but the doctors said he must have a complete break from his rackety lifestyle so on their orders he took Mrs Townsend for a no-expenses-spared global cruise. On his return after eight months on the high seas, he was back in the pub and I said, ‘Well, Ernie, how was the world?’ ‘It were all right,’ he replied. And that was his last word on the subject.
Old jokes’ home
Frank Sinatra is in London during a European tour and drops in at the Savoy Grill for dinner. Half way through the meal, a chap sidles up and says: ‘Sorry to bother you, Mr Sinatra, but my girl is a huge fan of yours and she would be incredibly impressed if she thought you knew me. She’s powdering her nose at the moment but when she comes back, if you could just come over to our table and pretend we’re old friends, I’d be grateful for the rest of my life. My name is Ted.’
‘OK,’ says Ol’ Blue Eyes. ‘Just this once.’
Five minutes later, Sinatra approaches the couple’s table and shakes the man’s hand, saying: ‘Ted, my old pal, how’s it going?’
‘Get lost, Frank,’ says Ted. ‘Can’t you see I’m with a bird?’
A PS from PG
‘He uncovered the fragrant eggs and b. and I pronged a moody forkful.’
PG Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves.