The anarchic, irreverent nature that has become the trademark style of Saturday morning children’s television is part of the legacy of an ITV show called Tiswas, which aired in the mid 1970s.
Tiswas began life as a way of filling in and linking between the more traditional children’s material such as cartoons, film clips and puppet shows. It provided a loose framework with which these various items could be gathered together and billed as a single show.
The first programme, produced by ATV, was shown in January 1974. Over the next few years other ITV regions gradually adopted Tiswas, until the majority were broadcasting it as a major part of their Saturday morning children’s schedule. Shows in the first series were very basic indeed, and consisted of little more than a disjointed, occasionally desperate, stream of gags and ad-libs delivered by Chris Tarrant and John Asher from a desk in a near-empty studio. Series two saw the number of presenters double to four, and a move to a larger studio. A few children were drafted in to act as an audience. In these early days, despite the occasional dousing of a victim with a jug of water, the programme was still relatively tame, and there was little to indicate just how wild future programmes would become.
Gradually, Tarrant became able to inject more of his energy and unpredictability into Tiswas. More eccentric personnel were added to the team, and before long it became clear that the wacky antics of the presenters and the studio audience were the real reason for growing viewing figures.
Sally James, a former presenter of LWT’s Saturday Scene, joined Tiswas for the fourth series in 1977. Until that time Tiswas had been very much a boys’ club, and Chris Tarrant and the other male cast members were initially very sceptical about the introduction of a woman to the programme. As it turned out, Sally proved to be a great success, especially with the dads, and her colleagues soon abandoned any doubts they may have had.
The main strength of Tiswas was undoubtedly its quirky team of presenters, led by Chris Tarrant. The cast of regulars grew during the course of the show’s evolution, and a team of cult heroes was soon assembled. Amongst those who also served were John Gorman and Bob Carolgees with his punk puppet, Spit the Dog.
Considerable additional credibility (if one may use that word when discussing Tiswas) was afforded by the frequent appearances by popular comedians such as Jasper Carrott, Jim Davidson and, most notably, a young Lenny Henry who (despite teething troubles in early shows due to his inexperience) became a regular member of the Tiswas team.
The various personalities seemed to ‘click’ from the outset, and additions to the cast appeared to find the show easy to adjust to, despite the chaotic environment.
The Tiswas format expanded and the material it featured attained more depth, but without sacrificing the barely-contained-bedlam atmosphere that encapsulated the show’s real appeal.
The cast devised various characters who played regular parts in the show. Lenny Henry, in particular, came up with several characters who would crop up again and again. In addition to some of his own original creations, Henry contributed a number of fond impression-parodies of popular personalities of the time, including news presenter Trevor McDonald (who became ‘Trevor McDoughnut’ in Henry’s version) and TV botanist David Bellamy.
Another notable participant in the mayhem was a black-clad, masked villain, known only as the Phantom Flan-Flinger, who would behave in the manner his name implies, targeting the presenters mercilessly.
Fans generally regard series 6 and 7 as the pinnacle of Tiswas success. This was the period when the cult really had reached its height. It was also around this time that Tiswas enjoyed pop chart success!
The Four Bucketeers were an ad-hoc music/water-throwing group that developed during the programme. The four ‘official’ members of the band were Chris Tarrant, Sally James, John Gorman and Bob Carolgees with occasional contributions from Lenny Henry. Gorman was no stranger to the music scene, having served in The Scaffold during the 1960s.
Perhaps surprisingly, bearing in mind the undemanding nature of the Bucketeers’ hit record, The Bucket of Water Song, the session players who provided the backing track, together with the show’s theme tune and incidental music, included some very well respected musicians indeed including Ollie Halsall (guitar) and John Halsey (drums) – both of whom went on to become part of The Rutles – John Altman (arranger), Morgan Fisher (keyboards) and Clive Griffiths (bass).
In all, Tiswas continued for eight series, although Chris Tarrant, Bob Carolgees and John Gorman left at the end of series 7 to work on a late-night version of the show called OTT (Over the Top). Sally James was joined by eccentric rock and roll singer Den Heggarty and DJ Gordon Astley for the eighth and final series.
Many of the staple features of today’s children’s TV shows had their origins in Tiswas. Young viewers of recent and current programmes, such as Dick and Dom in da Bungalow, squeal with delight as guests are covered in gunge and soaked with water. Little do they realise that such antics, though timeless, are fairly ‘old hat’. Tiswas explored every possible way of making a colossal mess with water, pies, gunge, custard, slime, flour, eggs etc 30 years ago in the 70s.