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Tiswas - the TV show

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A figure in a black cape and hat flings a flan

In these days of political correctness, some parents probably think that Dick and Dom are the worst thing ever to happen to children's television, and that such anarchic Saturday morning antics will surely turn their offspring into delinquents. The ones who don't think that are probably the ones who grew up watching Tiswas.

The origins of the name 'Tiswas' have never been fully established. It is generally accepted that the 'Tis' part of the name stands for 'Today Is Saturday'1, however the 'Was' part has long been a subject for discussion. Some maintain that it stands for 'Wear A Smile'; others prefer 'Watch And Smile' or even 'Watch And See'. Another theory is that the name stems from the very early days of the show, when it was billed simply as 'Today Is Saturday' or 'TIS' and the credits would read 'TIS was presented by...' Whatever the origin, the 'Today Is Saturday' name was quickly dropped and Tiswas was born.

The Early Days

The first edition of Today Is Saturday or the Tis-was Show was broadcast on 5 January, 1974. At that time it was only shown in the Midlands area served by ATV who made the show, although it would slowly be picked up by other ITV regions over the years2. The main presenter of this first incarnation of Tiswas was John Asher, who introduced a mish-mash of film clips, competitions, cartoons and a short news feature presented by a reporter from the local news programme ATV Today, a young lad by the name of Chris Tarrant.

The most important development in the early years of the show was the introduction of the Phantom Flan Flinger, a mysterious character dressed entirely in black, including a black cape and face mask, whose sole purpose was to terrorise the audience, celebrity guests, cast and crew with custard pies3 and buckets of water. It was this water and mess-related mayhem that turned the show from a Saturday morning filler into chaotic, compulsive viewing for a generation of children.

The Presenters

Over the next few years Tiswas would see many presenters come and go, although the best-remembered hosts were:

  • Chris Tarrant — The former news reporter soon became the main host and his insane enthusiasm kept the show together. As well as presenting, Chris was also the producer of the 1980 - 81 season.
  • Sally James — Joined in 1977, having previously hosted another Saturday morning show, Saturday Scene. Sally provided some much-needed glamour; her thigh-length boots and low-cut tops would hold the attention of many an adolescent boy.
  • John Gorman — A former member of comedy pop group The Scaffold4, John's musical talents would be called upon for 'The Bucket of Water Song' and other musical items.
  • Bob Carolgees — a ventriloquist whose puppet Spit the Dog would expectorate noisily on hearing the word 'spit'5. Bob was also occasionally seen with Charlie the Monkey and — in later years — Cough the Cat.
  • Lenny Henry — The winner of talent show New Faces joined the team in 1978 and brought with him a multitude of characters. Lenny could frequently be seen as the Rastafarian and lover of condensed milk sandwiches Algernon Razzamatazz6; he would adopt a fake beard and speech impediment to impersonate TV botanist David Bellamy, and his character Trevor McDoughnut was a wonderful parody of TV newsreader Trevor McDonald, complete with ridiculously oversized spectacles. Perhaps the best-remembered example of this character was the occasion when the real Trevor McDonald was ushered on set to read the joke news alongside Trevor McDoughnut, to the great surprise of Lenny who had been kept in the dark over the idea.

Various other regular and semi-regular faces on the show included Jim Davidson7, Sylvester McCoy8, Frank Carson9 and David Rappaport10.

'We don't get paid, I only come here for the baths.' — Frank Carson.

The Glory Years

The best-remembered era of Tiswas came at the turn of the decade, with the definitive line-up of Chris Tarrant, Sally James, John Gorman, Bob Carolgees and Lenny Henry now in place. By this stage the show was big enough to attract the top stars of the day; Sally spoke to everyone from Sheena Easton to Motorhead11 as part of her Sally James's Almost Legendary Pop Interviews spot, and stars such as Michael Palin and Status Quo were happy to join in the mayhem.

It wasn't just celebrities who were on the receiving end though, as members of the audience were just as likely to get a faceful of foam from the Phantom Flan Flinger, who by this stage had introduced us to his wife Flanderella and their son, the Baby Bucket Bunger. One of the show's main features was The Cage, in which adults were securely locked and subjected to a pelting of buckets of water, gunge or whatever was in the large metal bathtub balanced precariously on top of the cage, ready to be upended over the prisoners to the delight of the watching kids.

Regular features from this era included:

  • Compost Corner — ostensibly an informative gardening spot, which quickly descended into an excuse to throw buckets of water and 'manure' everywhere. In homage to that other great kids' show Crackerjack, the audience was obliged to meet every mention of the phrase 'Compost Corner' with an enthusiastic yell of 'Compost Corner!'
  • The Dying Fly — the show's very own dance craze, which consisted of nothing more complicated than lying on one's back and frantically waving one's arms and legs in the air in the manner of an expiring insect.
  • Competition Time — the announcement of which would cause a frenzy of excitement, usually involving Chris Tarrant screaming at the top of his voice, leading the cast and crew in a conga line through the studio, shouting 'This is what you want!' in an attempt to disguise the fact that the prizes were usually nothing to write home about.
  • Tiswas Disco — a filmed insert of various presenters and characters in a nightclub, dancing to an anonymous-sounding disco beat, which would stop abruptly to allow the telling of a joke, and then start up again.
  • Flan Your Folks — a simple competition in which the Phantom Flan Flinger would bombard members of the young contestant's family with custard pies. One family member would receive a flanning if the contestant gave a correct answer, the other if the answer was wrong. After a couple of minutes the answers became largely irrelevant as the whole thing degenerated into mayhem.

In 1980 the show's success spilled over into the pop charts, as Chris, Sally, Bob and John were persuaded to release a single. Written by Gorman, 'The Bucket Of Water Song' benefited from some heavy plugging on the show and reached number 26 in the singles chart, prompting a memorable appearance on Top Of The Pops during which — doubtlessly for health and safety reasons — the Four Bucketeers pelted the audience and themselves with buckets filled with tinsel in lieu of water. The group went on to record an album of songs and sketches, Tiswas Presents The Four Bucketeers, which was produced by John Gorman's friend Neil Innes. There was also a further single, 'Water Is Wonderful', which didn't chart despite once being played — presumably ironically — by John Peel.

The End

The death knell was sounded for Tiswas in the summer of 1981 when Tarrant, Gorman, Carolgees and Henry all quit to concentrate on Tarrant's new brainchild OTT, a late-night version of Tiswas which would employ a more adult style of humour. This seemed like a good idea on paper, but when OTT debuted in January 1982, with alternative comedy on the rise and the show's Benny Hill-style slapstick on the way out, audience reaction was poor and the show was axed after one series.

Tiswas, meanwhile, limped on for a further series with a new team of presenters: Sally James was joined by local radio DJ Gordon Astley, former Darts vocalist Den Hegarty and minor-league comedian Fogwell Flax. In a desperate attempt to keep some continuity, Clive 'Wizard' Webb, who had occasionally appeared performing his comic magic tricks in the previous series, now became a regular. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance such as Hegarty's News At Den sketches12, the new team failed to recreate the anarchic magic of the Tarrant era, and the Phantom flung his last flan in April 1982.

Beyond the End

Although Lenny Henry progressed almost immediately to superstardom via Three Of A Kind and his own BBC series, Tiswas was not a springboard to continued success for its other stars. Unless you were in London to hear his Capital Radio breakfast show, you could be forgiven for thinking that Chris Tarrant existed solely as a voiceover artiste and presenter of low-budget game shows until he resurrected his career as host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. After a couple of low-profile presenting jobs, Sally James started a retail business, as did Bob Carolgees, whose only television work in recent years has been a cameo appearance in Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights.

However, the influence of Tiswas continued to be felt on television for some years afterwards. John Gorman presented the gunge-based game and sketch show How Dare You! on ITV for several years in the mid 1980s, and Chris Tarrant tried again to revive the OTT format in the late '80s with Saturday Stayback. While the Saturday morning shows which followed in Tiswas' wake were much more sedate, at the time of writing, with ITV's Ministry Of Mayhem competing with the BBC's Dick 'n' Dom In Da Bungalow for the kids' Saturday morning attention, it seems anarchy is back in fashion.

Tiswas Online is the nearest thing to an official Tiswas site.
1Some still suggest 'This Is Saturday', although the show was originally billed in the TV Times as 'Today Is Saturday' so this seems more likely.2Some regions were slower to catch on than others, notably Tyne Tees, who insisted on showing their own programmes right up until the summer of 1981.3Usually referred to in Tiswas parlance as 'flans'.4Best remembered for their 1960s hits 'Lily The Pink' and 'Thank You Very Much'.5Bob would attempt to placate angry parents who accused Spit The Dog of teaching their children bad habits by pointing out that, although the dog made a noise, it did not actually spit. Of course it didn't, it was a puppet.6Catchphrase: 'Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo (deep breath) kaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!'7A comedian.8A future Doctor Who.9Another comedian.10An actor who also appeared in the film Time Bandits, US TV's The Wizard, BBC TV's Jigsaw and played the demon F'Tmch in The Young Ones.11Although whether or not anyone was brave enough to hit Lemmy with a custard pie is not recorded.12These would involve the manic looking Hegarty mimicking the Big Ben introduction to News At Ten by shouting 'Bong!' at the top of his voice.

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