Tiswas – 11th October 1980
I was only 7 years old when Tiswas finished and even before it finished my parents (I think understandably) did not like me watching it, instead preferring me to watch Noel Edmonds in Multi-Coloured Swap Shop on the other side. I did however occasionally get a chance to watch a few minutes of ITV on Saturday mornings. Indeed the only thing my memory now associates the ATV zoom ident with is Tiswas (me having grown up in the Granada region).
My memories of the programme are somewhat hazy but I can clearly recall buckets of water being thrown over people and a kind of anarchic air about the entire proceedings. I also recall quite distinctive animation being used either in the opening credits and/or during the programme involving a masked character (which I subsequently learned was The Phantom Flan Flinger). However as I had only ever caught a few minutes here and there nearly 30 years ago I could not really be said to be much of an expert on the programme and had gleaned much of my knowledge today about it from retrospective clips on programmes and things I had read on the internet.
I was therefore pleased to obtain a copy of a full episode of the show broadcast on 11th October 1980 recorded in the ATV region including continuity and adverts. I think that there is no substitute for having a full episode in context rather than the odd few clips in order to get a better picture of what a programme was about. In this case there are a number of reasons why this is particularly true.
The first thing I noticed having watched the whole episode is how ahead of its time it seems compared to what I remember watching at the time. There is a cold opening where Bob Carolgees is apparently going to commit suicide with the rest of the presenters trying to stop him. There are shots of the corridors in the TV studio with the presenters running around and the studio itself looks totally chaotic in a way that must have been very brave for the producers and the network to have allowed initially (less so as it became successful of course). It also seems to be one of the first examples of a show where the crew laughs at the jokes being performed. There is also a feeling which I would not have been aware of 28 years ago myself but looking at it now in that there are some elements of the show that are not really for children. Knowing that not long afterwards some of the cast went off to make OTT which was essentially Tiswas for adults this is not perhaps surprising. Also, one of the cartoons that they showed was a 5 minute snippet from an American animated film called Animalympics. The conceit for this is that animals have their own combined Summer and Winter Olympics on an island. The reason this is worth mentioning is that the style and execution of this film was only partially for children. There are characters very much based on real life American TV presenters (e.g. Barbara Walters) and many of the jokes rely on an understanding of the world and the media that young children would not have. However it works on more than one level and in that way does not seem out of place on a children’s TV show. The film itself is a clear antecedent of The Simpsons both stylistically and even with respect to some of those involved (Harry Shearer provided some of the voices and Bill Kroyer was animation director).
The second thing of note for me is not so much the fact that some of the antics during the programme were anarchic with buckets of water etc. – I had expected that. It is more that there were actually sections of the programme that were very straight – surprisingly so in some cases:
is a section of the show just after the half way point where the “director” throws the “body” of what is supposed to be his assistant down from the rafters. Tarrant then picks the body up and starts to recite a speech by Mark Antony from Julius Caesar about his death. This in itself was quite unexpected and surprising – that the supposedly out of control Tiswas includes something as highbrow as a Shakespearian monologue. What’s more, the speech goes on for about a minute and half with at least twice Tarrant appearing to have finished and walking back to the desk but then turning round and carrying on. Although the way it is executed is clearly tongue in cheek there is no getting round the fact that they were doing a serious passage from English Literature on live Saturday morning children’s television.
- 80 minutes in they segue from a silly section with Russ Abbott to suddenly showing a film narrated by Tarrant about the history of the airship (using the pretext of it being the 52nd anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Hindenburg). The film itself is totally straight with a lot of interesting and useful historical information about its history from inception to first flights etc. Exactly the sort of thing you would expect from a public service broadcaster in a children’s show. However avowedly not what I was expecting from Tiswas given everything I had read and the clips I had seen over the years. Most astonishingly of all (to me anyway), the film ends with the footage of the Hindenburg going down in flames in 1937 along with the famous commentary (although they appear to cut the commentary before the “Oh the humanity” comments) and Tarrant explaining that 36 people died during the disaster. The “Telly Selly Time” caption that then came up was simply black on white. After the break Tarrant then continues firstly by apologising if anyone was upset by the footage and then going into some further historical detail about why helium was not used instead of hydrogen and pointing out how many people actually survived (63). By the end of this I was gobsmacked.
In summary, and admittedly only on the basis of this one episode, my feeling is that Tiswas was a multi-layered programme which yes did include numerous anarchic features and aspects but at the same time was pushing the boundaries of television in a number of other ways which seem often to get lost in all the talk of buckets of water and custard pies.