sally-1982No, that’s not me! That’s Sally James of TISWAS – and you can tell that this is from the pre-PC days of childrens television. In fact this is my Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes moment. Even if you’ve not watched these time-shift contemporary dramas on the BBC you’ll know they involve the lead character either in a coma or a near death situation and, as a result, bizarrely transported back to the late 1970s/early 1980s. When I was asked to take part in a recent TISWAS re-united I felt it was happening to me – so I decided to stay in the present and leave my memories intact in the past. They were times of such fun and madness you could never capture them again. I’m not one for the ‘good old days’ syndrome. I’m focussed on today’s fun and tomorrow’s promise of new fun.

This won’t mean a thing if you live outside the UK – but to Brits of a certain generation TISWAS means a great deal. It’s been celebrated as the definitive childrens’ Saturday morning TV programme with its anarchic live mix of comedy, custard pies (or ‘flans’ to the initiated), celebrities and chaos. My role in all this was to have been the producer of two series (and the director of one of them as well). I created key elements of the format including casting Sally as its first (and only) female presenter, inventing the iconic character of the Phantom Flan Flinger (who finished up as the defining logo image) and creating ‘the cage’ as a place where visiting adults to the studio were kept in order to be routinely drenched in water and covered in custard pies.

And how did this come about? Well, I’d been taken on by network broadcaster Associated Television (ATV) as a trainee director – and my first promotion was to the role of Producer/Director of their flagging Saturday morning entertainment TISWAS. My brief was to get rid of its trademark slapstick chaos and to fire one – or all – of the presenters (a bit like mafia wiseguys have to rub somebody out to ‘make their bones’). I was even given the option of starting again with a new show, a new title and a new cast. (The title of WHAM – standing for We’re Here All Morning was mooted). Had I not been a Punch ‘Prof’ with an understanding that children liked more to their diet of entertainment than the straight-laced pieties of the BBC’s Blue Peter, then TISWAS might have ended right there. Fortunately I had a daughter in the target age-range of the show and I’d been trained as a teacher. The powers that be considered me to be a safe pair of hands. Hmmm.

tis11I decided I’d take up the challenge of re-devising the TISWAS format. Firing someone on orders ‘from above’ wasn’t easy – but for a Punch Prof to be told to ditch slapstick chaos was definitely a low blow. So I didn’t do it. I hatched a plan to make the programme declare itself a custard-pie free zone – which would then make it a target for the masked Phantom Flan Flinger to start a campaign of subversion. And the rest is history. The Phantom became a cult hero – the ratings soared, the addition of a female presenter brought a whole new dimension, and what later became known as ‘zoo-format TV’ was born. Anything might happen from the cameramen being pursued round the studio by the Phantom Flan Flinger, to top ten recording stars throwing buckets of water at each other all interspersed with Bugs Bunny cartoons, pop videos, quizzes, sketches and general mayhem. It was all pre-planned – but not pre-rehearsed. And bringing an unrehearsed two to three hour live programme to the nations screens each week was akin to surfing on adrenalin.

Eventually I was ‘promoted’ yet again. This time to produce and direct the peak time game show ‘Celebrity Squares’. There was no obvious choice of successor until I talked Chris Tarrant (who’d been a star of the show almost since its original inception) into taking over. The powers that be were nervous – but CT took it to even greater heights when, as the result of a national TV strike ending, the show got fully networked.

Eventually Chris Tarrant left the show to try and create a late night adult version of TISWAS. Called O.T.T. it was a critical and ratings disaster (as was its attempted successor ‘Saturday Stayback’). Meanwhile I was drafted back in to continue TISWAS with a fresh cast surrounding the superbly professional Sally James (who’d not been part of the late night shows). TISWAS afficionados are split on their verdict on the final series which – for the first time – was ultimately responsible to a newly appointed Head of Childrens Programmes. For my money the late, great David Rappaport (a star of Terry Gilliam’s movie ‘Time Bandits’) partnering the manic presence of Den Hegarty produced some of TISWAS’s finest moments. A view shared by Goon genius Spike Milligan who wrote to say “it’s the greatest childrens show ever – and its getting better all the time”. Spike’s subsequent guest slots on the show alongside comedian Frank Carson were also cult viewing.

tiswas-pic-bewerktSo how did it all end? Well, I was there so I know the inside story. TISWAS was never popular with ‘the suits’ and a quarterly review of the ratings occurred when ours had dropped. I’d also come up with an idea for a weekday show involving wrestling star Big Daddy acting as a childrens’ champion who could grant wishes, right wrongs and ring-master some general fun. ‘The suits’ decided to scrap TISWAS and air the new Big Daddy show as a replacement. The TISWAS ratings-drop proved to be a blip – but by then the decision had been made and ‘the suits’ had won. You can see the final chaos of the final show on youtube here. (With a shot of me during ‘Auld Flan Syne’ 50 seconds into the clip. I’m the long-haired one with a black T-shirt and clip on tie. How fashions do change! Daughter Katey – not then yet a Prof herself – is the little girl holding my hand on my right). You can tell the programme didn’t take much notice of the Health & Safety Committee.

It was all a huge romp from an era when you could direct childrens TV programmes live on air with only a running order and a glass or two of white wine and soda to guide you. Those days won’t return but those of who had the sheer excitement and 24/7 fun of being there and doing it will never forget it. And we got paid too! But I still get all that buzz just from being a Punch & Judy man. Mr. Punch is a real mega-star who presides over his own ever changing world-turned-upside-down. Partnering him is a passport to perpetual anarchic enjoyment. And as someone once said of the TV industry “working in television is like walking through a dark alley surrounded by muggers, fraudsters, thieves, assassins, pick-pockets and maniacs. But remember – it also has a dark side!”