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Series / Tiswas

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"This is what they want!"

The inventor of the ITV Saturday Morning Kids’ Show format, and probably the most anarchic of them all. Famous for the Phantom Flan Flinger and starting off Chris Tarrant's career. Not so famous, but no less instrumental, for launching Lenny Henry's TV career. Tiswas ran from 1974 to 1982, although in the first year it consisted more of short links between cartoons and other programmes, with less of its own identity, whereas 1982 was much more sedate than the classic years after many of the presenters left in 1981 (not to mention the changeover from ATV to Central).

On any given Saturday morning, there would be a studio full of overexcited children, some there to show off a talent or do a competition, some as the audience. (Many of their parents would be locked in a cage at the back of the set, intermittently getting buckets of water thrown over them by the presenters.) Lenny Henry would be impersonating newsreader Trevor McDonaldnote ; a pre-Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy would be roaming around as a werewolf, biting the audience; bands would play (and not just kid-friendly groups: the performers included Elvis Costello, the Pretenders and Status Quo), or be interviewed by Sally James (showing off the garters she had been sent from Royal Navy ships); there would be comedy sketches, done by anybody from Michael Palin to Bernard Manning; Spit the Dog would live up to his name; John Gorman would be roaming around in character as a cleaner asking if he had died in two world wars in order to put up with a studio this messy; Bob "The Tray" Blackman would sing Mule Train whilst banging a metal tea tray on his head; a 5-year-old boy in a rabbit suit would sing Bright Eyes; at least one item would go completely off track; and everyone would end up getting custard pies thrown over them.

It was very tied in with popular culture. There were the bands, and lots of impressions and parodies of other shows; but also they accidentally launched a dance craze (The Dying Fly) and the presenters had a hit single with "The Bucket of Water Song".

Incredibly influential on other Saturday morning kids' shows—Dick & Dom in da Bungalow, SMTV Live, Ministry Of Mayhem, even Live And Kicking would not have been the same without Tiswas. (Arguably, even late-night zoo programmes like The Word drew on it). One noticable difference from its followers, however, is that most presenters since have tended to be cheeky big brother types in their teens or early twenties, while all the Tiswas presenters except Lenny Henry were in their 30s at least. Watching adults being completely childish has a relish all its own. However, it's pretty much completely unknown over in the US and much of the non-European world.

Tropes associated with Tiswas include:

  • Affectionate Parody: All the time; Toyah's version of her own song, for instance, and spoofs on TV adverts.
  • Ascended Extra: Several comedians started as one-off guests and became regulars (eg Jim Davidson, Frank Carson). Also the Bright Eyes kid, Matthew Butler (he even ended up going on the Four Bucketeers tour with them.)
  • Breakup Breakout: Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry went on to become Household Names. The rest of the teamnote  didn't really.
  • Catchphrase: "Compost Corner!"
  • Covered in Gunge: The show had a credited custard-pie maker. And a number of the guest stars (one noteworthy example is Sheena Easton) did indeed end up covered literally from head to toe in gunge.
  • Expository Theme Tune: "Saturday, Saturday, Saturday is Tiswas day!"
  • Excited Kids' Show Host: Averted by Chris Tarrant but all the others had their moments.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Title stood for either "This is Saturday, wake and smile." or "Today is Saturday, watch and smile."
  • Improv: There were some pre-filmed items, some scripted sketches and an overall running order, but it was mostly ad libbed.
  • Parental Bonus: Sally James favoured thin tops and inadequate bras.
  • Pig Man: Porky, played by musician Johnny Patrick in a full-head latex pig mask.
  • Running Gag: Such as the Phantom Flan-Flinger.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: A pre-Eurythmics Annie Lennox (on the show with her previous band, The Tourists) responded to being pied by the Phantom Flan Flinger by storming off stage as a pie fight broke out around her.
  • Slapstick: Never was a stick so thoroughly slapped.
  • Song Parody: One memorable scene had songstress Toyah Wilcox singing parody lyrics to her own hit song, "It's a Mystery," about how much she wanted to get a pie in the face, while the Phantom Flan Flinger began granting her wish. Naturally the scene ended with a full-fledged pie fight.
  • Spin-Off: Most of the presenters left in 1981 to make OTT, an attempt to use a similar format as a late-night comedy for adults. This at least allowed guests like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson to relax the restrained versions of their acts that were forced on them for the kids' show version.