Tag Archives: Sally James

Memories of Tiswas, Frankie Howerd’s wandering hands and Norman Collier

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and associate producer David McKellar

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and David McKellar

So yesterday I drove up to Birmingham for a reunion of people who worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas. It turned out there were 100 fans there too.

Everyone I knew years ago seem to have grown white hair and beards or both apart from presenter Sally James and you can never be too sure of anything nowadays.

I got chatting with David McKellar, who was Associate Producer/Script Associate on Tiswas when I was there. He was a wildly experienced gag writer. I remember being impressed when I realised he had written one of the few jokes I ever remembered, a fake news headline:

“Bad news for three-foot dwarfs… four feet snow drifts.”

I think David Frost delivered the gag in one of his TV series, probably The Frost Report.

David McKellar remembered Tiswas yesterday

David at the Tiswas gathering in Birmingham yesterday

David McKellar wrote for various David Frost shows as well as Ken Dodd, Frankie Howard, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, The Two Ronnies, Celebrity Squares… you name it…

He told me that, taking a look at Lenny Henry’s website recently, he noticed that Lenny had credited him with changing his career path.

“I had no idea,” David told me.

“How did you change his career?” I asked.

“He used to do gags as himself and I suggested he did characters. When he went on This Is Your Life, he mentioned my name. It’s good to be remembered.”

“It is nice,” I said, “to change someone’s life when you didn’t even realise it. Who did you write your first joke for?”

Max Miller

Max Miller paid David £1 in the street

Max Miller. He lived in Brighton. I lived in Brighton. I met him in the street, told him this joke and he gave me £1.”

“What was the joke?” I asked.

“I wish I could remember,” laughed David. “The thing about him was he never used  a dirty word on stage and he was the dirtiest comedian. It was the audience who were thinking the dirt in the act. Comics nowadays will say ‘wanking’ for no reason.”

“You wrote for Frankie Howerd, didn’t you?” I asked. “That was all innuendo.”

“You never went into a room alone with him,” said David.

“Jonathan Ross,” I said, “advised me never to get in a lift alone with Frankie Howerd.”

“He’s remembered,” I said, but people like Norman Collier are not and he was a great comedian.”

Norman Collier

The great Norman Collier – gone but not forgotten by some

“I remember,” said David, “he took me into a restaurant one night in Birmingham – on the Friday night before the Tiswas show (which was on Saturday morning) and he came in with a ten-foot ventriloquist’s dummy. He put it on the chair next to me and the waiter came along and gave us three menus. The dummy ordered a whole meal, then Norman got hold of a popadom, held it under the table and there was a Woof! Woof! sound. They threw him out because they didn’t allow dogs in the restaurant. But he had no dog. He left me sitting in there with a ten foot dummy.

“I was with him in Toronto and he had two dolls and vented them singing I’ll Be Loving You.… Two people bought singing dolls off him and they weren’t singing dolls.

“I was with him in Gibraltar… Barbary apes… He goes over and feeds them so their lips start moving and he starts talking to them and venting them talking to him. An hour and a half we were there. There was this couple from Alabama and they left thinking the apes talked. Norman stayed there until they were convinced and had left. They would have been telling everyone back in Alabama about the talking apes in Gibraltar.”

There is a clip of Norman Collier’s act on YouTube.

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

At this point, Tiswas presenter and ex Darts performer Den Hegarty came over, with two paper plates covered in ‘custard pie’ (actually white shaving foam) sticking to his face.

“Just like the old days,” said David.

“It’s not the stuff we used to use,” said Den. “We always used Erasmic. But this stuff stings the eyes. Though I didn’t used to get pies. I tended to get baked beans poured over me. Then people wrote in and complained we were wasting food and all the starving people in Africa could be fed with out baked beans. So then we had to make fake baked beans and they were poured over me.”

“The glamour of television.” I said.

The ending of the final episode of Tiswas is on YouTube.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Television

The last day of Tiswas, the custard-pie-filled anarchic UK children’s TV series

This Is Saturday - Watch And Smile

T-I-S-W-A-S – This Is Saturday Watch And Smile 1974-1982

Today was the day – in 1982 – that ITV transmitted the last edition of Tiswas, the anarchic Saturday morning children’s TV show.

I worked as a researcher on the last series of the show. It is a series that people tend to have forgotten, because it was not presented by Chris Tarrant.

He was preparing and producing his late-night ‘adult’ version of TiswasOTT, now mainly remembered for the Greatest Show On Legs’ naked balloon dance.

Central Television, being slightly incompetent, had failed to arrange a production office for Tarrant and his team so, for the first few weeks of pre-production on his show, they squatted in our office (which we were happy with), refusing to leave in a successful effort to force the Central bureaucracy into giving him an office.

The script for the last edition of Tiswas

The script for the last edition of Tiswas

In the middle of our series of Tiswas, the ITV franchise-holder who produced the series changed from ATV to Central Television. In fact, this was a cosmetic change.

It was the same company – same building, same people, same executives and mostly the same programmes – but theoretically it was a different company.

Tiswas started each show with clips from the previous week’s show. On the Saturday after the change-over, the accountants at ATV told the show’s producer, Glyn Edwards, that he would have to pay hundreds of pounds to buy the rights to screen clips from his own previous week’s ATV show at the start of this week’s Central show.

I do not know exactly what happened, but I think he told them to fuck off and, if they didn’t like it, to sue themselves.

Tiswas was an interesting introduction to TV research for me. The show was live and the series lasted 39 weeks. It varied in length but, from memory, it was often up to three hours long comprising (as it was for kids with short attention spans) items that sometimes only lasted 20 seconds.

It was somewhat hectic during the live transmissions, the only respite coming during 7-minute cartoons or 3-minute rock band performances.

After this, my Saturday mornings never smelled the same.

On a Saturday morning, the Tiswas studio smelled sweet: a combination of the shaving foam used in the ‘custard’ pies and the talcum-powder-like smell of the little ‘explosions’ that were set off.

After all the colour and the sound. I used to come home, dead tired on the mid-afternoon train from Birmingham to London and just plonk myself down on my sofa and mindlessly watch Game For a Laugh on ITV. I later worked on that show, too. The production of Game For a Laugh was surprisingly more hectic and pressurised than Tiswas because Tiswas had been running for about seven years and was a very smooth operation.

A studio floor pass for the show

A floor pass for children and adults taking part in the show

The trick was, in the week leading up to transmission, to have two large production meetings which the lighting, sound supervisors, floor managers etc attended.

The producer ran through what was intended and any obvious major problems were ironed-out or allowed-for with contingency plans. Because everyone knew what might go wrong, it seldom did… to such an extent that the producer Glyn Edwards once discussed how to add more chaos into the show because almost nothing went wrong.

This, he felt, was not in the spirit of Tiswas.

It was a big lesson I learnt: to stage anarchy effectively, you have to be very organised in your preparations.

Of course, things did go wrong.

I remember a child writing in saying he wanted to sit between the two humps of a camel. I phoned up a circus owner, explained this and booked a camel. When the beast arrived, about half an hour before the show started, it only had one hump.

“I paid for two humps,” I told the circus owner.

“It’s got two humps,” said the circus owner.

“It clearly has one hump,” I said. “I can see it only has one hump.”

He then tried to argue that the dromedary was, in fact, a Bactrian and that sometimes a camel’s two humps looked as if they were one hump. I think the phrase “think of saggy tits” came into his argument at one point.

We never booked an animal from his circus again. But the child was happy just to sit on a camel and may have had mathematical problems.

I think I must have encountered the comedian Charlie Chuck in a previous incarnation on Tiswas.

Director Bob Cousins (left) and producer Glyn Edwards

Director Bob Cousins (left) with producer Glyn Edwards

The producer, Glyn Edwards, wanted a German ‘oompah band’.

I found The Amazing Bavarian Stompers for him and booked them but, while they were performing in the studio, I was off somewhere setting-up the next item on the show. In the canteen afterwards, I remember hearing people talk about the ‘mad drummer’ leaping over his drum kit and being generally anarchic – a good thing on Tiswas.

Charlie Chuck, at that time, was drummer for The Amazing Bavarian Stompers and, when I became chummy with him a decade or so later, he mentioned having been on Tiswas. So we probably met in passing. One of the strangenesses of TV.

I also distantly remember some Tiswas party in a Birmingham restaurant.

It had been difficult to book the party, because Birmingham restaurants were wary of Tiswas parties. On a previous occasion, a fire extinguisher had been let off during a Chris Tarrant celebration and word had got round the restaurant trade.

On this occasion, everyone was well-behaved… though, halfway through, I looked up from my meal and presenter Den Hegarty decided, at that moment, to start eating the flowers decorating the middle of the table.

It did not seem odd at the time.

On Tiswas, few things did.

YouTube has a clip of the last two minutes of the final Tiswas show.

2 Comments

Filed under Children, Television