Up until 1976, children’s TV had mainly been restricted to weekdays between 4.0 and 5.45pm. No one seemed to know what to broadcast on Saturday Mornings, apart from the odd cartoon and Garden Sheds Around Britain type series !
Meanwhile, the star of BBC Radio One’s breakfast show, Noel Edmonds, realised that his audience was rapidly increasing and getting younger and younger.
Some bright TV boss at the BBC must have got a pat on the back when the ideas light bulb flashed above his/her head and decided to bring Noel to the TV screen on Saturday mornings for the Multi Coloured Swap Shop.
The BBC decided not to go for the standard format of a thirty minute magazine type show, but instead opted for a two to three hour chunk of live televison.
The Swap Shop bit, where children could phone in and swap toys and games, only occupied a small section of the output, as did the various cartoons that would pop up between features. Most of the programme revolved around interviews with pop stars and actors of the time, always allowing the audience to phone in and ask questions and win the latest LP etc.
Noel linked together fun and games presented by a strong support team. John Craven would do the “serious” bits which were an extension of his weekday “news for kids” programme Newsround. There was always an outside broadcast presented by the young Keith Chegwin. Bearing in mind Swap Shop’s series would run from autumn to early spring, Keith would always been stood smiling circled by a bunch of kids in the pouring rain as Noel would shout, “Where are you this week, Cheggers ?”
Swap Shop was ground breaking televison and set the agenda for the children’s TV of today in the UK.
Poor ITV took a while to catch up and aired cartoons. Some of the regions put out their own attempts at a Swap Shop. Yorkshire TV had Calendar Kids with Kathryn Apanowicz and Mark Curry which once featured a political debate between new wave star Tom Robinson (of 2,4,6,8 Motorway fame) and a certain 16 year old Young Conservative called William Hague – now an MP in British Parliament ! But throughout 1976 and 1977, ITV fell victim to Swap Shop in the ratings war, with the exception of Birmingham ! (More about that later !……)
ITV fought back in 1978 with The Saturday Banana presented by Bill Oddie the bird watching member of the comedy trio The Goodies. There is an unconfirmed rumour that the original title was The Saturday Bonanza, but the title was mistyped in the production office of Southampton’s Southern TV !
Bill would sit in a studio which resembled a school gym rather than a TV studio surrounded by giant inflatable bananas. This was long before inflatable bananas appeared on the British football terraces !
Although a brave attempt at snatching the Swap Shop audience, the show never quite made it. They would concentrate on cheap features such as the RAF unarmed combat team demonstrating gymnastics or the kid who held the world record for making model aeroplanes, whilst on the BBC, Noel’s gang would be interviewing David Soul or listening to Billy Ocean perform his new single.
I’ve got to admit, I watched The Saturday Banana just for the technical cock-ups.
The Banana’s replacement in 1979 was The Mersey Pirate. Guests tended to be more famous than the one’s Bill Oddie was landed with and the fun was linked by comedian Duggie Brown from a mock ship moored in Liverpool’s river Mersey. Ill fated, the show didn’t last too long and again was watched by sad anoraky types like me who liked watching for technical cock-ups !
Back in Birmingham in 1974, viewers were keeping a secret. They had a Saturday morning show of their own that some would say was much more fun than Noel’s Swap Shop and Bill’s Banana – and they weren’t gonna share it with the rest of the country ! Well, they did concede in 1980 when TISWAS went national and TV was never the same again !
In some ways, TISWAS (Today Is Saturday Wake Up And Smile) was similar to Swap Shop. The anchor man was Chris Tarrant, a former Central Office Of Information film producer who moved in front of the camera at Birmingham’s ATV to present the wacky news clips on their regional TV news show. He was supported by a strong back up team of Sally James (serious bits), John Gorman former member of comedy group Scaffold (non serious bits), comedian/impressionist Lenny Henry (non serious bits) and ventriloquist Bob Carolgees (er, non serious bits again).
The main difference between Swap Shop and Tiswas was that Swap Shop would interview guests and kids in the audience, Tiswas would cover them in water, foam and gunge ! Gorman would appear from the back of the audience during an interview with a bucket of water and drench the actor who had come to plug his latest series, Lenny Henry would perform his act in front of a cage full of kids, (who would fall victim to gunge or Gorman’s bucket) and everyone, including the cast would fear the custard pie in the face from The Phantom Flan Flinger, a masked character who looked like Darth Vader on amphetimines !
Of course, this was far too good for children and in 1981/2, an adult version was screen late at night on Saturday’s called OTT. Exactly the same format as TISWAS but with adults on the receiving end of the gunge, punctuated by stand up comedy from Alexei Sayle (later replaced by Bernard Manning) and an attractive girl who promised to remove her bra every week, but never actually did !