Living for the weekend: Saturday kids’ TV

Phantom Flan Flinger, Tiswas

There's a ghost in the house: Tiswas's enigmatic Phantom Flan Flinger

By Alan Gregson

Offered: Subbuteo FA Cup Final set – Wanted: Anything to do with Adam Ant

Up to the late Seventies, our mum used to drag us kids to town and deposit us at the Odeon, where, in exchange for ten bob, we got a morning of cartoons, Fifties adventure serials and maybe a re-run film, along with a carton of drink and a packet of crisps. This was the Saturday Kids Club.

Then mum got a car and started doing the shopping at Asda, so no more trips to town and no more Saturday Kids Club, but around the same time, TV started to provide an alternative source of Saturday morning entertainment for kids in the shape of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Tiswas.

Now, even though my dad worked seven days a week as a truck mechanic, my mum was a fervent aspiring middle-class Daily Express reader, so ITV was all but forbidden in our house. Just about the only programme I got to watch on the third button was The Six Million Dollar Man, so we were a Swap Shop and Blue Peter family, no Tiswas anarchy for us, and so I missed out on the delights of Sally James.

For those readers under 40, Swap Shop was a must-watch for kids from 1978-’84. It was on between September/October and February/March each year, with a mix of celebrity guests, cartoons, pop stars and phone ins. The USP of the programme was swaps. Kids would write or phone in with offers of unwanted toys that they wished to swap for something else. Keith Chegwin would extend on this feature by appearing in whichever town Grandstand was using for its extended football coverage. This was before the days where Aunty Beeb had money to burn so they just used the same outside broadcast unit for both programmes. Cheggers would appear in the town square surrounded by kids with toys to swap, then after Swap Shop was over, the OB crew would leg it to the football ground. John Craven was in the studio to provide a bit of kid-oriented current affairs coverage as an extension of Newsround.

The programme would also have a collector of the week, who would be in the studio surrounded by their collection of things. I remember one week being surprised to see one of my distant cousins, a girl called Tammy, who was showing off her collection of novelty erasers, or rubbers as we called them in those days. She had a couple of duplicates she wanted to swap for something special but I can’t remember what it was she wanted.

Over on ITV, things were a lot messier. Tiswas began life two years before Swap Shop but being on ITV, it was network dependant, and as I lived in the Granada region, we didn’t get it until 1979. I used to listen with envy as the kids with more liberal parents told me about the goings on in Tiswasland: a spitting puppet, a girl presenter who was much saucier than Maggie Philbin, custard pies and dying flies. Oh how I longed to watch this car crash of a programme, and whenever Mum was out, that’s precisely what we’d do. Really, apart from the Phantom Flan Flinger and the buckets of gunge, it was much the same as Swap Shop: a mix of cartoons, serials and celebrity guests with Chris Tarrant, Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Sally James in between. But it had much more attitude than Swap Shop.

Tiswas slowly faded away in 1982, with various ITV networks dropping it in favour of No 73, which saw one of the first TV appearances of Sandi Toksvig as the owner of No 73, a house with a red front door. This programme was a mix of sketches, features about animals and cartoons and if memory serves, also featured one of the first TV appearances of Frank Sidebottom.

Swap Shop lasted until 1984, when it transitioned into Saturday Superstore, which followed a similar format of cartoons, serials, pop videos and celebrity guests, just without the swaps. Noel Edmonds was replaced by Mike Read, Maggie Philbin was replaced by Sarah Greene, but Cheggers and John Craven remained.

Probably the most infamous Superstore celebrity guest was Margaret Thatcher, who appeared on the show in the run up to the 1987 General Election. She took a full part in the show just like any other guest, even appearing in the Juke Box Jury-style panel that judged the latest pop video releases. The best part was when caller Alison Standfirst asked her, “In the event of a nuclear war, where will you be?”

“Well,” Thatcher hesitantly ventured, “I shall be in London.”

The girl, not put off in the least, asked: “Will you have your own bunker or something?” The PM started to answer before thinking better of going down that particular line, and instead steered conversation back to safer ground.

The entire transcript of the calls is available to order from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (margaretthatcher.org/document/106572) if you’re really that interested. There is an editorial note attached: “Mercifully the transcript omits MT’s appearance on the Pop Panel section of the programme, the COI confining its attention to what it described as the ‘relevant parts’.”

Saturday Superstore was replaced by Going Live!, with only Sarah Greene continuing onto the new show, the rest of the Superstore gang going their own way, with Phillip Schofield, Trevor and Simon, Gordon the Gopher and Emma Forbes taking their place.

Going Live! was once again the familiar mix of music, guest interviews, phone-ins, sketches and cartoons, but a new segment was Phillip Hodson’s “agony uncle”, which alongside the usual teenage mix of angst and love triangles covered some surprisingly deep issues for Saturday morning kid’s TV, such as child abuse and AIDS.

Over on ITV, No 73 morphed into Motormouth. I have absolutely no idea what this programme was like as it completely passed me by. A quick look at the list of presenters reveals only three people I’ve heard of, Neil Buchanan, Gaby Roslin and Andy Crane. The other five on the list are a mystery to me. The only deviation from the usual format I can find here is that a roving reporter, Andrea Arnold, would present segments from various locations around the world.

Motormouth lasted four seasons and was replaced by What’s Up Doc?. This programme ran for three years and was largely an extended advert for Warner Bros cartoons and merchandise. Presented by Andy Crane, Yvette Fielding and Pat Sharp, it’s mostly remembered for introducing us to the brilliant cartoon comedy Animaniacs (executive producer: Steven Spielberg).

Back on Aunty Beeb, Going Live! ran its course after six seasons and became Live & Kicking. During its eight-season run, it was hosted by an illustrious collection of presenters including Andi Peters, Emma Forbes, John Barrowman, Trevor and Simon, Jamie Theakston, Zoë Ball, Sarah Cawood and Katy Hill. While Live & Kicking spawned a number of successful TV careers, it wasn’t a ratings hit because, for much of its run, it was up against a certain SMTV Live.

After Live & Kicking stopped kicking, it was replaced by a couple of short-run series, first The Saturday Show then Dick & Dom In Da Bungalow. After these shows, BBC1 gave up on Saturday-morning kids TV altogether and drafted in Gregg Wallace (and later James Martin) for Saturday Kitchen.

Over on ITV, they struck gold with SMTV Live, with the first few seasons being hosted by the soon-to-become TV royalty of Ant & Dec and Cat Deeley. SMTV Live featured a number of sketches, some laced with innuendo that one hoped went over the kids’ heads and was aimed at the older brothers and dads watching for Cat Deeley.

Ant & Dec and Cat Deeley only lasted a couple of years, then left to do proper TV. They were replaced by a rolling selection of Steps members and ex-Big Brother contestants. SMTV Live was followed each week by CD:UK, a live Top Of The Pops substitute that was less troubling to Operation Yewtree.

After SMTV Live finished, the final big Saturday-morning show was Ministry Of Mayhem, which gave the world Holly Willoughby, and in turn gave dads a big excuse to watch the kids while Mum popped out to the shops.

And really, that was it. ITV followed the BBC and gave up on Saturday-morning kids-magazine programmes and started showing cartoons and American teen series in isolation without TV personalities and pop stars getting in the way. It’s a shame, as there was a certain charm in the old formats, with hungover pop stars trying to stay awake while being interviewed by kids and politicians being dragged in to review pop videos.

I’m sure examples of all the shows above can be found on YouTube, but I’ll leave you with this one to be getting on with: Margaret Thatcher on Saturday Superstore edited from one of those talking heads-type show…

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