There's a revolution happening on Saturday mornings... and its supporters are coming out of the closet to turn their tellies on faster than maggots appear on a leg of rotten chicken.
It started in Birmingham — of which more later. It grabbed two hours of TV time in what was a more-dead-than-alive slot at 10:30 a.m. And it became so popular that virtually every TV station in the country snapped it up straight after the TV strike last year.
Tiswas now has more than five million viewers over the two hours every Saturday; two hours where what seems like a cast of idiots entertain a studio audience of clean and shiny children with live water fights, custard pie fights, pop interviews, competitions, chart videos, film clips and probably the best collection of ad lib entertainers in Britain.
Besides Tiswas the opposition's Multi-Coloured Swop Shop (which has the advantage of an hour earlier start) looks like a vicarage tea party for children with stage school diplomas.
Beside the anarchic Chris Tarrant — producer and presenter of Tiswas — Noel Edmonds and his army of aides look like Christmas robots that didn't come with batteries included. And already the savage effects are sweeping the country, as they have been doing for the six years that Tiswas has remained a cult programme in the Midlands.
"THIS IS WHAT THEY WANT!" is the slogan, and you'd better take it while it's coming. "This is Saturday, Watch And Smile," Chris Tarrant and Sally James said hopefully at the beginning. Then it became "This Is Saturday Watch And Suffer," and everyone began to enjoy it a whole lot more.
Actually "Getting on" Tiswas is extremely difficult — no surprise. With only 70 kids (estimated) per show they're already full up until the end of the current series in the summer. And competition to appear in the near-legendary messy slots — The Stocks (tremble), The Cage (cower) and best of all Flan Your Folks (where a kid watches his parents being soaked and sauced) — is immense. Groups of college students vie with each other to write the best letter underlining why they should be in the Cage — a small enclosure where they stand soaking wet and dirty, for two hours. The present waiting list is anything up to a year.
As for The Stocks, well ask Ronnie Gurr. Where else can you have 12 eggs, two bottles of tomato ketchup, two bottles of brown sauce and a dead fish rubbed mercilessly into your head… and still be a celebrity? But to return, we didn't just try — we succeeded. All in the cause of a good story and a new clothing allowance.
9:30 am. Arrive at ATVLand in Birmingham. Pleasantly reminded of Mike Harding's old joke — "if the world had an armpit, it'd be Birmingham". Giggling children in clean clothes are lined up against the wall, truncated from their parents from the next two hours of carnage. They bellow at Spit the dog, gasp at Pan's Grannies limbering up, and most of them look like they ought to do number ones before they get in the studio. "Which one's for the cage and which one for the stocks?
10:25 am. The kids are in, and the stars are hear. Ronnie Gurr is "locked" in the stocks, and I'm hemmed in by a mass of volunteers in the cage, wearing everything but a rubber ring. As the programme credits roll, Chris Tarrant leads the first battery of kids in a charge towards the cage, all screaming: "This is What We Want". They wield foam flans and buckets of water, aiming them at the cage. Mercifully most of them land on each other. It's a start.
11.30 am. Elvis Costello has arrived, literally with nothing to spare. As his video rolls he saunters into the studio, casually taking his overcoat off seconds before sitting down to be interviewed live. He then attempts to break the record for throwing buckets of water at the cage. He's useless, and Chris Tarrant, John Gorman and the kids help out.
12 pm. No hitches so far. Chris Tarrant having successfully negotiated his sixth change of clothing. John Gorman has eaten a vile dead fish, and Sally James has attempted to chew real dog food. We've had films of the Skids and Ben Hur, a haunted house and skateboarding. Ronnie Gurr is given his "dose," his hair and nostrils an indistinguishable mass of congealing raw egg and ketchup. He can't breathe, and the lovely children nearest him start kicking and taunting. I'm soaked to the skin, insidious soot having wormed its way as far as the Y-fronts and the cracks between the teeth.
12:25. Allowed out of the cage and the stocks at last — objects of immense ridicule. Quite by chance a huge flan and water fight begins as the credits roll, virtually everybody in the studio diving in to slip, chuck and hurl anything to hand. Eggs and ketchup fly about in a blur of real artistic beauty and the fight is so good that the closing video — of Dollar — is interrupted by live returns to the studio.
"It's the bargain basement of television," Sally James affirms. "It doesn't cost a lot, but it doesn't look cheap."
"And, anyway," says Tarrant, "if I had huge budgets, I think we'd lose the rough and ready feel. Tiswas has got an atmosphere — one we've built up — and only certain things will fit into that. So I think, the format will stay the same.
"We're running a successful series, and one that is slowly changing. We're adapting to a wider audience — across the country, and to a wider age range. It's just a question of dropping an item when it gets tired — like we did with the 'Do The Dying Fly' — then bringing it back again.
"You don't want to switch on every week and see the 'Bucket Of Water Song' at 11:20, and 'Compost Corner' at 10:43. We'd die in a week."
Tiswas is essentially Chris Tarrant's baby. He's managed, with the help of the likes of John Gorman, Frank Carson, Spit and Sally, to simultaneously carve out an audience for Saturday morning TV.
"We took in ideas and items from anywhere, getting right away from that static format: this is Saturday, this is a kid's programme," says Tarrant. "It works because there's a very small production team, and the people who are involved are right for Tiswas. Not everything on it appeals to everybody — impossible.
"But at least we're not aiming for a particular audience and sticking with that audience — Blue Peter style. Some of Tiswas — like when the cameramen make a joke, live, all part of the atmosphere, etc, etc — doesn't reach every watcher. God help it would. But in there somewhere is something that does."
Admirable. But for Tarrant, and for Sally James, the flak is just beginning. Adored in the Midlands for years (and very protectively so, at that) Tiswas has been received unkindly now that its gone 'national'. Although, you, the Record Mirror readers did make it the only non-networked show to make the poll.
"Entertainment — it's shambles. Cruel to children. Vile and debasing."
Just a selection of some of the TV critics' comments; brilliant in their ability to miss the mark.
Chris Tarrant, father of a daughter, and Sally James, married with no children, just laugh the whole thing off. Cruel? "Do they watch the show?" Tarrant asks incredulously. "We don't lift children up by their ears, we just hold them."
Debasing? "What, with people queuing up to get on? Everyone enjoys the mess and chaos. If it was getting boring we'd stop it and put something else in."
Shambles? "Of course it is, that's what they want! I'd love someone to look and talk to these kids when they come out. There's nothing cruel or obscene about it. They love watching kids their own age dancing. They love watching people getting messed up. And if they don't — there's always the films"
Tarrant: "You don't put kids up on a pedestal and then say this is what you want, because it isn't. You find out what they do want, then give it to them."
Sally James: "We just treat children as what they are, people. They're little adults, so that's the way you talk to them.
And, surely, the last word must go to Chris Tarrant, affable, in his thirties, and "nut case" producer. "I think I'm the same as everyone else really. I like nice kids, and I can't stand nasty ones. You get horrible, snivelly spoilt little brats, clean boring ones, and bright talented ones. Why not say so? And if you've got that 'orrible mixture — and a load of older people who watch Tiswas — how can you give them a programme about stamp collecting?"