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THE GLORY GAME - THE RISE AND RISE OF SATURDAY NIGHT TELLY
Part Five: Send Them to Bed Happy by Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams
June 2002

 

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Saturday night television in 1982 looked increasingly to programmes broadcast earlier in the day for a source of inspiration. The success of Game for a Laugh and the corresponding demise of The Generation Game meant that the BBC and ITV were pretty much neck and neck in the ratings. As ever, there was considerable flux occurring in the industry, not least of which was the introduction of the new ITV franchises. Yet 1982 was to be a good year for the network. The introduction of Central, TSW and TVS, seemed to revitalise ITV as a whole, and as each of the new stations understood the importance of impressing from day one (the new franchises began transmission on 1 January 1982) it was, therefore not altogether surprising to see ITV secure the top 20 most watched programmes of the year. However this feat in itself was not commonplace.

The BBC had achieved similar success in 1979, but that had been largely due to the protracted strike that had kept ITV off the air for several weeks and had resultantly inflated the BBC's own audience. For ITV such ratings dominance represented a return to the network's "glory days" of 1956 - 1961 where the BBC had been blotted out from the year's top 20 programmes for an unprecedented six consecutive years. Such dominance though was not reflected on Saturday nights where both the BBC and ITV struggled to exert control. Central Television looked to make an immediate impact on the battle with the introduction of their new Saturday night "splashstick" programme OTT. Yet, as always seemed to be the case with ITV, the launch of the new TV station was threatened by union action before a single programme had aired.

The arrival of Channel 4, ITN's desire to move away from film to electronic cameras, the requirement to cover the World Cup in Spain and the need to cover the Falklands conflict gave the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) enough leverage at the end of 1981 to make several demands for "new" money. Central found itself caught up in a pay dispute with electricians at their temporary Nottingham studio, and were unable to broadcast any programmes from there when they first went on air. In fact, Central never managed a single broadcast from the makeshift studio (converted from an old sweet factory) as the dispute was not to be settled until they opened their permanent Nottingham facility in September 1983.

OTT was broadcast on Central's second day and on paper must have looked like a sure winner for the station. Broadcast for 13 weeks (with the final programme being a compilation of the series' "best bits") usually just before 11pm on Saturday evenings, OTT was crafted on the back of the success of ATV's Saturday morning children's show Tiswas (which by that time had been running for eight years), and was the brainchild of that programme's presenter - Chris Tarrant.

Born on 10 October 1946 in Reading, Berkshire, schoolboy Tarrant used to bunk off lessons from King's School in Worcester in order to indulge in his favourite activities - fishing and trainspotting. A love of acting drew the young Tarrant in front of audiences, as he appeared in a number of Shakespeare productions at university. Upon leaving he took on a number of different jobs (night security guard, lawnmower deliverer, bed salesman and teacher) before breaking into television by writing "hundreds of ridiculous letters" to various television stations. Tarrant worked for a time as a reporter and interviewer. "I started giggling at interviews" he recalls "and it worked. They said 'You're young', and put me on Tiswas." Through Tiswas, Tarrant was gradually able to carve out a degree of autonomy, and by the early 1980s, he had a strong creative input into each programme. However, the IBA grew increasingly concerned about the programme's risqué content, and when efforts were made to tone down the material (under the auspices of concern regarding Tiswas' educational content) Tarrant decided that instead of compromising on material he would find a more appropriate audience for his increasingly close-to-the-bone comedy.

With fellow presenters John Gorman, Lenny Henry, Sally James and Bob Carolgees in tow, Tarrant took the Tiswas format out on tour under the name of the Four Bucketeers. The predominantly nightclub audiences were highly appreciative of the mixture of comedy, abuse, gunge and water, and on the back of such success, Gorman helped the group to a minor hit single (The Bucket of Water Song made it to number 26 in the pop charts on 3 May 1980) and an album. Realising the potential of a whole new, "adult" audience, Tarrant, Carolgees, Gorman and Henry quit Tiswas on 28 March 1981 in pursuit of late night television success. Sally James decided to stick with the Saturday morning show, and presided over a - many say - disappointing, final series, whilst Tarrant and co began work on their live, late night comedy show - OTT.

With a budget of £250,000 it was clear that Central were investing heavily in what seemed to be a promising idea, but from day one there was a disconcerting lack of order to the production. "The show is so up to date that the team is still working out the formula, if indeed it has one" reported Alan Kennaugh. "But it will definitely feature plenty of splash and splosh in the children's tradition, with characters like Count Custard (its version of the Tiswas Phantom Flan Flinger) throwing his pies around. 'We know it has enormous potential appeal for adults' says Tarrant." Quite what that appeal was remained remarkably ill defined. For example, Lenny Henry "doesn't know what he will be doing in tonight's OTT" remarked Kennaugh on 23 January 1982. "But one thing is sure. When the show ends he'll be standing under a hot shower - 'just to recover' ... Henry loves the uncontrolled humour where even he never knows what is going to happen next. 'Tiswas was marvellous to work on. It was a new style of lunatic humour, and we got away with murder. When I first started Tiswas, my nerves used to go before each show simply because it was live. But now, in OTT I just get on with it.'" Henry attempted to entice Dawn French into writing for the programme, however her response that there wasn't enough time to produce decent scripts seems - in - retrospect highly prescient.

Although finely honed via countless performances in night-clubs and theatres, a one-off stage act whose audience appeal relied heavily on the ability to interact with the performers required a lot of adaptation to make it work for television, and it appeared that little thought had been put into how this anarchic format could be expanded and altered to keep the attention of Saturday night television audiences for 12 one hour programmes. Not that OTT would exactly mirror the Four Bucketeers act. On the search for new, cutting-edge talent to augment the team of Tarrant, Gorman, Henry and Carolgees, Chris Tarrant came across comedienne Helen Atkinson-Wood at the previous year's Edinburgh Festival. "Although she is new to television," he commented, "she is very expressive." Mancunian actress Colette Hiller was Tarrant's next inductee. Having previously appeared in small film roles in 1979's Birth of the Beatles (as a reporter) and 1981's Ragtime (a female companion to a lawyer), OTT was her first significant television exposure. The final recruit was alternative comedian Alexei Sayle, and he too was gaining his first significant television exposure on OTT. Chosen for of his "offbeat" humour, Sayle's cutting-edge material must have seemed the perfect addition to OTT's anarchic manifesto. However, it would quickly become apparent that Sayle's comedic targets (the "Habitat-bean-bag-hessian-wallpaper brigade") were markedly different from those in the minds of the ex-Tiswas contingent.

Television's "craziest show" immediately, and somewhat predictably attracted the ire of television critics. Skits featuring bikini-clad models and whipped cream, kicking rats (a routine with a man stuffing rats down his trousers went frighteningly awry resulting in one of the escaped rodents being kicked on camera), gunge, an attractive girl who promised to remove her bra each week, but never actually did, the infamous "balloon dance" and stand-up comedy made for patchy, downmarket television. Whilst Tiswas had never been the most cohesive programme on television, OTT seemed downright shambolic and the paucity of the material (one sketch involved a husband trying to force-feed his wife with paracetamols, in an attempt to pre-empt her pat "I've got a headache" objections to his amorous advances) meant that the programme had little or no redeeming features.

Alexei Sayle was the first to jump ship, finding much of the programme's material to be offensive. His replacement, Bernard Manning, allowed the show to retain an artifice of "dangerous" comedy, whilst bringing OTT's stand up comedy into line with the rest of the programme's "seaside postcard" agenda. Yet still the critics and the general public poured scorn on the programme. Henry in particular recalls the mauling his own family gave the programme (overheard by him when taking a bath one evening) and the uniformity of negative criticism weighed heavily not only on the show's performers but on Central Television itself. For a new station looking to impress, this had been the worst possible of starts. There was no chance of a second series, although OTT did return in a sense just one year later, when Tarrant launched Saturday Stayback on a now very suspecting public. Similar in format to OTT, Saturday Stayback also accrued many of the earlier shows waifs and strays. Tarrant, Atkinson-Wood, Carolgees and Manning were all present and correct, but Lenny Henry, Collette Hiller and John Gorman had all left. In their place Tarrant again looked to introduce talent new to television and Tony Slattery and Phil Cool received much needed early exposure on the show. Saturday Stayback lasted for only six episodes. Curiously though, most of the main performers were able to shake off the stigma of OTT relatively quickly, suggesting that even if Tarrant's comedic talents hadn't been as well honed as he hoped, he was, at least, able to recognise bonafide comedy talent in others when he saw it.

The failure of OTT had surprisingly little effect on its main performers. Chris Tarrant had wisely looked to develop his broadcasting career by taking a job as a disc jockey on Capital Radio. His persona on the radio was somewhat removed from that seen on television, and so he was well insulated against the demise of OTT. Alexei Sayle would find a more palatable fame later that year in The Young Ones and Lenny Henry too would end up in a vehicle more attuned to his comedic sensibilities as the BBC's own Saturday night sketch show Three of a Kind returned for a second series that winter. Originally designed with a cast of six, Henry and David Copperfield were subsequently united with Tracey Ullman to create what Henry described as "the only show on television where you've got a woman, a black guy and a Northerner and it really doesn't matter!" Gorman and Carolgees remained stalwart entertainers without ever achieving the celebrity status of either Tarrant or Henry, and Atkinson-Wood found herself gravitating more and more towards the alternative comedy scene with memorable appearances in Blackadder and KYTV (as the imaginatively named "Anna Daptor") marking her out as one of the comedy faces of the 1980s. Colette Hiller, although not a household name, achieved some level of lasting fame by appearing as Corporal Ferro in the 1986 film Aliens. She can, to this day, still be found in full costume attending various science fiction conventions.

In looking back over the history of Saturday night television it is often tempting to try and spot patterns and cycles amidst the ebb and flow. We have already borne witness to the manner in which it can at first celebrate and then seek to ridicule its most popular and important entertainers. The demise of OTT bears many similarities to an ill-fated attempt 19 years later to transfer the popular Saturday morning children's programme SM:TV to a wider, mainstream slot. Like Tiswas, SM:TV had developed a cult audience amongst adults, yet like OTT, Slap Bang (as the Saturday evening "version" of SM:TV was called) only lasted for one series. As with the demise of Game for a Laugh and the erosion in popularity of Doctor Who, context seems to lie at the heart of both OTT and Slap Bang's demise. Saturday morning innovation can be old hat by Saturday evening. Comedy that appears subversive in the morning becomes retrograde by teatime and post-modern asides to the clued-up morning viewer become tedious explanations for the dozy evening watcher. In short, the expectation of the audience demands different types of entertainment at different times of the day.

Whilst the BBC might have wished to revel in ITV's high profile failure, they had their own Saturday disaster to contend with. Sin on Saturday was first broadcast on 7 September 1982 at 10.55pm. Described as "eight discussions, interspersed with music and comedy that is thoroughly sinful" the mix sounded somewhat highbrow but not a million miles away from stalwart light night BBC fare such as Saturday Night at the Mill and Parkinson. Co-editor Sean Hardie was later to describe the programme as a "dinner-party idea ... we all sit round and think it's a great idea for a programme, and then someone turns round and says 'Do it' and you say 'No I didn't actually mean that' but by that stage it's got into the system."

Presenter Bernard Falk recalled that the BBC "were looking for someone who personally encompassed as many of the sins as possible. I'm overweight, I've always coveted a late-night talk-show, I envy people who are more successful with women than I am, I'm incredibly pleased with myself and incurably slothful." Falk had previously and very capably presented the first series of the BBC's ambitious adventure game show Now Get Out of That (which was to return for a second and final series in 1983), but was new to the business of helming a chat show. Nevertheless, Falk was determined to do things his own way. "No one has been invited just because he is a 'celebrity' and I won't be expressing phoney interest in anyone's latest show, album or about-to-be-published autobiography, because I'm just not at ease with showbiz people in that context. We have chosen guests who are directly connected with a particular sin - and they will be there to talk about that. We've also made sure they are all people who can really talk."

Falk then went on to outline how he foresaw the eight programmes in the Sin on Saturday series playing out. "The show will be light-hearted and funny, but not entirely frivolous. There will be an element of serious investigation into the nature of 'sin', why people are sinful and whether they can (or should) do anything about it ... Everyone we have on will be full of life and even the virtuous ones will be made to confess that they're sinful deep down! ... At that hour you want to keep people up and send them to bed happy, so the recipe will be intelligence, humour and wit ... I admit I'm cautiously terrified - but you can say I'm quietly confident. It's a great subject. When I look in the mirror, I see all the sins we're dealing with staring right back at me. We shall be plumbing the depths of human nature - what could be more interesting than that?"

Sin on Saturday's title sequence consisted of Falk pulling faces to accompany each of the sins. As the programme was scheduled to run for eight weeks, the production team had tried to come up with a suitably contemporaneous eighth sin, and so Falk was required to mime something suitable to the "sin" of "getting away with it". The first programme covered the sin of lust and included "laughter and music from Cheetah, Robbie Coltrane and Elaine Loudon." Coltrane was, like Sayle on OTT, still new to television at this point and hailed from the burgeoning "alternative comedy" scene. Loudon had also developed something of a reputation as a singer and comedienne, but had also - until that point - received limited nationwide exposure. The eclectic collection of guests included Linda Lovelace, ex-nun Karen Armstrong, representatives from the Salvation Army, novelist Charlotte Lamb and Oliver Reed.

Immediately it became apparent that Falk did not have the sufficient experience required to create a cohesive, structured debate involving so many disparate opinions. A question to a line of beauty queens in the audience asking them to "define lust" resulted only in nervous giggles, and it was obvious that by inviting people with opinions as intractable and opposed as a pornography star and a nun, no sustainable debate was possible. Recalling the programme for the BBC's 1992 TV Hell programme Lamb remembered waiting back stage to go on with Oliver Reed, when the larger-than-life actor decide he wasn't going to go on because he "thought the format was completely wrong". When the duo was introduced, Reed tried to make a beeline for the audience, but was restrained as Lamb grabbed him by the hand and visibly pulled him onto the set. Typically, Reed's performance was disrespectful and indulgent, with the voluble star imparting nothing more significant than the fact that he liked to look at "ladies who take their clothes off".

As with OTT, critical reaction was unanimously hostile. Writing for The Observer at the time, Julian Barnes recalls "I watched and thought 'I've seen bad but this is dire' and I rubbished it and noticed everybody else rubbished it, [then] there were two weeks of constant rubbishing from the critics." Headlines such as "The Sins of Falk", "Hell Bent", "The most deadly sin - just not good enough", "Bummer of the season" (Sunday Telegraph), "A nasty and incompetent piece" (The Listener) were bad enough, but BBC1's own Controller (Alan Hart) believed the programme to have "committed the most deadly sin in television of being both boring and banal."

The second programme in the series tackled covetousness and included a similarly eclectic selection of guests, but there was a sense that all concerned recognised that Sin on Saturday was a sinking ship. Disgraced Walsall MP John Stonehouse (who in 1976 faked his own death and was jailed for seven years for fraud, theft and deception) responded to a question about his return to public life by claiming to Falk "I do it because you invited me. I think you're a great guy ... Bernard here has a great idea for a programme and it's a live programme and I think we should all help live programmes because that's what TV should be about." Stonehouse's misguided, implied admission that the series was failing did little to alleviate the sense of impeding doom that surrounded the production, and the second edition remained as disjointed and uncompelling as the first, with Falk still manfully struggling with an unwieldy format.

Whilst still critical of the programme, at least Hart remained more positive than BBC Director General Alasdair Milne (who wanted to pull Sin on Saturday after the second programme). The third programme ("Envy") however, proved to be the last one. This time Alan Whicker, The Duke of Argyll and veteran anti-royalist Willie Hamilton were forced to artificially mutate their life stories into treatise on the pitfalls of envy. As the final Sin on Saturday drew to a close, Falk advised us to tune in the following week, where he would be discussing the sin of gluttony with 26 stone bounty hunter Tina Boyles, Fanny Craddock, George Best and chef d'humeur Patrick Barlow. There was to be no "next week". On 4 August the BBC announced that no further programmes in the series were to be transmitted "for failing to come up to standard".

Julian Barnes recalled that initially he thought that the "power of the critics" had done for the programme, but ultimately realised that "it's much more likely that Alasdair Milne who had just been appointed Director General decided to shoot someone to encourage the others. It doesn't mean that programme makers are impervious to criticism but they go more on audience figures than what the critics might say." Viewers were in the main relieved to see the demise of Sin on Saturday, but this was by no means a unanimous reaction. "We think the BBC is mistaken" complained Radio Times readers Timothy Dhonau and Judy Paxton. "The idea for the series is original, and by the third programme it had got well into its stride: it considered important issues in a relaxed but confident way and was thought-provoking without being strident. The guests were well chosen so that their reactions to each other complimented their own contributions and illuminated the subject in hand." Reader Mrs B Manley agreed that the programme had begun poorly but had improved, claiming the "show was no better than Saturday Night at the Mill and certainly no worse ... and a great deal better than Triangle ... Bernard Falk may not have the polish of, say, Robin Day - but give the fellow a chance!" Mrs Manley then proceeded to suggest that the programme had somehow split the nation. "Although it may not have appealed to southern audiences it certainly was liked here in the north."

Whilst OTT and Sin on Saturday had little in common in terms of content, there were some other similarities between the two programmes. Not only were they scheduled at comparable times, but both were broadcast live and both represented attempts at new programming formats. Most significantly though, both used upcoming comedians from the alternative scene in minor roles to detrimental effect. The hegemonization of this form of comedy was no different to that which had begun some years earlier with "northern comedians". However, whilst Cannon and Ball and Little and Large had translated well into a brand of entertainment steeped in tradition, the iconoclastic nature of comedians such as Sayle and Coltrane meant that something more than just the removal of expletives was required to make such acts palatable to a mass audience. On 11 April 1981, BBC1 had already made a tentative attempt to introduce alternative comedy to Saturday nights via a special repeat screening of an episode of Not the Nine O'clock News (in honour of the series winning a BAFTA). However it was clear that such stuff was too strong to sustain a regular audience in such a slot.

The arrival then of Jasper Carrott to the BBC proved a happy evolution for both parties. Carrott had come out of the '70s wave of alternative comedians such as Billy Connolly and Mike Harding. Popular with students, Carrott's material had, until this point, consisted mainly of "shaggy dog stories" and the occasional song. Recognising the growth in popularity of comedy with a sharper, more politicised edge, Carrott used his arrival at the BBC in 1982 as an opportunity to partially reinvent himself as an affiliate of this new wave of comedy. To this end he enlisted new, topical comedy writers such as Ian Hislop and Duncan Campbell (resulting in Labour politician Michael Meacher suing the BBC for slander as a direct result of one of their scripts - surely a first for Carrott) and complimented this new edgier material with performers such as Chris Barrie (later to find success on Spitting Image and Saturday Live and fame with the sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf) and Emma Thompson (who would team up one year later on Granada Television's Alfresco with many of alternative comedy's most significant players).

Carrott's Lib was first broadcast on 9 October 1982 and immediately satiated BBC1's craving to introduce progressive comedy into Saturday nights, but safely via a much-loved and popular comedian. "In seven hours of television, only two minutes have been cut out" commented Carrott of his previous work. "After all, if a part of the audience is offended, they will no longer be on your side. And a comedian needs all the support he can get." The BBC referred to their latest acquisition as "unique and challenging". Words surely designed to mark Carrot out from the rest of the Corporation's Saturday night fare. Audience reaction was predictably mixed, but in the main, positive. "All carrots should be scraped, sliced and cooked, and when this is not being done they should be kept buried in the soil" remarked Radio Times reader J Keay. "Why must a talented comedian sink to such obscenity in his perversion of Blankety Blank?" asked SW Sackett in reference to a skit broadcast on the 30 October edition of Carrott's Lib. However Diana Harvey-Williams assertion that "Jasper Carrott was absolutely hilarious ... My husband and I haven't laughed so hard for so long for ages" was more representative of the kind of reaction the programme was getting. The biggest indicator of the programme's success though was that Carrott sought out, and was able to attract, the ire of The Sun newspaper. A protracted spat between the two parties served only to bolster the credibility of both Carrott and the BBC - after all no other alternative comedian was able to upset a "natural enemy" in 1982 as much as Carrott.

Coupled with the less contentious, but similarly progressive (in that it openly encouraged new writers) Three of a Kind, the BBC was coming to terms with the fact that if alternative comedy was ever to have a significant impact upon Saturday night entertainment it could not be shoehorned into mainstream formats or added as an extra element to otherwise traditional entertainment programmes. It had to be considered in it's own right. If the Corporation could crack this on a consistent basis, then a whole new seam of talent would open up for them. Given the failures in late night programming on both the BBC and ITV in 1982, as well as ITV's growing bias towards northern comedy, this must surely have seemed a tantalising strategy. Yet the BBC knew that regaining the upper hand on Saturday nights would take more than alternative comedy was able to offer.