The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

swapshopIn the 1970s, nice kids watched the BBC’s children’s output while bad kids tuned in to ITV. Well, that’s an over-simplification with a nugget of truth in there somewhere. On a Saturday morning, the BBC gave you a young Noel Edmonds presenting the Multicoloured Swap Shop in the mid-70s. Over on ITV, something Tiswas was evolving into an anarchic alternative.

There was nothing intellectually engaging about Tiswas – unless you think seeing custard being thrown at people in cages is high art. And whereas Noel was getting kids to do nerdy swaps, Tiswas was appealing to a young person’s more raucous instincts. While Noel chatted on the phones, bands like The Specials were getting pelted with something horrible on ITV.

TiswasThe team on Tiswas were not completely unfamiliar.  Sally James had been on the telly for a while and was the heartthrob of many teenage boys – well, I think she made other organs throb but let’s not wander down that road.  Can’t say I’m a huge Chris Tarrant fan now but he was the ring master of this frenetic nonsense and all credit to him for making Noel Edmonds look very old fashioned for a while.

It’s strange to read reviews of Tiswas now that refer to ‘black comedian’ Lenny Henry – because of course black people still struggled to get on TV as anything other than bit parts in dramas and backing singers.  Lenny had created a character called Algernon and it was better to see him taking the rise out of the Rasta scene than the horrible Jim Davidson and his racist ‘Chalky White’ character.  And I don’t care if he’s apologising for that ‘comedy’ now because he is going to rot in PC hell for all time.

Bob Carollgees had Spit the Dog was a weekly fave as well as were the Phantom Flan Flingers.

ITV had also made the BBC look a bit fuddy-duddy in the mid-1970s with Magpie – it’s rival programme to Blue Peter.  At the time, it felt like Magpie was more edgy that Blue Peter though when you look at the programmes on YouTube now, Magpie is still very middle class and safe.  But Tiswas was unsettling and it’s amazing that politicians and establishment figures queued up to condemn it – which of course did a wonder for its ratings.

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