The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Tiswas Swap Shop

In the 1970s, nice kids watched the BBC’s children’s output while bad kids tuned in to ITV. Remember at my tenth birthday party – being a nice kid – insisting that we watch Blue Peter. While my best mate Ian – a rougher lad – fought me to switch over to ITV and the kids programme, Magpie. Saturday morning was a similar battleground. BBC had the Radio 1 DJ and Top of the Pops presenter Noel Edmonds presenting Multicoloured Swap Shop (running from 1976 to 1982). While Chris Tarrant headed up the anarchic presenting team over on Tiswas (1974 to 1982).

Growing up in London, I wasn’t aware of Tiswas until around 1977 because it only featured on the regional ITV channels up until then. Back in those days, each region of the UK had its own broadcaster-cum-programme maker that sat under the ITV umbrella. Stations with their own logos and proud, distinct identities. Tyne Tees TV, Granada, Anglia, Southern TV and even separate independent TV companies for Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands.

Tiswas started out on ATV in the Midlands in 1974 presented by Chris Tarrant while in London we had Saturday Scene presented by Sally James, produced by London Weekend Television (LWT). It took until series four of Tiswas for London to start getting Tiswas and then Sally James was transferred across as a female co-presenter with Tarrant. A year before Tiswas got to London viewers, the BBC launched the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, which ran live for three hours with Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin, Maggie Philbin and John Craven. The contrast between the two programmes could not have been greater.

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The BBC retained its paternalist streak with Swap Shop being like a three-hour child safeguarding exercise. Noel Edmonds was a kindly uncle dressed slightly out of fashion with his grinning helpers. It had all the elements that the BBC excelled at. The outside broadcasts and reporters out on location. Tiswas was the polar opposite. Almost entirely studio based, lots of pie throwing, silly stunts and kids expressing themselves more freely.

As the two programmes squared up against each other, punk rock burst on to the scene in 1976. Even though it pre-dated the Sex Pistols, Tiswas – in my recollection – became part of the new cultural wave. More irreverent and disrespectful. Even if the jollity was forced at times and the mix of presenters combined new talent like Lenny Henry with more traditional fare such as Jim Davidson (yes, really) and working men’s club favourite, Frank Carson. Lenny Henry was a black British co-presenter and that in the 1970s was still a bold statement. He’d go on to become part of the ‘alternative’ comedy scene of the early 1980s. I should also mention Bob Carolgees who developed into something of a national icon with his pie-throwing puppet, Spit the Dog.

Swap Shop meanwhile took Keith Chegwin out on the road doing Swaporama – a roadshow where kids would turn up to swap things with each other. Really simple but brilliant TV that saw gatherings of around 2,000 children. In some ways, it heralded later BBC programmes like ‘Flog It’, though that targeted an older age group. But it really was what the BBC still did best. And even if Tiswas made Swap Shop look a little dowdy at times, Chegwin’s infectious delivery and the swapping concept worked.

Both shows came to an end in 1982. In the intervening years, Boomers still argue over which programme was better. Same row over Blue Peter and Magpie. The absence of archived content for both Tiswas and Swap Shop is because tapes were routinely wiped back in the 1970s for reuse. This even applied to sitcoms and drama series. Of course now, cultural historians are astonished this could have been allowed to happen.

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