Remembering Tiswas - the 1970s children’s TV show filmed in Birmingham with a Phantom Flan Flinger

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
We take a look back at the incredible Birmingham-based children’s Saturday morning TV show Tiswas filmed at studios near Broad Street

Children incarcerated in cramped cages like battery hens, their smirking tormentors verbally abusing the young prisoners before hurling buckets of water over them.

This is not the opening line of a harrowing court case or a story about the suffering endured by infant workers in some far-flung corner of our former empire.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This was Tiswas, an anarchic slice of Birmingham entertainment that gained custard pie flinging cult TV status in the 1970s.

This was Tiswas, a rather lame acronym for Today Is Saturday Watch And Smile, although the Oxford English Dictionary’s description of the word more befits the madcap, at times shambling, format: “A state of nervous excitement or confusion”.

It was a terror in a tepid sea of syrupy family entertainment.

Blurring the boundaries between child and adult entertainment, Tiswas didn’t so much break the mould for Saturday morning viewing. It stamped repeatedly on it, then threw the jagged shards at its pre-pubescent audiences.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Phantom Flan Flinger in action with Tiswas host Chris TarrantPhantom Flan Flinger in action with Tiswas host Chris Tarrant
Phantom Flan Flinger in action with Tiswas host Chris Tarrant | Express and Star

Before Tiswas arrived, Blue Peter and Magpie presenters would coo superlatives at children for their ingenuity with empty Fairy Liquid bottles and sticky-backed plastic.

The Tiswas team growled at them. Far from being pampered, the kids appeared to be the props. And they loved the raw energy of it. The chaotic programme – a cocktail of panto, pop and pratfalls – became wildly popular, attracting some of the day’s biggest chart stars.

Forty-two years ago – April 4, 1982, to be precise – Tiswas’ raucous roller-coast came to an end with the screening of the last show. But during its eight year, eight season tenure many of today’s readers attended the programme’s base at Studio 3, ATV Centre, Birmingham, and were liberally gunged, soaked and foam flanned. They were also gripped by the fear of being hit by phlegm expectorated by a puppet mutt.

In all, 120 pies were used as missiles during each episode and 23 litres of shaving foam. Some victims may still carry the scars.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For the milestone 100th show, broadcast from Hednesford Hills Raceway, the boat was pushed out. The fire service attended and simply hosed down the hundreds present as if quelling a street disturbance. What fun.

Today, TV regulators Ofcom would receive a steady stream of complaints about the degradation of innocents, the adult themes. The local fire service would be lambasted for indulging in the Hednesford Raceway frivolity: “Is this what we pay our taxes for?”

Four decades ago, we lapped it up. Tiswas had powerful enemies – ATV boss Lew Grade reportedly hated the show, but vast viewing figures guaranteed its security. It was very much a strange product of our area, like scratchings. Its ingredients were gathered from our patch.

Behind bars, Tiswas-styleBehind bars, Tiswas-style
Behind bars, Tiswas-style | Express and Star

Main presenter Chris Tarrant was a product of the University of Birmingham. Dudley’s Lenny Henry cut his teeth on Tiswas after winning New Faces. Birmingham comedian Jasper Carrott launched a bizarre dance craze – “Dying Fly” – on the show. Peter Tomlinson, who created the programme and occasionally presented it, went on to join Beacon Radio and, in 2007, became West Midlands’ High Sheriff.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It made unlikely stars. Bob Carolgees’ act entailed placing his hand in a canine glove puppet and making the flea-bitten dog appear to spit…a lot. That was it. The mannequin was imaginatively entitled Spit the Dog.

The disguised Phantom Flan Flinger, later revealed as TV extra Benny Mills, flung flans. That was it. Tiswas plucked five-year-old Matthew Butler from the obscurity of his Penkridge, South Staffordshire, hometown and made the lad a household name.

He first appeared in 1980, wrapped in a rabbit costume made by mother, clutching a felt carrot, also the handiwork of mother, and brought a collective tear to the nation’s eye with his faltering rendition of Watership Down anthem Bright Eyes.

“I think it was the comedy element,” he said many years later. “I couldn’t pronounce the words. ‘Horizon’ became ‘horizum’.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Such was the success of that slot, Matthew returned two weeks later and lisped his way through Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall. Regular appearances followed, often thwarted by a loud “not now, Matthew” command from Tarrant.

Matthew’s mother evidently loved making bunny outfits: if ever a woman was tailor-made for the job of seamstress to Playboy boss Hugh Hefner… Sally James later recalled: “One week she turned up with all these rabbit suits for all of us and all these carrots. It was just so bizarre, I’ve still got mine.”

Fame, however, can lift you up, then drop you as quickly as myxomatosis in a crowded warren. Bright Eyes was released as a single, but failed to hop higher than number 100 in the charts. Like the rabbit ears crafted by Matthew’s mother, the record flopped.

Back in 2012, Matthew, who went on to join the fire service, told me: “Those were heady days, but fame was short lived. It just fizzled out. It was two years before things dried up. I just don’t think it was sustainable as a career.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He does not look back in angora. Matthew gave the famous fur suit to a niece and said of his time in the spotlight: “I loved it, I love talking about it and I still get requests for autographs.”

Tiswas stars including Matt Butler in his rabbit suitTiswas stars including Matt Butler in his rabbit suit
Tiswas stars including Matt Butler in his rabbit suit | Express and Star

The Tiswas legacy burns bright in the Walsall home of Mark Dabbs, charity marathon runner and near relentless autograph hunter. Mark is best known for tracking down celebs – Mike Tyson and Dame Vera Lynn among them, then asking the stars to hold a Walsall FC scarf.

The unlikely gallery appeared in his book, Travels With My Scarf, which raised funds for St Giles’ Hospice. Mark’s property is crammed with signed photographs and Tiswas memorabilia. He possesses encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, the depth of which is only matched by his other passion – Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, anchored by Noel Edmonds.

He’d walk Mastermind with either chosen subject. “The show revolutionised children’s television in the 1970s and garnered a loyal cult following with two hours of raucous slapstick, manic humour and risqué jokes,” he said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It can also be seen in retrospect as the forerunner to future offerings from Chris Evans, as well as Ant and Dec. Audience members were routinely soaked with buckets of water and were subjected to cold spaghetti and baked beans poured over them. The victims were often the parents of the younger guests locked in the cage.”

One star of the zany show has slipped completely from public consciousness, said Mark – local lad Paul “The Kid” Hardin. “He was a young lad on the show who played the drums and did impressions. Aside from Tiswas, he played the Midland club circuit, performing with his father.”

Like Matthew Butler, celebrity beckoned The Kid, who now may perform as Paul “The Adult” Hardin, too soon. Tiswas was originally only destined for an 11-week run, the first episode aired on January 5, 1974, and presented by John Asher, best known for the now much maligned Black and White Minstrel Show.

He was assisted by Tarrant who said of those early years: “I used to get paid £25 on top of my news reporter salary at ATV for doing Tiswas. Eventually the bosses made me choose between serious news and buckets. I chose the buckets.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Sharon Offley, of Oldbury, when she appeared with Lenny Henry, on Tiswas in 1981Sharon Offley, of Oldbury, when she appeared with Lenny Henry, on Tiswas in 1981
Sharon Offley, of Oldbury, when she appeared with Lenny Henry, on Tiswas in 1981 | Express and Star

The pilot shows were successful and Tiswas returned in September, beefed-up by the addition of respected sports reporter Trevor East. Asher left in 1975 and Tiswas began to scale giddy heights two years late following the recruitment of Sally James. John Gorman, a former member of ‘60s group Scaffold, also made his bow and would become a permanent fixture.

The meteoric ratings rise was aided by regulars Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson, Frank Carson and Sylvester McCoy who would go on to be the seventh Doctor Who. By 1979, Tiswas was broadcast nationally. “It was huge, we were rock stars,” Tarrant recalled.

Nothing lasts forever and Tiswas’ impending demise began in 1981 when Tarrant, Henry, Gorman and Carolgees left to launch an ill-fated, late night adult version of the programme. The plug was pulled on OTT after just one season.

Sally James soldiered on, joined by Beacon Radio and BBC WM presenter Gordon Astley and Den Hegarty of pop band Darts. Despite their efforts, the magic and mayhem had gone. Tiswas had become tame.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I now know we had been handed the Tiswas poisoned chalice,” Astley said in 2014. “We were left with an embittered production team who felt left behind.”

When Sally James handed in her notice, it was decided the format had run its course. The cast sang Auld Flang Syne at the end of the final show. Very few Tiswas recordings remain and that’s a great shame because it was a bizarre piece of TV history that should’ve been kept for posterity.

“You couldn’t make Tiswas now,” Tarrant said. “You’d have health and safety whingeing about how much water you had in a bucket and all that stuff.”

I’m still not sure how they got away with making it back then.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.