In the first part of our serialisation of his rollercoater memoirs in yesterday’s Daily Mail, Chris Tarrant told how he immediately smelt a rat when the ‘Coughing Major’ scooped top prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Here, in the second part, he relives his madcap early TV days.
The question from my TV bosses was an unusual one. ‘You’ve got to choose, Tarrant,’ they said. ‘Buckets or buses?’ I think they were expecting a different answer from the one I gave. ‘Well, I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘But it has to be buckets.’
Let me explain. The Birmingham station where I was working as a news presenter, ATV, had recently launched a new cheap and cheerful Saturday morning children’s programme.
Dismayed by the tired output of endless cartoons and black-and-white cowboy films, they’d come up with the idea of three hours of live TV for kids instead, much of which was to be spent, as far as I could see, by everybody throwing custard pies and buckets of gunge at each other.
I was thrilled to be offered an extra 25 quid a week, on top of my regular salary, to join the Saturday team. But within a few weeks, my bosses started to talk about a ‘credibility gap’.
I was still doing my regular Monday to Friday job on the station’s 6pm news programme. I’d be reporting on a bus crash on Friday evening and then I’d be throwing buckets of water all over people on Tiswas on a Saturday morning. Hence the question ‘buckets or buses?’
Launched in January 1974, Chris Tarrant’s morning children’s show Today Is Saturday: Watch And Smile quickly became shortened to Tiswas. But within a few weeks, Tarrant’s bosses started to talk about a ‘credibility gap’
Tarrant would be reporting on a bus crash on Friday evening and then I’d be throwing buckets of water all over people on Tiswas on a Saturday morning. ‘You’ve got to choose, Tarrant,’ his television bosses said. ‘Buckets or buses?’
I never regretted my decision to turn my back on hard news for one moment. The new show dominated my life for the next few years, and I just loved it.
Launched in January 1974, its name was Today Is Saturday: Watch And Smile, which quickly became shortened to Tiswas. Within months, the ratings went through the roof. The response everywhere was unbelievable. More and more networks rushed to sign us up.
Singing Away in a Manger with Rod
I’ve always been a big fan of Rod Stewart. I’ve bought – yes, bought! – quite a lot of his records, and I’ve played a lot of his records on the radio. But I never imagined I’d one day find myself singing Christmas carols with the superstar in church.
I’d been asked to do a reading at a carol service in a beautiful old church in Marylebone. Rod’s wife Penny, left with Rod, whom I had met from time to time and really liked, was one of the other readers. We were chatting beforehand, and I asked: ‘Is your husband coming?’ She said very quietly: ‘Yes, he’ll be here.’ But as the church filled up and it was almost time to start, there was no sign of her old man.
Then, as the vicar got up to address us all and the lights went down, an unmistakable spiky head moved in the darkness to stand in between Penny and me. The man himself!
He was very amiable, but each time one of the Christmas carols started, we all stood up and I thought: ‘Oh my God, here I am singing Away In A Manger next to Rod Stewart!’ I turned my head to one side each time I sang a note and did quite a lot of miming, and graciously he didn’t mention how bad my singing was. My kids all say I sing like Mr Bean.
Then, when the nice vicar wished us all a merry Christmas, Rod disappeared again, out of a side door, presumably to wait for Penny in his car round the corner.
The great thing was that, apart from people close behind, who must have been looking gobsmacked at the back of his spiky head, hardly any of the huge congregation knew that modest Rod was there at all.
By the time the wonderful Sally James and Lenny Henry joined us, we were being nominated for every award imaginable. Our success forced the BBC to try to compete, with its own rather safe, drab little Saturday morning offering called Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, hosted by Noel Edmonds, with his fourth-division footballer’s haircut.
Tiswas changed all our lives. We were rock stars overnight. We met everybody in the pop world because it was the show that most of the bands wanted to be on. As well as plugging their latest record or tour, they had a hoot of a Saturday morning.
Sometimes to their record companies’ horror, they were having such a great time they forgot all about what they’d come on to plug. I remember one Saturday morning I was rolling about in custard with Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde and Sheena Easton, thinking: ‘I’m being paid for this.’
A journalist from somewhere got hold of the fact that I had once been a teacher and said: ‘Obviously this is where Chris got his love of children.’ Well, it’s a good link, but to be honest, teaching 15-year-old boys in South London wouldn’t give anyone a great love of children – and besides, quite a few of them were a lot bigger than me.
We were constantly trying to come up with ideas for the show that would somehow cut across all the age groups. Our specialities were obviously custard pies and buckets of water. Then there was the famous Phantom Flan Flinger in his mask and black cloak, with his wife Flanderella and their offspring the Baby Bucket Bunger.
But the best idea was the Cage. Despite the fact it was supposedly a kids’ show, we were forever getting requests from people who really should have been old enough to have more sense, but who wanted to come and sit in among all the jammy-faced kids in the studio.
We must have turned down thousands, until we hit upon the idea of allowing grown-ups into the studio, but kept in a holding pen, later known as the Cage, to the side of the set. And, of course, it just happened to be very close to where we kept all the buckets of water and general goo. Purely by chance? No, of course it wasn’t.
If there was a lull in the proceedings, we would pelt the grown-ups with anything we could lay our hands on. The kids went wild with delight at the vision of their mummies and daddies completely coated in green and yellow gunge. Admittedly it was a rather simplistic idea, and we intended to try it for one week only. In fact it ran for more than five years.
The waiting list of grown-ups for the Cage was never-ending. At the beginning of each series, we had enough for the whole run. I suppose that was harmless, although perhaps just a tad of a worry about where Great Britain was heading.
To this day I have no idea what bizarre raw nerve we touched on, but its effect was instant and massive. The office was besieged with phone calls from supposedly intelligent adults who all wanted to come into the Cage and get ‘the treatment’.
Each week a dozen or so lucky, lucky adults would arrive like lambs to the slaughter. It always amused me that despite knowing what to expect, many would arrive dressed to the nines – blokes in their best suits, women in specially purchased new dresses and immaculate hairdos – only to be splattered beyond recognition, often within seconds of the opening titles.
One woman told me she later watched the whole show on video, and even she couldn’t work out which one she was.
FRED Rumsey, a great England fast bowler who lived close to me in the Midlands, rang me out of the blue and said: ‘Do you fancy getting a Tiswas cricket team together to play the Lord’s Taverners?’
Now I have to admit – shamefacedly, considering how much of my life has been involved with this splendid charity ever since – that I’d never heard of the Lord’s Taverners. It is a wonderful organisation that was started back in 1950 by the Duke of Edinburgh. The idea was to get some prominent actors and musicians of the day to join him in charity cricket matches specifically geared to raising money for children with additional needs. What went on from there has been truly amazing. The Taverners has now raised well over £80 million since it started, and it’s gone from strength to strength. A fabulous charity.
Tarrant has always been a big fan of Rod Stewart. He’s bought – yes, bought! – quite a lot of his records, and he has played a lot of his records on the radio
Anyway, I told Fred that we’d get a team together, and we were informed that we would be playing on the main pitch at Trent Bridge in Nottingham, which is really hallowed ground, where Test matches are played. And because of the huge following that Tiswas had, we sold the place out, to thousands of mums, dads and their kids all proudly wearing the show’s hats and T-shirts.
Most of the Taverners that day were well-known actors and celebrities – people such as Robert Powell, John Alderton, Dennis Waterman and Leslie Crowther, who had all come up from London and had never heard of us.
They were in their best whites, and looked very smart. We were a bunch of rag-bag oiks in dirty jeans and, of course, our own Tiswas T-shirts. They did what they did best, which was try to play a friendly but serious game of cricket. We, on the other hand, did what we did best, which was to throw custard pies at them, bowl soot bombs, set up special exploding stumps and bring a huge gunge tank on to the pitch.
And of course the Phantom Flan Flinger in his black cloak and mask ran amok all over the turf, covering friend, foe and umpire alike in green goo.
Chris Tarrant has been a mischief-maker most of his broadcasting life, perhaps most famously with the gloriously anarchic 70s kids’ show Tiswas with Sally James (pictured)
Chris Tarrant, 75, (pictured) says he only watched himself on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire twice, out of all 600 episodes
It was a riot, and the crowd loved it. The Taverners, of course, hated it, and on reflection, who could blame them? They went off, grinning as best they could, covered from head to toe in soot, custard, and who knows what.
Fred did say to me afterwards: ‘Perhaps it was a mistake.’ ‘I’m really sorry, Fred,’ I said. ‘I assumed they knew what we do.’
He said: ‘Well they do now.’
I agreed to pay for all their dry cleaning and we shook hands and parted. To my surprise, about six months later I received a call from Taverners HQ asking if I would like to join the Tavs. I was a little surprised, to say the least, and I said so, but the nice man on the other end replied: ‘Well, to be honest, we’d rather have you with us than against us.’
And so, as a lifelong cricket fan, began 40 of the happiest years of my life.
It was a charity very close to Prince Philip’s heart, and he loved to see how well it had developed from his early pioneering days. He would often come to the cricket grounds to watch us, particularly when we played at Windsor Castle.
He was usually in great form, and very relaxed, but one particular afternoon he did seem rather down in the dumps. Emboldened, I think, by a couple of glasses of wine, I found the courage to say to him, ‘You seem a bit fed up, sir.’
‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘I am. I wanted to watch the cricket but I’ve got to go.’
I said: ‘You don’t have to go, sir, surely? You are the Duke of Edinburgh. You don’t have to go anywhere.’
‘Yes, I do,’ he said. ‘It’s ridiculous. George Bush is coming to meet me and the Queen.’
And I said: ‘Well surely that’s a standard part of your position, sir? You don’t have to like him.’
‘Yes, I know that, but I want to watch cricket, and he’s coming for 20 minutes. Twenty bloody minutes,’ he said, with real emphasis.
‘What are we going to achieve in 20 minutes? World peace? I don’t think so.’
And off he went in his Range Rover, not the happiest of bunnies.
Sure enough, about ten minutes later we saw three high-speed USAF jet helicopters racing towards the castle, and they could clearly be heard landing somewhere just behind the walls. One of them presumably contained George W. Bush.
The cricket commentator Mark Nicholas and I set our watches, and 22 minutes later the three helicopters went racing back towards Heathrow and Air Force One.
I don’t suppose that did achieve very much, except George W. could tell his wife Laura when he got home he’d had ‘a long chat’ with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.
I became President of Lord’s Taverners in 1990, joining a long list of high-profile previous occupants of the role, including Prince Philip himself, John Mills, Sir John Barbirolli, Jack Hawkins, Colin Cowdrey, David Frost, Terry Wogan and Tim Rice. It was obviously a bit of a thin year when they chose me.
The job took me all over the British Isles, and it was truly wonderful to see how much difference to the lives of young kids the presentation of one of the green Lord’s Taverners minibuses could mean.
The charity itself is a hoot. There have been some wonderful nights, although the details of most of them I don’t remember too clearly. One evening, the Lady Taverners arranged for Bill Clinton to fly over and talk to a packed audience about child poverty around the world. He was brilliant and spoke for an hour and a half without a note anywhere in sight. He was extraordinary.
What was even more extraordinary was that far from tut-tutting about his wicked treatment of Hillary and his hugely publicised antics with Monica Lewinsky all over the papers just a few weeks before, every woman in the audience queued around the room and up the staircase to get an autograph and a photo posing with the arch fornicator before they would let him leave.
Meanwhile, back in the Tiswas office, the legendary John Gorman – composer and entertainer extraordinaire – had come up with a rousing marching number specially for us called The Bucket Of Water Song. For the next two or three years, it governed our lives.
It basically worked on the simple premise that when you came to certain key words like ‘bucket’ or ‘water’, for example, you and everyone else around you poured buckets of water all over your head, and all over the heads of anybody else within drenching distance. So we tried it out the next Saturday morning on Tiswas. It was a sensation.
By Monday lunchtime we had heard from people all over the country who had been drenching each other in time to whatever they could remember of the words.
A young Chris Tarrant photographed in 1973. By the time the wonderful Sally James and Lenny Henry joined us, we were being nominated for every award imaginable.
Tarrant’s autobiography ‘It’s Not a Proper Job’. The success of Tiswas forced the BBC to try to compete with its own rather safe, drab little Saturday morning offering called Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, hosted by Noel Edmonds, with his fourth-division footballer’s haircut
Not that it really mattered. What really mattered was that it provided yet another excuse for perfectly sane, boring grown-ups to behave like great big overgrown kids. By the time we repeated the song the following weekend, a whole new social phenomenon had been born: ‘bucketing’. From all over the country we heard reports of pubs, clubs and restaurants being flooded out by the occupants as they poured plastic buckets, tin buckets, fire buckets, ice buckets and probably even sick buckets all over each other in time to the marching music. Because it was all our fault, we got it worst of all, for the whole of that lunatic summer.
I remember a well-spoken, well-dressed woman in a Brighton restaurant coming up to our table one evening and saying: ‘I am awfully sorry, but do you mind if I do this?’
She poured the entire ice bucket over Sally James’s head. Sally did that ‘smile through gritted teeth’ you do in moments like that. I remember quite clearly saying to the woman: ‘You’re an idiot. Please go away.’ She was absolutely bewildered, saying: ‘But that’s what you do, isn’t it?’
And I said: ‘Yes, that’s what we do on Saturday mornings when we’re being paid, but we don’t do it every day of the week, especially when we are trying to have a bit of quiet time off.’ In fairness, we had sort of started it. But to hell with fairness.
When the Bucket Song record was released, it raced into the Top 40, then the Top 20, and suddenly we were going to be on Top Of The Pops.
So there we were, the Four Bucketeers: me, Sally James, John Gorman and our fellow presenter Bob Carolgees, slotted between The Nolans and Hot Chocolate. We felt almost like proper pop stars – and the idea of throwing buckets of water all over the Top Of The Pops audience sounded like terrific fun.
It was not to be. We were told at the last minute that we were not allowed to use real water. ‘But not to worry,’ said a BBC man. ‘We’ve come up with something instead.’
‘What? Instead of water?’ I asked. ‘It’s called the Bucket Of Water Song.’
‘No, it’s perfect,’ he insisted. ‘It will look exactly the same on TV, but there’ll be none of the problems of clearing it up afterwards.’ And so it was that The Bucketeers made their only appearance on Top Of The Pops, very obviously throwing buckets of Christmas-tree tinsel over each other.
No, it didn’t look the same. It looked daft, and the song became probably the only record in the history of the music business to get an airing on Top Of The Pops and go down ten places.
© 2022 Chris Tarrant
lAdapted from It’s Not A Proper Job, by Chris Tarrant, to be published by Great Northern Books on April 25 at £17.99. To order a copy for £16.19, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0203 176 2937 before April 30. UK delivery is free on orders over £20.