It Started With Swap Shop
Thursday, December 28, 2006 by Steve Williams
In 1996, the BBC’s Saturday morning kids shows were still hugely popular and prestigious programmes, watched by children and adults alike. The 20th anniversary of their launch was marked with a lightweight – though entertaining – half-hour clip show on a Bank Holiday afternoon. 10 years on, the slot’s prestige and ratings have both plummented and it’s been relegated to BBC2. It’s likely hardly anyone over the age of 14 can tell you what the current show is called or who presents it. The 30th anniversary, however, was marked with over two hours of prime-time television in the middle of Christmas.
Yet Noel Edmonds has always had an eye for the historic. You can see it now when he recites umpteen pointless statistics on Deal or No Deal?, but you could also spot it when he gave his farewell address on the final Noel’s House Party, when he hyped up a satellite link to Australia on his Christmas Day show (“The first time family entertainment has been presented in this way”) or even when he remarked that we had the first tie-break “in the modern history of Telly Addicts“.
It was obvious he was absolutely thrilled to be back behind a desk covered with cuddly toys and with the whole of the BBC at his disposal once again. In fact, everyone was. There was a studio audience, made up of thirtysomethings in plastic Swap Shop hats, all eagerly clutching bits of merchandise and beside themselves with excitement at being part of this one-off soiree. There was John Craven, bounding down the stairs at the beginning and seen wiping tears from his eyes at the end, and – in between – reminding everyone what a unflappable and likeable presenter he’s always been. There was Maggie Philbin, who’d even brought in some old viewers’
letters from her attic to show off. And of course there was Cheggers, but then Cheggers is always excited, and spent the show bounding around the studio audience, seemingly able to remember every single thing that happened in every single episode of Swap Shop and Superstore (so at least his long-term memory is still intact).
Throughout, Noel proved himself yet again a master of this sort of show, able to seamlessly shift from offering his best wishes to Tony Hart (who, it was sad to hear, is in very poor health) to cueing up a daft clip of Cheggers cocking up reading out some bus numbers. Indeed, given the massive duration of the show, Noel had the chance to show off every trick in his presenting arsenal, and kept the whole thing moving along nicely. Given the number of guests, clip packages, phone calls and satellite links, this was probably just as complicated to put together as an episode of the original series itself.
And like the original shows, there really was something for everyone here. The programme turned out to be pitched just right, neither a bland celebratory affair nor a depressing slice of piss-taking. So while Elliot Fletcher’s abuse of Five Star was rightly shown again (unbleeped!), time was also spent paying tribute to regular guests like Johnny Ball, who turned up to reminisce about the occasion he gave away a commode as a prize. The fact they had so much time to play with allowed for much light and shade.
What was most impressive, however, was the amount of effort that went into sourcing both clips and guests. Here was Alison Standfast challenging Mrs Thatcher about her nuclear policy on the phone in 1987, and here she was 20 years later to talk about it. Here was Damian Ward and his partner Helen dancing to Phantom of the Opera on Going Live!, and here he was with a special message for Michael Crawford two decades on. Indeed, the appearance of Crawford, via satellite from Sydney, was a genuinely great telly moment, with the star clearly moved when Damian’s mum announced that seeing her disabled son getting the chance to dance on the telly and be treated so well by everyone was the best moment of her life.
They’d also clearly made the effort in finding the clips. Many of the original episodes had been junked so VHS tapes had been raided, bringing us such delights as a performance by Bucks Fizz from Jersey, where a fogbound airport meant Mike and Jay were still in London and appeared with Bobby and Cheryl via the magic of blue screen. Even when the clips still existed in the archives, most of them hadn’t seen the light of day since original transmission – when I watched “Philderella”, the Going Live! Christmas pantomime, in 1989, I would never have guessed I’d be seeing it again on prime time BBC2 in 2006.
The great thing about these clips, and what made the show so special, was that these are programmes that were never made to be repeated, and so you simply never normally get to see them again. Watching Noel and Cheggers trying to chat to each other via some malfunctioning equipment or Maggie picking out competition winners – the normal workaday telly of 20 or 30 years ago – remains a rare treat.
Inevitably, the programme mostly concentrated on Swap Shop, which took up about half of the running time. However its successors also got a fair crack of the whip, with Mike Read turning up to reminisce about Saturday Superstore. Interestingly Cheggers did the big interview with Mike, rather than Noel, presumably thanks to the bad feeling between the pair following Mike’s appearance on five’s Curse of Noel Edmonds a year or two ago. Regardless, it was brilliant to hear Mike discussing presenting the programme on the morning of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, explaining how pleased they were the BBC thought they had the skills and versatility to cope with such a situation, and the difficulties of trying to link from newsflashes to cartoons and pop stars.
The time devoted to Going Live! was a high point, as this writer had the fondest and most vivid memories of it – though sadly neither Phillip Schofield nor Sarah Greene were in the studio, although they did contribute an amusing segment with Trevor and Simon recorded in, of all places, LWT reception. Trevor and Simon were in attendance though, which was nice to see, although the sketch they performed in the studio was less impressive, as Don and Dougie Draper (of “We don’t do duvets” fame) were among their weakest characters, while they weren’t helped by Andi Peters proving that despite his distinguished executive career post-Saturday morning, he’s still completely unable to deliver a joke.
Indeed, the section devoted to Live & Kicking was perhaps the only part when the programme began to flag, partly because the clips really seemed too recent to get nostalgic about, while the interview with Andi Peters and Emma Forbes seemed mostly to be about Peters’ ridiculous diva-ish demands regarding the specific time during a programme he required madeira cake.
Intriguingly the programme ended around the same era as the 20th anniversary special. All we got was a quick chat with Fearne Cotton about her role as a recent Saturday morning presenter before a quick montage of the last decade. Fair enough they wanted to skirt through the final desparate days of Live & Kicking, where Katy Hill marshalled a sinking ship while Ant and Dec were cleaning up on ITV, but oddly only a few short clips of Zoe Ball and Jamie Theakston were shown, who at the time were a very successful team – and certainly more popular among the adult audience than Andi Peters.
Sadly, there was also only the briefest of mentions of Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow, which given the column inches and cult following they accrued seemed somewhat remiss.
Still, on the whole, the programme entertained royally, and the level of detail and effort that went into it was continually remarkable – backstage names like producer Cathy Gilbey and long-serving editor Chris Bellinger (who was credited as a consultant) were constantly being discussed and paid tribute to, and it’s testament to the production team that the whole thing didn’t come across as a bit of self-indulgent back-slapping. It was a well-deserved and well-produced tribute to a genre of programming that means so much to generations of kids.
All you needed to do was wear your pyjamas and spend ages rearranging the curtains to try and stop the sun shining on the screen and you could have been nine years old again.