Swap Shop and Saturday morning kids’ TV 40 years on

It's 40 years since Multi-Coloured Swap Shop made its television debut and kick-started the Saturday morning kids' TV slot...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Imagine the excitement – it’s just before 9.30am on Saturday 2nd October 1976. It’s almost like Christmas has come early, such is the anticipation. The nation’s kids, who hitherto got their kicks at the Saturday morning pictures, settle in front of their television screens and press the button marked ‘BBC1′. Those who read their parents’ Radio Times know a new show is about to start with Radio 1 Breakfast Show DJ Noel Edmonds at the helm. 28 year old Noel is cool and down with the kids. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen – the Doctor and Sarah Jane from Doctor Who – are to be the first star guests, and you can actually speak to them live by telephone! The TV set warms up and the familiar blue and yellow BBC1 clock flashes up as the seconds count down to the very first edition of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

The early days

Firstly, let’s set the record straight. Swap Shop arrived a short time after TISWAS, which had begun in 1974, albeit in a slightly less anarchic way than it would later become famed for. Early TISWAS was simply a device for linking programmes on ATV in Birmingham. The show we all know and love with Chris Tarrant and Sally James only really developed once the BBC launched “the Swappie” (as Billy Connolly called it). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1979 that TISWAS was networked. Both programmes owed much to shows like Zokko! (The BBC’s somewhat psychedelic attempt to mix cartoons, music and weirdness from 1968, though that was only 25 minutes long). The new show would be more than a simple linking device – at three hours long, it would be the spine of the morning, with Hanna Barbera cartoons breaking into the organised chaos of the Swaporama, Star Swaps and musical items. Swap Shop‘s revolutionary interactivity actually came from Z-Shed, a 1975 phone-in ‘teenage problem page of the air’ hosted by one Noel Edmonds.

The BBC were serving children very well on weekday afternoons. The classic serial pulled in a large family audience on early Sunday evenings, and Doctor Who was a cornerstone of family viewing on Saturday evenings. Saturday mornings, however, were a ragbag of old movies and archaic TV shows like Champion The Wonder Horse which was made in 1955, though Champion had been Gene Autry’s sidekick as far back as the thirties. If you were lucky, something more current like Mr Benn or the slapstick Here Come The Double Deckers made an occasional appearance. BBC1 really only came to life with Grandstand; something was needed to capture the potential family audience on Saturday morning to lock in viewers before the sports miscellany.

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Multi-Coloured Swap Shop was the brainchild of Rosemary Gill, who became its editor. She came up with the swapping motif as the list of things children could swap was practically endless. It is worth noting there had been a previous attempt at swapping on screen: Back in 1959 a show called Swop Shop appeared on Southern TV. Hosted by Leslie Mitchell, it was aimed at an adult audience and went out at 10.30pm. Gill suggested her idea to Edward Barnes, who had recently developed John Craven’s Newsround, which despite a seemingly unworkable premise – kids don’t watch news – had become very successful. Both worked on Blue Peter and the venerable magazine show’s educational values were certainly reflected in the new programme. Once established, Swap Shop, like Blue Peter, produced a regular book (never annual!).

Gill and Barnes agreed Noel Edmonds was an obvious lynchpin for the show with his command of live TV (notably in the recent series Z-Shed) and his young fan base from Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops, and not least his ability to keep going no matter what happened. Barnes suggested bringing in John Craven to add some ‘grit’, and he had received a letter from a very precocious 19 year old Liverpudlian, Keith Chegwin, who was looking for work. Gill decided to try him out on the OB section of the show. Monica Sims, the head of the BBC Children’s Department, green-lit a short test series of six editions for the autumn of 1976. By the time the Radio Times printed the billing, however, those six editions had become twelve programmes and such was its popularity, after a week off for Christmas, the show returned in January 1977 for a further eight programmes. The series ended at the beginning of March after 20 weeks on air. A template had been set.

Multi-Coloured Swap Shop had been a huge hit despite being produced on a small budget; the show had been quite canny in utilising resources. The apparently random Swaporama – ‘Roving Swapman’ Keith Chegwin’s outside broadcast where most of the swapping really took place, actually borrowed OB Camera crews already on the road for the day’s sports coverage, often the OB guys would be diverted from a nearby football stadium or athletics track. Once the series took off, the budget was increased a little and 1978 saw the addition of Maggie Philbin to the presenting team. To say she got on well with the established line-up would be an understatement, especially in the case of Keith Chegwin, whom she subsequently married.

A typical show

It is actually relatively easy to recount a typical show, as Swap Shop had copious column inches written about it in the Radio Times. Often this would be a conversational run down – supposedly written by Noel – of the ingredients with approximate times, taking up most of the first column of Saturday’s TV listings – the next column being reserved for Grandstand, with a third detailing that evening’s Doctor Who.

Noel would ‘open the doors’ at 9.30 and you could call in on the memorable 01 (if you were outside London) 811 8055. Actually, for the first series the number was 01- 288 8055, but few recall that one. Around 9.32 he would ask “Where are you Keith?” and Cheggers would pop up on a nearby monitor to invite the kids to whichever park had seen fit to allow the show access. The Swaporama would continue all morning, usually going beyond the end of the televised show, with regular updates when the studio hit a lull. Around 9.45 there would be a cartoon, such as Hong Kong Phooey or The Great Grape Ape, then a look at the top ten board, which married the top ten hits of the day with the ten most popular swaps. You then had a chance to win the top ten singles by answering a question. The correct answers for all prize winning questions would be placed in a large transparent bowl that would descend from the roof, automatically. Noel nicknamed an unseen operator in the gallery ‘Eric’. Some thought a man actually lived up in the roof and also did the animations on Ask the Family, but unlike Robert Robinson’s graphics whizz, Noel’s ‘Eric’ didn’t exist – some feel Edmonds pulls the same trick with The Banker on Deal Or No Deal.

John Craven would present a News Swap just after ten. Maggie Philbin was the show’s roving reporter, sometimes popping up with Cheggers on the Swaporama. A little later, another longer cartoon such as Valley Of The Dinosaurs or Battle Of The Planets would give the hosts a break. There would be musical guests such as ABBA, Blondie or Kate Bush in Swap Of The Pops, and a Collector Of The week, which was open to children to share their collections on live TV with a chance to swap some of it for ‘most wanted’ pieces offered by equally obsessed young viewers.

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Towards the end of the show there was Star Swap – usually a much loved telly personage such as Penelope Keith, or as in the case of the very first programme, the stars of Doctor Who. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen were the first of many Doctor Who guests over the years with most of Tom Baker’s subsequent companions making an appearance on the show to promote their debut. Many of these items are extras on Doctor Who DVDs, notably a wonderfully eccentric Tom (claiming to be 11 years old!) and Lis on show one, which can be found on the DVD of The Hand Of Fear.

Trips behind the scenes

These editions were a real treat. Noel would suddenly ‘pop next door’ and meet the cast of shows such as It Aint Half Hot Mum rehearsing in a neighbouring studio, or visit the gallery to see how the show is put together, or go to the green room or make-up department to meet that morning’s guests. Sometimes it would be a trip to the famous BBC canteen to see who was there. Often it was the unexpected celebrity appearances that would make these walkabouts. Viewers became very familiar with TV Centre, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wanting to work in television based on these shows. Still have that dream to fulfil, but I did manage to visit TV Centre on a couple of occasions before it was closed.

The shows that followed…

Swap Shop itself eventually closed in March 1982 after 146 editions. Everyone knows about its worthy successors: Saturday Superstore, Going Live!, Live & Kicking et al, but the first BBC show especially created to replace Swap Shop was during its summer break in 1981. Get Set For Summer gave another Radio 1 DJ, Peter Powell, a chance to host a Saturday morning show. He was paired with Mark Curry, ostensibly Keith to Powell’s rather laid back Noel. The summer shows continued to alternate with Saturday Superstore and in a few short years Curry was the main man. Get Set… as it became, morphed into The Get Set Picture Show to placate Curry’s love of cinema, eventually becoming The Saturday Picture Show; he even got Maggie Philbin on board and the seemingly inevitable Radio 1 DJ presenter slot was filled by Gary Davies. In 1987 the BBC changed tack with a show travelling to various locations. Jake Abrahams, something of a Craig Charles lookalike, then popular on the back of the scouse sitcom Help!, hindered Carolyn Marshall’s attempts to front It’s Wicked!; much like the catchphrase this had a short shelf life.

Alternating with Going Live! in the summer of 1988 and 1989 were On The Waterfront and UP2U. The former was based on the Liverpool waterfront in an old warehouse, famously re-dubbed The Flashing Blade, with an amusing script courtesy of one Russell T. Davies; the latter infamously nearly blew up Anthea Turner. The 8.15 From Manchester arrived in 1990, with a ‘Madchester’ era theme tune courtesy of The Inspiral Carpets. On the minus side it gave Ross King his TV break. Parallel 9, which alternated with Live & Kicking, featured a narrative about a parallel dimension with the presenters playing characters. Things became awkward as they had to be suddenly spontaneous when talking to guests. Fully Booked was next and moved the themed idea to a hotel staffed by, amongst others, Zoe Ball (who the following year landed Live & Kicking). The show was moved to Sundays on BBC2 to capitalise on the enduringly popular reruns of Grange Hill. The obscurely titled Saturday Aardvark held the fort on BBC1 on Saturdays; eventually it was retitled Planet Saturday.

Suddenly, in the wake of the all-conquering SM:TV Live, Fully Booked became FBi. After a rather dull all-year-round show called, rather unimaginatively, The Saturday Show, the BBC fought back with the crazy antics of Dick And Dom In Da Bungalow (BOGIES!!!) Then came Reggie Yates’ Mighty Truck Of Stuff and Tmi, but after thirty years on BBC1, the big Saturday morning show was moved permanently to BBC2 in a swap with Anthony Worral Thompson’s Saturday Kitchen. Yet in an intriguing move, Basil’s Swap Shop resurrected the swapping theme.

Meanwhile on ITV

TISWAS was initially replaced in 1982 by The Saturday Show with a post Generation Game Isla St Clair, and Gordon Astley, who had been a team captain on Cheggers Plays Pop. Next came Number 73, one of the best ITV Saturday shows. This featured Art Attack‘s Neil Buchanan and future award-winning film director Andrea Arnold – on roller skates! Best of all was the legendary ‘Sandwich Quiz’ hosted by up and coming comedian Sandi Toksvig. There was the short-lived 1984 series Saturday Starship which featured Bonnie Langford, perhaps in training for her stint on Doctor Who? Get Fresh followed and gave the world Gaz Topp. Next came Ghost Train with Jenny Powell and former Eastender Paul J. Medford.

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Andy Crane defected from the Broom Cupboard to host Motormouth alongside a pre Big Breakfast Gaby Roslin. Sadly, as I was researching this article, news came in that Disney had wiped Motormouth in its entirety. Crane continued with Yvette Fielding and Pat Sharp on What’s Up Doc? which had a healthy dose of Warner Brothers cartoons. ITV Saturday mornings then went through a phase of combinations of two shorter shows: Scratchy & Co, which starred the late Mark Speight, won a BAFTA and was part of a duo with Massive. Next came Telegantic Megavision/It’s Not Just Saturday, then the Sophie Aldred hosted WOW!/The Noise.

In 1998 Ant and Dec and Cat Deeley, all of whom, like Noel Edmonds, would go on to host Saturday night shows, launched SM:TV Live, and suddenly ITV owned Saturday mornings. The ageing Live & Kicking, which had run nearly six years, looked seriously dated; a couple of line-up changes later it was eventually cancelled in 2001 and the BBC were forced to rethink.

40 years later…

So, 40 years on, the same people who tuned in back in 1976 might have children, perhaps even grandchildren, to keep them busy on a Saturday morning. Their children might watch CBBC or CITV on their iPads, though both channels long since abandoned the big Saturday morning shows. The ‘kids of 1976’ might catch the end of Breakfast and perhaps some Saturday Kitchen. It’s just not the same though – where has all the Saturday morning TV fun gone?