The Den of Geek interview: Sally James

To millions, she was the reason to get out of bed on a Saturday morning in the late 70s/early 80s. Ladies and gentlemen, it's Tiswas star Sally James...

Sally James is a Saturday morning legend, with her army of admirers extending well beyond the programme’s intended young demographic. And she spared us some time to sit in the Den of Geek interview chair…

Before you started doing Tiswas you were building up a burgeoning career as an actress. Is acting your first love?Well, actually dancing was my first love. Many many years ago I decided that I wanted to be a dancer. I went to the arts educational and I didn’t really grow tall enough – because I wanted to do ballet – and my dad was working on a film called To Sir With Love and I got a small part in that and sort of moved off into acting.

I was doing quite well and getting lots of jobs. When I was asked to do a test for Saturday Scene, which was actually the first Saturday morning programme, and I started to present, I actually preferred that. So I would say I’ve kind of moved around, really.

Did working on Saturday Scene prepare you for Tiswas?

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No! [laughs] Nothing could prepare you for Tiswas! No, because it was so very different, it was one camera, me talking, all very…it was quite jolly, but it was also sort of, you know, quite sensible. Then you suddenly go up to Tiswas and suddenly they’re all chucking pies around and throwing water and going completely mad. It was a complete shock! I don’t think anything could prepare you for that.

Did you watch much of the early series of Tiswas?

No, because it was only up in the Midlands. What was happening was that I was on Saturday Scene, which was on in London and Tiswas was up in the Midlands, and so there’s now way I could see it. So when they asked me to go up and possibly join them, with the idea that the whole same Saturday morning show would then be broadcast throughout the whole country, I’d never seen it or heard anything really. I just knew that they were all a bit barmy and that they caused a lot of chaos.Considering how anarchic it was, what do you think made them think of you, and that you’d be a good fit?

Well, I think basically the fact that I was doing well in London, and they were thinking maybe they’d have a female so they wanted someone who they knew could cope with live television, really. I was already popular in London so I think they thought that was good.

Tiswas was clearly powered off the strong relationship between you and Chris Tarrant, but was it always like that?

Well, I’ve always got on well with Chris, but when I first went up there he didn’t really think that a girl was a good idea on the team at all, he thought it was a real bastion of male supremacy, and no place for a girl. It was the producer who said ‘Look, I think we need a female influence in here’. And so he said ‘Oh well, all right then’, and sort of gave into it. But in fact we got on very well straight away and it all worked very well. So yeah, we had a very good working relationship.

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Did Matthew Butler’s mother, the rabbit singing ‘Bright Eyes’, really make costumes and props for the show?

Yes, she certainly did. Well, she made all the rabbit outfits. She didn’t make all the props – obviously there were unions that would have come down from a big height. When you say the props, she made all the carrots. Matthew turned up in his rabbit suit and then one week she just turned up with all these rabbit suits for all of us – and all these carrots. It was just so bizarre, and we all wore them. I’ve still got mine!

When– ?

When did I last wear it? The last time I put it on, my kids were very little, and we said to them ‘If you look out of the window in a moment you’ll see the Easter bunny in the garden, putting Easter eggs around’. And so I hopped outside about five minutes later. You know, obviously they knew it was me, but it was quite fun [laughs]. That was many years ago.

Were you aware at the time that lots of dads were watching the program along with their kids, thanks to your involvement?

Well, the thing with Tiswas was that fifty-four percent of our audience were over eighteen, and there were Tiswas appreciation societies going on in pubs, so it had a very very adult appeal. Yeah, I did used to get fan letters from various, you know, various people. So yes, it was obvious the kind of people that were watching: all the lunatics really! [laughs]

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Do you meet many people now who tell you that you were their first crush?

Oh yes, I do actually – it’s quite sweet. We did the Tiswas reunion this year, I’m sure you’re aware of that, and that went very well and the DVD is out now and that’s been selling well. There is a huge fondness out there for Tiswas. People love to reminisce and to talk about it.

What do you remember about the ‘Bucket Of Water’ song?

Well that was just great. John came in one day and he said ‘I’ve sort of got this idea’. It’s a march basically, and we all sing this song. And it’s another excuse to chuck buckets of water! So obviously we didn’t do it in the studio. We had this little area outside the back of the studio where a camera would sort of poke out of the window, so we ended the show down there marching about, sploshing all this water from the buckets. And then the next week it was incredible, because the people were jamming the switchboard, ‘I’ve got to have this record!’.

There was never any idea that it would be a record, but of course we did quickly make a record and it became a hit. It just all happened so left-of-field and so unplanned…but then that’s how a lot of things did happen in Tiswas. Things that you think would work, don’t, and things that you ‘Oh that’ll be good for a one-off’ end up being huge hits, like the cage, which was only ever intended to be there for one week, and it ended up being there for nearly two years.

There were more people writing letters requesting to go in the cage towards the end, than there were children coming to sit in the audience. Then, when people came out of the cage absolutely gunged to death and covered in all kinds of rubbish, we’d say ‘Would you like a shower?’ and they’d say ‘Ooh no, no no, I’m going round Birmingham like this, because I want everyone to know that I’ve been in the cage!’. Y’know, their badge of honour. They were all bonkers [laughs].

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Were you aware at the time of the need to keep the balance between appealing to kids and adults as well? I recall it became an issue once or twice…

Oh, all the time, not once or twice. Well we used to get the IBA and people, and the head of Central would say ‘You’ve got to be more educational’…but we just used to carry on in our own sweet way really. There were items in there that did bow more to children, I suppose; things with some of the animals…but no, not really. When we look back now, especially when we were looking at the footage before we did the reunion, we actually can’t believe some of the things we got away with…

We had St. Winfred’s school choir singing that ghastly grandma song, beautiful little girls all between six and eight, dressed in their best party frocks, all with their hair tweaked to death…and in the middle of it, they’re absolutely drenched with bucket after bucket of water. You just couldn’t do that now, could you? If you said you were gonna do that to small children, you’d be had up for God knows what.

Do you think a show quite that anarchic could happen now?

Well we had a lot of issues doing our show just with Health & Safety, so I don’t think you’d be allowed to do half the things we did with children now. I don’t even know that you can put a child on your lap…? And pulling them up by their ears, that’s probably some kind of abuse. So I wouldn’t like to try it [laughs].

Were you tempted to leave the show when Chris Tarrant went?

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Well they asked me if I’d stay on for another year and I said yes I would, but obviously I was very worried about it, because the whole success of the show was because of the team, really; it was the way we all gelled together, and it was the team that was important. I didn’t think it would work as well as it did…well, I didn’t think it would really work and I don’t think it really did. The whole success of Tiswas was down to when we are all together.

How did you feel when fans picketed to have the show put back on the air?

Well, once it’s gone, it’s gone, and it can’t be like that again. So I didn’t really take a lot of notice of that. That was never going to be an issue.

You seemed to disappear from television once Tiswas ended. Are you pleased you decided to?Well I did actually do quite a lot of other things, but because Tiswas was so massive, people seem to think you’ve not done anything. I did Ultra Quiz, which was a long-running quiz that started with a thousand people in Brighton and ended with four in Hong Kong. And I did a nightly chat show with David Soul called Six Fifty Five Special for about eight weeks. Then, the following year, I did it with Paul Coia, so I did actually do quite a lot of other things, but people don’t remember anything other than Tiswas. Chris, for instance, is not remembered for anything between Tiswas and Millionaire, and he did about fifteen other projects. It’s just the perception.

And then of course I stopped and had my family, so I’ll never regret taking time off to raise my boys. So life just goes in different directions. I’m doing a lot of work now for Film 24, which I’m enjoying very much. I’ve always been doing something, albeit certainly not as high-profile as Tiswas.

Did you enjoy your return to radio a few years back?

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Yes, I like radio a lot, especially when you do phone-ins and people ring in and you have good chats about different things. I did enjoy that.

What can you tell us about Sally Sorts It, the program you’ve been involved in developing?

Well that’s at a very embryonic stage. It’s just like an idea…when I had all my problems a couple of years ago with the cosmetic surgery, and I could have sorted all that out on my own, and somebody kind of said that it would be a good idea for me to do a program sorting out other people’s problems. It’s very hard to get new things off the ground. I did have someone who was quite interested in it and we’re just talking about it, but it’s not anywhere far enough down the line to really shout about at the moment.

We are big fans of the Two Ronnies, and you worked with them for several episodes…

Yeah [laughs]!What was that experience like?

Oh it was fantastic. It was absolutely fabulous. I so enjoyed it; it was just before I did Saturday Scene, and The Two Ronnies really liked the same group of people around them. I went and did a couple of very small bits, and then they just kept asking me back to do more sketches and more things and it was just a riot. Such an insight and such a privilege to see how they worked, as well.

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They always struck us as very inclusive and welcoming, but was it at all intimidating to work on the show?

It was at first, but they made you very welcome, especially Ronnie Barker, such a warm lovely man, and so kind and nice to new young people coming in to the business. So they made it very easy, really.

Sally James, thank you very much…!