Heeeeeyyyy, you!

Something that seems to have disappeared from our screens these days is the big Saturday morning kids’ TV show. You know what I mean – a bunch of wacky presenters, cartoons, competitions, phone-ins, musical guests, Keith Chegwin on location in the rain…it usually filled about three hours between the end of breakfast telly, and the start of interminable sports coverage that would make me want to slit my wrists.

Here in the UK, various shows filled the space over the years, and there was usually a choice – the BBC would tend to provide an entertaining but fairly structured show, in a magazine format, a bit like a less highbrow version of Blue Peter, whereas ITV had a reputation for producing some rather more infamously anarchic shows – Tiswas, of course, was the best known of these. It was complete and utter chaos most of the time – gunge, water, dodgy politically-incorrect comedians, humour as cheeky as you could possibly get away with – and it was HUGELY popular, especially with students and a number of dads who would tune in to leer at Sally James. It ended up launching the careers of people like Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry, among others. I remember watching it, but I was a bit too young to get it, and I found it all a bit too IN YOUR FACE. I was, however, a huge fan of its successor.

This was a show called No. 73, which was made by new ITV franchise TVS, and launched in their area in 1982, notoriously replacing Tiswas there while the rest of the country could still get it. In the following year, Tiswas was axed completely and No. 73 filled its slot nationwide. The first I heard about it was a promotional slot on breakfast TV a few days before it launched, and it appealed to my eight-year-old imagination. I tuned in and was instantly hooked.

The premise was a bold one – the show featured all the Saturday morning staples, but instead of regular presenters, it was hosted by actors who appeared in character as the residents of a house (number 73, of course). The house was supposedly owned by landlady Ethel (Sandi Toksvig’s first big role), and featured residents Harry (a bit dim, supposedly Ethel’s nephew) and Dawn – ahh, Dawn. I liked her! Dawn was cool. Slightly punky and a snappy dresser, she was cheeky, bold and chatty, and scooted around the house rather niftily in a pair of roller boots. Neil Buchanan regularly appeared doing arty things, under his own name, and there was a regular cast of neighbours, postmen and other eccentric visitors (including love interests for various members of the cast). There were some guest presenters too, and on top of all that came the cartoons and the regular stream of pop stars etc. that were the staples of Saturday morning TV.

It all seemed hugely ambitious, and I remember even then thinking that it must have been very complex to make compared to competing shows. The characters had their own plots that ran from week to week and cliff-hangers were a regular occurrence. Life in the house was always a bit crazy, and that was part of the appeal – given that the whole show went out live, there was a lot of scope for things to go wrong, but they rarely did and the whole thing was bit of a work of art. Only later, with the advent of the Internet and a couple of 73 fansites, did I find out just how much work went into making it – the house itself was a huge set that was permanently set up for the duration of each series, and each show involved a lot of improvisation in the week leading up to broadcast before a full dress-rehearsal on the Friday. It was a huge commitment for the cast, and took up valuable studio space.

The show had some highly memorable elements to it, including a couple of serials filmed on location and including most of the regular cast members, the weekly Sandwich Quiz, the band of the week performing live in the cellar, and a range of viewer contributions, including a kid who drew a massive street scene frieze with Number 73 and its distinctive door in the middle, and the “Number 73 Novel Novel”. This was a serialised story with a new chapter every week – sent in by a viewer. Each chapter had 73 words.

Unfortunately TVS began to struggle with the huge resource hog No. 73 became, and things began to go downhill when Sandi Toksvig left. Eventually, in an effort to free up the studio space, No. 73 moved to an outside set and the final season was 7T3, from…a Wild West theme park. Supposedly the street had been demolished to build it, but this lame plot device never seemed to work, and 7T3 lasted one season, never to return – more conventional shows followed it. I was sad to see it go, but it lasted long enough to be a big part of my childhood, and it really caught my imagination. My rather boring suburban parents were pretty dull, and the idea of living in an exciting 73-style house was pretty appealing!

Many of the characters on the show went on to bigger and better things – Sandi Toksvig has had a very successful media career, Neil Buchanan became an updated version of Tony Hart and successfully hosted loads of art-based shows, and Andrea Arnold, who played Dawn, became a superb film director. She’s well-known for gritty and hard-hitting films, and has won a slew of awards. The first film of hers I saw, Fish Tank, has some autobiographical elements in it, and it’s strong stuff. Do go and see it.

TVS was a short-lived company, eventually running into financial difficulties and losing its broadcast franchise in 1992. It had produced some superb shows, though, and attempted to carry on as an independent producer. The company eventually changed hands several times, and sadly this resulted in the loss of much of their programming archive. A lot of it was simply binned, and much of the rest has incomplete records of who made and starred in it, which makes it almost impossible to use commercially because royalties can’t be paid. It’s a real shame, because alongside No. 73, TVS were responsible for some other really good kids’ shows in the eighties – including, most importantly, Fraggle Rock. Although Jim Henson made the bulk of it, Fraggle Rock had local content for each country it was shown in – Uncle Travelling Matt explored different places, and the actual gateway from the rock to the world of the Silly Creatures was different in every version. In the UK, Fraggle Rock had a lighthouse run by Fulton McKay, and he had a dog called Sprocket. Uncle Matt’s British adventures were filmed by TVS in various locations in the south of England. Unfortunately, almost all of these have ended up lost in a skip somewhere – when ITV showed a selection of vintage kids’ shows a few years ago, they had to show a US version of Fraggle Rock, which wasn’t how I remembered it at all. I also loved Do It, a things-to-make-and-do show that also had an ongoing plot element. It was supposedly set in a local newspaper office, with the presenter being responsible for putting the Do It Supplement together. The Do It Supplement actually existed, and you could write off to the “The Belstow Weekly” for a copy of it!

Sadly, all that remains now are a few fragmented clips on YouTube, largely made from VHS recordings. The BBC was regularly criticised for junking old tapes with valuable programmes on them, but at least they stopped doing that a long time ago. Many of my precious TV memories have ended up in landfill, which seems very sad, but stopping to think about how much I enjoyed this era in kids’ TV cheers me up no end.

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