Foreward by Jeremy Beadle
Reminisce about the shows you loved with this essential guide to the nation’s best-loved telly programmes.
In this witty and nostalgic romp through the highlights and lowlights of Saturday night telly, Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams remind us of the great, the iconic, the hilarious and the just plain embarrassing moments that have made Saturday night television so entertaining. With a comprehensive list of classic comedy, drama, entertainment, game shows and people shows, this is a must-read for true TV buffs and the perfect gift for nostalgia fans.
Cannon and Ball
LWT/Yorkshire Television for ITV 28 July 1979 to 25 August 1990 (71 episodes)
For a comedy act built on the slimmest material, Cannon and Ball are to be applauded for notching up a creditable seventy-one shows during their eleven-year reign on Saturday night television. Theirs is a traditional act consisting of a ‘pull up the cuffs’-style straight man in the form of Tommy Cannon, and an overly aggressive ‘ naughty boy’ in the shape of Bobby Ball.
Alarmingly, when you boil it down, all of their routines can be described by reference to a mere handful of slogans, mannerisms and sketch ideas. First of all there are Bobby’s catchphrases: ‘I thank you, I thank you and once again I thank you’, ‘You little liar’, ‘You’ll do for me’ and, most famously, ‘Rock on, Tommy’. Then there are the various physical and vocal mannerisms such as Bobby threatening to poke someone in the eye, yelling ‘Shut it, lady’ to someone in the crowd and contriving to pull a neck muscle to punctuate a particularly voluble diatribe. Finally there are the sketches themselves.
These usually feature either Tommy taking part in a pursuit or activity that in some way excludes Bobby; or Tommy being continually interrupted by Bobby while attempting to complete a performance that, crucially, has aspirations towards high culture. This particular routine turned up so many times that by the end of the Eighties most of the audience could probably improvise their own version.
The duo started out as a straight musical act appearinq under a number of different names (including The Shirel|e Brothers’, The Harper Brothers’ and, best of all, ‘Bobby and Stevie Rhythm’) but over time they added comedy to their performance. Although the gags were pretty crummy (Bobby used to wave his camera around on a piece of string and yell look at that, it’s a movie camera’), there was something about the two, and in particular the way Bobby could get the crowd’s sympathy when Tommy attempted to shun him, that saw them grow in popularity.
It is almost impossible now to appreciate just how successful Cannon and Ball were in the Eighties, but their series attracted massive audiences, and their live shows sold out across the land. Yet they weren’t without their critics, and Bobby’s on-screen aggression was considered by some as something that may well have worked well in the working men’s clubs but was a bit too strong for the small screen.
Much like their act, their television series stuck to a rigid formula (or rather it did for its first six series): there would be the opening stand-up routine and then a performance by a top pop act (such as Grace Kennedy). After this would come a series of sketches performed in front of minimal set dressing, then another musical act, before a final stand-up routine in which Tommy would explain to Bobby what he was going to be doing for the rest of the weekend and, more importantly, how it wouldn’t involve Bobby. Cue public sympathy and the duo leaving the stage their own separate ways, before reuniting once again to show us that they really were pals. After that there would just be time for the twosome’s signature tune, Together, We’ll Be OK’ (‘laugh me a laugh, grin me a grin…’), and that would be the end of the show.
Unsurprisingly a number of jokes and routines resurfaced throughout their television tenure with an early skit in which the duo played invisible snooker turning up again later on as a game of invisible poker. Meanwhile, Bobby was still using the line ‘I’m a sex object – I want sex and they object’ when the boys appeared on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here in 2005. By 1986 no one could dispute that a change was long overdue. Cannon and Ball metamorphosed into a sitcom in which the two played themselves living in a London flat, but this didn’t really catch on. There was even talk that their employers, LWT, were simply trying to wind down the lad’s highly lucrative contract (supposedly, one of the clauses meant that even though they were living together at the time, two separate limousines were required to transport them to rehearsals).
Having turned down an offer to go to the BBC, Cannon and Ball recorded their final Saturday night series Cannon and Ball’s Casino. This was a rather flawed variety game show in which our two hosts led contestants through a series of general knowledge questions and silly charades in attempt to win a star prize. But beyond the fact that the studio audience sat around tables and drank champagne, the whole casino concept was totally superfluous, and the game show element never really worked. Today the twosome refer to the show as a ‘monkey on their backs’.
After just one series, the duo was shifted off Saturday nights altogether and had one final crack at television with The Plaza Patrol. But by then, the writing was well and truly on the wall. Sadly, television comedy had moved on, and where once Bobby’s outbursts had seemed outrageous and exciting, by the Nineties there was no one remotely interested in still ‘rocking on’.
Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night
LWT for ITV 7 October 1978 to 4 April 1980 (13 episodes)
‘You get criticised if you’re trying something new, you get criticised if you do the same old thing.’ So bemoaned a rueful Bruce Forsyth on the set of this ill-fated entertainment extravaganza. In fact, on this particular edition of Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night, the eponymous host spent ten minutes of precious airtime bitching about press coverage of the show: ‘with all that pre-press it made people think when the show started, glitter was going to come out of the set and, you know, it was going to be so sensational. It’s like everything else; when people say “you must see that”, when you go and see it for yourself you’re a bit disappointed.’
Beneath the veneer of bitterness you had to concede that Brucie had a point. Since leaving the BBC in 1977, the public and press alike had wondered where ‘the most important man in television’ (according to the Guardian) would turn up next. When news filtered through that he would be hosting an entertainment extravaganza on ITV you couldn’t help but be curious. The fact that the series was going to cost a reputed £1000 a minute to make, would run for between ninety minutes and two hours, and would be shown up against Bruce’s old series, The Generation Game, sent the press haywire.
Yet for all the hype and excitement, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night had a fatal flaw; it never really had a proper hook. Instead, the show was made up from loads of different sections of variable quality. ‘Sofa Soccer’ featured a television viewer delivering left a bit…right a bit…’ instructions to a cameraman in an attempt to fire a football into a goal. Meanwhile Steve Jones presided over members of the public trying to get celebs to correctly guess certain words in a kind of ‘You Say, We Pay’ style in a section labelled ‘The Pyramid Game’. The UK Disco Dancing Championships provided a degree of spectacle, plus ghastly and inventive dancing in equal measure, while mini editions of ancient radio sitcom ‘The Glums’ and The Worker’ kept the comedy quotient up.
But above all, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night was about the host himself. Vast swathes of the show were given over to Bruce answering the audience’s unscripted questions, or getting a member of the public to run through a comedy sketch with him (‘it’s not “nice”, it’s “neee-ce”‘). And of course, there was plenty of time allotted to allow our host to demonstrate his excellent microphone technique while crooning some old show tune or other. This need to show off even extended to his interchanges with the various guest artistes. Acts of the calibre of Sammy Davis Jnr would have to put up with Bruce’s hilarious impressions of them (‘I’d just like to say sincerely…”sincerely”‘) before being expected to participate in a duet with the ever-present host.
What made all of this worse was the fact that each item would go on for what felt like an eternity (often up to ten minutes). This, in retrospect, was the series’ fatal flaw. Whereas later shows such as Noel’s House Party recognised the virtue of keeping each element short and sweet, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night lost loads of viewers who simply couldn’t be bothered to sit through ten minutes of turgid disco dancing on the remote chance that they might be rewarded with a bit of Cannon and Ball afterwards. It didn’t help matters when after only the second show, the programme’s director, Paul Smith, walked out on the production complaining that the running order was being changed so much that his task had come to resemble directing a news bulletin.
Unfortunately performers of the calibre of Rod Hull & Emu, Bette Midler, Elton John, Liza Goddard and Colin Baker weren’t enough to paper over the cracks, and with a retrospective New Year’s Eve highlights special on 31 December 1978, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night was over. Or rather, it was almost over. Bizarrely on Good Friday 1980, the show returned for a one-off special, but even then, the combined might of Kenny Lynch, Derek Griffiths, Joan Collins and Jimmy Tarbuck could not alter public indifference.