Writer, researcher, designer, video producer/editor, developer and occasional comedian.
I walked into my local corner shop and saw that almost every national newspaper's front page referring to an online incident I sparked off a few days previously. This was 2009 and I had uncovered a bit of hypocrisy from a famous pop star, which resulted in a war of words. But that's a story for another time...
So there I was, about to appear on live national television with three friends. We were there to sing in front of a bunch of judges, who all but one were aged under ten, the exception being the actor who played Toadfish on Neighbours. The fact that we couldn't sing didn't matter, it was a comedy piece where tuneless singing was essential but nobody told the judges that. Oh, and we were dressed as rabbits. But that's a story for another time...
Two paragraphs in and you're probably thinking I'm a fame-craving irritant with an "I'm right bonkers, me" outlook on life. The cold reality is that most days I drive to work, spend hours in front of a computer screen, come home and spend more hours in front of a computer screen. There's some eating and sleeping involved too.
Many of my earliest memories consist of being plonked in front of the family television set. 'Electronic babysitter' is meant to be a disparaging term, but this square window did the trick in keeping me quiet. If Asterix the Gaul gained eternal strength from being dropped into a cauldron of magic potion as a baby, then I must attribute my fascination with comedy and technology to the mighty 25" beamer of delight.
In the late 1970s, Britain's three-channel arena of televisual offerings were my eye magnet. Stations tended to start around 8 or 9am, preceded by lengthy showings of a static test card backed with bland musak. Programmes were in finite supply back then, unlike the 70+ round-the-clock taps of digital telly every set has now. Empty slots in the schedules, usually around the afternoons, would necessitate another outing for Carole Hersee and her toy clown. I was quite happy to sit through this. Colour bars; the extended ITV logo idents that opened up the station; Open University and schools clocks... if it wasn't static, I'd probably watch it.
Of course I watched programmes. I was addicted to How!, the kids' show that explained how to do tricks with household objects. The BBC2 Sunday morning showings of ancient black-and-white slapstick comedies from Harold Lloyd; Buster Keaton and the untouchable Laurel and Hardy were an absolute joy.
For me, the absolute apex of knockabout entertainment, was confined to Saturday mornings in a children's show called Tiswas. I caught it just as it was catching a cult status across the country. This low-budget parade of cartoons, film clips, competitions and jokes had emerged from a tiny studio in Birmingham, before I was born. One by one, the regional stations that made up the ITV network started to take it up.
As a six year old, what was visually compelling was the utter chaos. Sketches would frequently end up with some poor soul getting a custard pie in the face or a bucket of gunk tipped over them. This simple and cheap tactic would impress an audience of all ages, especially the folk involved, who you could sense were putting on pantomime levels of disgust as another wave of slop got hurled at them, but deep down they clearly enjoyed it.
In the 1990s, when a Tiswas video compilation was released, I bought it on the spot. Yet after the sixty minutes of clips was over, I didn't feel the same way I did as an ankle-biter. A fair bit of it was puerile and some sketches clearly didn't work. What had fascinated me on this refreshed look at the show, was how this show got on the air in the first place. You can see how cheap it is, yet the creative efforts and dedication of everyone there has made this programme so outstanding. It's why rock stars like Jimmy Page and The Who queued up to be humiliated with flannings and soakings.
The ethos of Tiswas's humble creation is only slightly tarnished when you realised that the vast majority of mayhem on the show was actually chereographed and rehearsed. Yet the appeal of this show eclipses any of its failings. Many shows have tried to ape its spirit and just never got close. It's been a blueprint for practically any show attempting to be anarchic. A fair few people who were watching its impotent 'competitor' (Swap Shop) over on BBC1, now pretend to have loved Tiswas all along.
The idea of doing something great with hardly any budget, has always appealed to me. Actually, it's been some kind of necessity, having grown up in a cash-strapped household. It's pretty simple economics, if you spend loads at the start, you've got a tougher time to make a positive result.
That being said, you can't light a fire without a spark. Sorry, I'm really rambling now, but that was a clumsy metaphor for some jobs I've been in, where budget, time, training and equipment were in such short supply. We really should have abandoned such projects at birth.
A spell of unemployment back in 2004 had me wanting to kill the spare time by setting up a digital shrine to Tiswas. I'd been experimenting with web programming and databases, notably PHP and MySQL, finding it ridiculously easy to use. My only prior programming experience was knocking up a few simple puzzle games on my ZX Spectrum and even those were written in BASIC. Despite being warned that BASIC makes people into sloppy programmers, I managed to put together TiswasOnline over the course of a fortnight.
I was aided by a few folk from Tiswas fandom. The ever-growing proliferation of the internet meant that we could communicate on a mailing list ("Remember them, eh?" - Peter Kay), and one such list was curated by Matthew Lewis, a similarly-aged chap to me, who had appeared regularly on the show as a child. His fame may have lasted as long as a pint of milk, but to us, he was a demigod.
Three other subcribers frequently talked about the show, some even had recordings - prize assets that had eluded me in those VCR-free days.We agreed to meet up in Birmingham city centre. One of the team proposed to write a press release about our meeting, to send out to TV and radio stations. I thought he was barmy, but he had written it so well that it would be worth a shot.
The BBC HQ in the West Midlands got in touch. The Beeb promised us a look round the old abandoned studio, but of course, they had to contact ITV for the details on getting in there. When ITV got wind of this, they went direct to us and asked if we could pop in the next day. Alas, I could not get the time off, but my TiswasOnline colleague Lee Bannister could make it, as could Matthew Lewis, who brought in his old rabbit suit. My web work appeared on screen, which I was immensely proud of. It felt like a contribution - albeit a tiny one - to the show's legend.
With fandom, it's one thing spending your disposable income on something you worship, but to take a small part in it gives you a whole new level of satisfaction. I didn't want the site to just parrot the same old observations about the show, I wanted to uncover how it came into being, to see if we could restore any of the hundreds of missing episodes.
Later on in the year, I rang up an old boss and put myself back into working life.
One sunny evening in a Cheshire pub, we were having dinner with Bob Carolgees. We were doing a video interview for the site, and at the end of it, when our camera and recording equipment was packed away, Bob let slip that there was something in the works to get a one-off revival on the show, probably on a satellite channel.
Meanwhile, things took a positive turn for bank balance. Desperately wanting to buy a home for myself and my then-girlfriend, I went through a series of job interviews in order to push my career up a gear. I'd applied for a few web design and development positions, using TiswasOnline and a couple of ecommerce sites as examples of my work.
Nearly a month in to my hunt for a better salary, I had some time off my day job due to chronic toothache. With a few hours to kill, I perused some employment agencies in Northampton. I was faced with the words "Wanted - European copy editor for IT giant". This sounded like the ideal job for me, due to my love of computing, but I was cautious. On the hobby front, my writing had developed immensely. Myself and the guys at TiswasOnline even drafted up a few pages for a potential book on the history of Tiswas, but commercially, I didn't have much to my name.
"I don't suppose you know Wellingborough?" asked the recruitment clerk. Well, I lived in the town, so this was helpful. It turned out the IT firm was electronics reseller Misco, a huge employer for its time.
I turned up for the interview at short notice, having just come out of the dentists. I brought along a couple of pages of the Tiswas book. The interviewer was a woman who had grown up in Chile, and obviously never heard of this 1970s childrens' show. I was told to look at a website for a HP laptop and then to write two paragraphs about it, in just ten minutes. This time was up before I had even finished the first paragraph, so I asked for an extra five minutes.
Eventually I completed it, but felt I had blown my chances with that request for a time extension. I fully expected to be given a "We'll let you know" response, with the obligatory "Thank you for applying for this position, but unfortunately on this occasion you have not been successful" letter to hit the door mat a few days later.
What actually happened made my jaw drop. I was left waiting for a while as my interviewer disappeared. When she returned, she said she'd like to see me next week for a second interview. I felt quite chuffed, but still cautious. The salary was going to be a huge improvement on what I was earning, and I remember having applied some years back for an IT support role at the same company and them not even responding to my application. A whole weekend sat in between this and my next visit, but I didn't celebrate.
Some new things occurred during the second interview. I was brought fully into the company premises this time, as the first interview had only taken place in a featureless back room. There were acres and acres of open plan desks, all in a regimented layout. Then I was to see my interviewer's senior. The walk to the centre of this hub of operations was like being in a Hanna Barbera cartoon - the background just kept repeating itself.
"Peter, I've been looking at your resumé" spoke the distinctly American voice of the head of marketing. Of course! Misco had been bought out a couple of years earlier by America's Systemax, rescuing the brand from financial collapse. The huge wave of redundancies back then had made big news locally, but things were definitely on the up at Misco Towers by this point. The head of marketing may have not been impressed with my CV at that point, yet the writing experiment had spoken for itself. In fact, I was told I wouldn't be offered the job, but another one a level up. I'd been promoted during a job interview!
Naturally, you're all dead excited about my years of turning a technical specifications sheet into engaging web copy. Sorry to quash the party, but to turn things back onto television, myself and the TiswasOnline team were alerted to ITV proudly announcing a one-off Tiswas revival. For us, this like the Beatles getting back together. Yes, we'd known from the hints people had dropped to us, and yes, we were on the phone right away to Mike Smith (Sally James's husband and a major Tiswas rights-holder, not the dearly-departed Radio 1 DJ).
An Audience With Tiswas was the original plan for this prime-time reunion show. We were promised audience tickets but in return, we needed to help out. Well, this was a no-brainer. I know there's a very justifiable call for writers and other creative workers to "never work for free", but in a situation like this, it's something I'd never turn down. Hell, I'd have paid to have done it.
Not to blow our trumpet too much, but in a way, we had brought Tiswas back to the nation's screens a year earlier. One of our forum visitors told how he managed to appear on the cult Saturday morning kids' show Dick 'n' Dom In Da Bungalow, a genuinely anarchic show that was moulded by surrealism, ad-libbing and gunge. The whole thing resembled Tiswas as if it were directed by Vic 'n' Bob, and gained many older viewers, as it had a substantial degree of adult humour. The parallels to Tiswas are uncanny, yet it was no carbon-copy or a wannabe. The fact it was broadcast by the BBC was jaw-dropping.
Our intrepid forum member had managed, with his girlfriend, to have pulled off a musical performance inspired by Tiswas's Bucket Of Water song. This all took place in the show's recurring 'talent spot', where all kinds of odd acts would appear, hence its name, Strangely Talented.
I made a mental note of the producer from the credits, and emailed him, saying that we knew the Tiswas rabbit boy - Matthew Lewis - and he'd like to go on the show with all of us to perform his act. I got a phone call a week later, asking us if we were okay to appear in the slot in a fortnight's time! "Of course we are" I replied, and then immediately phoned Matthew, as I hadn't exactly given him prior warning about this. Thankfully, he was very appreciative of my approach to the Beeb and confirmed his involvement.
While the 32-year-old Matthew would be bringing his tiny made-for-a-6-year-old rabbit suit with him to comically attempt to put on during our little skit, the rest of us involved - myself, Lee Bannister and Marc Neun - assumed Auntie Beeb would be supplying us with the leporine costuming needed.
The sketch itself was simple, a pure retread of Matthew's act on Tiswas decades previously, only now he had us three as backing singers. All we had to do was emulate Matthew's earnest-but-tuneless recital of Bright Eyes by Simon And Garfunkel. I can't hold a note in a bucket, so this was naturally easy for me to achieve.
Days before we were to embark to W12 8TQ, we were told that due to budget restraints we'd need to get our own outfits. I ran to the nearest joke shop, and they could only rustle up some plastic 'bunny ears' headbands, the kind of thing seen on hen nights. They did offer some bunny girl outfits, and for a split-second I thought that maybe this could be a whole new level of amusement, but then quickly realised the sight of us in skimpy clingy leotards and fishnet tights would be something we'd never live down... or even get on a show intended for kids.
I had enough money in my pocket to buy a few square metres of blue furry fabric from the local textiles shop. Not owning a sewing machine or having any sewing skills to speak of, were obstacles I tended to ignore. The task of creating a rabbit costume from scratch was something I threw myself into with gusto. Alas, not enough fabric for anything more than one. A quick visit to the web and a pleading phone call to a fancy dress store, and I was promised two more rabbit costumes by Friday.
Thankfully, everything fell into place. I had blagged my then-girlfriend and her sister in with me to BBC Television Centre - an iconic building I used to travel past on my way to a friend in Northolt. We spent hours in the green room and weren't even given proper changing facilities. But none of that mattered. We were going to bring Tiswas alive again, for one minute, live to one million viewers.
The Match Of The Day's toilet cubicles are fairly large, but not really comfortable for two grown men changing into rabbit costumes. Also, the corridors of the BBC Television Centre may not be the best place to rehearse, but it was all we had. We'd not even discussed what we were actually going to do during our alloted time. Sixty seconds is brief, but feels like a lifetime when all eyes are on you. A quick chat and we felt we sussed our plan of action.
When we finally ran on set, we took to spewing out our garbled words. Well, Marc didn't, he didn't want to join in and said he'd just hop on the spot. I thought he was joking, but that's what he actually did, despite the fall-off-a-log ease of the duty to sing a song very badly.Thankfully, Lee did sing, although his costume was masked and his efforts (far better than mine) were rather muffled.
Matthew then came on, pushed us all behind, pulled out a rucksack and then struggled to put on his tiny rabbit costume. The guy deserves huge credit, as he rolled around on the floor, really making a fool out of himself. At meetings, I'd never see him act ridiculous or do anything that looked silly, but this was him bringing out his silly side to a TV audience for the first time since 1981.
Only from looking back at the footage did I realise that I end up looking like the lead rabbit at first (due to the different costume, sans mask), and then quickly put in my place by Matthew. I couldn't wish for anything better, that was a brilliant move and from what I remember in the rehearsal discussions, it wasn't even planned.
So, that was our own brief Tiswas revival, which ended up lasting four times as long as intended, but certainly nothing on the scale of an actual revival of the show on yer actual ITV.
A young ITV researcher had my mobile number, and would call occasionally - "How many episodes of Tiswas were there?". Then came a call from Mike, who wanted us to populate the legendary Cage on the show (a contraption adults would be locked into and have gunk dropped and thrown all over them), using our forum members as likely candidates. The condition was simple - each applicant would have state why they should go into the Cage.
Dusting off the PHP skills, I came up with an application form for site visitors to fill in. Every submission would automatically be sent to us and the Tiswas Reunited audience co-ordinator. I was the first person to write in, but was turned down, probably rightfully, as I was sort of involved in the application process. Well, nobody at TiswasOnline had the say-so in approving who went in.
Our forum is somewhat male-skewed, as most websites based on television nostalgia tend to be. In one of the phone conversations with the female researcher, she moaned that it had become a bit 'bloke-heavy'. Thankfully, due to our involvement with Da Bungalow a year earlier, I knew of a willing fan base of women who wouldn't mind getting splattered in the spirit of Saturday morning anarchy. Dom's own website had its forum, where a lot of teenage and twenty-something fans conversed about Da Bunglaow. I'd popped over there to see what people thought of our act and ended up being a regular poster there.
I knew ITV wanted to fill up the audience with celebrities who had been on Tiswas, and celebrity fans, so with Dick and Dom both acknowledging the show after our performance, I had suggested the pair be invited on. So I informed Dom's online fanbase of this, which suddenly scored a significant increase in XY-chromosomed applicants.
This was a huge relief too, as our Tiswas website had been known to attract some slightly off-colour visitors. You see, when you have a show featuring people getting covered in custard, baked beans, slime, yoghurt, chocolate and foam, a certain 'niche' audience will be among the audience, for reasons other than to just witness the comedic effect of the messy slapstick.
Tiswas was renowned for a huge following from grown-ups and students, sparked in particular by Sally James's tendency to wear tight-fitting clothes and being on the receiving end of a soaking.
Word of our site hosting the Cage application form had spread to some other forums on the web, two of which centred on the 'WAM' fetish - that's Wet And Messy in case you didn't want to worry your browser's search history. There was one week where we were deluged with fetishists being none-too-subtle in their requests. Lines like "I'd dress as a woman in a french maid's outfit and be humiliated as you poured all that slimy gunk over me" were coming in, and feck knows what the poor researcher at ITV HQ made of it all.
In the end, I had to head over to these forums, sign up and tell them it wasn't being appreciated. This didn't exactly go down well. I was being accused of censorship and banning anyone outside the mainstream, even though I never had approval on who went in.
Personally, I don't give a damn if people want to don rubber dresses and throw themselves into puddles of mud, but Tiswas was not about that. It stuck to the gleeful and mischevious side of the pie-in-the-face gag. A lot of sketches would usually revolve around a sensible smartly-dressed character getting splattered. There's no point turning up to receive ridicule if you look ridiculous already.
Eventually things were smoothed over and one forum owner in particular - Bill Shipton - saw things from my side. Sure, he was the UK's only founder of a WAM magazine and produced many of that scene's early videos, but he knew that slapstick's central purpose is to make people laugh. In fact, he even incorporated that ethos into his work. It turned out that he worked on Tiswas itself as part of work experience for ATV in 1975.
In the weeks leading up to the actual recording, we decided to have a big Tiswas meet up. Half the audience were going to be regular folk who enjoyed the show. I knew of a pub directly opposite the London Studios, so for the day of the recording, we all turned up there.
Many of the Cage inhabitants were present and correct, including one from a WAM forum who had wisely kept her application rather subtle.
Andrew Wooding of TiswasOnline had helped out with research work for the show and we'd sent in a load of recordings as ITV's achives of Tiswas are far from complete. Our reward was for the TiswasOnline team and their partners to be seated in the celebrity part of the audience, to attend the champagne reception and the after-show party. Well, it'd be rude to turn it down.
The labyrinth of the London Studios corridors had us in the ITV canteen for the reception, where I discovered Stephen Mulhern and Toyah on the balcony. Stephen, incidentally, is an incredibly pleasant chap, which surprised me, as his on-screen persona irks me.
The very first seconds of the show began with the ATV ident, causing the 280-strong audience to roar with approval. Experienced studio workers had never heard such a reaction of this level before. Every item introduced was furiously applauded. On a personal level, this was the potential fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. If the cameras swung my way, I would be on Tiswas. Yer actual Tiswas. Official, and everything.
My father's side of the family have a fair bit of heritage in the west midlands. Smethwick, to be precise. On the occasional Dudley-bound visits to my grandparents, my dad made mentions of getting me in the audience for Tiswas. Yet it never happened.
I may have been 120 miles away from the original Tiswas studio, the show does indeed have 'Reunited' tacked on the end of its title, yet it's just about 'canon', isn't it? If it isn't then there's no other alternative, the studios in Birmingham have been mothballed, gutted and sadly isn't fit for another show again.
For the entire evening, I was six years old again. Laughing ferociously at any gag and clapping like a seal. I shamelessly craned my neck whenever a camera was anywhere even vaguely close to my fizzog. That was particularly toe-curling when I viewed it months later on transmission, and was brought up in the offices at Misco back on Monday morning.
When the show was over, we headed upstairs to the after-show party (also held in the canteen). Beer and snacks were free, but we were in absolute awe of being in such close proximity to our childhood heroes. I don't think I ate anything that night. Chris Tarrant had me in a headlock, Bob Carolgees recognised us from before, as did Dick and Dom (who were particularly astonished at having to fill in ITV's 'don't sue us' compliancy form over the flanning they received).
I have this in-joke with an old schoolfriend whenever Frank Carson's name is mentioned. I have to shout "it's a dry biscuit!" That's my cunning subversion of his catchphrase. So as Frank was in attendence, I decided to try this out on him.
Me: "It's a dry biscuit!"
Me: "Er, it's a dry biscuit!"
Frank: "Sorry, say that again?"
Me: "Well, it's a..."
Frank: "LISTEN HERE I DO THE JOKES AROUND HERE SONNY BOY!"
And off he went, on another gag reel, having thoroughly slaughtered me. Fair play to the man. He was a rare beast. Someone off the telly who was exactly the same as he was on it. He would tell a marathon of gags to absolutely anyone, and revelled in it.
An online friend had good reason to be envious when Tiswas Reunited aired, complete with a preceding ATV logo. Stephen Thwaites is a huge fan of ATV - the midlands ITV station that brought us Tiswas; Crossroads; The Golden Shot; Family Fortunes; Bullseye and more. He sadly couldn't get the time off work, a huge shame as I had a VIP ticket for him (later given to Dominic Wood's webmaster).
Stephen had made his own website dedicated to ATV's programmes, I think it was hosted on his ISP's webspace ("Remember that?" - Peter Kay) and although its digital location may have not been professional, the site was beautifully designed. Stephen is a very talented designer and I keep telling him to take it up as a profession.
It was through Stephen that I got to eventually step inside the hallowed ATV studios, and ended up being a proper film-maker, with iMDB credits and DVD royalties dropping into my bank account.
Stephen approached me as he wanted to have a forum on his 'ATV website' (that was literally the name of it in its early days). He'd seen TiswasOnline's forum, which I had customised for our purposes and asked if I could do the same for him. Well, this ATV forum had to be hosted on the TiswasOnline.com domain, but that was no major problem.
Although I do like ATV, and its successor, Central Television, I'm not fully into all of the output. These midlands-based broadcasters churned out the Crossroads soap opera, which is a thrill-free zone for me.
Nevertheless, we did collaborate a lot. Lee Bannister's a keen fan of all things ATV/Central, and mucked in. We suggested an occasional forum meet-up in a Broad Street pub, which TiswasOnline did now and again. The first meet up went enjoyably, attended by folks from our forum, the Crossroads Fan Club and a BBC cameraman who had many libel-lawyer-attracting stories to tell about behind-the-scenes activity on ITV and BBC shows.
This cameraman - Keith Jacobsen - put forward a suggestion to make a documentary about the Broad Street studios. After all, they were earmarked for demolition, and were due to come down any month. If we could pool all our resources, Keith could get us inside.
There was also the plan of buying up the ATV Network Ltd company name, which, after years of being dormant was about to expire. The ATV fanboys smiled at the thought of being able to add that to the credits. After all, Victor Lewis-Smith did it with long-dead London station Associated Rediffusion and other defunct brands like Southern Television and TV-am had been acquired by fans.
We'd even come up with a name for this production - Give My Regards To Broad Street. We were all up for it, and the discussion continued for some weeks until it came to the realisation that to do this on a professional level would mean putting up thousands of pounds of our own money. I was doing alright at Misco, but was saving up for a mortgage deposit at the time. So the idea kind of fizzled away.
However, Lee is quite a persistent fellow and it was he who reignited the flame when he learnt that Stephen met a former Miss ATV through someone he knew. TiswasOnline had met a few of the personalities well before Reunited was aired. All of a sudden, it looked like this project could be a possibility again.
Debbie Shore was not only Miss ATV 1979, she had also been employed by Central Television to front the nationwide Children's ITV continuity links. Also at this point, TiswasOnline were sitting on footage they had shot with Bob Carolgees, Peter Tomlinson and Gordon Astley. The guy from the Crossroads Fan Club had chipped in, mentioning that he had contacts with all the key names of that soap.
The forum was abuzz with fan suggestions, people who knew somebody who knew somebody. I ended up buying an iMac at cost price from my employers, as it was incredibly good for video. When it comes to the worlds of Windows, Mac and Linux, I've got good and bad things to say about all three of them. However, my video editing experiences in Final Cut Pro (a Mac-only product) were streets ahead of the nearest Windows equivalent - Adobe Premiere.
There was one major obstacle facing us. Getting inside the actual building. There were rumours that the place was riddled with asbestos. It had been taken out of operation in 1997 by Central's new owner, Carlton Communications and was already sold to property developers with a keen eye to emulate the success of The Mailbox, a collection of high-end boutiques and restaurants.
The story of how the ATVLand crew got inside the building is a fairly controversial one, as it did kick up a big fuss from the Crossroads camp. Or rather, the head of it - one Mike Garrett.
As the team had been making a few ventures inside the complex accompanied by a Birmingham-based urban explorer, Mike took it on himself to denounce the practice. He'd been inside the place with an ITV crew for a retrospective look at where Crossroads had come from, and felt this made him superior to anyone daring to use an unorthodox method of entering the building.
Of course, by now, you're wondering how we did it. Well, despite having been in there three times, I'm not even 100% sure of what favours were done, which shows you how well the method was protected. Those that knew, did not want it leaked out. There were a few things still left in the building at the time. Some would call it tat and yes, it was discarded by Central, but these little things, like Central-branded carrier bags and key-rings, were cherished by us and other telly nerds.
If we came across any archive material, we'd send it on to ITV. With urban exploration, there is an ethic of honouring your finds appropriately and to not steal. I think "leave only footprints" is the mantra here.
Anyone who has flicked through archive editions of TV Times and Radio Times in a public library will know that some fans of TV shows aren't so respectful to history, as great big Doctor-Who-shaped holes in the pages can testify. So it was imperative to keep our studio entry method hidden. I know it was legal, and as the wrecking balls are about the hit the place and it's in a completely gutted state, I can partially reveal how we gained an entry...
A pint of beer.
Yep, less than £5 spent on refreshment for a specific person on the site (who will be forever be unnamed) and legal entry was forthcoming.
Maybe we should have informed Mike, but he was increasingly frustrated and paranoid about us potentially coming across some Crossroads goodies that he may not have discovered, so he quit the project. Then ramped up his hostility months later.
By this time, ATVwebsite had morphed into ATVLand, and I sorted out the technical bits so it could be hosted on its own domain and webpages could be dynamically generated from databases.
On the interviews front, one forum member got hold of Chris Tarrant by writing politely to him. Shaw Taylor was also contacted. I was present at the Chris Tarrant interview, and it was a riot. Chris is a busy man, so we were given just 30 minutes backstage at the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire filming. It all took place in a spare dressing room.
Plenty of filthy jokes came forth from Chris, just like they had at the Tiswas Reunited after-show party. He was somewhat bemused that a bunch of guys from an internet forum took such an interest in a derelict studio building, but wished us the best.
Late one evening, I decided to look for the contact details of Jim Bowen. Bullseye wasn't my cup of tea, but it was a substantial part of Central's output. Within seconds I got an email back, as Jim had just come back from a cruise and wanted to know more. We exchanged numbers, but I didn't have the budget to pop all the way up to his home in Lancaster to film. So I gave the contact details to the rest of the ATVLand crew and gave Jim the heads up. Not only did they get a great interview, Jim gave them the phone number of a huge ATV figure.
Peter Harris is not famous to the public. He began working at ATV as a puppeteer on a kids' show. In time he became a director and ended up being behind some of the most famous television shows ever made.
The Muppet Show, for example, while being Jim Henson's baby, was moulded by Peter Harris into having a vaudeville theatre setting. Of course, that was a London-based production, so outside of the remit of our documentary. Yet at Birmingham, Harris had produced wonders such as Spitting Image, Central Weekend Live and my personal favourite - Tiswas. It was his idea to punctuate sketches with custard pies, a tradition he had picked up from his days in theatre.
Virtually all the ATVLand crew wanted to interview Peter Harris. I think five of us turned up in the end, a record turn-out. Peter has an acid tongue and sharp wit. He really shone a light on what it was like to be working at ATV and Central. It's amazing that he's never been interested in being in front of the camera, because he's a one-man entertainment show.
Through Peter, we got contacts for ATV newsreaders Reg Harcourt and Wendy Nelson, so that covered a lot of the current affairs and news areas for the documentary.
We had started pushing for a commercial release through a well-established company that specialised in releasing classic TV shows on DVD. A lot of talks were held, many of them positive, but in the end, conversations were dwindling and it was clear their interest wasn't as strong as hoped.
One thing we didn't want to do, but came close to, was to release home-made copies. Sitting round DVD-R recorders and cropping up photocopied inlays was a last resort, but thankfully Stephen had been in touch with MACE - the Media Archive for Central England - a non-profit organisation that took care of film/video material relating to the midlands.
MACE have a relationship with ITV Central, which has all the broadcaster's non-networked (ie. completely regional) material placed in their archive. Through this, MACE can get special rates for making copies. This was a huge relief, as we'd been looking into rights for programme clips and was told by ITV's rights department that usng 60 seconds of one particular programme would cost us £2,000!
So at last we were able to illustrate the story of these studios with actual programme content.
Early on in the writing process, we had tried to script all the parts and to have the interviewees answer questions on the topics in our script. Yet things just don't work like that. As we had begun to amass about five or six interviews and started to cut them up, it soon became clear the interviewees stories had to be the direction of the piece. There's simply no way we could shape the story, none of us had ever worked for ATV or Central, it would be crude to override their knowledge.
At this stage I was meant to be helping out on editing, but my social life had been turned upside down. I did have lots of spare time to devote to the documentary, having been single for a number of years. Yet through a meeting way back at the Tiswas fans meet up in that pub outside The London Studios, I had a new girlfriend.
I'd made Facebook friends with just about every Cage inhabitant, and got on well with many of them, even years later. One evening I was in a chat with a woman who endured a soaking in that Tiswas revival, and we decided to arrange a meet-up in her hometown of Swindon. Which is hundreds of miles away from me.
Not being able to drive at the time, I took the route of grabbing the six o'clock train on a Friday and ending up at her house by ten. Two train journeys, a tube journey and a bus ride. And this continued every fortnight for almost a year.
We didn't that much about Tiswas, we'd shared stories about our involvement with Tiswas Reunited, so it's not like we went on and on about the show.
Come to think of it, I don't go on about the show in real life. I've written quite a few pages here on how Tiswas has been a springboard for many achievements in my career, but I don't sit through recordings every day and it's not even my favourite show. (Yes, this does sound hypocritical given the way I've digitally fellated on this site.)
So, with much of my spare time devoted to my relationship, Stephen Thwaites and Peter Raven took charge of the editing. I had programmed a 'video wiki' on our CMS, so that when new footage became available, it could be uploaded for all the crew to watch in their own time. Over the years we spent a lot on Jiffy bags and postage, swapping around portable hard drives in order to get footage to each editor, so this was a lot quicker.
Some volunteers transcribed the rushes, which was immense help. When the drafts came through, I had to come up with some opening titles, animated captions and some form of end credits.
I had some experience on Cinema4D when I freelanced in video production back in the early noughties. This software produced broadcast-standard 3D CGI and was in use for many opening titles. Not as commonplace these days as After Effects now we have a shift to a 'flatter' style of presentation, but it certainly did the job for having giant colour bars floating through Birmingham city centre.