Re-creating TV’s anarchic Tiswas culture on stage

Ged Simmons, Petra Massey and Stephen Harper in Never Try This At Home., Told By an Idiot
Ged Simmons, Petra Massey and Stephen Harper in Never Try This At Home., Told By an Idiot

Told By An Idiot’s new show, Never Try This At Home, is an irreverent homage to Saturday morning TV shows such as Tiswas and Going Live and takes audiences back to a long-lost era of custard pies, buckets of water and presenters under pressure.

It’s a world that Paul Hunter, co-founder and artistic director of the innovative touring company, knows well since he was once on Tiswas, the influential anarchic show fronted by Christ Tarrant in the late 70s,

“That experience partly generated the whole idea of Never Try This At Home, he says. “We were asked by our co-producers, Birmingham Rep, whether there was anything we wanted to do about Birmingham.

“I remember as an eight-year-old a friend’s father got us into ATV studios for an edition of Tiswas and I went into the cage with other children and had buckets of water thrown over me. I’d seen it on television, but when it happened live, I found it slightly disconcerting that adults were behaving like this around kids.”

After deciding this was a subject that could be explored a show took shape around a fictional TV show where things spiral out of control. “I should say, it’s not Tiswas, what we have tried to do is create a feel of anarchic TV,” says Hunter.

“In the company there’s three or four of us in our mid-Forties and then some younger actors, including Dudley Rees from Sheffield, who didn’t know about Tiswas. We watched hours of footage of Tiswas and the younger ones couldn’t quite believe what was happening. You mean, this went out live?

“Even on grounds of health and safety alone you would never get away with it today. But there are other things, like we looked at the way female presenters were treated.”

Never Try This At Home adds up to an hilarious, violent and disturbing exposé of not just children’s TV but the whole world of the media and fame. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair there is a dark undercurrent to it all

“We started making this two years before all that came out and we found real life beginning to throw up parallels,” continues the director. “Hopefully a lot of the comedy has the audience laughing and then you get to the point where they begin to think, should we be laughing at this? It’s what we have always been about.

“For the actors there’s an enormous amount of custard pies and water flying about and working out what face cream to use. Because we’re in a small venue we’ve handed out plastic macs to people in the front rows. But what audience research has shown - as was the case with Tiswas - that actually a lot of people want to be pied. On Tiswas there was a waiting list to go in the cage.”

Told By an Idiot have toured to Sheffield many times in the past, most notably premiering their production of Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter in the Crucible Main House in 2003 and then was successful in London and on tour. “For a number of reasons we haven’t been back since. Sheffield Theatres has undergone transitions with different tastes and idea and sometimes it’s just been dates not working out. But we’ve known Daniel Evans for some time and we are thrilled to be back.

Never Try This At Home is in the Crucible Studio from Tuesday to Saturday.