In 1982, the local ITV franchises were dramatically reshuffled, with several familiar broadcasters booted off air, to be replaced by newcomers such as Central, who took over the Midlands franchise. With these new broadcasters came new shows for the ITV network, and one of the first – the opening episode broadcast the day after Central launched – was O.T.T., a post-pub saturday night comedy sketch show that had spun off popular kid’s show Tiswas.
O.T.T. came about when Tiswas mainman Chris Tarrant decided to deal with complaints from the IBA (the then TV regulator) about ‘risque’ elements on Tiswas, which was, after all, a Saturday morning kids show. Initially, Tarrant and fellow Tiswas crew members John Gorman, Lenny Henry, Sally James and Bob Carolgees went on tour as The Four Bucketeers (which in turn led to a minor hit single, The Bucket of Water Song), and the success with adult audiences of this stage show convinced Tarrant that there was a market for an adult version of Tiswas, retaining the anarchic humour, the chaos and the sploshing, but with less constraints on the content. While James elected to remain with Tiswas for a final season, the rest of the Bucketeers jumped ship and O.T.T. was born. Roped in to replace James were comedian Helen Atkinson-Wood and actress Collette Hiller, later to find fame as one of the stars of Aliens. Furious left-wing comedian Alexi Sayle also joined the team.
The first of 13 episodes (the last being a ‘best bits’ compilation) was broadcast on January 2nd 1982, and was immediately savaged by critics. It’s easy to understand why: not only was the chaotic, live, unplanned nature of the show anathema to TV critics more used to chin-stroking affairs like Parkinson and Saturday Night at the Mill (the BBC’s chat / magazine show staples), but it fed in to everything that conservative critics – at a morally uptight time – hated. It was crude, lecherous and gleefully tasteless. The first episode featured a performance by male balloon dancers The Greatest Show on Legs, which caused apoplectic fury, while rude skits with scantily clad models, Ellen Thomas promising every week to take her bra off (but never doing so) and some brief flashes of bare breasts (most notably in a ‘striptease quiz’ spot) also resulted in outrage, even though all these elements were already there in the likes of Benny Hill’s shows or ‘serious drama’.
Of course, much of the fury was faux criticism at a new broadcaster – Channel 4 would face the same sort of hate when it launched later that year. O.T.T. also appeared around the same time that US cable TV sketch show Bizarre – with its gratuitous topless scenes – hit the ITV network, and for stuffier critics, this sink into the gutter was all too much. Of course, it was all hypocritical – the tabloids that were shocked by bare breasts on late night TV had no problems printing similar images on their own pages every day – or leeering pictures of Sally James in a school uniform, like this:
Along the way, the show lost Sayle – the right-on comic predictably finding much of the content offensive. He was, rather hilariously, replaced by Bernard Manning. But the criticism stung Central, who of course wanted to be seen as a respectable new broadcaster. O.T.T. – despite impressive ratings for a Saturday night of 7 – 8 million – did not return for a second series. The format – much emasculated – returned a year later with the short-lived and unloved Saturday Stayback.
Had it appeared a decade later, O.T.T. would have fitted in perfectly with the likes of The Word, Eurotrash, The James Whale Radio Show and other shows that capitalised on the audience for late night bad taste and outrageousness. Ironically, these days, it would probably be met with just as much outrage due to perceived sexism.
As it stands, O.T.T. remains a barely-remembered adjunct to the much-loved Tiswas. There are, however, full episodes online, and here they are for you to enjoy. Best appreciated with an accompanying pint and kebab.