Central Television’s OTT was on the search for new, cutting-edge talent to augment the team of Tarrant, Gorman, Henry and Carolgees. Chris Tarrant came across comedian Helen Atkinson-Wood at the previous year’s Edinburgh Festival. “Although she is new to television,” he commented, “she is very expressive”. Actress Colette Hiller was Tarrant’s next inductee. Having previously appeared in small roles in 1979’s Birth of the Beatles (as a reporter) and 1981’s Ragtime (a female companion to a lawyer), OTT was her first significant television exposure. The final new piece of casting was alternative comedian Alexei Sayle – this was to be his first proper TV break. Chosen for of his “off-beat” humour, Sayle’s edge looked to be the perfect addition to OTT’s anarchic manifesto. However, his comedic targets (the ‘Habitat-bean-bag-hessian-wallpaper brigade’) were markedly different from those in the sights of the ex-Tiswas contingent.
Television’s “craziest show” didn’t pass muster with the critics. Sketches featured bikini-clad models and whipped cream; ill-treated rats (a routine with a man stuffing them down his trousers went frighteningly awry resulting in one of the escaped rodents being kicked on camera); gunge; an attractive girl who promised to remove her bra each week (but never actually did); the infamous “balloon dance”; and stand-up comedy made for patchy, downmarket television. While Tiswas had never been the most cohesive programme, OTT was downright shambolic and the paucity of the material (one sketch involved a husband trying to force feed his wife paracetamol, in an attempt to pre-empt her pat “I’ve got a headache” objections to his amorous advances) meant the programme had few redeeming features.
Alexei Sayle was first to jump ship. His replacement, Bernard Manning, let the show retain an artifice of “dangerous” comedy, while bringing OTT’s stand-up comedy into line with the rest of the programme’s seaside postcard milieu. Yet still the critics and the general public poured scorn. Lenny Henry recalls the mauling his own family gave the programme (overheard by him when taking a bath one evening) and the uniformity of negative criticism weighed heavily not only on the show’s performers, but on Central Television itself. For a new station looking to impress, this had been an inauspicious start. There was no chance of a second series, although OTT did return in a sense just one year later, when Tarrant launched Saturday Stayback. Similar in format to OTT, Saturday Stayback also accrued many of the earlier shows waifs and strays. Tarrant, Atkinson-Wood, Carolgees and Manning were all present and correct, but Lenny Henry, Collette Hiller and John Gorman were gone. In their place, Tarrant again looked to introduce talent new to television and Tony Slattery and Phil Cool were drafted in. Saturday Stayback lasted for only six episodes.
The failure of OTT had surprisingly little effect on its main performers. Chris Tarrant wisely diversified his broadcasting career and in the 1980s became an accomplished radio broadcaster. His persona on air was different to the one we saw on television, insulating him against the demise of any one television project. Alexei Sayle would find a more palatable fame later that year in The Young Ones and Lenny Henry ended up in a vehicle more attuned to his comedic sensibilities as the BBC’s own Saturday night sketch show Three Of A Kind returned for a second series that winter. Originally designed with a cast of six, Henry and David Copperfield were subsequently united with Tracey Ullman to create what Henry described as “the only show on television where you’ve got a woman, a black guy and a northerner and it really doesn’t matter!” Gorman and Carolgees remained stalwart entertainers without ever achieving the celebrity status of either Tarrant or Henry, and Atkinson-Wood gravitated towards the alternative comedy scene with memorable appearances in Blackadder and KYTV marking her out as one of the comedy faces of the 1980s. Colette Hiller, although not a household name, achieved some level of lasting fame by appearing as Corporal Ferro in the 1986 film Aliens.
In the history of Saturday night television, it is tempting to try and spot patterns and cycles. The demise of OTT bears many similarities to an ill-fated attempt 19 years later to transfer the popular Saturday morning children’s programme SM:TV to a wider, mainstream audience. Like Tiswas, SM:TV had developed a cult audience amongst adults, yet like OTT, Slap Bang (as the Saturday evening version of SM:TV was called) only lasted for one series. Context lies at the heart of the demise of both OTT and Slap Bang. Saturday morning innovation can feel old hat on Saturday evenings. Comedy that appears subversive in the morning becomes safe by teatime and post-modern asides to the clued-up morning viewer become explanations for the dozy evening watcher.