Live on Arrival

Steve Williams on the rise and fall of Live & Kicking

First published July 2001

How many Saturday morning programmes of the last decade can you name? OK, now apart from SM:TV Live, how many of those were on ITV? Not very many, probably – in the 1990s ITV were terrible on Saturday mornings, with series like It’s Not Just Saturday, Wow and Tricky all ending before many people noticed they had actually started. This helped the BBC’s flagship Saturday morning series Live & Kicking become one of the most successful programmes ever in that slot.

But now, Live & Kicking is on its last legs, and in the autumn the programme will end after eight years. It’s the longest running programme of its kind ever, but unlike the previous occupants in this slot, it isn’t ending with the presenters deciding to leave, or just a feel that it’s time for a change – the programme’s been axed due to its under-performance. Live & Kicking has become a real albatross, staggering on through revamp after revamp; a long way away from the solid ratings banker that demolished the opposition as recently as three years ago. But what went wrong? And how can its replacement reassert the BBC’s Saturday supremacy?

Live & Kicking began in October 1993, following on from the popular Going Live!, which ended when Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene decided to move on after six successful years. This was a fairly straightforward decision anyway – Going Live! had run for six seasons, more or less the same length as the two previous winter Saturday shows (Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore), and on another level, Phillip and Sarah had been there about as long as could be expected; both were in their 30s and perhaps outgrowing children’s television.

Nevertheless, they were a hard act to follow – Going Live! being one of the most popular and well-respected Saturday shows ever (to this day, as it has been voted “best ever Saturday morning programme” in a poll on the website Satkids). Much of the behind-the-scenes personnel moved over to the new programme (including editor Chris Bellinger, who had been there since Swap Shop), as well as resident comedians Trevor and Simon. Many of Going Live!‘s features also made the transition, some in identical form (the game show Run the Risk) and others given the most basic of cosmetic alterations (the All About Me strand, reports on the lives of viewers who had interesting backgrounds, was simply renamed It’s My Life). The guest policy was also very similar – a mix of famous “grown-up” celebrities, stars of children’s TV and pop groups. The most obvious change was the presenters, but even here there were some familiar faces; Emma Forbes had presented a cookery strand on Going Live!, and Andi Peters had also contributed inserts to that programme, as well as introducing the Children’s BBC output that directly preceded Going Live!‘s final series.

However, a third presenter was also hired – American actor John Barrowman. Barrowman didn’t really seem to fit in on the programme; on many occasions he had trouble thinking what to say, and a three-pronged presenter line-up meant that the chemistry that Phillip and Sarah had was diluted. The series, while still a cut above much of the other children’s output, seemed less than sure-footed, and viewing figures were not really that much better than ITV’s opposition, the cartoon-heavy What’s Up Doc.

The second series, starting in September 1994, ironed out the problems. Barrowman took on a “roving reporter” role, and contributed to the series via the pre-recorded Electric Circus entertainment news section. Peters and Forbes were therefore established as a duo, and the programme dropped most of the unpopular strands from the first series to become, basically, Going Live! again. Not that this was a failure; this was simply the classic BBC Saturday morning mix of heavyweight guests mixed with fun and games. A further bonus came from repeats of The New Adventures of Superman being scheduled at 8.30am, immediately before the programme, to give it a decent inheritance, and brand new episodes of the popular cartoon series Rugrats, which were smartly scheduled at the exact point ITV’s Saturday morning programmes were beginning at 9.25am; thus sabotaging the opposition’s opening and hopefully keeping the audience with the BBC until lunchtime.

Sure enough, the BBC were runaway winners during the 1994/5 series, and What’s Up Doc ended in May 1995, with, seemingly, ITV having no idea about what to replace it with. Thus when Live & Kicking returned in September 1995, it was up against ITV’s summer show, Scratchy and Co, which had been extended until the end of the year. In January, a new ITV format was pioneered, pairing up Teleganticmegavision, aimed at a very young audience (probably too young, in hindsight) at 9.25am, and the teencentric It’s Not Just Saturday at 10.25am. This was a hopeless combination, as both were aimed at completely different age groups, thus nobody would watch both, and there was no cross-promotion or continuity between the two. More importantly, both were really terrible. One morning in February, It’s Not Just Saturday didn’t go out for some reason, and it was replaced by a repeat of US import Seaquest DSV. It was also the morning after the Canary Wharf bomb, so GMTV had jettisoned much of it’s children’s output for news; thus producing what was possibly ITV’s least attractive Saturday morning schedule ever. This all meant that Live & Kicking dominated the morning, and ITV’s absolute lack of ideas seemed to ensure its success for some time.

In March 1996, Andi Peters announced he was to leave the BBC to run a new music department at LWT. This was probably the highest-profile departure from the BBC children’s department since Andy Crane had joined TVS’s Motormouth in 1990, and this immediately cast doubts on the future of Live & Kicking. Certainly, the most obvious answer would have been to end the series, as Andi and Emma had “become” Live & Kicking like Phillip and Sarah had “become” Going Live!. However, this scenario was not entertained for very long, as Emma Forbes was still intending to continue. Thus the programme of 13 April 1996 was billed as Andi Peters’ final edition. A few weeks later, though, Emma Forbes fell pregnant, and thus she declined to present another series, meaning there would be an all-new presenter line-up in the autumn. Forbes would appear on the first programme of the new series to get a “proper” send-off.

On 31 August 1996, ITV launched their new Saturday morning line-up, which contained the magazine series Wow, with Simeon Courtie and Sophie Aldred, until 11am, when it was followed by The Noise, a half-hour music magazine presented by – shock! – Andi Peters. This was not, however, the big Battle of Saturday Mornings that it could have been, as The Noise was boring and performed poorly from day one, and was dropped as a regular series at the end of the year (the brand still in use for occasional Saturday teatime pop documentaries for another year or so).

The new Live & Kicking presenters were unveiled to the press in August, and they were Zoë Ball, who was “rescued” from her unhappy stint on The Big Breakfast, and Jamie Theakston. The hiring of Theakston raised some eyebrows at the time – while the previous faces of the BBC’s Saturday mornings (Edmonds, Read, Schofield, Peters) were already familiar on television, Theakston was relatively unknown, having presented The Ozone for just a year. However, this was a risk that came off, as Theakston’s charm and affable manner were soon apparent, and he became a popular presenter very quickly. Teamed with Ball, they were a likeable pairing, and their happiness to participate in silly stunts (Ball took part in a wrestling match in her first programme) were a refreshing change from the preening of the egotistical Peters. This was a popular combination with children and with a slightly older audience.

This older audience was no doubt also amused by the continual off-camera exploits of the duo. Both Ball and Theakston became well-known figures on the party circuit, and Theakston in particular had a number of well-publicised relationships with various female stars. This led to the situation in November 1998 when Theakston was unable to interview guests All Saints as he’d just split up with Natalie Appleton from the group. Ball began to present the Radio 1 breakfast show in 1997, drawing parallels with Saturday Superstore‘s Mike Read who did the same thing just over a decade earlier, but Read never dated a superstar recording artist, as Ball did with Norman Cook.

In 1999, Ball announced that she wanted to leave the programme, citing exhaustion from this six day week, and Theakston decided to follow. However by the time of their final programme in April 1999, Live & Kicking was facing competition from the ITV opposition, involving two former child actors and pop stars from Newcastle and a former model from Birmingham. When SM:TV Live started on 29 August 1998, it seemed to be a standard weak ITV Saturday morning programme, overdosing on cartoons and pop videos. But after the departure of original producer Ric Blaxill, the series began to steadily improve, both in terms of viewing figures and in the standard of the programme. Ant, Dec and Cat began to introduce comedy items and a much looser feel to the presentation.

ITV’s cause was also helped by their decision to continue the series all year round. No Saturday morning series had ever done this before but, perhaps due to ITV’s lack of any better ideas, SM:TV continued right through the summer. On BBC1, meanwhile, when the series of Live & Kicking ended in April, Saturday mornings reverted to the standard summer morning format of cartoons and US imports that had filled the warmer months for the previous four years.

Perhaps there was a little complacency here, as the BBC assumed that, as before, viewers would just switch back over to them in September, as they had done every year for the previous two decades or so. One would perhaps have expected there to be a new programme to replace Live & Kicking in September 1999, as it had been running for six years, as long as the previous winter Saturday morning shows, and there had been two (three, if you count Barrowman) presenter combinations. But it was decided to continue with the programme, perhaps in the thought that the brand was more important than the presenters, and perhaps because it was felt that the new presenters would be able to refresh the series, much as Ball and Theakston had.

The new presenters were unveiled in the autumn. Replacing Jamie Theakston was Steve Wilson, who’d been presenting on CBBC for the previous year, and had also introduced the Live & Kicking spin-off L&K Friday at the start of the year. Ball’s replacement was Emma Ledden, who was a virtual unknown on British TV – at the time of her appointment she was presenting on MTV, as well as a children’s presenter on RTE in Ireland. Given that the “who will replace Zoë and Jamie?” debate had raged in the press for the summer, these two “nobodies” seemed a bit of a step backwards. One could argue, though, that Ball and Theakston’s extracurricular activities were perhaps inappropriate for children’s TV, and they were appealing more to a young adult audience than younger viewers, so more clean-cut, child-friendly figures were needed.

However, this attitude seemed to filter down to the whole of the programme. Features became more simplistic, there was no regular comedy act for the first time in over a decade, less heavyweight guests were booked, and the whole programme looked a pale shadow of its previous self. The Rugrats cartoons that had been such a draw a few years previously were still there, on their umpteenth rerun. It may sound odd to complain that the BBC were making childish children’s programmes, but the slot had until then had a much greater appeal to a wide audience, and this new series was substantially less interesting. Unfortunately for Wilson and Ledden, the viewer couldn’t help comparing them with Ball and Theakston, and they were always going to come off second best; their relative inexperience in television also began to show when trying to control a live three hour show.

Thus by the end of 1999 ITV were the most popular channel on a Saturday morning, for the first time ever – even Tiswas hadn’t won when head-to-head with Swap Shop. This was thanks partly to Live & Kicking‘s dullness, but also because SM:TV had correctly spotted the potential of the Saturday slot, and began booking big name guests, as well as continuing to emphasize the fun element (what Ant, Dec and Cat had said involved getting rid of “Blue Peter-style features”). At this point, not even the most loyal BBC Saturday morning viewer could argue that the Corporation had the most interesting and entertaining programme; sure, there were more informative features, but they were often extremely dull. Wilson and Ledden were simply anonymous, unable to engage the viewer or attract much interest from the press.

So the series ended in April 2000, and the slot was taken by BBC Scotland’s FBi, a revamped version of their previous series Fully Booked, back on Saturday mornings for the first time in five years. This programme was even more boring and badly made than Live & Kicking, full of weak items and boring guests – in too many cases these were in-house CBBC guests. The viewer was offered the chance to put their questions to “stars” of the Demon Headmaster or Microsoap, who absolutely nobody was interested in. Live & Kicking, and Wilson and Ledden, returned in May for a one-off Bank Holiday programme as part of the BBC’s Music Live event. But this was to be the last time the duo presented the programme. In the summer it was announced that they were to be dropped – Ledden going back to MTV, the BBC finding something else for Wilson to do – and that Live & Kicking itself may end; an unprecedented situation for the previously supreme BBC to find themselves in.

In the summer, SM:TV Live continued to go from strength to strength, and on 22 July 2000 celebrated it’s 100th edition with a heavyweight guest list including practically every major pop act in the UK (Five, Steps, Victoria Beckham, Melanie C, and so on), and also, amusingly, Steve Wilson. In the same week FBi had guests Scooch and Loyd Grossman, and ITV’s lead over the BBC was the biggest it had ever been, with some two and a half million tuning into SM:TV while less than a million stuck with the Beeb. So anything that followed FBi had its work cut out. And that programme was to be … Live & Kicking.

The new format had four presenters, which seemed rather excessive – it was almost as if the production team had searched for some big names and none had agreed to do it, thus four smaller names were appointed. The most senior of the team was former Blue Peter presenter Katy Hill, and she was joined by CBBC regular Ortis, who had also appeared in the previous series in a supporting role and was now promoted to the main line-up, Sarah Cawood, from MTV and – most notoriously – C4′s The Girlie Show, and Trey Farley, whose most high profile role before this was presenting Channel 4′s late night (2am) entertainment show Loves Like a Dog. Cawood’s main role was to introduce the craply named game show segment Sacrifice Your Family, and the other three took charge of the main part of the programme.

The new series was to be more entertainment-led than the previous format, and we were told that we “wouldn’t get the Controller of BBC1 interviewed anymore”. Alas, the major problem with this season of Live & Kicking was that it simply wasn’t as entertaining as SM:TV, but wasn’t as informative and worthwhile as previous incarnations of the series – thus rendering it entirely pointless. The presenters were solid enough, but lacked the personality of Ant, Dec and Cat, and the items were once more too bland. The programme continued to perform as badly as the previous series, but with little of the charm. For all their faults, Wilson and Ledden were pleasant enough and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the programme.

The BBC remained committed to Live & Kicking, however, and in early 2001 announced that the programme would run all year round. One could argue that this was probably decided upon to avoid having to come up with another weak concept for its replacement. However, it was considered inappropriate to remove a 22-week commission from BBC Scotland and give it to London, so from April the programme was to be produced from Glasgow, with a different production team. Before they could get their hands on it, though, it was announced in March that Live & Kicking was to end after that run.

Still, in April the programme did move to Glasgow, as promised, only Katy Hill didn’t make the trip up, instead being replaced by unknown Heather Suttie. It’s not known why this was the case – Hill was probably the senior presenter, and she seemed not to have any other programme to concentrate on; she had presented the Sunday morning soccer show Football Fever, but was dropped from this programme, apparently over excessive wage demands. Perhaps she declined thinking she was going to be presenting Football Fever, only for this not to be the case. Or maybe her contract simply wasn’t renewed. In any case, the rest of the presenters continued throughout the summer, and further changes were made to the programme; the final hour being devoted to music was perhaps a sensible move (despite it clashing with CD:UK on the other side), but the first hour being devoted to cartoons – including, of course, Rugrats – seemed hopelessly out-of-place on a so-called “edgy”, “vibrant” programme. Later editions saw the introduction of a new reality segment, L&K Castaway, which may have been a talking point, but by this point the public was simply past caring – as could be seen by SM:TV‘s viewing figures remaining buoyant despite Ant and Dec’s six-week absence to make their primetime series Slap Bang.

So what should replace the programme when it ends in September? Early reports suggest that this again will be entertainment-led, even though the previous 12 months have surely proved that this is the wrong direction for the BBC to be taking; there’s no point attempting to do what SM:TV is already successfully doing, and anyone who doesn’t like SM:TV won’t turn to an alternative that is more or less the same, only inferior. It seems obvious that the BBC would be better off returning to the “infotainment” format that worked successfully for some two decades. Clearly at the moment ITV is way ahead, but a Swap Shop-style programme must surely have some sort of audience potential, amongst kids who find the style of SM:TV too raucous.

Looking at the current Live & Kicking, there seems to be a real attempt to ape the ITV format with substantially less panache. Thus the audience of kids are encouraged to scream and cheer constantly, in a particularly annoying way, whereas on SM:TV, and indeed in the previous BBC formats, the audience play a part but are not press-ganged into convincing the viewers that it’s a wild, hysterical programme. A party atmosphere at 9am is incredibly unconvincing anyway. There’s a further problem in the gimmicky nature of many of the strands – the celebrity interviews are formatted into items like Talk To The Hand, rather than allowing the proper interaction between the viewer and the guest that a straightforward phone-in would afford. Comedy items are also contrived, and flatly delivered by the team, and none have the knowing style that SM:TV or Trevor and Simon used.

There is still a germ of a decent programme in the current incarnation – the presenters seem to do their best despite struggling with a weak production. Ortis is certainly popular with the child audience, as his other series Short Change would prove, and Cawood and Farley can be engaging too. But too often they’re unable to do so as they’re too busy sticking to a script or a rigid feature format, instead of letting their personalities come to the fore. This writer therefore suggests a “back to basics” format for the new programme; it doesn’t have to be a Saturday version of Blue Peter (although that programme is testament to the idea that a series can be made more relevant and lively without losing its original ethos and appeal), but a pointless aping of the other channel’s output is clearly not the way to move forward. We need two presenters, able to work together and with the audience, and a much more relaxed feel to the whole morning. Decent, interesting guests should be booked, there should be less emphasis on cartoons (who can remember any of the animations on Going Live anyway?), and unexciting pop guests should be toned down. A funny, informal but informative Saturday show could be a decent runner for the BBC; it might come second in the ratings, but it would be substantially different to ITV’s output to provide a real choice for the viewer.

For many people, Saturday mornings meant BBC1. It would be a shame for a generation to lose this association.