Noise! Adventure! Glitter!

TJ Worthington remembers Zokko!

First published May 2007

It Started With Swap Shop was the name of a light-hearted retrospective broadcast by BBC2 in 2006, ostensibly celebrating 30 years of Saturday morning television but concentrating on one particular key example of the genre; Noel Edmonds’ Multicoloured Swap Shop.

Like so many other light-hearted histories of the timeslot, this made the mistake of implicitly crediting Edmonds and company with the invention of the show format and pretty much the first ever use of the timeslot full stop. There were in fact a handful of now pretty much forgotten antecedents of Swap Shop, although the reasons for their being left out of such an overview are quite understandable. Saturday Scene, dating from 1973 and effectively the first use of the now-familiar Saturday morning format, was an ITV show, while the BBC’s own previous attempts at finding something suitable for this awkward timeslot were, to be blunt, just too downright weird to revisit.

Prior to 1968, neither the BBC nor ITV had really paid much attention to Saturday mornings. Although attendances were already dwindling, there still remained a strong and long-established tradition of Saturday morning cinema clubs, which provided young audiences with several hours worth of cartoons, serials and onstage games and entertainment. With broadcast technology still in its infancy, there seemed little point in starting up transmission for the benefit of an audience that would mostly be otherwise engaged. Usual practice – as far as the BBC was concerned – was simply to run an old film serial or an imported cartoon series after their transmission tests early in the morning, then possibly another before Grandstand started at midday, and leave screens blank for the remainder of the morning.

Over the summer of that year, as part of a general overhaul of their output instigated by incoming departmental head Monica Sims, the Children’s Department began to look into the idea of introducing structured programming to Saturday mornings. Eventually an experimental 13-week slot was decided on, and Children’s Department veteran Molly Cox (who had partly devised Jackanory and acted as its first director) was asked to come up with a suitable format in collaboration with newcomer Paul Ciani.

Judging from much of the rest of the BBC’s output for younger viewers of the time, it would not be unreasonable to assume their earliest forays into Saturday morning television would have involved genteel and frightfully well-spoken presenters introducing short filmed items on wildlife and “improving” hobbies. Cox and Ciani, however, were acutely aware that this timeslot would require something more capable of grabbing the attention; Saturday cinema had been a rowdy, colourful affair with plenty of action and comedy, and there was also the likelihood that ITV would quickly follow suit with something more dynamic. To this end, they decided to drop the idea of a human presenter altogether (although it is more than likely budgetary restrictions helped this decision along), opting instead to pack as much action, comedy and pop music as possible into the available timeframe.

The result of their planning was the format for Zokko!, an “electronic comic” that would zip between short features at high speed, and sought to replicate the effect of a reader flicking through a publication in search of their favourite strips and features. The show would contain a combination of in-house animation, stock footage, pop music, and a small amount of specially shot light entertainment material, all cut together using “pop art” editing effects and graphical design that might more normally have been found on shows like Top of the Pops and Spike Milligan’s Q5. The overall effect of this was, needless to say, disorientating and deeply strange.

Introduced by a lengthy Radio Times piece urging viewers to, “Place a regular order with your television set NOW!” (accompanied by an eye-catching Roy Lichtenstein-like pop-art illustration proclaiming “BWAMmM it’s ZOKKO!”), Zokko! began its first 13-week run on 2 November 1968. The description given of the show and its contents serves mainly to perplex when read back now, but to be fair it probably did then too. “Perplexing” is not too strong a word to use about Zokko!, and it virtually defies description even now.

In place of the rejected human presenter, the production team opted instead for a talking pinball machine. Built by BBC Visual Effects designer Mike Ellis (father of Blue Peter presenter Janet), this was a fully functioning prop, with its electronic voice provided by Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This would link the entire programme by autoplaying games, with each score corresponding to a different item, which would appear “through” the holes in the pinball table as the robotic voice intoned the appropriate announcement (“Zokko … Score 15 … Serial”). Some of these items were made up of handy filler material that happened to be available, such as stock footage of racing car speed tests and bulk-bought Disney extracts, but unusually for a programme of this nature the vast majority were specially made in-house.

As well as basic animations telling corny jokes and short silent films of surreal slapstick gags, each edition of Zokko! included a running serial, pop records, and a live variety act. Spanning the entire run, the sci-fi adventure yarn “Skayn” – concerning the theft of a gravity-wave-hologram capable of causing the Earth and the Moon to collide – was told through huge blow-ups of comic strip-style panels drawn by Leslie Caswell, with a pre-recorded dialogue track provided by prolific character actors Gordon Clyde, Sheelagh McGrath and Anthony Jackson.

Unconventionally presented and drenched in bleeping radiophonics, the serial segments came across as strangely tranquil and hypnotic, contrasting effectively with the loud and frenetic style of the rest of the programme. Leaning strongly towards jazzy “beat” outfits like The Alan Price Set, Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames and The New Vaudeville Band, the pop tracks were accompanied by extremely well directed shorts reflecting the lyrical themes of the chosen numbers, some of which were also used in editions of Top of the Pops.

Meanwhile, the variety acts simply turned up and did their stage performance within the very cramped confines of the Zokko! studio, doubtless causing severe logisitical problems for the numerous jugglers. Even the basic list of artistes who appeared on the show makes for fascinating reading, featuring such evocative and long-forgotten names as The Tumblairs, The Skating Meteors, and The Breathtaking Eddy Limbo and “Pat”. A handful of more established acts would also show up including conjuring legend Ali Bongo; veteran brother and sister variety performers Johnny and Suma Lamonte, whose acrobatic skills saw them in regular demand as guest turns on light entertainment shows; visiting American Phil Enos and his Amazing Comedy Car; and popular illusionist and judo expert Geoff Ray, who though now retired still proudly includes Zokko! on his CV.Most notorious however were Arthur Scott and his Performing Seals, who left the tiny studio reeking so strongly of fish recording was disrupted for days afterwards.

If this all sounds like a rather mindbending assembly of entertainment, its disorentating nature was amplified to nightmarish and jaw-dropping proportions by the adoption of a deeply psychedelic “swinging London” visual style, complete with flashing designs that looked garish even in black and white, captions written in lettering that would not have appeared out of place in an advert for a Carnaby Street boutique, and crash zooms of a modishly redesigned poster of Lord Kitchener. Even by the standards of the day this was a visually arresting approach, but the target audience seem to have taken it in their stride and Zokko! proved highly popular, with so many viewers writing in about the programme the production team eventually had to start sending out postcards “from” the talking pinball machine.

Indeed, Zokko! proved popular enough to be repeated in full in the regular Wednesday afternoon childrens’ schedules from 6 August 1969, and Brian Fahey’s catchy theme music was released as a single, with the Band Parade music from the show on the b-side. While the BBC had reverted to their regular Saturday morning pattern of a lone edition of Deputy Dawg once the series had finished, a second series of Zokko! had been planned from very early on, and indeed would follow virtually straight on from the repeat run.

With the Radio Times proudly announcing, “All For Fun! Fun For All! Tar-rah!”, Zokko! returned for another 13 week stint on Saturday mornings, starting from 6 December 1969. Although the new series retained the same production team, some significant changes were made for the new batch of shows; the sometimes excessively psychedelic design elements were calmed down slightly in favour of a stark “two tone” approach, and the pinball machine device was dropped altogether. The reasons for this decision have never been disclosed, although it is rumoured the expensive prop was damaged in storage and the cost of repairs would have been beyond the means of the meagre budget allocated for the second run.

Despite this, Radio Times’ introduction to the new series promised the return of “the old favourites and some new ones”, alongside “a brand new music machine, the like of which has never been seen before”. Said device was essentially a scaled-down Top of the Pops set with a revolving stage, festooned in flashing lights and surrounded by gigantic bubbling test tubes, and resembling an antique pipe organ rebuilt to the specifications of the set designer of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Filmed with camera angles better suited to a racuous pop music show (and more than likely the inspiration for the remarkably similar “Jackie Charlton and the Tonettes” sketch in the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, recorded shortly after the second series of Zokko! had aired), the indefinable musical contraption would pump out excerpts from stage musicals and instrumental pop hits while punningly appropriate inanimate objects revolved in the centre.

While this occupied the linking role formerly occupied by the pinball machine, the actual contents of the show remained much the same and just as mind-frazzling as ever. The animations, pop films, awful jokes, Disney extracts, stock footage, jarring bursts of exclamation marks and electronically treated voices were all back on board. “Skayn” returned for a new eight-part adventure, this time sent to investigate saboteurs at large on a moon colony, and the final five shows of the run were given over to the big top crime thriller “Susan Starr of the Circus” (with voices provided by Jennifer Hill, Alan Devereux and Stanley Page).

The variety acts, meanwhile, remained as deleriously esoteric as before, top acts this time including The Skating Fontaines (“Thrills at Speed”), Ronny Cool (“Fantasy in Flames”), The Tricky Terriers (“Dog-gone Fun!”), Paul Fox (“The Act That’s Full of Bounce”) who amusingly shared his name with the then-controller of BBC1, and Annalou and Maria, who promised “A Feather and Fur Fantasy” that was doubtless far more innocent than it sounds.

Zokko! was last sighted on television screens on February 28 1970, but its brief burst of ragged psychedelic lunacy had certainly left an impression on viewers, and would prove to have a more enduring legacy. Clearly undeterred by the sheer oddness of the results, the BBC would continue to allow Ciani to carry out equally unhinged experiments at finding a suitable format for Saturday morning television. Ed and Zed, which enjoyed a brief run later in 1970, paired Radio One DJ Ed Stewart with a robot assistant named Zed (voiced by Anthony Jackson) for a similar menu of low-key serials and Disney excerpts, although they were allowed to have proper bands in the studio this time. That said, given said musical acts included former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band “mad scientist” Roger Ruskin-Spear and his performing robots, this may not have been as much of a concession to sensibility as it might appear. This was followed in 1973 by Outa Space!, a show “presented” by a pair of disembodied alien hands at the controls of a spaceship, in which the ever-present Disney footage rubbed shoulders with the gripping serial “Vidar and The Ice Monster”.

Although it may seem something of a massive jump from these insane early efforts to the more familiar format that has pretty much defined Saturday morning television from the arrival of Saturday Scene and Multicoloured Swap Shop onwards, the truth of the matter is Zokko! and company are basically a pencil-sketch of the final thing. This is particularly pertinent when Zokko! is compared directly to early editions of Swap Shop. The obvious difference of an avuncular unscripted presenter and live interaction with viewers aside, they have much in common, with the musical inserts simply replaced by proper bands and the Hanna Barbera and Gordon Murray animations standing in for bulk-bought Disney. Even the whimsy and corny jokes are essentially similar. All that Swap Shop really did was to give them more structure and bring in John Craven as a comedy straightman.

Although Molly Cox would soon return to the relative normality of factual programming, her subsequent credits including Take Hart, Roy Castle Beats Time and Why Don’t You?, Paul Ciani would later put the lunacy he had learned on Zokko! and its follow-ons to good use. Most prominently he would serve as as the longtime director and producer of Rentaghost (again featuring Anthony Jackson), The Basil Brush Show and Crackerjack!, but also helmed a number of long-forgotten yet fondly-remembered children’s comedy shows such as Hope and Keen’s Crazy House, Bonny! and Great Big Groovy Horse, as well working on many top-rated light entertainment series including The Kenny Everett Television Show, The Paul Daniels Magic Show and Top of the Pops, where he somehow resisted the temptation to fill the stage with bubbling test tubes.

Sadly, but not entirely unpredictably, very little of Zokko! now survives in the archives. The original master tape of one second series edition escaped wiping by pure chance, and more recently a telerecording of a compilation edition of highlights from that run was recovered from a private collector. On the plus side this does mean that both “Skayn” and “Susan Starr” have had their adventures (or at least a fragment thereof) preserved for posterity, but unfortunately nothing remains of the talking pinball machine that seems to have burnt itself indelibly onto so many memories.

It’s a fair bet that even the slightest thought of It Started With Zokko! would be enough to give documentary and clip show producers weeks of psychedelically-flashing radiophonically-doused nightmares, but in all fairness Zokko! really was where it all began…