Never Seen No Place Nowhere Similar

Paul Stump on No.73

First published November 2006

Okay. I admit it. I fancied Kim Goody something rotten. Toni Arthur, Carol Chell, Susan “Horses Galore” King, Yvette Fielding? No, Kim had it all. I even fancied her when I was 12 years old on Playaway, this pouty sixth-form dreamboat (one summons the schoolroom in Annie Hall – “For God’s sake, Alvy, even Freud speaks of a latency period”) and I fancied her in No.73.

So I watched the show, and then realised that it wasn’t just her I was there for. This programme was actually rather good, different, stickable (a word then yet to be coined). It wasn’t just that it was an improvement on Swap Shop or Saturday Superstore – how could anything apart from cholera be otherwise? – it was good on its own terms. Plus, it sported Terrytoons’ very, very peculiar Roger Ramjet.

A fellow Kentishman and good friend was once shown round the No.73 set. He’s still quite proud of the fact. “It wasn’t great TV,” he remembered, “but it was okay, and certainly not shit like Superstore. And don’t blame it for Sandi Toksvig.” As if we would. As if we could.

Toksvig was actually the fulcrum of No.73, in a rather daringly post-modern fashion, she was simultaneously herself and Ethel, the leftfield landlady of said terraced property, behind whose doors fun and laughter were never far away etc. Paul Morris’ very fine website,, takes up the story: “No.73 took the idea of character and storyline much further than [Saturday morning kids'] TV ever had before. Producer and deviser John Dale succeeded in introducing the elements of ‘character and place’ into the traditional magazine programme format, creating an, ‘adult world into which the audience was invited on Saturday morning.’ This world was inhabited by a late-Neighbours style non-nuclear family – but with a difference.

“TV Times summed up the show as follows: ‘From the outside No.73 looks like a tumbledown house, but once inside it’s a different world. Each week [it] is visited by superstars and famous personalities who provide a madcap spectacle of music, competitions and fun.’”

Landlady Ethel was primarily attended by a nephew (Harry) and her boyfriend (Percy). Among the other “tenants” were beanpole roller-skating carrot-top Dawn Lodge [sic], played by recent Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold. Morris again: “Between them the cast covered all the archetypes likely to appeal to juvenile scruffs – wacky aunt, big brother, big sister, and a nutcase (Percy) for good measure. Authoritarian parental figures were included in the shape of next door neighbours Hazel and Martin Edwards (although the spin-off series, No.75, never materialised).”

Sounds rubbish, doesn’t it?

Alongside character – tenuous as that may have been – came plot, with the putative property of No.73 constantly under threat from central-casting Mr-Suit developers (Milton Johns may have oiled his way into one episode – when didn’t his only-obeying-orders face appear in a kid-TV show of the era?)

What’s often forgotten is that the show very nearly didn’t happen nationally at all. It was originally made by newbie ITV franchisee TVS (RIP Southern) to temporarily fill the hole left by the then-unlamented TISWAS which had been taken over by the prince of autocue freeze, Gordon Astley, hideously bad impressionist Fogwell Flax and fat-voiced Den Hegarty (Darts’ Mr Bassman and not even remotely funny). However, in summer 1983, No.73 moved to TVS’ headquarters from its original home in So’ton and never looked back. As it was networked across the country, the cast took on the winsome jill-of-all-trades Goody and professional Scouser Neil Buchanan (formerly of going-nowhere metal band Marseille – ” We played around the country, made a couple of albums, nipped over to the States for a year or so and then disappeared into oblivion”) both of whom slotted in like sticklebricks. With Arnold, a likeable livewire, already in the team, there was, suddenly, a workable antidote to the Swap Shop junta and anything that had the dread words “the Newsround team” in the end production credits.

Buchanan told OTT how he landed the job …

“I was looking through the Melody Maker and there was an advert in the back that said, ‘Have you ever had breakfast with a gorilla?’ That was put in by Tim Edmunds, who was responsible for bringing shows like How to television. And, in fact, nowadays he’s my business partner, but back then he was a lowly researcher, just starting out.

“But, anyway, this ad said, ‘Have you ever had breakfast with a gorilla? Now we’ve got your attention, new Saturday morning programme starting, all sorts of entertainers required’.

“I was skint and still a rock star, in inverted-commas, but I needed money. So I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll go along for this, see if I can get some money behind me and then get back down to London with the rest of the band’. So I replied to the advert saying, ‘No, I’ve never had breakfast with a gorilla, but I have had my picture taken with a monkey sitting on my knee’. And I sent in a snap of me when I was a kid in a grotto with a monkey on my knee.

“It was a good gag, but in fact the reason I sent it in was because I couldn’t afford to have any pictures of myself taken. But that just hit the nail on the head, because it’s my sense of humour, and it’s what became my future writing partner’s sense of humour too. He saw that and said, ‘We must see this guy’.

“So I went through all the auditions – there were 150 – 160 people, but they only wanted four. I got down to the last eight, and then we went through a really rigorous process, and in the end I didn’t get it. They took all of us into a room and said, ‘Look, you’ve been great, but you haven’t got the gig’. Then Tim turned round to me and said, ‘Can you do anything else?’ and I replied, ‘Well, actually, I can draw, I’m an artist’. He said, ‘What can you do?’ I said, ‘Caricatures’. The producer chipped in, ‘Well, how quickly can you do them?’. I said, ‘Very’. ‘Go on then, do one of me’. So there and then I picked up a pencil and changed my life. I drew this producer in 30 seconds flat and the whole production team fell around the floor laughing. And they asked, ‘Can you come and do these on the telly? If we had guests on the show, can you come and do them as they walk through the door?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure’ and that was it. I was in.

“I did that for probably two or three shows, and then I realised I could earn a lot more money as a presenter. One of the team wasn’t very good, so eventually – after a little bit of scouse bullshit, a lot of smile and charm – I was in.”

The adultness of the No.73 was arresting – nothing gynaecological, natch, but miles above Mike Read. Director Anna Home, whose work on Jackanory amongst countless other classic BBC kids’ shows needs no apostrophising, ensured No.73 never spoke down to its audience, and as that seemed to be extremely heterogeneous, this meant pitching the bar rather high. Interestingly, the presence of moonstruck local kids on set was axed early on, streamlining and maturing the show’s feel and adding to the enjoyable tightrope between fantasy and reality which ideally only someone over 14 would get.

Nobody could do much about Nick Staverson’s bumptious Harry Stern. However, his inability to remember lines, and sensationally silly contemporary fashion-victim look further added to the show’s collision of the real and the imagined. Was this man real? Was he truly such a real prat? Really? Me, I still confess to not being entirely sure if Roger Ramjet was tongue-in-cheek in the first place or interpolated into the programme as either a kind of postmodern prank, pure filler or a bit of both.

Neil Buchanan: “The reason the show was fantastic to work on is it called on all the TV disciplines. It was live. It was a drama so it stuck to a storyline, meaning you couldn’t ad lib – but then there were parts of it where you could go off-script, and, in fact, you had to.

“We had to be very, very disciplined, and were required to come up with a different story every week. So you were inventing, you were creating, you were writing, you were entering into all the disciplines of scripting, you were having to learn scripts, you were performing multi-camera … live. All that, plus there were games in it, so you had to take on game show mechanics too.”

This is not as disingenuous as it sounds. No.73 at its best did seem to be semi-improvised, with the only concern on the actors’ faces being the avoidance of inadvertently four-lettering themselves out of a job.

Paul Morris argues that “one drawback of the show was its blatant air of provincialism. None of the stars were hugely glittering”. But the fact that the likes of just-out-of-the-squat but tight-as-fuck bands like It Bites and Yes No People played in a space that looked like your dad’s garage made it all the more vital a programme. After all, this might be the act you’d be taking your first date to see in Workington or Wisbech on that same Saturday night.

Frank Sidebottom, in his first real TV gig, helped things along (how could he not?) There was the feeling that – the post-pubescent theme again – this was slightly grown-up kids’ TV. You knew these people probably weren’t on your side at all, but were making a pretty entertaining divertissement for you anyway. The absence of brats standing and shuffling and sidling around the set helped. TISWAS, of course, made a habit of abusing and belittling them – they were just in the way – and this was one of its principal strengths.

Toksvig quit in 1986. There was no appreciable loss of momentum – the new season that began in autumn 1987 was splashed on the cover of TV Times. New characters, including a defensive, insecure young American intern, played by the startlingly slow-burning Nadia De Lemeny, plus the excellent Richard Waites as down-at-heel, crap-wardrobed neighbour Hamilton Dent, stayed both in and out of character.

Nonetheless strains were showing; for no very good reason. Staverson took on an entirely superfluous Sunday supplement show (why?) recorded on a Saturday by a cast and crew obviously drained by two-hours-plus of just-about-live, balls-out, high-energy telly.

And then the rather lazy conceit of the “property” of No.73 being “redeveloped” was couldn’t-make-it-up mirrored in real life at TVS, who needed studio space to milk its ratings winner Catchphrase (three words seldom heard together). No.73‘s sets were in the way. At one brainstorming too many, someone suggested the following: “Tell y’what – why not transfer it to a pricey outdoor location?” and, for good measure, “Here’s the lulu, make it a Wild West theme park”. Well, golly. Didn’t Maidstone’s charlie dealers do well that day?

And so came to pass 7T3 (why? why?) in January 1988. The most successful and popular Saturday morning phenomenon of the 1980s – only recently achieving recognition for its true prestige and, until the far inferior Ministry of Mayhem, and the infinitely inferior Dick and Dom franchise, the only thing comparable to classic TISWAS. Why? It at least imagined an audience of intelligent late teens and twentysomethings along with the Oxycution generation – was effectively neutered, burdened overnight with more debt than a Medway chav with a Debenhams’ store-card.

No.73‘s unusually talented jiggle factors – De Lemeny, Goody – were unaccountably elbowed, and Staverson and Arnold bowed the knee to the new frontman, Buchanan. By 1989 No.73 was history. Motormouth was its slightly wan and infirm heir. The Sarah Greene vision of Saturday morning had won out and we were the poorer for it. Roy Walker, j’accuse – you killed No.73.

So what happened to the tenants? Arnold’s first feature film, Red Road (it’s been suggested she did No.73 solely to help finance her early years as a director) was a sensation at Cannes this year and should be out as you read this piece. Goody has returned to her main concern of singing and composing, despite the fact she had featured in an (unintentionally) tragicomic story thread in the programme when she was filmed over several episodes showing how a pop single was recorded, only to see the result – her harmless version of Don’t Turn Around – scarcely register a sale while the inestimable Aswad’s bunka-chunka singalong take on the tune bulleted to number one. Toksvig’s never short of work. De Lemeny took the first Murdoch shilling to present a movie preview show and has since faded. With her it’s sadly much the same as Staverson – “sightings welcomed”.

As for Buchanan, he went on to profitably create, helm and own Art Attack, and is still picking up his pencil on screen. “Saturday morning is fantastic to work on,” he reflects. “There’s nothing like it. I mean, I don’t have the energy for it any more. I like guesting, and I did the odd spot on Ministry of Mayhem every now and then, which was great fun. But I couldn’t do it every week.”

Regarding children’s television nowadays, he muses: “When creating kids’ shows, the brief used to be it’s got to be quality and it’s got to do the children good. That gets less and less nowadays as business takes over.

“The cynical reality of it is, it’s got to make money now. If it doesn’t make money, then it doesn’t hold water. That’s really sad, because when we were kids there was some great telly that probably didn’t make a bean. But now if you’re pitching for something you’ve almost got to have the merchandise planned and sell that at the same time.”

It’s a shame. No.73 – which never amassed a whole lot of beans itself – didn’t have more showstopper moments, like Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford out of Genesis at their most pompous being almost gunk-drowned on TISWAS (and obviously enjoying it) or Matt Bianco getting their just and profane deserts over the phone. But then, in its favour it never employed Gaz Top. Plus it was dependable, and above all it was clever and knew it. Everyone concerned knew it. Maybe that was enough.

Ah, enough already. Who’s up for the sandwich game? And then after the break, it’s Latin Quarter, live! Get in there!