Richard Herring: Chris Tarrant, you let me down!
Friday 21 Feb 2014
I was flying home from Geneva and remembered something that happened in this city over 35 years ago.
As a comedy-obsessive child, I loved the Saturday morning TV show Tiswas. It was anarchic and ridiculous and, though ostensibly for kids, it was packed withgags for adults. It was puerile yet sophisticated and made me laugh till I hurt.
My family moved from the Midlands to Somerset when I was eight. Back then, regional ITV schedules varied wildly and my sister asked the man who installed our telly if her favourite show, the Bay City Rollers’ Shang-a-Lang, was on Westward TV. He smiled and said it was. ‘Do you have Tiswas?’ I asked with slight desperation. He looked confused and shook his head. I cried for hours. And then, when I saw the rubbish West Country alternative Saturday morning show, I cried for even longer.
The stars of Tiswas were my heroes: Lenny Henry made the word ‘OK’ last two minutes, Sally James sat sexily in a bathtub, the Phantom Flan Flinger flung flans. But my favourite was the cheeky and charming front man, Chris Tarrant.
In 1978 I was on a school trip to Switzerland and we’d just stopped off by Lake Geneva. I wasn’t that impressed. It was just a big load of water. We had that at home. But then, in the distance, I spotted a familiar figure. It couldn’t be. Surely, not here. It was! It was Chris Tarrant, holidaying with his family.
‘It’s Chris Tarrant!’ I told my school pals breathlessly. Even though they had never seen Tiswas (and would only have been impressed had West Country rabbit-puppet Gus Honeybun been strolling by the lake), they still picked up on my excitement.
We started running towards the Tarrants at speed. This was the 1970s and children had not yet learned to be afraid of television personalities.
Tarrant saw this gaggle of British schoolchildren approaching, turned on his heels, expertly gathered his family into his car and sped off.
I was heartbroken. Never meet your heroes, they say. Thanks to Chris Tarrant’s fleet footwork I never got the chance.
Years later my friend Al Murray was appearing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and asked if I would be one of his Phone-A-Friends. I readily agreed. It was the perfect opportunity for revenge.
The phone would ring and I’d hear a familiar voice, ‘Hello, Richard, this is Chris Tarrant!’ I’d act surprised and say, ‘What, from Tiswas?’ He’d no doubt chortle that little friendly laugh of his (which I know, due to his behaviour in 1978, is as false as three of the answers on his board) and say: ‘Well, yes, I used to be on Tiswas.’
Then I’d say: ‘What are you up to these days?’ Again he’d gurn to the camera but this time you’d be able to detect a little genuine annoyance on his face and he’d probably say: ‘Oh, I am just involved in a little show called Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ I might say: ‘Never mind, maybe you’ll get back to the top one of these days.’ Then, before he could respond, I would shout: ‘I saw you at Lake Geneva in 1978 and yelled your name and you ran away. Why did you do that, Chris? How could you treat your fans that way? No, you can’t phone a friend.’
And Tarrant would cry and apologise, the audience would applaud and I’d have justice.
Alas, Al Murray rang one of his other Phone-A-Friends on the night, so I was thwarted.
Take that, Chris Tarrant!