As a guy (just) entering his 40s it’s hard to convey how important Saturday morning kids TV was to my friends and me back in the 80s and 90s. There was no Internet, four TV channels and very limited slots for children’s content during the week. However, Saturday mornings were glorious. On both BBC and ITV you had big studio shows with puppets, American cartoons, comedy sketches, celebrity interviews, live performances… your every wish was catered for. So when I started presenting kids TV on Nickelodeon back in 2005 a Saturday morning TV show was, as far as I was concerned, the ultimate achievement. I used to enviously watch ‘Dick & Dom in da Bungalow’ and be regaled with stories about what they’d got up to that week by our cameraman Pat, who worked with Richard and Dominic on their show at weekends. ‘The Ministry of Mayhem’ was also on ITV at that time, but I didn’t like that as much. It seemed to be just trying to recreate the TV I grew up with, whereas Dick & Dom had taken things to a whole new level creatively. It was properly unhinged and like nothing that had been on before really.
Once Warrick (who puppeteers Oucho) and I had been on CBBC for a few months our stock had risen very high and the development team began to inundate us with potential shows to present. We were holding out for two things – a sitcom or a Saturday morning show – and being quite happy on Presentation in the CBBC Office introducing the programmes in the afternoon we politely turned down the requests that came our way. After about five months of this the Head of Development pointed out to us that you don’t remain flavour of the month forever, so we accepted a pitch from BBC Scotland to make the science show that became ‘Ed & Oucho’s Excellent Inventions’. We made sure that it was as close to being the dreamed of sitcom as we could possibly make it and were proud of the results, but once we’d finished filming it at the end of 2008 we got properly excited because, shortly after being asked to pick up the BAFTA for Best Children’s Channel and waving it about on TV for a week, CBBC decided to give us our own SATURDAY MORNING SHOW ON TERRESTRIAL TELLY.
Of course being on BBC2 meant nothing to kids by then. They had their own CBBC channel and probably thought it was a bit weird that there were kids shows on BBC2 at all, but for me it ticked a very big box and I was over the moon. Even better the head of CBBC, Anne Gilchrist, loved us and let it be known that we should be allowed to do pretty much whatever we wanted. An amazing guy in development called Rob Jenkinson came up with the idea of a show with kids battling to stay on a blimp that was sinking and needed to lose weight, which sounded suitably anarchic for us, and we were given the executive producer of ‘Little Howard’s Big Adventure’, Pete Davies, and our very first producer on CBBC who we had worked with back in 2007, Paul Giddings. They crewed up with one of our favourite researchers, Jamie Wilson, and a bunch of people who knew Saturday morning TV inside out from working on TMi with Sam & Mark. We were given one of the top floors of the crumbling East Tower in Television Centre, handed CBBC Presentation over to Iain & Hacker, and got to work.
The first thing that Warrick and I were adamant about was NO CELEBRITIES. Video streaming on the Internet had got good by then and TMi had been really struggling to get guests that kids would consider worthy of tuning in for, so we just put a blanket ban on the whole idea and instead wanted our guests to be up and coming comedians playing characters, or puppeteers that Warrick rated. Everyone was very accommodating and went along with it, but Warrick and I soon got tired of sentences that started with “On TMi…” as the lovers of traditional Saturday morning kids TV struggled to get their heads round what we were after, and I’m sure they got equally tired of sentences from us that began with “On Pres…”. But gradually the show took shape, with a couple of games to play with the kids, a couple of good “acquisitions” (‘The Secret Show’ and ‘The Legend of Dick & Dom’), a pre recorded sketch or two and some send in items. We decided to call it ‘Transmission Impossible’, since the whole theme of the show was that Oucho and I were running a pirate TV station, which I think we came up with before we realised that my kids TV heroes, Trevor and Simon, had actually had a show with the same name, so we stuck “with Ed and Oucho” on the end. Hope they didn’t mind.
When the studio was chosen my heart sank. Television Centre (scheduled for approaching demolition) was too expensive, and most of the crew lived in west London and didn’t want to commute to cheap as chips 3 Mills Studio in the East End, so we were going to be filming at Pinewood, about an hour and a half from where I live. Also, on our tight budget we couldn’t actually afford a proper studio there, so we were in “Studio H”, between the two real TV studios. It was famous for having ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ shot in there, but 25 years later it had the appearance of a glorified cow shed with a couple of large holes in the wall and an OB truck parked outside for the director and rest of the gallery to sit in. Still, it was near the amazing 007 stage, and they were filming the exteriors for Harry Potter at the time, so in our lunch breaks we got to have a good old snoop around, walking up and down the corridors where they filmed the ‘Carry On’ films and all sorts. It was awesome.
We’d come into the office on Tue am and have a morning brainstorm for next week’s show where five or six of us would thrash out what was going to happen in the episode, then the two people in our props department would be alerted as to what props we’d need to make the story work and the assistant producers and researchers would start writing the script. People who wanted to write sketches got allocated their own (I wrote all the ‘Kaptain Krazy’ sketches, and I seem to remember our producer Paul Giddings and APs Jamie Wilson, Claire McCarthy and Ruth Mills wrote the rest). Pre-recorded sketches and read throughs would happen on Wed and Thu and then on Friday we all de-camped to Pinewood for camera rehearsals.
We hit the air on 16 May 2009. The show went out live on Saturday am, and then after lunch we’d pre-record the show for Sunday, with our lovely director Geoff Coward constantly geeing us along with his enthusiasm (he directs ‘Swashbuckle’ and lots of other kids shows, you’ll see his name pop up on everything). We were basically making a live 1950s style sitcom like ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ or something. We’d made life very difficult for ourselves, with lots of cutting between cameras and no auto cue, so I had to learn the entire half hour off by heart, with room to improvise if something went wrong / something funny happened.
I’d stay overnight on my own at the nearby Pinewood Hotel to be in early the next morning, and then the confused kids would arrive. Part of Ed & Oucho’s schtick was that we were dismissive of kids, so although we’d be very nice to them off camera the level of concentration required in rehearsals and on air, combined with the fact that we were pretending we didn’t care about whether we threw them off an aircraft or not, meant they must have found it a very confusing experience. I loved how genuinely disorientated they looked on camera. As a kid, watching other kids on TV oozing with confidence really annoyed me, they didn’t seem like any kids I knew in real life. I think some people on the show felt a bit sorry for them and that we ought to have given them a more prominent role, but as far as I was concerned everything was as it should be.
God knows what the guests made of it. We really threw them in the deep end. By that point I’d been presenting live TV five days a week for several years, but to be thrown on live TV with massive chunks of script to learn, with the proviso that we could go off script at any time and they would be expected to improvise, must have been pretty daunting. Luckily, from my years of doing stand up comedy, I knew a lot of good acts that I thought could handle it, and our AP Claire was a big comedy fan and had an eye for up and coming talent. The fact that so many of them went on to big shows like ‘Peep Show’ made me feel quite pleased with myself. We gave viewers a great introduction to the world of comedy I think. Warrick was also keen to have the best puppeteers too, and we had people who worked on the Muppets and all sorts. He was particularly chuffed to get to choose Louise Gold as Babs the termite. She was the only British puppeteer on ‘The Muppet Show’ back in the 70s and it was our job that brought her out of puppet retirement. Since then she’s worked with Warrick on ‘Muppets Most Wanted’, ‘Furchester Hotel’ and the new ‘Dark Crystal’ series.
Making ‘Transmission Impossible’ was a whirlwind 12 weeks, with constant complaining from everyone about the lack of budget, long hours being pulled and the props and costume department coming up with the goods over and over again against the odds. Once we got to the end of the series there was just time for a summer holiday and then Warrick and I were off filming on location for three months for the second series of ‘Excellent Inventions’. We returned to Television Centre in December and everything was very different. The BBC was preparing for the shutdown of the whole place and CBBC was moving to Salford. Our exec and producer had left the BBC, the head of the channel had gone and the head of Presentation had moved ahead to Salford to prepare the studios up there.
During our first conversation with the new head of CBBC it became apparent that he hadn’t watched much (or any) of either ‘Transmission Impossible’ or ‘Excellent Inventions’ and it started to dawn on me that we were probably toast. BBC Scotland did manage to persuade him to commission our much desired sitcom, which was to be a road trip style show called ‘Ed & Oucho’s Excellent Adventures’. A pilot episode was shot and we were all set to start pre-production but then he changed his mind and went with the idea of Warrick being the puppeteer for Hacker the dog’s new brother, Dodge. ‘Excellent Adventures’ went through several other stages of development and we turned it into what is now ‘All Over The Place’, probably the jammiest job in telly which has allowed me to travel the world for 10 years taking part in crazy events, meeting fascinating people and performing comedy sketches and songs on some of the world’s most famous landmarks. Mustn’t grumble.
‘Transmission Impossible’ does hold a special place in me and Warrick’s hearts though. We had a virtually unprecedented amount of creative control and although we didn’t win every battle (quite rightly on a number of occasions!) I can’t think of another show on CBBC where the presenters got to do so much of what they wanted. We wanted it to be unique, bonkers and of no educational value whatsoever, and the fact that Dick & Dom showered it with praise was music to my ears. We had dreams of several more series and a live stage tour, none of which ever came to fruition, but maybe that’s for the best. We could have got stuck being one man and a cactus, when the two of us have gone on to have the most incredible decade since. But there will always be a slight regret about what might have been. It was a great little show.