Who Killed Saturday Night TV


A Channel Four documentary show chronicling the history of Saturday night TV from the 1970s to the present day. Tommy and Bobby spoke about their TV show, which was interspersed with archive footage.

The show went from Bruce Forsyths Generation Game, through the 1980s with Cannon and Ball on ITV and Little and Large on the BBC, the rise of alternative comedy, Noels House Party and on to reality TV shows.

Alongside Cannon and Ball talking about their TV show was Michael Jackson, BBC 1 Controller from 1996-1997, and Paul Jackson, Producer of The Cannon and Ball Show 1983-1984.

This is a mystery story. A story about the slow, strange death of Saturday night television. A story full of intrigue and drama of hysterical laughter and bitter tears.

It’s the story of how, over 25 years, and despite the efforts of some of the highest paid entertainers and programme makers this country has ever seen, Saturday night television has gone from being the most watched night of the week to the least.

Bruce’s Big Night

On Saturday, the 7th of October 1978, ITV unveiled their new star and what Grade claimed will be a vehicle the likes of which has never been seen on British TV. Bruce’s Big Night was an epic 2 hour variety show. It was an odd mix dominated by Bruce.

There was Bruce the song and dance man. There was Bruce with special guests. There was Bruce telling jokes with members of the public. As well as game shows. And a sitcom. And then there were some more, Bruce. ITVs big money transfers seem to be paying off. 14 million people switched over from the BBC to watch the first show. But the BBC weren’t about to give up on the biggest night of the week. A TV war had begun. A new face was drafted into the Generation Game hot seat and scheduled directly against Bruce’s Big Night.

Cannon and Ball

Once more, the BBC seemed to have survived the loss of one of their most precious talent. But with Morecambe and Wise settled and secure on Wednesday nights, ITV now decided they needed to go head to head with their own Saturday night comedy duo. They too trawled Opportunity Knocks for inspiration, only this time they netted the losers.

Bobby: We came last. We came last. A rat won it. Going back to canteen. Playing spoons.

(Clip from Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club)

Bobby: Real name? Well, I’m called Robert Harper, Robert Harper

Tommy: And I’m called Thomas Derbyshire.

Bobby: We couldn’t be called that for the act because Harper and Derbyshire sounds like an opticians, so we changed it to Cannon and Ball. But we had many names, me and Tom, because the act were that bad. In the early doors, we had to keep changing our name every two weeks, so nobody found out it were us.

Paul Jackson: Tommy and Bobby were a stage theatre double act. Basic rhythm of the act is Tommy’s trying to do something sensible and Bobby completely mucks it up, but you forgive him, because you love him. I know it’s cheesy and I know it’s old hat, but you watch them and Tommy says to Bobby. “That’s it. I’ve had enough, go.” And the whole place, he’s got the place in the palm of his hand. Because, they were actually a much better double act than they were ever given credit for. Tommy was a great straight man and in my honest opinion, Bobby Ball was one of the funniest comics we’ve ever had working in this country.

Michael Jackson: People like Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, they’re very much part of a musical hall tradition of being pleasant, cheeky, mildly amusing people that the whole family could sort of enjoy. Maybe no one really enjoyed them hugely, but the point was that no one was really offended or bored. Everyone was being lightly amused. Indeed, British television used to have entire departments called Light Entertainment. A rather curious phrase doesn’t really give one huge confidence in the enjoyment that one’s about to have.

Cannon and Ball were ITV’s great hope to finally break the BBC’s Saturday night monopoly. But after losing Opportunity Knocks, they had a struggle to even get on air. First, they were used as Bruce’s stooges in the ill-fated Big Night.

But these sketches didn’t even make it to air. The suits in charge thought that the answer to Big Night’s problems was even more Bruce and Tommy and Bobby remained on the cutting room floor.

Tommy: Really it was disappointing for us, but yet in another way it helped our career because we were never shown. Each week something came up, then they were dropped and we were dropped and we were dropped on everything that we did. And we got more publicity out of that. People began to catch on that Cannon and Ball kept being dropped, and suddenly it was Michael Grade who actually saw a clip. And he turned around and said give them their own show.

Bobby: And there we are, we’re away then. Then all the technicians went on strike.

Tommy: They did aye

Bobby: And then they showed us, like Tommy says the publicity worked and then went on, it were like…

Bobby and Tommy finally made it on air on Saturday the 28th of July 1979. Their end of pier pranks immediately pulled in 12 million committed followers.

Guest: I remember laughing that hard right the way through the show that I actually blacked out for a while. But amazingly enough in the same show, I was actually moved to tears at the end when they did a number. You know to be able to take an audience right through that range of emotions. It’s just something very special.

Tommy: When we did the North Pier in Blackpool. That’s when suddenly we realised how our lives have changed. And the queue for tickets was right the way round the North Pier and right the way down the sea front. We couldn’t get down the pier. Just incredible.

Bobby: We had to have police protection to come up the pier, all these people, it was like we were pop stars, unbelievable.