Published: 06:00, 23 July 2020
| Updated: 19:26, 26 July 2020
It is said a chance meeting on a train ended up turning Kent into TV gold.
Commuters James Gatward and ex-Labour MP Lord Terry Boston began a conversation in a carriage and ended up forming TVS.
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Also on board were television executive Bob Southgate, who had worked at ITN, and the Daily Mail's television critic Martin Jackson. Soon to join them were Clive Jones as head of news and Anna Home as head of children's programming.
The fledgling company went on to win the ITV franchise for the south and south east in 1980. At the time it was Britain's most hotly contested area - with seven other applicants.
TVS took over Southern Television's studios in Southampton and at Dover and then built its own state-of-the-art £16 million 5,000 square feet television complex at Vinters Park, Maidstone, after first converting the former Plaza cinema in Gillingham into a television theatre where a string of bands such as ABC performed.
Gatward soon revealed he was a man on a mission, not only to transmit programmes but to make them as well.
He lobbied hard to turn his new company into a top player in the ITV network and forged high-level partnerships with producers such as Muppet Man Jim Henson, creating award-winning programmes such as The Story Teller, Greek Myths and Fraggle Rock.
When Greg Dyke, the man who introduced Britain to Roland Rat, joined as director of programmes in August 1984 from TV-am more light entertainment and drama programmes followed with Catchphrase, Summertime Special and The Ruth Rendell Mysteries.
TVS also caused outrage by replacing Chris Tarrant's anarchic children's Saturday morning TV show Tiswas with a brand new programme called Number 73 starring newcomer Sandi Toksvig. It was a live drama set in a fictional house where pop stars popped in to perform their hits.
In the first series, made in Southampton, none of the actors had their real names in the credits so as not to spoil the illusion for young viewers. That changed when the £40,000 programme moved to Maidstone in May, 1983, for the second series and became the first show produced in the new studios.
Among the guests on that show were Buster Bloodvessel (Doug Trendle of Bad Manners) and Paula Yates.
Sandi, who now presents QI, was landlady Ethel Davis with little-known heavy metal Liverpudlian guitarist Neil Buchanan and singer Kim Goody playing themselves, along with lodgers Dozy Harry Stern (Nick Staverson) and Dawn Lodge (the flame-haired Andrea Arnold), who sped around on roller skates.
They were joined by Fred the postman (Tony Aitken) and local con-man Tony Deal (Nick Wilton).
During the show, Ethel would introduce the Sandwich Quiz with the line: “It’s the daring, dazzling, death defyingly dull, devastatingly dangerous, delectable, delicatessenable, divinely decadent Sandwich Quiz!”
Teenager Nic Ayling was mesmerised watching at home in Canterbury and began sending in drawings which researcher Tim Edmunds dutifully stuck on a wall of the set.
Eventually Nic was invited to join the studio audience and was offered the chance to help Sandi introduce the quiz, where guests buttered slices of bread for every question they got right.
Nic, now 49 and running his own production company Terrific Television from the same studios, recalled: "I was in awe of the place. I'd never been in a TV studio before. I was only 13 and my mum had to come as a chaperone. Looking back, I have no idea how I had the nerve to join Sandi."
He was later given a summer job helping on Art Attack and never looked back.
He said: "I never returned to school to take my A-levels or go to university. I just learned everything I needed on the job. I don't suppose that would happen today. But back then there was a new studio and people were needed to work in it. There were a lot of young people like me."
Number 73 was Sandi's first television role, too.
She had been learning the ropes as a stand-up comedian and also working backstage at London theatres when she spotted an advert in the back of The Stage newspaper.
In her autobiography Between The Stops she reveals: "It asked 'Would you like to have breakfast with a gorilla?' I thought perhaps I would, so I applied. The ad requested contact details and a photo.
"Those were the days when actors sent off glossy black and white pictures of themselves. I didn't have any so I toddled off to Victoria Station to get some passport photos.
"The wretched seat was broken so I ended up with just the top of my head. I think the producers thought I was trying to be funny because I got the job."
Soon chart-toppers like Elton John and Gary Glitter were making their way to Maidstone which became the Mecca for live Saturday morning children's shows. The likes of Kylie Minogue, Peter Andre and Take That would soon join them.
There is still footage on You Tube of Iggy Pop 'making love' to a Teddy Bear he found on the set of Number 73. What anyone was doing booking an outrageous punk rocker onto a live Saturday morning children's show is anybody's guess. Suffice to say, all cameras were forced to focus on the singer's face and unable to stray below his waist.
Number 73 also liked animals which was almost its downfall. Zoo vet David Taylor brought in a jar of spiders but during rehearsals a poisonous Black Widow - it's venom is reported to be 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake's - escaped.
The studio had to be evacuated and cooled to below zero with nitrogen gas. Even today, insiders insist the runaway spider was never found.
Also working behind the scenes on Number 73 was former Maidstone schoolgirl Vanessa Hill who joined as a production secretary and ended up as a researcher and then producer.
"It turned out to be one of the best jobs in the world," she said: "I was being paid to go to shows and meet people to find out things kids would like to see on TV. One evening I had dinner with Michael Palin, a vicar who made fireworks and two stunt men who arranged fights for the National Theatre. It was glorious."
She went on to become one of the most innovative producers in children's TV founding her own company The Foundation with her husband Ged Allen, who she met on location in a field in Japan trying to film Richard Branson taking off in a hot air balloon. Vanessa also ended up working with Holly Willoughby on Ministry of Mayhem, the final live Saturday morning show to come from Maidstone.
She admitted: "I remembered the Black Widow story from Number 73 so as a prank we filled Holly's dressing room with 100 tarantulas. She was furious. When we came to pack them away three were missing. We found the last one hiding in her computer's CD port."
A director on Number 73 was a bearded Nigel Pickard who was the doppleganger of guitarist Eric Clapton. He went on to become head of children's television at TVS then took the same job at the BBC before taking over the running of ITV.
Number 73 was devised by John Dale and loosely based on The Young Ones.
After it was weirdly transformed into a Wild West theme park called 7T3 it gave way to Motormouth in 1988.
Motormouth was co-presented by Neil Buchanan, Tony Gregory,Andrea Arnold, Julian Ballantyne and Caroline Hanson.
An unknown Gaby Roslyn, who went on to join Chris Evans on The Big Breakfast, took over from Caroline and Andy Crane was poached from the BBC 'broom cupboard' to replace Tony. Steve Johnson came in to take over from Julian to host the quiz game Mouse Trap.
There was also a running drama set in a motel called Spin Off.
Vanessa Hill said: "Motormouth originally launched as an on-trend show for teenagers but it wasn't a total success in that format. It became more familiar when Andy joined. He is a hugely professional presenter. Running the drama was a massive challenge but I am immensely proud of it."
It featured actors Cal McCrystal, Gary Parker, Siobhan Finneran and Carla Mendonca.
Tim Byrne, a music researcher on Motormouth, went on to create and manage pop band Steps after getting bored booking bands and deciding to form one of his own.
He is now based in Los Angeles having worked with Simon Cowell's Syco production company.
Video: Behind the scenes at Motormouth - January 18, 1992. By David Furness
Parties after each series of Motormouth became the stuff of legend as the cast performed comedy sketches for the crew.
The memory of the usually glamorous Gaby trying to take off Vanessa Hill, who had by then been promoted to producer, with a fag hanging out the side of her mouth, will stay with those who saw it forever.
During one party the disco music was rudely interrupted by a police drugs raid. But the officers of the law turned out to be a giggling Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene from the rival BBC show Going Live.
Vanessa, 57, said: "The wrap parties became notorious and were always hugely anticipated. They were ambitious affairs but organised in the utmost secrecy so they always came as a surprise. And no, I can't say what happened at any of them."
Fun House and Capital Radio presenter Pat Sharp and Blue Peter girl Yvette Fielding were hired to join the Maidstone Saturday morning 'Mafia' to present What's Up Doc? in 1992 alongside Andy, aided and abetted by two animatronic wolves created by Henson puppeteers John Eccleston and Don Austen.
What's Up Doc? also introduced the world to Simon Perry the cheese man, an odd-looking character with buck teeth, a love of smelly cheese and who wore a bright orange cagoule offset with polished black shoes.
He made national headlines when he went to Sotheby's to bid for a 200-year-old cube of Tibetan cheese and ended up splashing out £1,000 for it.
The Daily Mirror sent reporter Tina Weaver to the studio to meet Simon where actor Stephen Taylor Woodrow remained in character throughout.
He said: "To be honest, I felt a little sorry for her. We let her interview me in my dressing room which was full of stinking cheese and several times she started wretching."
He added: "We never expected to have to pay so much for the cheese but there was another man there desperate to buy it which put the price up!"
Simon became the unexpected star of the show with many of the pop acts insisting on posing with him for their own scrapbooks and performing the special 'salute'.
Throughout all this, the studios hosted VIP visits from the likes of Kylie Minogue, Take That, Peter Andre, various Baywatch stars and American acts like The Backstreet Boys.
Producer Vanessa Hill recalled: "I'm not sure the Americans quite got our sense of humour. It had originally been devised as a means to show Warner Bros cartoons but we had other ideas.
"When Simon the cheese man was sent to Hollywood to interview the stars of Baywatch he created quite a stink, literally, by covering himself in smelly cheese for effect. It didn't go down well with the cast and the wrestler Hulk Hogan nearly walked out."
For a while, the Saturday morning mantle was handed over to Neil Buchanan. He had founded The Media Merchants with his pal Tim Edmunds, who he had met on Number 73, to take over making Art Attack when TVS lost its franchise.
They put together an ambitious show called Teleganticmegavision in January 1996 and then followed it with Wow, presented by Sophie Aldred (Ace in Doctor Who) and Simeon Courtie, later in the year.
But it almost came unstuck when a tractor crashed into power cables and blacked out Maidstone and the studio just minutes before the show went live.
Fast-thinking engineers fired up an emergency generator but it only had enough power for one camera and a microphone. So the opening scenes were broadcast from outside the building.
Most affected was pop star Peter Andre who had flown in by helicopter that morning after breaking off from his first headlining tour of Scotland.
He said: "I couldn't believe it. As my helicopter landed I was told the show was in danger of being cancelled. It was really weird. I was wearing black because I thought it would look good in the studio but I didn't think for one minute I'd be outside in the sun. I was boiling."
But he added: "I thought the presenters Simeon and Sophie did a brilliant job. I really felt for them."
Full power was resumed to allow Peter to perform his single Flava in the studio as planned.
Simeon said: "I had coped with problems before at the BBC when the News Round studio caught fire. But there was never anything on this scale.
"At first we only had one camera and one microphone between all of us. But everyone pulled together. Even the tea ladies came outside with their urn and made us cuppas.
"It was a wonderful atmosphere. It must have been like that in the war."
Sophie recalled: "I was in the tea bar when all the lights went out. I thought it was a joke at first. Then it dawned on me that without electricity we couldn't have a show. In the end, it was the best fun I had had in ages."
Executive producer Neil added: "The power went dead at 8.35am half-way through rehearsing the band number and leaving the entire studio in darkness.
"We phoned Seeboard to find out what was going on and were told half of Maidstone was out and it could be three hours before power came back. We were faced with a 90-minute live Saturday morning show with no electricity.
"At that stage it looked like the entire show might be replaced by a feature film. Then one of our technicians piped up that there was an emergency generator and we spent the next 15 minutes frantically trying to connect it.
"The one saving grace was that it was sunny because we didn't have enough power for any lights. If it had been overcast we would have been scuppered.
"We made the decision at 9.21 to go on air at 9.25am."
Even when the power returned the computers which controlled the studio lights all needed resetting along with sound effects and video machines. Eventually the crew returned to the studio for the final 30 minutes and operated the machines manually.
Neil said: "I had never in 10 years of live television witnessed anything like it. It was a credit to the amazing team at Maidstone that we went on air at all."
It wasn't until 2004 that Saturday morning shows returned to Maidstone with Ministry of Mayhem starring Holly Willoughby (This Morning) and the cheeky chappie Stephen Mulhern (Catchphrase).
Producer Vanessa Hill said: "We had worked with Stephen before and we just knew we wanted Holly when she gave such a wonderful audition."
It was on that show that Holly met her future husband Dan Baldwin who was on the production team.
Vanessa added: "They say actors should never work with children or animals but from the very start of TVS we were working with both.
"We had an audience of youngsters and often had guests like Terry Nutkins talking about wildlife. And we were mixing them with pop stars. Looking back, it was a recipe for disaster but somehow it worked.
"I think it was because the studios were new and so many of us were young. I was in my mid-20s and in charge of a live Saturday morning fully networked television show. No one had media degrees in those days. We were picked for our personalities, creativity and passion."
She went on: "I was living at Bearsted and when I realised they were building a TV studio there I applied to be a copy-taker for journalists in the news room. But they turned me down.
"I ended up as secretary to John Dale in the children's department and within two years had became a researcher. It was a real creative power house of talent in those days. That was the magic of Maidstone."
Outside of the children's department, comedians such as Bobby Davro and Richard Digance were given their own variety shows.The studios became a nurturing ground for up-and-coming talent both on screen and behind the scenes. The company even had its own plane.
TVS lost its franchise in 1992 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher radically reorganised the ITV network. Ironically, she had opened the studios.
The writing had been on the wall. Gatward, determined to become a television mogul, had somewhat recklessly decided to buy the failing MTM Studios in America, named after the actress Mary Tyler Moore, in July 1988 for £190m. The purchase gave him the back library of Hill Street Blues but very little else.
Even so, TVS proposed paying £59m a year to retain its franchise. Despite this being the highest bid, the broadcast authority at the time awarded the contract to Michael Palin's Meridian Broadcasting which took over on January 1, 1993.
The studios were later sold to The Family Channel and are now known as The Maidstone Studios. They still operate despite homes being built on the site.
Stephen Mulhern has just recorded the latest series of Catchphrase there.
The TVS legacy of 11 years on air includes shows ranging from Mr Majeika to CATS Eyes starring Jill Gascoigne and hard-hitting documentaries.
Its news presenters on Coast To Coast such as Mike Debens and weatherman Ron Lobeck became family favourites across Kent.
In the other half of the region in Southampton veteran Fred Dinenage was holding court and is still anchoring Meridian's news programme at the age of 78.
When TVS decided to remake the children's classic magazine show How? as How 2 with Gareth 'Gaz' Jones they turned to Fred to join the panel with Carol Vorderman.
And when the directors learned they had lost the bid to renew the franchise one of the last things they did was to plant daffodils in the grass outside the studio's foyer.
For years afterwards, visitors were greeted at spring with a bright yellow expanse of flowers defiantly spelling out the letters T V S.
Saturday Morning Shows from Maidstone
Number 73 - with Sandi Toksvig, Neil Buchanan, Kim Goody, Nick Staverson and Andrea Arnold. TVS. (1983 - 1988)
Motormouth - with Neil Buchanan, Tony Gregory,Andrea Arnold, Julian Ballantyne, Caroline Hanson, Gaby Roslyn, Any Crane and Steve Johnson. TVS. (1988-1992)
What's Up Doc? - with Pat Sharp, Andy Crane and Yvette Fielding. The Foundation. (1992-1995)
Teleganticmegavision - with Emma Lee and Dave Chapman with Nic Ayling and Lucy Benjamin presenting Slops quiz show. The Media Merchants. (1996).
Wow - with Sophie Aldred and Simeon Courtie. The Media Merchants. (1996)
Ministry of Mayhem - with Stephen Mulhern, Holly Willoughby and Michael Underwood. The Foundation. (2004-2006)
More by this authorJohn Nurden
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