Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

By Ashley Lister

When I was young there used to be a UK Saturday morning TV show called The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. Swap Shop was fun children’s TV filled with pop music, celebrity interviews, TV-related links and cartoons. It was also one of the first kid’s programmes to take a step toward being interactive. Children were encouraged to phone in, or turn up at one of the outside broadcast units, and (keeping in theme with the title of the show) they were encouraged to swap things. They were encouraged to swap board games, jigsaws, portable TV sets, radios, vinyl albums and all those other things that were cool in the mid 70s and early 80s.

For those of you outside the UK I’m sure this will mean little to you. For those in the UK, especially those of us who are now using products to disguise grey hair, the cultural impact of Swap Shop remains powerful.

The show was hosted by Noel Edmonds. Again, this is a name that will mean little to those outside the UK. Mr Edmonds has enjoyed a renaissance of popularity as the furry face of the UK’s Deal or No Deal programme, as show with a successful worldwide franchise. Mr Edmonds has also become something of a comic figure because of his acceptance of Cosmic Ordering: the belief that individuals can use their desires to acquire the bounties of the universe, usually by writing those desires on the back of the hand (like a Cosmic Ordering shopping list).

I am not going to criticise Cosmic Ordering. To me it seems as good as any other religion, maybe better than some because it doesn’t involve any commitment of time or spare income. Also in favour of Cosmic Ordering is the fact that it doesn’t demand that I should arbitrarily subjugate people of different races, genders, ethnicities or sexualities, and there aren’t many religions that can make that boast.

But, to get back to Swap Shop for a moment, I should say that the programme used to terrify me. The idea of swapping possessions was, and still is, anathema.

Perhaps this was because I had a brother who treated my possessions like his own. Toy cars. Teddy Bears. Games. Everything and anything. If he wanted it, the fact that it was one of my possessions never stopped him from taking it. Don’t get me wrong. I was never adverse to sharing. But my brother was constantly taking my toys and keeping stuff. Worse: he would sometimes take my possessions and then either trade them with his friends or sell them or break them or give them away. Please rest assured that I’m not trying to make out I had some sort of ‘Dave Pelzer’ upbringing. I’m just explaining, as a child, I had a brother with no respect for my personal property or boundaries. And I’m explaining it here to illustrate that this meant I developed a possessive nature as a reflex action: just so I could keep some of my own things.

(NB – I am now aware that possessions are nothing more than a tool of the capitalist oppressors. However, at the time that Swap Shop first aired, I was eleven years old and had an Action Man, a Tonka Truck and a Teddy Bear that I desperately wanted to keep).

All of which meant that, for me, Swap Shop was something like a horror movie. People would turn up at the outside broadcast units, armed with personal possessions, and they would then give them to strangers in exchange for someone else’s personal possessions. These events were filmed and broadcast as part of Swap Shop’s outside broadcast fun. Some times I would watch this horrific exchange from the sanctuary of hiding behind a chair or the settee. I had to watch, just to make sure my brother wasn’t appearing on the show, trying to trade my Action Man, or Tonka Truck for a stash of porn mags or some magic beans.

My fears weren’t ungrounded. Whenever he threatened me (as older brothers are prone to threaten their younger siblings) he would ask if I wanted to see my teddy bear on TV. Then he would chuckle menacingly and make veiled threats about my teddy appearing on Swap Shop.

I appreciate there are several things wrong with this. Some might say that, at the age of 11, I was possibly too old to have an emotional attachment to a teddy bear. However, people are still saying the same thing now I’m 44 so I don’t put much credence in that opinion.

I should also perhaps have thought that few people would willingly want to trade any personal possession for a teddy bear that was missing both eyes, one ear, an arm and two legs. These disabilities (or challenges, if you want to be politically correct) had been inflicted on my teddy bear by the brutal cruelty of my elder brother (who, even then, was a practising sadist). And, whilst these ‘challenges’ to Teddy didn’t hamper my childhood affection for the toy, I should have seen that they would have severely reduced his desirability as a piece of exchangeable merchandise.

However, as I’ve previously stated, I was young and stupid and hadn’t thought about such matters. Every time I watched Swap Shop, I would worry: what if people were swapping things that didn’t belong to them? What if I watched one morning to see my brother on there trying to swap my teddy bear?

They were fears that preyed on my thoughts throughout every childhood Saturday. They are fears that have probably helped shape most of my current neuroses more than any other single factor. And that’s a lot of neuroses.

And I mention all of this here to explain that I have an absolute horror at the idea of swapping. Would I swap my skills, if it was possible to swap such things? No.

First and foremost: I’m not 100% sure they are my skills to swap. If I was religious, I might suggest that any writing skills I do possess are a God-given ability: which means they couldn’t be given away. Even though I’m not very religious (except for maybe Cosmic Ordering) I still believe whatever ability I do have is a gift that has been given to me by writing teachers and supportive relatives and friends: and it’s not right to give away something that has been given to you. Most importantly, I sincerely believe that the ability to write fluently or prolifically (or without too many typos and headaches) is better than any other skill or ability in the world.

So, to reiterate the question: would I swap my skills, if it was possible?

No. I certainly would not. They’re my skills and no one else can have them. And I’ll be reading the comments carefully, just in case it transpires that my brother has already been on here and swapped my writing skills for an Action Man or a Tonka Truck or some more of his damned magic beans.


  1. OMG,

    Ash, I'm so sorry. I just talked to your brother, and he takes over your column spot here next Thursday. I also promised him the Teddy Bear, so pull it out from under the covers and get the fella spiffed up because he's getting a new home.

    I wonder if Swap Shop had a similar effect on other children back in the day? Perhaps we have Noel Edmonds to thank for a generation of clingy, possessive and somewhat paranoid adults.


    Great post, buddy. Okay, I guess you can come back next week.



  2. Bravo! Very glad you didn't swap your writing gifts.

    Of course, Swap Shop was probably all faked. I bet the kids who showed up on the air were really actors. (Did they look eerily familiar, as if maybe you'd seen these same children hawking new toys the week before showing up with old toys?) For that matter, I bet even the toys were actors, old has-beens from radio now getting typecast as stuffed hedgehogs and plastic tractors.

    If only you'd known then what I just made up now!

  3. Jenna,

    I should have figured, if anyone was going to do an evil deal with my brother, it would be you!

    And yes, I think it's fair to blame Mr Edmonds for a generation of clingy and scared adults. I certainly blame him for a lot of my shortcomings ;-)

    Thanks for reading & responding.


  4. Jeremy,

    Now that I think about it, I'm sure a lot of those kids looked like McCauley Culkin, and that creepy kid from Sixth Sense. I think you might be onto something.

    And Toy actors - ordinarily I'd laugh at such a suggestion. However, having seen Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and Pinnochio, I'm now aware that there are many toy actors out there :-)

    Thanks for reading & responding.


  5. *Shaking head* Brother, ask one lil question and look what happens. The mad Brit goes to town.

    I really wonder if it was your brother who did all this nasty stuff. I mean, I've read a good deal of your writing and you seem very capable of 'dealing' with naughty people. All those whips and stuff. I bet your poor brother still bears the scars of your childish sadism.


    Okay, I'm glad you refuse to trade too. Great blog, Ash!


  6. Hi Jude,

    I love the fact that you have so much sympathy for my brother. I'm glad I painted him as such a likeable character :-)

    Thanks for reading & responding.

    Ash (the mad Brit)

  7. Did you ever collect comics? Before I discovered girls and their devastating effect on personal cash, I was an avid comic book collector. In the 60s and 70s comics were the big deal they are today, and you got the ones you needed by swapping. If I still had my Spiderman collection alone I could send my kid to college with it, and I'm not kidding.

    I like the idea of a swap show. I've always liked British stuff like the Goon Show.

    So in spite of your research into the swinging lifestyle, one may assume you're not into wife swapping?


  8. Garce,

    Believe it or not, I was a huge comic book fan. But only Marvel comics. DC Comics didn't do anything for me. However, Spiderman, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four were probably my favourites. And, like you, if I still had my stash, I'd be reaping in fortunes through eBay.

    Love the wife-swapping gag ;-)

    Thanks for reading & responding.


  9. Hilarious post, Ash, but it's interesting that I didn't see at all where you were going until the end.

    I like the notion of Cosmic Ordering. It rather fits my view of the cosmos.

    I wouldn't really want to swap my skills either. But this is just a "what if", after all...


  10. Hi Lisabet,

    I knew it was only a "What if...?" but I did have the problem that everyone else had picked the really good stuff before me.

    Please let me know if the cosmic ordering works out :-)

    Thanks for reading & responding.


  11. Hi Ash
    I remember swap shop. Never thought of it as a horror show before.
    I'd gladly swap my skills - for yours!


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