Recent late-night drama at the Commons may have made for compelling entertainment in its combination of contemporary political jousting and bafflingly archaic ceremony; but such events are relatively rare there, as is the high level of attendance seen when these occasions come around. The day-to-day routine at Westminster seems closer to those somewhat disorientating debates we’ve all caught live on BBC Parliament, when the significance of the subject under discussion is downgraded by the empty seats and an anonymous MP droning on whilst an undercurrent of chatter distracts the viewer – not to mention the sight of other MPs wandering in and out as though they’re looking for the loos. The hours might be flexible, but Parliament largely operates as a Monday-Friday enterprise.
The prospect of an exceedingly unusual Saturday sitting coming up has inevitably exhumed the ghosts of past weekends in the debating chamber. Most of these took place on the eve of (or during) landmark moments in the Great British history book – the Falklands, Suez, and World War II; according to one account I read, the future President Kennedy was present in the gallery at the 1939 debate, though JFK’s father was, of course, US Ambassador to the UK at the time. The fact that Brexit will now take its place alongside events that both made and shamed us is perhaps a measure of just how defining the era we’re currently living through may prove to be; but MPs being recalled to the workplace outside of standard working hours also shines a light on the curious anomaly that is a Saturday.
Doing what I do, where I’m not constrained by the rigidity of the set working week and all its attendant weekend rituals, it’s odd that Saturday still feels…dare I say it…special. I suppose, like so much in life, the associations formed in formative years are hard to shake. If one was not especially enamoured with school, Friday home-time was the polar opposite of Monday morning, a brief window of release in which one received a 48-hour pass to a parallel universe where the children’s schedule was not governed by an educational timetable. Friday night often saw bedtime pushed back a little, and then there was the prospect of a lie-in till at least 9.30.
The arrival of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ on BBC1 in the autumn of 1976 was quite a game-changer for my generation; whilst the notion of three hours’ live TV anchored by Noel Edmonds might not necessarily be something I’d stumble out of bed for in 2019, it certainly did the trick for nine-year-old me. I remember Saturday morning TV pre-‘Swap Shop’ being an uneven, pre-recorded mix of cartoons, silent comedies and earnest ‘how to play badminton’-type instructional shows; by contrast, the fact the BBC was then prepared to invest in a programme as ambitiously innovative as ‘Swap Shop’ made it feel as though the younger viewer mattered as much as the dads and their ‘Grandstand’/’World of Sport’ marathons. There was a proliferation of pop promos, for one thing; I was introduced to both Blondie and Kate Bush due to ‘Swap Shop’ airing the videos for their debut hits before even TOTP got them; but it was the novel interactive element that really made the programme something new.
From the warmth of TV Centre, Noel would link to Keith ‘Cheggers’ Chegwin, usually freezing his balls off in some unseasonal coastal resort, yet nevertheless engulfed by a swarm of kids eager to brave the elements just to get their faces on camera and engage in a communal swap; but the greatest appeal was back in the studio, when pop stars and assorted 70s celebrities would actually speak to viewers lucky enough to get through on chic Trimphones. Today, whenever I dispatch an item to a fresh address via Amazon and I can’t complete the order without providing a phone-number for the delivery man (one I often don’t possess), I always give 01 8118055, the old ‘Swap Shop’ number everyone of a certain age remembers. I sometimes wonder if said delivery man ever rings it and Noel Edmonds answers at the other end – ‘Hello, you’re through to Suzi Quatro. What would you like to ask her?’
At the end of the 70s, ATV’s long-running regional rival, ‘Tiswas’, received a belated network promotion and provided Saturday mornings with a more anarchic flavour; legend has it there was a Beatles Vs Stones-like loyalty demanded of the viewer when it came to choosing between Posh Paws and Spit the Dog, but I suspect most (like me) would constantly change channels for the two hours the two shows went head-to-head. It also goes without saying that the luxury of lounging around in pyjamas watching Showaddywaddy being plastered in custard pies was dependent upon whether or not one’s mother was intent on dragging her children around the shops.
My abject boredom with C&A, M&S and all the rest could be pacified by reading material in the shape of a comic or – on special occasions – a paperback from the extensive library then available in Boots. What I obviously didn’t appreciate then was that Saturday was also a parental release from 9-to-5; my mother’s escape was to do the city centre rounds, whereas my father would either go watch a football match or play in one. The industry of leisure can characterise a Saturday; whatever one’s idea of leisure happens to be, a Saturday can cater for it. The jaunty theme tune of ‘Sports Report’ and the melodic recital of the football results by James Alexander Gordon was an occasion unique to a Saturday, as was the fact that thousands of hardcore punters up and down the country made the pilgrimage to windswept terraces to watch their local teams kick-off simultaneously at 3.00. If they were lucky, they might get to relive the spectacle on ‘Match of the Day’ later that evening.
Naturally, time moved on along with Brucie and Parky, and the Saturdays of 70s children became defined by Techno rather than the Tardis. Many a dazed clubber can recall 90s Saturday nights ending sometime on Sunday morning, where a stint on ‘Bamboozle’ would be followed by crashing-out and waking-up to a half-eaten pizza and the suddenly-perfectly logical world of the Teletubbies. Or was that just people I used to know? Anyway, I’m aware (courtesy of my student neighbours) that this ritual survives albeit in a slightly modified fashion – proof that Saturday maintains its distinctive identity whilst surrounded by increasingly indistinguishable weekdays; and that cannot be a bad thing.
A Commons sitting on a Saturday is therefore a somewhat incongruous scenario, but we live in strange times. Boris is trumpeting his Brexit deal when it could well boast all the failings of his predecessor’s by keeping us tied to some of the more contentious aspects of EU membership, yet leaving us without a voice in Brussels; and, of course, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP will all vote against it because ‘crashing out’ with No Deal and blaming everything on the Tories is better for their election prospects. And then there’s those beacons of eternal sunshine, the DUP. Saturday will probably end up being a bit of a damp squib in Westminster, but for many other people around the country the workplace won’t impinge on it at all. And for a country with some of the longest working hours in Europe, maybe that’s what makes Saturday special.
© The Editor