Petra Massey and Stephen Harper
Petra Massey and Stephen Harper
© Manuel Harlan

Think 1970s Saturday morning children's television and you might think chaos, clowning and custard pies. It was also, as Never Try This At Home reminds us, awash with unchallenged sexism and racism, provoking retrospective gasps and winces. As one of Told by an Idiot's smug present day characters puts it, "thank God times have changed".

But have they? By framing their surreal, offbeat and unapologetically silly look at the children's television of this era within a modern day documentary, Told by an Idiot lightly hint that we might not have moved on as much as we like to think.

Their fictional 70s TV show is SHUSHI (standing for the wonderfully meaningless catchphrase "say hello up, say hello"; no one knows what the "i" stands for), an anarchic production that was abruptly taken off air after after a disastrous incident was broadcast live. Now, decades on, presenter Niall Ashdown is attempting to reunite SHUSHI's presenters, producers and fans on his show Looking Back Together.

Told by an Idiot's suitably chaotic structure flits between Ashdown's present day interviews and old snippets of SHUSHI's heydays, as well as a replay of the fateful episode that caused the show's demise. There are flashbacks within flashbacks ("it's like some weird, racist Christopher Nolan movie"), while the past cartoonishly explodes into the present. Ashdown presides over the whole affair, frequently making pompous judgements on the behaviour he observes, but his slimy performance makes us wonder how different he really is from his bigoted forebears.

As much as Told by an Idiot embrace the anarchy of children's television, which is a perfect match for their own zany style, there is an underlying archness to their creation. The company use the conventions of theatre to playfully prod at ideas of liveness - "this is not live", Ashdown repeatedly tells us - while consistently acknowledging their audience's presence. In this way, we as onlookers are made complicit with the outrageous and often uncomfortable events unfolding on stage; we are allowing this to happen.

It is impossible to watch Never Try This At Home without the Operation Yewtree revelations sitting uncomfortably at the back of the mind, and there are certainly hints towards the unsavoury in Told by an Idiot's show, but their deliciously ridiculous world is decidedly fictional. It is also, for all that it exposes the dark underbelly of its subject matter, infectiously good fun. It seems that custard pies, slapstick gags and segments with tiles like "Kick a Vicar", "Steve's Enormous Sack" and "Pie-RA" are hilarious no matter the age of the viewers, while Told by an Idiot's performers excel at the kind of clowning that the company is now well known for. Just watch out if you're on the front row ...