Watching Record Breakers as a child I could never make my mind up as to whether Norris McWhirter was the most amazing or the most boring man on the planet. I wondered whether he was able to keep his awesome amount of record breaking trivia to himself at home, or if every time somebody mentioned anything at all he was unable to contain himself. ‘Norris dear, there’s a good film on tonight.’ ‘Is there? Did you know that the film with the shortest title ever to be nominated for an Oscar was the Algerian/French-made “Z” in 1970?’ ‘Oh…was it really dear?’ Stifles a yawn. Record Breakers ran for 29 years during the children’s television slot on the BBC. Presented by the perma-grinning, tap-dancing Roy Castle from its inception in December 1972 until 1994, it showed the viewers a different world record each time; looking into the who, when and how of it was achieved. Originally the show stayed largely in the studio, but after a couple of years the team were allowed out to visit record breaking sites all over the world, including countries such as Australia, Canada and the US.
Roy was accompanied on the show by both Norris McWhirter and his identical twin brother Ross, who also had an duplicate depth of knowledge about world records past and present, gained whilst editing The Guinness Book of Records for countless years. You name it; if it was bigger, faster, louder or stronger than anything else, the photographic memories of the McWhirters would be able to tell you all about it in detail. This was put to the test during Record Breakers in a segment where the children in the audience would ask them questions based on world records, and it was an extremely rare occasion when either of them didn’t know the answer. After Ross was killed in 1975, Norris continued this tradition of record breaking interrogation in ‘Norris on the Spot’.
A highlight of each Record Breakers show would be a world record attempt in the studio; over 300 new records were achieved during the show’s run. These covered feats of endurance, strength, speed and utter insanity (‘I’ll be trying for the ‘Number of sausage rolls you can balance on your ears whilst hopping backwards and whistling a traditional Scottish folk song’ record.’ ‘Really? Um, why?’)
Castle broke nine world records whilst on the programme. One of these was Fastest Tap Dance, where he somehow managed to hit a mind-boggling 24 taps a second. He went so quickly you couldn’t even see his feet, just a blur where they should have been. It was ridiculously fast. Try tapping your feet now… get even close to five taps a second? No, thought not; how on earth did he do it? I like to imagine that the bottom half of his body was being electronically controlled by an out of sight McWhirter, but in fairness to Castle it’s more likely that he was just very, very good at tap dancing. Another record involved him sustaining a wing walk for nearly three and a half hours and he also jumped off of Blackpool Tower, although which record this was for now escapes me. Biggest free fall? Loudest scream? Fastest pant-wetting? He managed to break both these records without being sick which should somehow also be a record. Castle – especially his feet and his stomach - was outstanding.
The show closed with Castle’s trumpet rendition of Dedication (‘Dedication’s what you need, if you want to be a record breaaaaaa-ker…..yeah!’) and is probably one of the most recognisable children’s theme tunes ever.
Roy had been blessed with all-round entertainment skills from an early age. Trained as a dancer, he also sang and acted, appearing in the Royal Variety Show in 1958 and having minor success in the charts in 1960 with festive tune Little White Berry. He had his own show on the BBC a few years later, and appeared in films Dr Who and the Daleks, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and classic comedy film Carry on Up the Khyber. He was a talented jazz trumpeter and used this skill on stage at the Shaftsbury Theatre in 1967 whilst appearing with Jimmy Edwards (and his impressive moustache) in the farce Big Bad Mouse. Castle was great friends with legend of comedy Ronnie Barker and (after Roy had begun his stint on Record Breakers) they starred together in an episode of Barker’s series Seven of One in 1973. Castle also stood in for Bruce ‘Didn’t they do well?’ Forsyth as host of one episode of The Generation Game in 1975.
Record Breakers ran for 30 series; 22 of them presented by Castle, and for a while there was also an extra annual show; All Star Record Breakers. This was broadcast at Christmas every year from 1974 until 1982, and was a musical extravaganza. The presenters from the BBC children’s programmes would join Roy for songs and dance routines, and to act out a classic story at the end. In the 1977 edition Castle was at the head of a record breaking charity tap-a-thon outside the BBC Television Centre; can’t imagine the Beeb’s admin staff getting much work done that day, with the sound of thousands of tap shoes all hitting the concrete at the same time.
When Roy died of lung cancer in 1994 Cheryl Baker (who had assisted him during his later series) took over the helm alongside the always-laughing-to-the-point-where-it-starts-to-become-really-irritating Kris Akabusi and the wacky big glasses of ‘madcap’ Mark Curry. For two series there was also the slightly surreal addition of Ronald Reagan Jr (yep, the son of the ex-US president) who introduced segments about US records. In 1998 athlete Linford Christie egotistically had it renamed Linford’s Record Breakers before it switched back to plain ol’ Record Breakers for the last series in 2001.
As well as this Record Breakers also did the occasional special, focusing on one particular sport or activity (which was often – for reasons unknown – dominoes). In 1994 the team presented two Castle-based editions paying their respects to the late record king; Roy Castle Tribute Special and Record Breakers: Roy Castle Personality Plus.
The Record Breakers brand eventually came to a close in 2001, and rightly claimed its place as an icon in the history of children’s television. It had had the potential to be one of the most boring kids’ ‘educational’ shows (‘Oh look, more dominoes…’) but the BBC struck lucky when they hired Roy Castle. His cheery charm, extraordinary range of talents and the willingness to try anything for a record attempt were a huge draw and he turned potential dull facts into an entertaining and occasionally edge-of-your-seat ‘will he/ won’t he break the record?’ watch.