Christmas Logs

1970

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“The commercialisation of it distresses me.”

The first Christmas of the new decade found Eric, Ernie, Cilla and Rolf on the cover of the Radio Times gathered around a table groaning with festive food and gifts. The seasonal schedules this year were great for the BBC – but shameful for ITV. The contrast in quality, imagination and variety was immense; and it was a gap that was to persist for most of the 1970s.

BBC1 opened up at 9am with the usual selection of carols sung by a school choir (this year from Wandsworth) before an hour of children’s programmes comprising Basil’s Christmas Morning – 30 minutes in the company of the insolent fox and sidekick Derek Fowlds – then Michael Aspel introducing three Disney cartoons including “the first complete Mickey Mouse cartoon on British television in colour!”: Pluto’s Christmas Tree. Then came 70 minutes reminding viewers once again of “the real meaning of Christmas” – a Family Service, this year from Glasgow.

ITV stole a short lead on its rival, starting at 8.15am with its own take on the kids carol format, utilising host David Hamilton to link five separate choirs from across the country. Carefully avoiding clashes with BBC1, ITV broadcast its church service – from St Albans Cathedral no less – when children’s shows were on the other side, and vice versa. In this case, youngsters had to make do with the 15 minute Anita in Jumbleland: Anita Harris in a make believe world where, besides trilling Ave Maria, “Anita and the kids discover a Christmas tree, a sleigh and – surprise, surprise – a present for Anita herself.” Then Michael Parkinson rolled up to host ITV’s annual seasonal film clip package for kids, Christmas Cinema.

Next was the regular trip round the hospital wards. Leslie Crowther was back for his second stint wishing A Merry Morning to the bed-ridden of Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield. Besides handing out presents, ventriloquist John Bouchier was on hand to cheer up the sick kids. Just half an hour of this, perhaps fortunately, and then Granada viewers had to put up with the ancient black-and-white film Tarzan and the She-Devil for company until 1pm. Viewers in the Border and HTV regions had the pleasure of a seasonal episode of Crossroads instead, plus some hip-shaking from Tom Jones.

Rolf Harris was also on his second year fronting Meet the Kids on BBC1. It was the fifth annual visit by the Corporation to the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Surrey; and joining Rolf was musician Bert Hayes – but something must have happened to one of the members of Hayes’ group, for earlier in the day it had been The Bert Hayes Sextet appearing with Basil Brush but now here, mysteriously, it was just the Bert Hayes Quintet.

“Sir Robert Fossett’s Elephants. Miss Wendy and her Doves from the Argentine. Phyllis Allen and her Poodles.” Yes, it was circus time again, and ITV were off to their cheap half-arsed big top in Glasgow for Kelvin Hall’s Circus at 1pm, followed an hour later by A Gift for Gracie: 60 minutes of variety from Gracie Fields’ “house” – actually a Yorkshire Television studio converted into a mock-18th century mansion with Bruce Forsyth employed as butler and Miss Gracie entertaining the likes of Harry Secombe, Arthur Askey, Lionel Blair and The Mike Sammes Singers.

Much better viewing over on BBC1 where, after a dull skating television movie – The Story of the Silver Skates, an hour and 40 minutes of Robin Askwith gliding around frozen canals in Holland – it was time for this year’s seasonal Top of the Pops. Joining Jimmy Saville, Tony Blackburn, Pan’s People, Johnny Pearson and The Top of the Pops Orchestra were the biggest selling artists of the year. And as with previous Christmases, this was merely part one – part two was the following day, at 3.30pm, with the same team in charge.

After an unusually long message from the Queen (25 minutes), notable for being the first time other members of the Royal Family had appeared in the broadcast, BBC1 settled into its familiar, popular run of festive regulars. The annual visit to Billy Smart’s Circus, hosted this year by none other than Frank Bough, was followed by Disney Time presented by the great Harry Worth. Then at 5.10pm came the special BBC pantomime; this year it was Robinson Crusoe, with Lyn Kennington in the lead role, Ken Dodd, Peter Glaze and Arthur Mullard supporting.

Christmas Night with the Stars followed, and the BBC had cajoled an impressive army of celebrities into appearing. Along with host Cilla Black, viewers could enjoy special turns from Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Mary Hopkin and Clodagh Rodgers. Specially-recorded sketches involved Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery and Terry Scott besides new scenes with the cast of Dad’s Army and also Bachelor Father, an Ian Carmichael family-based sitcom which had debuted on BBC1 that autumn. But the best was still to come, with the second annualMorecambe and Wise Christmas Show at 8.15pm. Joining Eric’n’Ern were Peter Cushing, Edward Woodward and Eric Porter. For some reason this particular edition hasn’t been remembered as well or repeated as often as the pair’s other BBC Christmas shows. It was still, thanks to Eddie Braben’s script, great fun.

In competition with this, ITV offered up a dismal sequence of programmes. Following the Queen came an episode of The Man from UNCLE: “The Jingle Bells Affair”. OK, not bad, at least it had a Christmas theme. But then came an utterly un-festive episode of the dreadful US soapPeyton Place, Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal overacting their way through a plot involving a runaway child. ITV’s attempt at a panto was decidedly weak too. “Here’s Cinderella with a difference. It’s back to the good old days. Traditional pantomime without the modern idea of introducing pop groups and the like,” snapped TV Times. All this meant was Lionel Blair in tights and The Mike Sammes Singers, all making their second appearance of the day in a matter of hours.

At 6pm came the shameless Christmas Night … rip-off, All Star Comedy Carnival. Now in its second year, it was no less of massive event, with over 70 “Stars” choking up its painful 150 minutes, plus 13 different series or sitcoms jostling for attention, all linked by the Max Bygraves. Production director Peter-Frazer Jones insisted: “Our aim is to provide a final course of fun to Christmas dinners everywhere. Every item is original and independent from the series it represents,” – a dig at the BBC for its compilation effort the previous year. But this was a marathon show, hopelessly over-long, with the familiar – Doctor in the HouseJokers Wild, a special sequence from Coronation Street – awkwardly sequenced with the now long-forgotten:The Worker (Charlie Drake’s short-lived comedy set around a Labour Exchange) and Girls About Town (female-orientated goings-on with Julie Stevens and Denise Coffey).

The remainder of ITV’s evening comprised a special Christmas episode of On the Buses, at that point already half-way through its fourth series (amazing given the show had only first started the year before). Then it was cabaret with Val Doonican, News at Ten, and one last film through to closedown at 12.10am. Granada viewers had to put up with the grisly war movie Guns at Batasi, while HTV swapped this for a much better late evening choice, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. BBC1 also opted for a film to complete its evening, following Morecambe and Wise with the unremarkable 1963 thriller Charade before picking up the mood with some old time music hall in The Good Old Days at 11pm from the Varieties Theatre in Leeds. This had been a staple on BBC1 since 1954, forever chaired by the dry Leonard Sachs – “More Victorian than the Victorians,” he bragged. Anyone still up at 11.50pm found Ernie Wise back again pausing for thought with Joyce Grenfell and Cyril Fletcher to discuss what the nativity story meant to them. BBC1 shut up shop at midnight on the dot.

The youngest of Britain’s TV channels opened at 10.30am with Play School and Julie Stevens and Brian Cant telling the Christmas Story. But then BBC2 shut down until 1.30pm, continuing with the old film Sammy Going South, the story of the 4500 mile trek by a 10 year old boy across Africa in search of his relatives. A Cinderella ballet from the Royal Opera House followed, then a 90 minute dramatisation of the life of Charles Dickens, notable for being the only repeated programme shown today by any of the channels. It’s a Terrible Waste at 6.40pm was a bizarre magic show set in Edwardian England starring Dudley Foster entertaining his family with tricks involving candles, baking powder, vinegar, ice, boiled eggs, needles and decanters.

In fairness, BBC2’s schedule actually seemed far more accessible than some of those it would offer during the ’80s and 90s – all of the programmes on this day were in English for a start. Some aerial photography of British islands, a detective mystery in Thirty Minute Theatre, songs from a country church and the film of Kiss Me Kate rounded off a good effort from a channel at this point still not normally on air before 7.30pm.

Overall, then, a fine Christmas for the BBC, deploying all its big names and stalwart hit shows to make up an entertaining, lively line-up in utter contrast to the poorly realised pensioner-fodder ITV offered. Elsewhere this year’s Beatles film was A Hard Day’s Night on 28 December on BBC1 at 4.05pm, but sadly there was no Carry On … this time. Cliff fans could enjoy their hero in a special festive show on Christmas Eve, where hopefully the man explained what he really meant when he declared to Radio Times that “Christmas is like driving a car in fog.” Thanks, Cliff.

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1971

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“The entire World of Sport team supply percussion.”

BBC1’s schedule this year was almost identical to that of 12 months earlier – and therefore, just as impressive. Chetham’s School in Manchester provided the carols which began the day at 9am; Michael Aspel showed up with some cartoons and special guest Peter Glaze at 9.30am; then came the church service, this year from Moseley in Birmingham, followed by an appeal, Basil Brush at 11.35am and Rolf back to Meet the Kids yet again down at the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Surrey.

Then a change to previous years. First up was Ken Dodd at 12.50pm with We Want to Sing: an “absolutely discomknockerferatingly tattifilarious, tickling tonic” was promised by the tickling stick wielding resident of Knotty Ash, with 300 diddy boys and girls singing Christmas carols – a terrifying thought. Dodd was no stranger to the BBC, of course, but his last Christmas Day show for the Corporation had been back in 1968, before hopping over to LWT for an ITV Boxing Day special in 1969, then back to the Beeb for the panto in 1970.

After Ken came Bruce. The Generation Game was the new smash hit show of 1971 and it was perhaps inevitable it would turn up on Christmas Day – and go on to remain a regular addition to the seasonal schedules. Newly-poached from Yorkshire Television, Forsyth had delivered the BBC a new light entertainment success; and here, with Anthea Redfern, he amused and humiliated more families with festive games all in pursuit of the whatever the conveyor belt had to offer. A guaranteed ratings winner, this was clever scheduling by the Beeb, leading straight into Top of the Pops ‘71 (hosted this year by Jimmy Savile alone, leaving Tony Blackburn to present part two on 27 December): a great pre-Queen’s message line-up.

Over on ITV, things were not so impressive. Events started early again at 8.15am with some carols, this time recorded on location at the reconstructed Victorian street in the Castle Museum, York. ATV viewers had the added bonus of a five minute rundown of Tomorrow’s Horoscope (what about today’s?) before the morning ran on through the same tired cartoons, church service and hospital visit. Leslie Crowther, however, was nowhere to be seen, his place taken by John Alderton who wished A Merry Morning to kids at the Woodlands Orthopaedic Hospital in Rawdon, Yorkshire. At 10.45am came clips from children’s films – no Parky this year, though, he’d defected to the BBC to launch his chat show; then at 11.30am a boring film:Sinbad. Dating from 1963, and despite boasting a “cyclone, a tidal wave, a nine-headed monster and a wizard with a pet ocelot”, this was lazy programming.

Some music arrived at 1pm with Christmas Singalong with The Bachelors – the legendary Jack Parnell and his Orchestra providing the backing for a group of performers whose average age was heading towards 60. Then there was just time for another visit to the Kelvin Hall Circus – where amusingly ringmaster Alfred Delbosq was billed below “Elephants and Horses” in TV Times.

Just 10 minutes from Liz this year, following which it was BBC1’s turn to visit the big top. On this occasion Billy Smart promised us a “Christmas tree that grows as you watch, and the fairy on the top is real!” ITV went straight into their second film of the day, King Solomon’s Mines – a classic maybe, but a decidedly dated choice and very similar in style and theme to Sinbad.The Black and White Minstrels showed up on BBC1 at 4.15pm, ousting Disney Time from Christmas Day for the first time in a long while. Here was a real relic from the BBC’s early days – and a show that would become increasingly untenable and problematic as the decade wore on. But then it was back to routine and the usual pantomime at 5pm: Aladdin once more, with Cilla in the title role, Roy Castle as Wishee Washee, and Ronnie Hazelhurst’s second appearance of the day (he’d already provided the music for The Generation Game earlier).

Christmas Night with the Stars was introduced this year by the Two Ronnies, also stars of this Christmas Radio Times cover. Messrs Corbett and Barker had worked together for many years in TV comedy, but 1971 saw the first proper series of The Two Ronnies launched back in April on BBC1 – the beginning of a show that ran for 15 years and became a staple BBC variety hit. Joining them for Christmas Night were Lulu, Vera Lynn, Harry Secombe, The New Seekers and the cast of Till Death Us Do Part, Mike Yarwood (who, like Parky and Brucey had joined the BBC this year), plus a sketch titled “A Policeman’s Lot” – a one-off spoof written by and starring Eric Sykes with Hattie Jacques. Morecambe and Wise followed as usual at 8pm, a classic this year including Frank Bough, Cliff Michelmore, Michael Parkinson, Patrick Moore, Robert Dougall and Eddie Waring all in top hats crooning You Were Never Lovelier to Glenda Jackson.

ITV conspired to fill up the rest of its day with as few programmes as possible. After King Solomon’s Minescame A Variety of Varney featuring the popular On The Buses star in songs and sketches, before 6pm signalled the start of Mike and Bernie Winters’ All Star Comedy Carnival. The twin hosts had won a mention in the show’s title presumably thanks to the high-profile of their Thames Television shows; but this was a massive two and half hours worth of material, again far too long, though at least including vintage fare likePlease, Sir!Doctor at Large and Sez Les plus the usual now-obscure offerings such as His and Hers (a shortlived Yorkshire TV role-reversal sitcom with Ronald Lewis) and Lollipop Loves Mr Mole (ATV husband and wife vehicle for Peggy Mount and Hugh Lloyd).

After this 150 minute epic came … a three hour long film. Around the World in 80 Days had been a critical and commercial success, but was too demanding and draining for Christmas night viewing, even with a 10 minute news break in the middle. Anyone not comatose by its conclusion at 11.40pm had the wonderful prospect of a regional current affairs documentary to send them to bed.

As with the previous year, BBC1 responded to ITV’s marathon film screening with – another film. The bland thriller Arabesque ran from 9.05pm until 10.45pm when those Good Old Days were calling up at the Varieties Theatre in Leeds once more. You could then enjoy a night-cap withDuncan Carse at 11.35pm, exploring the countryside’s resilience to change in The Countryman at Christmas, before a five minute reflection on a nativity painting by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh took you to closedown at midnight.

BBC2 offered up its usual selection: old films, more ballet, new drama (Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie), another surreal Victorian magic show using the same cast and plot as last year, and the National Folk Ballet of Korea. It was also Carol Chell and Derek Griffiths’ turn to read the Christmas Story on Play School, well-timed at 10.30am so as not to clash with BBC1’s kids programmes. A few pennies had been found to keep BBC2 on air a bit longer as well – Play School was followed, not by an immediate closedown, but the original animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

With 26 December being a Sunday, Boxing Day fell on Monday 27 December this year. Disney Time was shown here, hosted by the Blue Peter team (Val, John and Pete); and here was where this year’s Beatles film could be found – A Hard Day’s Night, again, at 9.40am – as well as the seasonal Carry On film, back after a year’s absence. This time it was Carry On Cowboy, screened as prime-time viewing at 8pm – a perfect hour for its semi-festive message from Sid James: “First they tell me the peace is on, then it’s peace off!”

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1972

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“‘Hello Ask’, a small boy greets Aspel.”

ITV launched their Christmas Day with an ambitious carol service recorded at the Royal Festival Hall involving the massed choirs of all of London’s hospitals – no cheap, low-key schools effort this, and all the more ironic given that the BBC’s idea of an early morning carol concert this year was actually a repeat of last year’s Chetham school singalong – boo! BBC1 then went straight into an episode of Mr Benn(“Cowboy”) followed by the morning service, outdoors in Runcorn Town Square.

After the familiar appeal, though, a major change: A Stocking Full of Stars at 11.30am replacedMeet the Kids, with a new location – the National Children’s Home in Harpenden – new hosts – Michael Aspel and Roy Castle – and a new format, with special live and pre-recorded appearances by the stars of Blue PeterThe GoodiesAnimal MagicBasil BrushTop of the PopsTom & JerryThe Generation Game and Vision On. This sort of junior version ofChristmas Night with the Stars ran for a whole two hours and was an imaginative, if perhaps a bit contrived, means of combining the sober aspects of life at the children’s home with some great entertainment for viewers and residents alike. The Black and White Minstrel Show turned up next, and Top of the Pops ‘72 followed according to plan at 2.10pm. Again it was in two parts, this first edition fronted by Sir Jim plus Ed Stewart. Part two wasn’t until 28 December – a Thursday – when new recruit Noel Edmonds joined Tony Blackburn.

On the other side, ITV followed its early morning carols with a short story for young children, set to music: Enchanted House, told by Mary Malcolm and Howard Williams. This animal-centred fable led into A Merry Morning at 9.30am and the return of Leslie Crowther, now taking up residence at the King Edward VII Orthopaedic Hospital in Sheffield. This time, the hapless patients had to put up with a ukulele recital from Alan Randall. Then came the film clips for kids – Clapperboard’s Christmas Cracker hosted by Chris Kelly – and a highly flamboyant church service at 10.45am from St George’s Chapel in Windsor with no less than the full royal family in attendance.

Sandwiched between this unconventional regal encounter and the conventional 3pm message was a feature length cartoon of Gulliver’s Travels – but dating from 1939, so very much showing its age. Why did ITV have this habit of scheduling ancient films or animation in the midday slot every Christmas? Could nothing more up-to-date ever be found? The annual look-in to the big top followed at 1.15pm, though this year it was the Mary Chipperfield International Circus down on Clapham Common rather than Kelvin Hall. 12 Lippizaner horses and David Hamilton were promised. Then a charmless musical about the flight of a snow goose – with songs by Glen Campbell – bored viewers into submission before the National Anthem.

A textbook BBC1 schedule followed the Queen’s message: Billy Smart’s Circus; the pantomime (Dick Whittington, with Peter Noone in the title role, Dick Emery as Sarah the Cook and Michael Aspel popping up again this time as The Vizier); Bruce Forsyth and The Generation GameChristmas Night with the Stars at 6.55pm; and finally Morecambe and Wise.Christmas Night … was hosted for the second year running by The Two Ronnies and with a fantastic menu including Lulu, Cilla Black, The GoodiesThe Liver Birds and Dad’s Army. It meant Ronnie Hazelhurst and his Orchestra scored their second appearance of the day – having already provided suitable music for the panto.

Morecambe and Wise at 8.15pm delivered the goods, along with guests Jack Jones, Vera Lynn, Shirley Bassey, Glenda Jackson (again) and many more. Eric’n’Ern graced the cover of the Christmas Radio Times as well, posing in a circus ring alongside Bruce and Lulu. BBC1 rounded off this memorable schedule with their usual choice, a film – this year, the Robert Redford 1967 movie of the musical Barefoot in the Park; then came another look back to thoseGood Old Days – a special 20th anniversary retrospective – and finally a 10 minute short story told by John Slater before a midnight closedown.

You could catch Morecambe and Wise on both sides this Christmas: ITV followed up the Queen with the pair’s dreadful 1960s film That Riviera Touch. But then Hughie Green, the old trouper, came to the channel’s rescue at 4.50pm with an Opportunity Knocks! Christmas Special. This all-winners show was trailed as a chance for viewers to see entrants for theOpportunity Knocks! Fanfare for Europe – though they couldn’t vote for anyone as the winner was to be chosen “by a special committee.” Still, better viewing than what followed: All Star Comedy Carnival, this time hosted by Jimmy Tarbuck, but once again lasting way too long (105 minutes) and scheduled directly against Christmas Night with the Stars: a ludicrous idea. However it did promise the unlikely sketch “Christmas with Wogan” – Terry opening gifts by his log fire?

Also appearing were the stars of this Christmas’ TV Times cover: Jack Smethurst and Rudolph Walker, from Thames’ Love Thy Neighbour, dressed up as “The Black and White Santas” under the heading “Merry Christmas Neighbour”. Launched in April of this year, the notorious series was perhaps the most talked about comedy show around, certainly the most controversial. Two series had already been shown come this Christmas, and incredibly another six would be made over the next three years.

Because it was a Monday there was an episode of Coronation Street at 7.30pm; that was followed by another recent smash hit: Granada’s stand-up cabaret show The Comedians. Breeding ground for innumerable game show hosts, this ludicrously cheap but popular programme had debuted in June 1971 and already run for five series come Christmas 1972. Indeed, a 45 minute special, The Comedians Christmas Party, had aired on Christmas Eve last year. This time the bunch of northern comics won a primetime slot on Christmas Day itself – a bizarre choice, as they were hardly family entertainment, and were up against Morecambe and Wise on BBC1. Still, if you wanted Bernard Manning, Charlie Williams, Frank Carson and Jim Bowen, here they were.

The evening ended as per usual – the long film, with a break half way through for a short news summary. Granada viewers could enjoy the epic tale Tom Jones, while ATV ran the dreary colonial saga Khartoum. But wait, what’s this, lurking at 11pm? The Love Goddesses. “The treatment of sex in the cinema has long been a reflection of the customs, manners and morals of the time. The story of the Love Goddesses it itself a history of sex in the movies.” Blimey. This was actually a collection of clips from 40 black and white classics, not the Channel 4-esque sounding romp that TV Times promised. Still, an amusing contrast with The Good Old Days on BBC1.

Boxing Day again proved to be the resting place for this year’s Beatles film – Help – and theCarry On, which this time was Carry On Cleo: both great viewing. Disney Time was on Christmas Eve, with Rolf in charge. As for BBC2 – well, a more varied line-up was tried on Christmas Day this year. Play School at 11am saw Miranda Connell and Rick Jones telling the Christmas Story; while later there was a festive edition of the timeless Call My Bluff with guests Jean Marsh, Miles Kington, Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Anne Stallybrass. Peter Alliss reviewed sporting highlights in Golf Story ‘72, Alastair Cooke continued his personal history of the US in America, the classic 1944 film of Henry V followed the Queen’s message, and then a Berlioz opera, a silent film about a stallion and a French romantic ballet filled up the early evening. The premiere at 9.25pm of Nigel Kneale’s play The Stone Tape provided an excellent contrast to the film action on the other two channels. With the evening closing with Fred Astaire in conversation with Dick Cavett besides singing a few of his famous tunes, this was a fine effort by BBC2 – their best so far this decade.

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1973

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“A cast of 362 animals, birds and lords a-leaping.”

If there was one person above all who was responsible for the BBC’s memorable Christmas schedules throughout the 1970s it was Bill Cotton. Head of Light Entertainment from 1970 to 1977, and then Controller of BBC1 to 1981, he was the man who effectively established the BBC’s reputation as home of great Christmas telly – able as he was to draw upon the huge pool of variety and comedy talent he had often personally recruited to the Corporation, and ensure the Beeb’s complete domination of ITV year in year out.

Cotton was very much of that old tradition of cabaret and music hall, sharing similar tastes and background to his father the great Billy Cotton. Since joining the BBC as a producer way back in 1956, he’d supervised the signing of a vast array of glittering talent: an army of stars ranging from singers, comedians and dancers to all-round entertainers who could be deployed to great success each and every Christmas. Bill Cotton made the careers of so many performers, besides influencing younger figures in the broadcasting business – particularly Michael Grade – and his legacy was immense. In one sense, the fact that BBC1 still resorted to variety of the Little and Large kind beyond even the 1980s is a reflection of the scale of Cotton’s achievement.

In 1973 Bill Cotton was faced with a major change to BBC1’s established Christmas line-up.Christmas Night with the Stars was to be scrapped, never to return (aside from a one-off semi-ironic BBC2 stunt in 1994). In its place, Cotton suggested giving Mike Yarwood his own Christmas special for the first time. The impressionist had already cropped up on 25 December the last two years as part of Christmas Night …, and by Christmas 1973 had made three series for the BBC of his legendary Look – Mike Yarwood! show. With his stock impressions of Harold Wilson, Robin Day and Prince Charles, Yarwood would go on to become as firm a fixture on 25 December as the institution he replaced. Indeed, his role on Christmas Day would turn increasingly important as the decade wore on.

This year he was slotted neatly into a schedule which was virtually a carbon copy of that of 12 months earlier. No early morning carols this time, though, with repeats of two Canadian imports opening BBC1’s day at 9.35am: Along the Trail, a film on native wildlife, and The Selfish Giant, a cartoon of the Oscar Wilde fairy tale. Then came a service from Wimborne Minster in Dorset, and the second annual A Stocking Full of Stars, with exactly the same hosts, location, duration and line-up as last year (though the careless Bert Hayes had somehow contrived to lose another member of his group, appearing here with just his Quartet).

The Black and White Minstrels at 1.30pm were succeeded by Top of the Pops ‘73, hosted by Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmonds. This was the first time since 1966 the show hadn’t been split into two parts; instead, viewers could enjoy a special anniversary retrospective, Top of the Pops: Ten Years of Pop Music 1964 – 74, on 27 December at 5.45pm, with Sir Jim spluttering and gurning to camera between archive clips and live performances. Then after the Queen cameBilly Smart’s Circus, the panto at 4.20pm (Robin Hood, with Anita Harris in the title role), The Generation GameMike Yarwood at 7.05pm and Morecambe and Wise at 7.35pm with their obligatory remarkable supporting cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Yehudi Menuin, Rudolf Nureyev, Laurence Olivier and The New Seekers. For once there was a good film to follow: The Odd Couple, running through to 10.30pm when Michael Flanders introduced a special Gala Performance featuring popular classics from Nigel Kennedy and the New Philarmonia Orchestra. A chilling mystery drama, Lost Hearts, closed BBC1 on a distinctly pagan, devilish note. Cliff Richard would not have been pleased.

Over on ITV some familiar faces made their first Christmas Day appearance: the cast ofRainbow, opening at 9am with some festive games and jokes. Cosgrove/Hall’s Sally and Jakeand a film version of The Twelve Days of Christmas led up to A Merry Morning at 10am and Leslie Crowther patronising the afflicted at the Airedale General Hospital in Keighley with ventriloquist Ward Allen. Fans of the school choir would’ve been relieved to find some well-scrubbed kids as part of the morning service at 10.30am.

A dreadful variety based religious production titled The Glories of Christmas, and a return visit to the Chipperfield Circus – this time fronted by Ed Stewart – led up to the Queen at 3pm. Then once more ITV opted for a film to follow her Majesty: the bizarre convent-based nun fantasyWhere Angels Go, Trouble Follows, perhaps the most pointless thing ever screened by any channel in this slot. A Danny La Rue fronted dramatisation of Alice in Wonderland followed -Queen of Hearts, by Bryan Blackburn. But while the Beeb may have dropped their annual celebrity cavalcade, ITV persisted with their rip-off version: All Star Comedy Carnival ran from 6.30pm – 8pm, with Jimmy Tarbuck making his second appearance as host and linking sketches from Man About the HouseDoctor in Charge; LWT’s brand new comedy Billy Liarwith Jeff Rawle in the title role; Leslie Crowther’s sitcom My Good Woman; and a new Thames show, Spring and Autumn, written by Vince Powell and Harry Driver of Love Thy Neighbourfame.

One of Bill Cotton’s regrets, he insists, is “never finding the right vehicle for Tommy Cooper.” Aside from his debut TV appearance, an eight-week stand-up series in 1952, Cooper had never worked for the BBC – always choosing to make shows for ITV companies. In 1973 the fez-sporting failed magician was in the middle of a Thames series titled The Tommy Cooper Hour, one of which appeared on Christmas Day this year at 8pm. It was probably about the only truly entertaining programme on ITV all day; the film at 9pm was the premiere of the creaky Frank Sinatra/Trevor Howard war thriller Von Ryan’s Express. Then rounding off the day was a show new to Christmas Day: Celebration, an unashamedly old-fashioned and painful mix of music and celebrity, with crinkly Welsh opera singer Sir Geraint Evans warbling traditional carols in poorly-realised studio sets (such as a South American jungle) with guest rugby player Barry John. It was on this note than ITV ran for cover, pausing for a quick epilogue before closing at 12.25am.

Sadly there was no Carry On film this Christmas – though, as the cover of TV Times promised, you could find some of the stars in ITV’s fourth Carry On Christmas TV special. Disney Timewas on BBC1 on Boxing Day, hosted by a grinning Paul and Linda McCartney. Macca showed up earlier in the day as well in A Hard Day’s Night, this year’s seasonal Beatles film. And it was on 26 December that you could find other festive regulars: The Good Old Days, and also The Two Ronnies (co-stars of Radio Times’ cover together with Morecambe and Wise) in An Old-Fashioned Christmas Mystery, written by one Gerald Wiley, aka R Barker.

As for BBC2 – Carol Chell and Johnny Ball told the Christmas Story in Play School at 11am, and after a brief Thought from the Bishop Of Gloucester came that perennial festive film favourite White Christmas. Highlights of the rest of the day here included a special edition ofWhat’s My Line? with guest panellists Kenneth Williams, Nannette Newman, Isobel Barnett and William Franklyn. An animated version of A Christmas Carol, puppetry from France, Swan Lake from Vienna, a new dramatisation of Alice Through the Looking Glass starring Sarah Sutton as Alice, and another panel game – Face the Music – provided much entertainment; and the superbQuatermass and the Pit, closing BBC2’s schedule, meant that writer Nigel Kneale had his work appear two Christmas Days in a row.

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1974

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“Music composed and conducted by Ronnie Hazelhurst.”

As ever, BBC1’s morning schedule ran to form: some carols, kids programmes -Camberwick Green, and Cartoon Christmas Box fronted by Paul Jones – the Appeal, the church service (from the Scottish village of Killearn Kirk), then at 11.25am A Stocking Full of Stars. Rolf Harris returned to co-host this third mixture of sketches and songs with Michael Aspel, once again from the Harpenden Children’s Home. Only an hour with the residents, however, for at 12.25pm came the 1937 Laurel and Hardy film Way Out West featuring our heroes as a pair of gold prospectors on The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. This, and the skating special that followed – Holiday on Ice – were close to your standard ITV festive fare, and therefore an unusual lapse in the Beeb’s previously strong seasonal schedules.

Thankfully Top of the Pops appeared on cue at 2.15pm, part one of the 1974 review hosted as ever by Sir Jim and Tony Blackburn. Part two could be found on 27 December at 5.20pm, though this time with Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis doing the honours. As with last year, Christmas Day 1974 found another major change to BBC1’s traditional post-Queen menu: no panto. Instead, after Billy Smart’s Circus came the popular western True Grit – which, as the second film on in just less than four hours was another surprisingly lazy bit of programming from this normally lively channel.

Worse was to come, however. After The Generation Game there was a special Christmas episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. The distinctive face of Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer was emblazoned on the front of the seasonal Radio Times, hinting at the prominence the BBC were giving him and his irritating show. The character was a huge hit; the first series ofSome Mothers … had begun in February 1973, and the second had culminated in the much-publicised birth of Frank’s first child on 27 December last year. “Jessica’s First Christmas” was the title of this special, with Frank and Betty given a whole 50 minutes to faff and flap. There was no escaping Frank Spencer this Christmas: his annoying features, beret and mac had already shown up once today during A Stocking Full of Stars. And immediately after this special episode came Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show – with this host appearing as Frank Spencer!

For some reason there was no Morecambe and Wise special this year, which just weakened the whole evening line-up further. If you survived the Christmas night film – as per usual incredibly long: Bridge on the River Kwai, lasting two hours 40 minutes without a break – there was some kind of reward: the stupidly titled Parkinson Takes a Christmas Look at Morecambe and Wise. A new interview with the pair, plus some classic clips, rounded off the first poor BBC1 Christmas schedule of the decade.

ITV started badly with a repeat: 1972’s carols from Kirkgate at 8.45am. Princess Grace of Monaco then read a story from the Bible, before puppet action with Sooty made for a fun if repetitive half-hour and an alternative to Windy Miller and Captain Flack. After a service from Sandringham Parish Church, A Merry Morning (Leslie Crowther enlisting Keith Harris and Cuddles to help tame the kids in Hull Royal Infirmary) and the expected film – Captain Nemo and the Underwater City – came something completely unexpected. “It’s part rock. It’s part pop. It’s all action.” Granada’s 45 show, hosted by David “Kid” Jensen and Emperor Rosko, had begun earlier this year as token opposition to Top of the Pops. Here, appropriately, was a special Christmas Rock with 45, with our hosts promising Queen, Mud and – gasp – the Bay City Rollers. Perhaps the best thing ITV had shown in this slot for many years.

An hour of magic with the redoubtable David Nixon led up to the Queen, then came the second film of the day: Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines – at last, a proper Christmas Day family movie with the right mix of celebrities and action, and a great alternative to BBC1’sTrue Grit. ITV then squandered their chances of delivering a top rate schedule for the first time this decade by showing Meet Peters and Lee at 5.45pm: 30 minutes of comedy and music with Lennie P and Dianne L, together “for the first time,” and hopefully the last.

Another Tommy Cooper Hour preceded a special This Is Your Life at 7.15pm (no record of who the subject was, sadly), then a film to replace All Star Comedy Carnival, axed at long last after five painful years. John Wayne, already familiar to viewers of True Grit, now showed up here in yet another Western movie, The Undefeated. Of course, sticking to tradition this was yet again way too long to be shown on a Christmas evening (130 minutes). After the News at Ten came yet another unexpected choice: a one-off documentary, part of Granada’s Private Lives strand which had run through the autumn and comprised producer/director Denis Mitchell profiling the great, the good and the neglected.

Sir Geraint Evans’ lusty Welsh vocal chords rang out once more at 10.45pm, his second mix of old carols and even older guests titled For This Christmas Only (a blatant lie – see next year). In a wobbly HTV studio recreation of a Victorian mansion, Kiri Te Kanawa and Spike Milligan warmed themselves by the fire. Best programme of the day was the very last one, and a repeat at that: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, at 11.45pm, and a tale titled “Back For Christmas”, featuring Hitch stalwart John Wilson (who’s appeared in more of the director’s work than any other actor) as a wife-murderer typically undone by the episode’s end.

Even BBC2 relied on a lot of repeats: Henry V again, two years since it was last on Christmas Day; golf highlights; a re-showing of David Frost’s film of Evel Knievel’s sky-cycle jump across Snake River Canyon … Even the ballet (La Traviata) was a repeat. The post-Play School (Derek Griffiths and Chloe Ashcroft on duty) closedown was back too. There were a couple of interesting programmes to be found: Ronnie Barker’s 1970 silent short film Futtock’s End, andWhen The Angels …, a Seven Up style documentary, focusing on the group of kids who’d performed the first ever TV nativity in 1956 and how their lives had developed over the intervening 18 years. Elsewhere the Beatles film was present – Help, on Boxing Day at 10.30am; Disney Time was also hanging on, albeit back on 21 December and hosted by Derek Nimmo. A grim year, though, for all channels. And no Carry On at all – infamy!

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1975

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“A sort of Christmas bonus, you might say.”

After their botched effort last year, the BBC rallied in 1975 to deliver another classic Christmas Day schedule with the restoration of many of the traditional big-hitters to the schedule. But before that we had to get through the morning …

Both channels had tried ringing some changes with their morning schedules. BBC1 began withRagtime with Maggie Henderson and Fred Harris; the return of the kids carol concert; a cartoon of Oscar Wilde’s fable The Happy Prince; then after a service from St George’s Chapel in Windsor (with the royals in attendance) a big shock: no hospital visit. This was a major departure from tradition. And there wasn’t even a similarly-themed replacement: just Rod Hull, Emu, 300 kids and the Glossop School Band with more carols, before the same pattern as last year: Laurel and Hardy (in Pack Up Your Troubles), Holiday on Ice and at 2.10pm Top of the Pops with Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmonds (bizarrely this was part two of the usual double edition, part one airing on 23 December with Sir Jim and DLT hosting).

A classic bit of meaningless scheduling began ITV’s day: a short film describing the origins of the carol Silent Night at 8.40am, then after Rainbow at 9am came … another short film describing the origins of the carol Silent Night. But after this unfortunate duplication it was business as usual: a service from Luss Parish Church in Scotland; A Merry Morning from St Luke’s Hospital in Bradford with Leslie Crowther, magician Larry Parker and the surreal Animal Kwackers; a compilation of Harold Lloyd film clips; Jack Parnell and his Orchestra playing big band classics; and finally Chipperfield’s Circus taking us through to 3pm.

Meanwhile, on BBC1, almost everything was back in its proper place for the afternoon, including – best of all – Morecambe and Wise; and The Wizard of Oz was a fantastic choice of film to fill the previously problematic gap between Billy Smart’s Circus and The Generation Game. The only weak point was what followed Bruce and Anthea: the perhaps inevitable return of Frank Spencer in another one-off festive special, the first new episode since last year’s seasonal offering. Still, it would’ve scored a high audience, no question; and things improved drastically come Eric’n’Ern’s appearance 45 minutes later, with Diana Rigg, Des O’Connor, Robin Day, Gordon Jackson and others joining the pair for another superb Christmas Show.

The rest of the evening wasn’t too bad either. Another fine film at 8.45pm, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, probably kept many viewers switched to BBC1, after which came The Good Old Days – restored to its place on Christmas Day after a two year exile. A fitting finale to an almost faultless line-up of programmes was the man Parkinson with a specially recorded interview with Bob Hope.

In contrast ITV struggled – as usual. They opted for the deeply unfunny film Doctor in Trouble to follow the Queen – but up against The Wizard of Oz anything would’ve flopped. The familiar lapse into pointless filler material began with Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo at 4.45pm – animated bible stories did not belong at this stage of the day. Next came an episode ofCrossroads, simply because Christmas happened to fall on a Thursday this year. “David Hunter extends an invitation which may prove very embarrassing,” hinted TV Times, and maybe Ronald Allen, a key attraction during this period of the soap’s history, could’ve wooed a significant audience away from Judy Garland. Unlikely.

ITV seemed to be catering for different audiences with each new programme, rather than going for consistent all-out family entertainment. So Crossroads was followed by a slice of mid-’70s pop: The Bay City Rollers Show with Gilbert O’Sullivan, The Drifters, Elton John and David Cassidy on offer. Another ill-assortment of stars showed up next in Christmas Celebrity Squares, which marked the first appearance on Christmas Day telly of the great Bob Monkhouse. He was joined by John Inman, Noele Gordon, Charlie Drake, Des O’Connor, Arthur Mullard and others, all for charity. Then at 7.30pm came an hour of Thames Television comedy. First, a special Christmas episode of a series that had only debuted on screens that October:Get Some In!, the Esmonde and Larbey scripted comedy set in 1950s Britain and the world of National Service. Then came Love Thy Neighbour, half way through its (count ‘em) eighth – and last – series. If ITV wanted to lure viewers away from Morecambe and Wise, a sitcom barely two months old and one on its last legs was a miserable idea.

The big film that followed was another epic: The Taming of the Shrew, running until 11pm (with 15 minutes for news in between) and featuring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in yet more rounds of love wars. And finally, wrapping up the evening was crusty old Sir Geraint Evans, back for the third year with his carols and tall tales, this time to be found Beneath the Christmas Tree – a disturbing image to conjure with.

BBC2 was better this year: kids could look forward to both Play School, with Chloe Ashcroft and Johnny Ball telling the familiar nativity story, and also Christmas Day Play Away. Then after a load of repeats – including Prince Charles Pilot Royal, a sober film on the heir to the throne’s flying career – came Nice One: a 15 minute portrait of a Cockney wedding. “A red letter day in the East End: Alan Jude and Helen Savage get married and to cap it all West Ham win 1-0.” Great stuff later on as well: a re-showing of Jack Rosenthal’s fine drama The Evacuees (starring his missus Maureen Lipman); the classic film of the musical Guys and Dolls; and perhaps most memorably a rock version of the legend of Troy not only starring Bernard Cribbins, Paul Jones and Patricia Hodge but with music arranged and directed by Jonathan Cohen.

The holiday period was topped off with the proper appearance of both the Carry On team (… Up The Khyber on 23 December at 7pm) and The Beatles in Let It Be, the supremely downbeat documentary of their impending demise, a brave choice for Boxing Day morning. Good old Bing Crosby showed up too, hosting Disney Time the same day; while on Christmas Eve came the premiere airing of a true comedy classic: the first special Christmas episode of Porridge – “No Way Out”, 45 minutes of genius. An excellent year for the BBC, then, only spoilt by the choice for the Radio Times cover: a crap drawing of a huge robin.

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1976

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“400 brownies are yelling ‘We want Leslie Crowther’.”

The Radio Times noted that a key element of Christmas was “being able to be sure that you can look forward to the annual programme of fun on BBC1; like positively knowing that the Morecambe and Wise Show is on.” The Beeb was to offer us most of its conventional fare in 1976. There was the Carry On film (… At Your Convenience, on 27 December), at 6.30pm; a new special episode of Porridge (“The Desperate Hours” on Christmas Eve at 8pm), Disney Time (also on 27 December, hosted by The Goodies) and though there was no Beatles film, The Wizard of Oz was back on 26 December.

As for the big day itself, BBC1 began with exactly the same edition of Ragtime that had opened Christmas Day 12 months ago. They continued with entertainment for the kids (carols from school choirs and Hong Kong Phooey cartoons), the grown-ups (a service from Quinton Park Baptist Church in Coventry) and for everyone: Rod Hull and Emu at 11.15am, repeating the formula of last year by enlisting 300 children plus guest (good old Rolf Harris, nice to see him back on Christmas Day) to trill some songs. Then came a black-and-white comedy film (a clip package of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chase) and the skating (Holiday on Ice): in essence, the same pre-Queen’s message line-up three years running. Top of the Popsat 2.10pm found Noel Edmonds and DLT hosting part one of the familiar hits run-down; part two tomorrow with – who else? – Tony B and Jimmy S.

Once the annual date at the Palace was disposed with, it was back to the honking seals ofBilly Smart’s Circus. Then there was another excellent choice of family film – the 1968 version of the musical Oliver – taking you through to Bruce and The Generation Game. After that, Radio Times’ favourite: Morecambe and Wise, and yet another classic Christmas special, featuring Elton John, John Thaw, Dennis Waterman, Kate O’Mara and The Nolans. The big evening film followed, and this year it was Airport – a change from the epic war/western movie that usually cropped up here, but a gloomy choice for Christmas night. A weird note to end on, as well, withThe Parkinson Magic Show at 11pm: Michael plus three of the world’s top conjurers: Fred Kaps, Ricky Jay and Richiardi Junior. Still, at least it wasn’t a re-hash of old clips, or another of Parky’s fawning chats with crotchety Hollywood biddies.

Major scandal on BBC2: no Play School. Instead the channel opened at 12.10pm with a religious Reflection; then Horizon on the legend of King Arthur; a repeat of last year’sChristmas Play Away; then the traditional carol service from King’s College Cambridge, uprooted from its normal slot on Christmas Eve. Two fairy tales followed the Queen: a new dramatisation of The Snow Queen, then a repeat of 1973’s festive version of Alice Through the Looking Glass.

However, after another cartoon and a dull film about a Russian polar bear came one of BBC2’s best ever Christmas evenings: nearly three hours of clips from the BBC archives, celebrating forty years of British television. The retrospective included over 200 extracts of famous and obscure Beeb broadcasts, and had originally been shown to launch the Corporation’s Festival of Television earlier in the year. This was a great choice for Christmas viewing, a wonderful feast of nostalgia and a chance for indulging in shameless reflection and wistful reminiscence. BBC2’s evening ended with another documentary (on being stranded in the Antarctic), carols and a classic film: Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Could ITV, for once, come up with an attractive, popular and consistent schedule to give the BBC a run for its money? Well, the morning line-up wasn’t that exciting (but there again, neither was BBC1’s): carols from Durham Cathedral; a religious parable, The Legend of the Christmas Messenger; a service from Boxgrove Priory in Sussex; A Merry Morning with Jimmy Tarbuck from Harrogate General Hospital; then the film version of the musical Doctor Dolittle. That took us through to 2.15pm when there was an attempt at direct competition with TOTPChristmas Supersonic, a charity do from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with Russell Harty and Joanna Lumley introducing Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter and John Miles raising money for the Invalid Children’s Aid Association. Princess Margaret was in attendance too; though this was a marked step back from the unashamed pop and rock glamour of last year’s 45.

ITV’s choice of post-Queen material was initially promising: the film spin-off of Please, Sir!, then a special New Faces with Derek Hobson introducing a selection of 1976’s big winners (Our Kid!), and a visit by Nicholas Parsons and his array of kitchen tupperware in Christmas Sale of the Century. But then came The John Curry Ice Spectacular: sure, Curry had won a gold in the 1976 winter Olympics, but skating belonged earlier in the day, and this “spectacular” not only featured Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie but was based around the songs of Stephen Sondheim. What the hell was this all about? It led into the film Waterloo at 8.25pm which ran all the way through to the news at 10.25pm – what a pathetic Christmas evening, a load of musical celebrities stumbling around on a frozen pond followed by Americans putting on iffy French accents and blowing each other up on a muddy field.

Hooray, then, for Two’s Company at 10.35pm: Elaine Stritch and Donald Sinden in an episode that marked the end of the second series of this LWT Brit-meets-Yank sitcom. Though the initial series, which began in September 1975, had only been shown in London, the follow-up run had been fully networked and proved quite popular. Last up, who else but Sir Geraint Evans with another Celebration at 11.05pm. This year we could find him entertaining Petula Clark at Castell Coch near Cardiff – so no wobbly sets this year to close yet another poor Christmas for ITV.

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1977

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“Both parties contemplate divorce.”

25 December fell on a Sunday this year, so that meant a slight re-working of the traditional menu to incorporate, in the Beeb’s case, a special Songs of Praise from the Albert Hall into the usual line-up. But little else on BBC1 was changed from that well-worn template of programmes rolled out each Christmas this decade.

Perhaps remembering its ratings success two years ago, Bill Cotton opted to schedule The Wizard of Oz as the film slotted in after the Queen and Billy Smart’s Circus. Following the adventures of Dorothy and Toto, Basil Brush made a welcome return to Christmas Day in a special panto pastiche, Basil Through the Looking Glass.

Then after the news and Songs of Praise came a formidable trio of programmes: Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game at 7.15pm; Mike Yarwood at 8.20pm (back on Christmas Day for the first time since 1973); and Morecambe and Wise at 8.55pm, with guests Penelope Keith, Elton John, Francis Matthews and others. This last show registered 21.3m viewers – one of the highest figures for any single programme for a long time.

To close the day the Beeb followed a late news bulletin with the 1968 Barbara Streisand movieFunny Girl. A much better choice, however, could be found over on BBC2 at the same time -The Big Sleep, the classic Humphrey Bogart thriller. BBC2 was kind of dwarfed by its sister channel this year and had nothing exceptional to offer – and, as with last year, because Christmas Day fell on a weekend there was no Play School either. There were too many documentaries as well – six in all: on deaf children, on predators in the wild, on the seashore in winter, on the Queen’s silver Jubilee, on home movies from the 1920s and ’30s – and lastly, and best of the lot by a mile, Thanks For the Memory: a 140 minute film on ordinary people’s recollections of watching TV over the last 25 years.

Earlier in the day BBC1 had sequenced their usual mix of programmes to fill up those barren morning hours. Star Over Bethlehem at 8.55am featured Christmas music from around the world; Playboard followed with some puppetry introduced by the persistently amusingly named Christopher Lillicrap. Then after the morning service from All Saints Parish Church, Kingston Upon Thames, came a long film: National Velvet, that terribly creaky racehorse movie from 1944.

Amends were quickly made thanks to what followed: a Christmas episode of Are You Being Served?, first shown on Christmas Eve last year but an obvious choice for 25 December itself. The show, now past its fifth series, would’ve pulled in the viewers nicely ahead of Top of the Pops ‘77 part one, hosted by Noel and David “Kid” Jensen. As per usual, part two followed on Boxing Day with Tony B and DLT.

ITV’s morning was also pretty textbook: carol concert, random cartoons, morning service (from Tynemouth) then at 11am A Merry Morning. This was becoming ever more outdated – the Beeb abandoning the concept of the hospital visit in 1972, and indeed the whole idea of visiting unfortunate kids at all in 1975 – though Tarby played it by the book, with guests Tina Charles and The Wurzels making for a lethal combination to scare the kids at the National Children’s Home in Bramhope, Yorkshire. A film followed: Robinson Crusoe and the Tiger, a movie so dull that its entire cast list read: “Robinson Crusoe; Friday; A Tiger”. The only spark of life occurred in the hour before the Queen: a Just William adaptation (made by LWT, who came into their own whenever Christmas fell on a weekend) of the story “William’s Worst Christmas.” This was a new production and starred Adrian Dannatt as the cheeky well-spoken rascal, supported by Diana Dors and Bonnie Langford.

Clips from four decades of British comedy films followed Her Majesty: a specially made compilation titled To See Such Fun, narrated by Frank Muir. This was a better choice than previous years to fill this slot, though it was immediately compromised by what followed: Emu’s Christmas Adventures. Highlight of the day, though, came at 5.45pm: a special Christmas episode of The Muppet Show, with guest Julie Andrews – the best thing on ITV on Christmas Day for years. Kermit and co were now in the middle of their second series (which ran for an amazing 30 weeks); all the shows being made in Britain, of course, thanks to Lew Grade and ATV.

ITV’s evening ran from Sale of the Century through Stars on Christmas Day (a special version of the Yorkshire TV religion-and-celebrity staple Stars on Sunday, here featuring none other than Bob Hope) to the seemingly contractually obliged boring film (Young Winston – 2 hours and 50 minutes on the early life of Winston Churchill).

Then came some light relief: Stanley Baxter’s Greatest Hits at 10.15pm. This was a compilation comprising 75 clips of comedy and mimicry from the stalwart of LWT’s variety stable. Baxter was another great veteran of broadcasting – his first big success coming with the BBC in 1959 in the revue show On the Bright Side. He’d been with LWT since 1972; a shame that the usual bickering over which ITV company supplied the main programmes for Christmas night had probably meant Baxter hadn’t been properly utilised until 25 December fell on a weekend. ITV ended the night with the only man who could possibly follow Stanley: yes, it was time for another Celebration from Sir Geraint Evans – voice still going strong, helped by some Welsh male voice choirs and Isla Blair.

The festive period on the BBC was sealed with a special anniversary edition of Disney Time on 27 December, marking 50 episodes of the show and hosted by the man who fronted the very first one: David Jacobs. No Beatles film this year – again – and no new Carry On either, just a repeat of … Up The Khyber on 23 December.

Viewers didn’t know it at the time, but 1977 was the end of an era for Christmas television in Britain. In retrospect, it represents the conclusion of a golden period in festive telly – and the last truly great BBC1 Christmas Day schedule. Once it was over, Christmas TV would never quite be the same again. The kind of effortless scheduling victory the BBC achieved would never be so consistently, and overwhelmingly, guaranteed in the future. As the 1970s drifted to a close, so the tendency increased for people to look back at these past Christmases and wish TV was as good now as it was then.

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1978

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“People actually send spies to the rehearsal rooms.”

Christmas 1978 was one of those pivotal moments in television history, where a number of separate events and developments coincided to mark a sea-change in tradition and convention.

First of all, and most importantly, there was no Morecambe and Wise on BBC1. In early 1978 Thames Television had approached the pair with a deal promising far more money than they were currently earning, plus the usual offer of no-expense spared glamorous sets and guests. Thames had been eyeing up the duo for a while, conscious that although they had a hugely influential solo artist on their books – Benny Hill, who’d ironically jumped ship from the Beeb just as Morecambe and Wise headed in the opposite direction – they had no double act of similar standing. So they engineered what was seen as a major coup, and signed Eric’n’Ern much to the fury of the BBC.

But immediately there were problems. Eddie Braben, chief scriptwriter on all the duo’s BBC Christmas specials, was still signed with the Corporation until 1980. So jobbing wordsmiths Barry Cryer and John Junkin had to be bussed in to pen both the pair’s first appearance on ITV, a 60 minute special on 18 October 1978, and their next outing, on Christmas Day itself. However the quality of their material was generally dreadful, and no amount of high-profile celebrity guests could hide the fact these were below par efforts from Morecambe and Wise.

It meant that TV Times could crow “Christmas wouldn’t be quite the same without Eric and Ernie,” unaware that their 75 minute festive special was quite the worst thing the duo had done for television in decades. ITV had embarked on a shameless whispering campaign ahead of Christmas, hinting that both a former Prime Minister and a member of the royal family were to appear with the pair. In reality, although Harold Wilson showed up, he was joined by just Jan Hunt, Leonard Rossiter and Frank Finlay. Sadly, this was only the start of Morecambe and Wise’s decline; Christmas 1979 would see an even further fall from grace.

The second big blow to the Beeb’s Christmas schedules was the absence of Bruce Forsyth. Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last either, Bruce had decided to defect to the opposition – in this case shortly after what turned out to be his final Generation Game, on Christmas Day last year. He was coaxed over to LWT by the promise – again – of big money, but it wasn’t until October that he made his debut on ITV with a new show, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night.

This was a Saturday evening review package with the host introducing music, competitions and pre-recorded items. These included a revival of Frank Muir and Denis Norden’s BBC radio comedy The Glums, now re-adapted for telly in 10 minute chunks starring Jimmy Edwards and Ian Lavender; and also the screen debut of a pair of comics who would go on to dominate ITV’s Christmas schedules throughout the ’80s: Cannon and Ball. Yes, these former welders from Oldham got their big break thanks to Brucie, contracted to contribute 15-minute sketches toBig Night through to the series’ close on Christmas Eve (although none of them were ultimately shown). However, thanks in part to Christmas Day not falling on a weekend in 1978, neither they nor Bruce won an appearance on 25 December: LWT losing out to Thames once more in the ITV scheduling games.

No Morecambe and Wise, no Bruce – and the Beeb had even lost Billy Smart’s Circus to their rivals, meaning for the first time in a generation there were no dancing elephants or human cannonballs to follow the Queen’s speech on BBC1. Maybe ITV now had the armoury to put together a strong Christmas schedule for the first time – but the Beeb, rather than wilting, fought back with a powerful, impressive alternative line-up – which went on to trounce the opposition in the ratings.

ITV’s 1978 primetime Christmas menu began wimpishly with the film Battle for the Planet of the Apes after the message from Her Majesty. This was the fifth in the Apes sequence and a pathetic prelude to what was to come: Billy Smart’s Circus at 4.55pm, then another superbChristmas Muppet Show at 6.15pm with special guest Danny Kaye. This was followed by, for the first time ever, a Bond film on Christmas Day: the fantastic Diamonds are Forever. ITV had at least realised the need to have a strong, popular movie at this hour rather than a sprawling western or war effort. 007 dovetailed into the traitors Morecambe and Wise at 9pm, then came another This Is Your Life special at 10.15pm. One sorry absence from the schedules this year was Sir Geraint Evans, as ITV had axed his annual Celebration in favour of a weird TV movie titled Ghost Story starring Larry Dann and Marianne Faithful. A short one-act play in theMeditation slot led up to closedown at 12.45am.

A commanding schedule, then, but it had kicked off poorly and here was where BBC1 stole an important early lead. Bill Cotton decided to pitch the re-launched Generation Game in the post-Queen’s message slot. “Larry Grayson is here to play, so … shut that door!” sang the theme tune when new host Larry and assistant Isla St Clair debuted on BBC1 in September. They’d quickly pulled in the viewers, so there was no question this special Christmas edition would’ve drawn a huge audience – which inevitably would’ve stayed tuned to BBC1 for the film that followed: The Sound of Music. An epic, of course – almost three hours long – but a clever way of seeing the channel into the early evening without frittering away any ratings lead.

After that, and the news, came another new episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – thankfully the last ever outing for Frank and his beret, though both this and Mike Yarwood at 8pm were guaranteed successes. Over the next few years Yarwood would prove to be a sure-fire hit for the BBC, ultimately pulling in more viewers than Morecambe and Wise on the other side. But BBC1 rounded off this Christmas day rather aimlessly – a TV movie (True Grit: A Further Adventure), Parkinson at the Pantomime (Michael with Les Dawson, Little and Large and others doing seasonal turns) and a Christmas Ghost Story: The Ice House by John Bowen, a new one-off drama starring John Stride.

Both main channels had offered up usual morning entertainment: for the Beeb, carols from Cambridge, The Flumps, a service from Knutsford, The Spinners at Christmas (music and comedy from that same Victorian street in York Museum that cropped up seemingly every other Christmas), the Elvis movie ClambakeHoliday on Ice, and Top of the Pops ‘78: just the one part this year, with Noel Edmonds in charge.

ITV opened with Paul Copley telling the Christmas story; some kids programmes – The Wotsit from Whizzbang and PipkinsChristmas ClapperboardA Merry Morning (Tarby in charge again from the Harrogate National Children’s Home); a service with the royals in Windsor; Living Free, one of the film sequels to Born Free; and Crossroads. But then came something of a highlight: “Twice round the wainscot and close with the stick, dig deep in the holly to discover the trick …” – of course, a 3-2-1 Christmas Special. One of ITV’s most popular new shows, it made for a good choice in the pre-Queen slot, especially as it boasted Terry Wogan, Clodagh Rodgers and Pat Coombs amongst the guests taking part for charity along with Ted Rodgers and Dusty Bin dressed up in the style of a Dickensian Christmas.

BBC2 showed little noteworthy programmes this year – Sarah Long and Don Spencer hostedPlay School, there was a repeat of The Snow Queen from 1976, The King’s Singers, carols from the Albert Hall, Richard Baker re-joining the navy after 35 years, and a new dramatisation of an 18th century farmer’s wife’s diary. If you were up past midnight you could enjoy Tom Baker reading a Late Night Story: The Emissary, a horror tale by Ray Bradbury.

Elsewhere, traditionalists would’ve been pleased that The Wizard of Oz was back for its fourth consecutive appearance, this time on 27 December at 6pm on BBC1; and the great Carry On Girls followed it later at 9.15pm. Disney Time was back on Boxing Day, hosted by Paul Daniels, ahead of both The Two Ronnies and the excellent Boxing Night at the Mill with Bob Langley and Tony Lewis.

The BBC had proved it could survive without Bruce or Eric and Ernie – it wasn’t just giving up in the face of renewed competition. Sure, ITV’s Morecambe and Wise Show proved to be the most watched programme this Christmas; but overall – thanks in part to people still associating Christmas evening with BBC1 and refusing to switch over out of prejudice or stubbornness – despite all the upheavals and defections the Corporation enjoyed another ratings triumph for the bulk of Christmas Day in 1978.

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1979

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“Best switch off – if you don’t believe in laughter.”

This final year of the decade found the BBC enjoying renewed popularity thanks to a 75 day strike that blacked out ITV throughout the autumn. Beginning in some regions on 6 August, but soon spreading to the entire country from 10 August, industrial action of this kind was unprecedented in Britain. Smaller, low-key disputes had occurred before – such as the one that knocked LWT off the air within minutes of its launch on 2 August 1968. But the scale of this particular disruption was severe – and hugely significant.

It meant that the BBC enjoyed complete supremacy of the airwaves for the 10 or so weeks that ITV was crippled, during which time many of its programmes – both new and old – picked up increased audiences which then stayed with the channel once ITV returned on 24 October. Suddenly, even the Beeb’s run-of-the-mill everyday shows were picking up ratings close to 15 or 20 million – a development that went some way to explaining the Corporation’s total dominance of the Christmas schedules in 1979, where they even toppled Morecambe and Wise on ITV. In particular, three new shows that all began during the preceding 24 months – Blankety BlankAll Creatures Great and Small and To The Manor Born – had scored huge audiences this year, and helped deliver BBC a complete ratings victory over ITV thanks to cunning scheduling by Bill Cotton.

BBC1 began Christmas Day at 9am with another trip round the music of the world in Star Over Bethlehem; then it was a rather dull run-through the morning with a service from Llanedeyrn, Bagpuss, the return of The Spinners at Christmas, the 1971 re-make of Black Beauty, and worst of all a John Curry ice show. “Music is my reason for skating,” claimed Curry implausibly, “I feel I must express it.” The first part of Top of the Pops ‘79 at 2pm hosted by David Jensen and Peter Powell saved BBC1’s early schedule from being a complete write-off (part two turned up on 27 December with DLT and Mike Read in charge).

Once you got the other side of the Queen, things improved drastically with Larry and Isla back for another Generation Game special. Then came another unfortunate lull in the shape of the 1966 Disney film The Gnome Mobile – a huge anti-climax compared to the big films shown in this slot on previous years. Much better was to follow at 5.50pm with a seasonal edition ofBlankety Blank. “Lord Terence of Wogan arrived late for a Christmas party, forgetting that he hadn’t properly done up his BLANKS.” Terry, stick mike in hand, was faced with not just the traditional six celebrity panellists, but a whole dozen – and what a line-up. All the usuals were here: Lennie Bennett, Lorraine Chase, Wendy Craig, Sandra Dickinson, Shirley Ann Field, Kenny Everett, David Hamilton, David Jason, Roy Kinnear, Patrick Moore and Beryl Reid. Some “spontaneous” reason would have been found to have the six comprising the first panel “walk off” in disgust half way through, and for the rest of the guests to then amazingly appear from within the audience to much hilarity.

Next came All Creatures Great and Small, in a festive episode painfully titled “Plenty To Grouse About”. This was actually the first instalment of the third series of this incredible popular drama – one that would apparently end for good a few months later in April 1980 when the collective Darrowby vets were called up to fight in World War II. All Creatures … wasn’t dead, however, next appearing on screens … on Christmas Day 1983. A hefty audience would’ve been passed on to Mike Yarwood at 7.20pm, joined this Christmas by Johnny Mathis, and viewers undoubtedly remained glued to BBC1 for what followed as well: a special episode of To The Manor Born. Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles had found themselves stars of an unlikely hit comedy which had begun on the last day of September 1979 and rocketed up the ratings thanks to the ITV strike, ending up pulling – in one instance – almost 24 million viewers. Audiences of this size wouldn’t be seen again for many years (see EastEnders at Christmas 1986, and Only Fools and Horses at Christmas 1996).

The evening was rounded off with a stunning film, The Sting, before more chat with Parkinsonat 10.45pm. Not surprisingly, the whole line-up thrashed ITV, who vainly tried to piece together a schedule of comparable impact to the one last year, but to no avail. As in 1978, they went for a Bond film to follow the Queen: Goldfinger, a good choice; and also as in 1978, there was a 3-2-1 Christmas special, this time moved to an early evening slot to follow 007. Next up was the very last episode of George and Mildred. This popular and undeniably entertaining Thames sitcom once again found Mildred lusting after the passion her husband would never provide – indeed, the episode’s title was “The 26 Year Itch” – but after four years and five series she was to be left unfulfilled. It may have pulled in some viewers, but these would have switched over come 6.45pm and the start of the dreadful film The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds- a woeful comedy thriller from 1973 with Michael York and Oliver Reed.

That left Morecambe and Wise at 8.45pm. Unbelievably, Thames hadn’t been able to wangle a new show out of the increasingly obstinate pair since last Christmas. No doubt this was in part due to the continuing unavailability of Eddie Braben as scriptwriter; nonetheless, ITV needed them back for Christmas Day – but what they got was diabolical, a complete waste of time, as all this 60 minute show comprised was a long boring interview with David Frost, one solitary new sketch with Glenda Jackson, and some really old clips. A truly low point for this duo who just two years earlier had created one of the best Christmas shows seen on British television ever.

ITV’s evening concluded with yet another special This Is Your Life at 9.45pm; Cleo’s Christmasat 10.40pm – songs, requests and light banter from Ms Laine; but worst of all, the spectacularly inappropriate Vegas at 11.40pm: a US cop show, starring Robert Urich and Bart Braverman. What were ITV thinking? If you survived that, there was always some monks chanting 8th century plainsong at 12.35am to send you screaming to bed.

ITV’s Christmas, then, was a complete mess. Billy Smart’s Circus, which they’d so eagerly nicked from the Beeb, was wasted – dumped on Boxing Day; and if that wasn’t enough, centrepiece of the morning schedule was A Merry Morning – repeated from last year! What if one of the kids had died since filming? Filling up the rest of the hours were a service from Harpenden, the terrible TV movie Lassie: The New Beginning, short Disney cartoons and Christmas Oh Boy! – an attempt to re-stage the famous 1950s ITV music show, but with Alvin Stardust and Shakin’ Stevens croaking old hits while the audience were asked to wear black, white or grey – though “it still promises,” pleaded TV Times desperately, “to be a colourful occasion.” C-list celebrities making fools of themselves in Michael Aspel’s Star Games brought us up to 3pm.

Even BBC2 managed a better line-up than ITV this year – it was certainly more imaginative and entertaining. A Hard Day’s Night was shown at 3pm – part of a fantastic season of all the Beatles films, including Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be, screened over the holiday period. At the other end of the day was another great movie, here receiving its TV premiere: Cabaret. In between there was a Christmas concert from Amsterdam, a repeat of an award-winning dramatisation of A Christmas Carol with Michael Hordern as Scrooge, a survey of British horticulture in The Front Garden, and a special festive edition of Face the Music hosted as ever by Joseph Cooper.

As the 1970s were rung out at midnight on New Year’s Eve, viewers could look back over a decade of Christmas television that had displayed an incredible amount of consistency: while some shows had come and gone (mostly sitcoms), others had persisted in one form or other right through ten long years. A person tuning back in to British telly at the end of 1979 after maybe spending the whole decade abroad would’ve found the Christmas Day schedules in essence remarkably similar to how they originally remembered them. Sure, some familiar programmes had moved days, like Disney Time which here in 1979 was on Boxing Day with Rod Hull and Emu; some had hopped channels, like Morecambe and Wise and Billy Smart’s Circus. But in summary: staggeringly little change. Only the hospital visit had been consigned to the dustbin – though ITV kept up that tradition.

So maybe as we tuned in to BBC2 on 27 December 1979 to enjoy songs, stories, sketches and rhymes with Richard Stilgoe “looking optimistically into the ’80s”, we would have concluded that the 1970s had been an astonishingly successful and memorable decade for Christmas telly; and not without reason imagined that the forthcoming new decade would continue to be just as superb …

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1980

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“For whom the jingle bells toll”

Mike Yarwood can be found wearing a red cardigan, reclining on a rug in front of an open fire for the benefit of Radio Times. He muses: “My main wish for Christmas is a male Prime Minister.” And then, changing tack, provides an insight into just what makes Christmas TV so unique: “I mustn’t make the show too Christmassy in case it gets repeated in the summer. So only the titles will be festooned with tinsel.” It’s Christmas 1980s style, everyone!

This year, BBC1 kicked off proceedings with an episode of the schools’ programme Watchentitled “The Nativity”. A fairly inauspicious start to the day, it mattered little as the channel boasted the triumvirate of Paul Daniels, Larry Grayson and JR Ewing waiting in the wings. Things continued in this gentle vein with Mr Benn and The Pink Panther Show until 10am when we dropped in on the Christmas Family Service. Broadcast from Clifton Cathedral, viewers in Scotland enjoyed an opt out to High Carntyne Parish Church, Glasgow instead – “the children bring their presents to show to [Rev] James Martin … you are invited to share in this joyous celebration.”

The feature film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, being an 18 year old “star studded extravaganza” (the only recognisable name is Terry Thomas – and he’s 13th on the bill), and another interminable service (Carols from Warwick Castle with Douglas Fairbanks Jr) took the schedules up to 2pm, leaving behind a rather dull morning of TV. Finally, at 2pm Christmas properly kicked in – Top of the Pops ‘80. Hosted by Peter Powell and Jimmy Savile OBE the best acts of the year (Abba, Blondie, Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Police and – incredibly – The Nolans) were accompanied by Legs & Co and the Top of the Pops Orchestra. A second edition went out on New Year’s Day, hosted by DLT and Tommy Vance. The Queen rolled along at 3pm and then it was the afternoon film, Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, hardly blockbuster stuff but it represented the right sort of enjoyable stodge that would take us happily through to the early evening.

Then it was time for the Christmas specials. First up came The Paul Daniels Magic Christmas Show. The programme boasted “a trick that is fantastic. It’s called the Million Dollar Mystery and is probably the best guarded secret amongst illusionists.” With an intermission provided by the Evening News (read by dads’ favourite, Angela Rippon) the entertainment resumed at 6.10pm with Larry Grayson’s Generation Game. Fresh from the Radio Times’ Christmas party (“Larry Grayson and Isla St Clair came in tandem – the latter looking gorgeous in a blue shift”) this faintly ribald barn dance of a programme was perfect Christmas day fodder, with its pursuit of games and prizes.

Symptomatic of Dallas-fever (this was the year of “Who Shot JR?”), JR Ewing and the residents of Southfork shuffled on at 7.15pm with an episode entitled “Trouble at Ewing 23″. At 8.45pm we had the big film – Airport 1975, a disaster movie of the ilk that just doesn’t get made anymore. This bloated monolith taxied through the night until 10.30pm and another 10 minutes of Angela Rippon.

At 10.40pm BBC stalwart Michael Parkinson was enlisted to round off the day with Parkinson at Christmas. The following “Christmas Comedy Classic” felt much like an afterthought even then – but Fawlty Towers and a quick weather report drew a line under an inauspicious, but chunky Christmas day on BBC1.

With an apparent paucity of Christmas-type programming it perhaps would have been more fun if the Beeb had shuffled some of the Christmas Eve telly into the Christmas Day morning line-up. Here BBC1 laid on the stuff of a perfect summer holiday morning (King RolloThe Red Hand GangWhy Don’t YouPlay Chess …) and better still an All Star Record Breakers (with Toni Arthur, Johnny Ball, Stuart McGugan et al, although no Kenneth “biggest puff in the business” Williams). “Down on the farm Roy holds a Record-Breaking party where cows and vegetables dance, Laurel and Hardy stage a comeback and guests are transported to outer space!”

This year also saw the demise of the traditional Christmas showing of a Beatles film. And so, on 13 December BBC1 brought us The Birth of the Beatles, a 1979 biopic of the Fab Four. From this ignominious exit the Fabs would return only rarely to join us on Christmas day.

It must be in the Charter somewhere, but as ever BBC2 opted out of Christmas altogether. The channel didn’t even start broadcasting until 11am with Play School and then quickly closed up again until 3.10pm. Their first programme back on air was A Year in the Life of an Exmoor Man(“The film follows Tom’s year, from sheep-shearing to lambing …”) presumably intended to coincide with a post Christmas dinner snooze. We were then assailed by a Fred Astaire double-bill and at 8.05pm, Tosca (“a superb film version of Puccini’s three act opera”). As we have seen before, and will again, BBC2 will unceasingly bang on an opera on Christmas Day. The rest of the evening panned out in much the same fashion with One Hundred Great Paintings and then Walter Matthau in The Front Page. Merry Christmas BBC2, you old Scrooge!

In the meantime ITV’s Christmas jewels were well summed up by the relevant TV Times cover which displayed Roger Moore, pushing Janet Brown (in Maggie Thatcher guise) through the snow in a skidoo whilst Morecambe and Wise in full Santa get up skied alongside. This was what we wanted.

ITV’s day started off in fine style; A Merry Morning with Don Maclean and Guys and Dolls brought us a children’s party from the Yeaden Town Hall in Leeds. The TV Times explained, “this is the first year Don Maclean has been host at the annual party which usually comes from a hospital.” And if casting off the grim appendage of sickness wasn’t enough, the programme also featured The Chuckle Brothers. At 9.45am it was, of course, time to fulfill that one niggling commitment and thus Christmas Eucharist brought us an hour’s service from Canterbury Cathedral. This was the first such service Robert Runcie had delivered since his enthronement as the Archbishop of Canterbury, but who wasn’t really chomping at the bit for Christmas Runaround to start at 11.10am?

In preparation for a new series of the excellent kid’s quiz from Southern Television (to start the following Wednesday) Christmas Runaround not only brought us the usual chaos but, wonderfully, on ice. A great concept. After these high energy exploits there was a comparative lull with Laurel and Hardy Film Library but we got back on track at 12.45pm and Give Us A Clue(which had only started the previous year – infamously using the same theme tune, Chicken Man, as Grange Hill). This year “instead of the usual male-versus-female competition, today’s teams are mixed”. The line-up was a classic; Lionel Blair and Una Stubbs (as per), then Joan Collins, Jim Davidson, Kenny Everett, Alfred Marks, Molly Sugden and Barbara Windsor. IfChristmas Runaround and Give Us A Clue were anything to go by, it would seem that your classic Christmas edition must feature one arbitrary (but nevertheless, enjoyable) change to the format.

At 1.15pm it was Crossroads, the only soap on Christmas Day, and only by virtue of the fact that Thursday was its normal transmission day. The moteliers found that romance was in the air at a Christmas Day disco, as motel secretary Rita Hughes got closer to manager Adam Chance. Interviewed in TV Times before the episode, Lynn Dalby who played Rita commented: “It is news to me. I haven’t read the scripts that far.” Most parts of the ITV network then tookBilly Smart’s Circus (STV had The Glen Michael Cavalcade) before Christmas Sunshine at 2.30pm. “As their names suggest, Sunshine try to bring a little happiness into people’s homes.” As expected this was followed by The Queen.

The George and Mildred film then locked horns with the BBC’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.George and Mildred the series was still doing good business in 1980, being the 20th most watched programme of the year, although its last ever new episode went out the previous Christmas. This brought us into a strong evening line-up. After dispensing with a quick news bulletin, Ted Rogers brought us the 3-2-1 Pantomime. Populated by Nicholas Parsons, Derek Batey, Bill Maynard, Sheila Steafel, Mike Reid, Jacqui Scott and Bob Carolgees, here was where all the stars spent their Christmas. Then it was time for the big movie, and fittingly it was one of the more vulgar James Bond films The Man with the Golden Gun. Here we found Roger Moore in his classic safari suit era, accompanied by the cheesiest Bond theme ever (“He’s got a powerful weapon …”) But in 1980, Bond was still a big hitter (“He charges a million a shot”).

And if things couldn’t get any better, The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show followed. It’s generally accepted that things for the duo were never the same when they returned to ITV, but with a line up including Peter Cushing, Jill Gascoine, Alec Guinness and Glenda Jackson, and with Eddie Braben scripting, it was probably good enough. Keeping it family-orientated, Eamon Andrews arrived with This Is Your Life at 9.30pm. But who was featured? As we reached 10pm, things became a little more grown-up. Janet and Company featured the then nascent Janet Brown in a half-hour tailored show designed to showcase her skills at impersonation. But this being ITV grown-up equated to gentle digs at the government and a lot of dressing-up.

At this point ITV then threw in the towel and allowed the day to peter off with a news bulletin followed by the “classy” Glenda Jackson and George Segal film A Touch of Class before the customary Late Call at 12.15am. But by this stage they’d done enough to prove that the lowly simple pleasures of a great Christmas Day could be utterly in tune with the business of independent television.

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1981

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“He pulls the rabbit of verbal spontaneity from the hat of immediate circumstance.”

After last year’s great showing, Christmas ‘81 was a rather damp squib on ITV, with their two most notable programmes not going out on Christmas day at all. Interestingly, both featured ex-BBC properties passed their best.

On 23 December Eric ‘n’ Ern were back with The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. The cast list this year went as follows: Ralph Richardson, Robert Hardy, Ian Ogilvy, Sussanah York, Alvin Stardust, Suzanne Danielle, Steve Davis and Valeri Minifie. Arguably not their most stella line-up (Stardust surely long since passed his best). Perhaps sensing that things were on the wane for the duo, Ernie was a little melancholic, and reflected on their lack of success in America in TV Times. He recalled his appearance on a US edition of What’s My Line? as a mystery guest. Alas, he beat the panel, who thought he was a vicar. “I think I’d rather have lost” he said wistfully, and advised us “when I die my epitaph will probably be ‘He was still on his way to Hollywood’.”

Fellow BBC refugees The Goodies also found themselves in the doldrums with The Goodies Christmas Special going out on 27 December. “Snow White 2″ crossed the traditional fairy-tale with Star Wars and featured an evil Snow White, 11 actors playing seven dwarfs and a wicked godmother called Timbalina. This special was their first effort for LWT and would be followed by a single series. Neither matched their BBC work. But what of the big day itself? Well, firstly let’s see what was on the other side.

Much like last year, Christmas Day on BBC1 would not really start until Top of the Popsshowed up. Thus in the morning the festivities commenced with Star Over Bethlehem at 8.40am (“a musical celebration for Christmas”) followed by a nod to the See-Saw constituent with a repeat of the always awful The FlumpsRolf at Christmas brought us the unsavoury trio of Keith Harris, Darts and 200 kids, and based it all in Chester. Then (and forever and ever amen) it was Christmas Morning Service. This year it came from both St George’s Chapel and Windsor Castle, with HRH in attendance.

Curmudgeonly old Jack Scott ducked in with a quick look at the Weather followed by Disney’s first contribution of the day: The Donald Duck Story – part 1. tom thumb (yes, all in lower-case) followed. Starring Russ Tamblyn as the titular “tom”, this 1958 film blessedly gave way to Top of the Pops at 2pm. Peter Powel and that Despicable Little Toad did the honours, with Mike Reid hosting a review of the year’s records on 31 December.

Meanwhile, ITV had a slightly better run at it in the morning, dispensing quickly with The Moderator’s Christmas Message (in Scotland), Worzel’s Christmas Special showed up at 9am. Now this was more like it, featuring turns from Barbara Windsor (the superbly named Saucy Nancy), Billy Connolly, Bill Maynard and Bill Pertwee alongside the mighty-nosed Jon Pertwee at his comedic best. Written, as ever, by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall this edition had the quintessential episode title: “A Cup O’ Tea An’ A Slice O’ Cake”. Superb.

But then it was back to those religious commitments and Christmas Family Worship. At midday ITV chucked on The Three Lives of Thomasina; Disney again with a 1964 effort about a witch who heals animals. Amazingly enough, Patrick McGoohan starred. The obsequious Alastair Burnett then put in an appearance, toadying to the royal family with A Wedding in the Family which looked back to 29 July and that “wedding of the century” – namely Charles and Diana.

As ever, both BBC1 and ITV showed The Queen at 3pm (BBC2 picked it up at 6.35pm). The Beeb then dished up another Christmas day edition of Larry Grayson’s Generation Game. ITV, however, plunged on into “The James Bond Film” picking the oldest one from the canon, Dr No.

Disney got strike three of the day at 4.10pm with their adventure film In Search of the Castaways starring Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier on BBC1. “Enjoy it”, Radio Times advised us. Things improved however with the first ever Christmas day edition of Jim’ll Fix It: “Dear Jim, Please may I … Have a new set of angels wings? Go to Disneyland? Spend my 105th birthday by the sea? Work for Father Christmas?” The evening on BBC1 would continue – for a bit – in this improved vein.

Back over on ITV, Eamonn Andrews was on the prowl again looking for a celeb to hijack in This Is Your Life, before we joined Mel Brooks, James Colbourne, Bob Hope and Telly Savalas for ITV’s third film of the day, The Muppet Movie. Never as acerbic or funny as the TV series, this was still fairly enjoyable stuff. Going on into the evening one of ITV’s new hit shows was afforded the Christmas Day honour. Thus Jeremy Beadle, Sarah Kennedy, Matthew Kelly and Henry Kelly all bounded down the stairs (the latter doubtlessly buttoning his blazer as he did so) for Game for a Laugh. Fast turning into an annual engagement, Dennis Norton followed on, annoyingly delaying the next cache of funny clips by pondering “h-h-h-have you ever noticed” inIt’ll Be Alright On the Night 3.

ITN turned up at 9.30pm to give us five minutes of news before we were then tipped into another film, Harry and Walter Go To New York. Finally Barry Took and The King’s Singers brought us up to Late Call and the closedown with We Six Kings. Music director for this was Howard Goodall, who would achieve some infamy with the closing themes for Blackadder and Red Dwarf at the tail end of the decade.

All in all, a bit of a disappointing day on the third channel, which peaked with Worzel in the morning and never really came back. Back on BBC1 things were a little better. First up at 6.35pm was 40 minutes of Paul Daniels in his Magical Christmas. At 7.15pm this year’s big-hitter sitcom Last of the Summer Wine ambled out. In an episode entitled “Whoops”, Compo, Clegg and Foggy looked up some old schoolmates in an effort to recapture the Christmas spirit of bygone days. With hilarious results. Even better was to follow, with The Two Ronnies and their superlative guest stars Sheena Easton and Chas & Dave. Buried deep down in the Ronnies’ writing credits could be found the benefactor of some of the Beeb’s future Christmas hits, David Renwick, who this year was also taken on by Mike Yarwood to contribute to his tenth (count ‘em!) Christmas Special.

The nation still bewitched by the Ewing clan, a normal episode of Dallas was punted at us at 8.35pm, followed by the TV premiere of Loophole, a bank heist film made the previous year and starring Albert Finney. Moira Stuart popped up at 11.05pm to bring the day’s main news (all 10 minutes of it) and then it was – as it ever was – Parky with Parkinson on Comedy. Here was a compilation of his encounters with the likes of Dave Allen, Rowan Atkinson, Cannon & Ball (who were very much in the ascendant as we will find out later in these logs) and Kenneth Williams. Finally, packing us off to bed we found those blood-giving folkies The Spinners at the Spa for a musical celebration of Christmas.

Outside of Christmas Day itself, the Beeb’s most notable programme was a Grange Hill special on 28 December written by Phil Redmond from a storyline by Paul Manning. Manning was the 16 year old winner of a competition run by Blue Peter to come up with a story for the Hill at Christmas. How many other young prospective writers must have fumed as Manning outlined his winning entry which culminated in Tucker and co enjoying themselves at a disco (rather than getting chased by the local nutjobs which is really what we wanted)? In a spate of scheduling bliss, this episode went out before the premiere of K9 and Company (of which more,elsewhere).

As expected, grumpy old BBC2 remained resolutely stony-faced throughout, fulfilling their Play School commitment at 11am (Carol Leader and Ben Thomas this time) and then shutting down for another couple of hours. No opera this year, but this was more than made up for by the inclusion of a Russian film (Dersu Uzala) and Margot Fonteyn Introduces The London Festival Ballet. Lowlight of the BBC2 day, however: Sounds of Christmas in which Richard Stilgoe introduced a concert of carols and Christmas music, featuring various choral groups and ensemble bands. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo … and out.

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1982

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“Every year for the last seven years we’ve had the wife’s family up for Christmas dinner. This year, for a change, we’re going to let them in.”

This year Christmas fell on a Saturday. This had little impact on the BBC who would churn out another schedule very much like last year’s, but for ITV it meant that LWT were calling the shots. ITV’s day, then, commenced with Liza Minelli stepping into her mother Judy Garland’s shoes and taking a Journey Back to Oz. This 1971 animated sequel reconvened the old gang from The Wizard of Oz and – as is the wont of sequels – also shoehorned in a new character less appealing than the originals. Jack Pumpkinhead took on the Ewok/Batgirl/Scrappy-Do role here. And if you thought starting the day off with a rubbish film was a sour portent of things to come, you’d be right.

Meanwhile the BBC yet again slammed on something for the younger viewers as they too set out their stall with some animated antics and The All-New Pink Panther Show. This year’s first sojourn to a religious service, however, was notionally enlivened by the presence of Paul Daniels who fronted Carols from Buckfast. The fun-sized conjuror had been musing on Christmas presents this year, and concluded that he least wanted to receive aftershave: “I never wear it. I’ve got bottles of the stuff all over the bathroom. I’m sexy enough without all that. I don’t need it.” The “sexy” star would, he revealed, be spending Christmas with his mum and dad and getting “stuffed to the gills”. The Christmas Parade followed, featuring The Queen’s Lifeguard and the sons and daughters of The Household Cavalry and The Scots Guards, all enjoying a “special television request party” presided over by the unlikely and unappealing coupling of Simon Bates and Floella Benjamin.

At around 10.30am both ITV and BBC1 dropped in on those annual Christmas Morning Services. The Beeb brought us St Chad’s Church in Lichfield, whilst ITV looked-in on the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady, St John’s Wood, London. Whilst BBC1 then returned to cartoons (Racoons on Ice, featuring the voice of Leo Sayer!) ITV shoved on another film, an adaptation of Enid Blyton’s “The Island of Adventure”. BBC1 followed suit at 12.05pm and brought us Anthony Newley and David Hemmings in Mister Quilp, a musical version of Dickens’ “Old Curiosity Shop” and, like The Island of Adventure, this was its first showing on British telly.

Come 2pm and at last we reached our regular Christmas Day highlight, Top of the Pops on BBC1. And a veritable Christmas party it was too with Peter Powell, John Peel, Dave Lee Travis, Steve Wright, Andy Peebles, Richard Skinner, Tommy Vance, Mike Smith and Mike Read all in attendance. If there’d be an outbreak of fatal food poisoning at that Christmas nosh-up we’d have been in a situation akin to the Manchester United air crash, with only poor old Sir Jim left to shoulder the burden of light banter and the propagation of repulsive sweaters. This year there was to be but one TOTP over the festive season.

Almost in protest at this DJ-ing centre of excellence, ITV threw on Andy Williams’ Christmas Special; “a musical journey back in time, recapturing the spirt and joy of an early 19th century Christmas.” Herein was the mum and dad’s version of the TOTP party.

As ever, the Queen revealed her annus to the Commonwealth at 3pm, before more films took us through the afternoon on the two channels. On BBC1 it was the premiere of International Velvet, a sequel to the Elizabeth Taylor 1944 film National Velvet (which BBC1 had shown on Christmas Day in 1977). Tatum O’Neal picked up the reins as the plucky young jockey, whilst Nanette Newman took over Taylor’s role as a now grown-up Velvet. Somewhat improbably the horse featured in this one was supposed to be the offspring of “Pi” featured in the 1944 version. Over on ITV, things were rather less exciting as hoary old Disney film The Parent Trap padded out the afternoon.

Still remaining roughly in step come early evening both channels brought us 10 minutes of news, and then it was Christmas Special time. Establishing an enjoyable tradition, Jim’ll Fix Itreturned for its second year at Christmas. This time: “Dear Jim, Please may I … Visit Ken Dodd’s jam butty mines? Sing with Val Doonican? Help Father Christmas pack his sack?” A new series of Jim’ll was to follow on 3 January. ITV’s effort was the redoubtable 3-2-1. This year Ted Rogers and guests mounted an investigation into the source of Christmas cheer and introduced us to The Brian Rogers Connection.

At 6pm Paul Daniels was back on BBC1, with a cornucopia of special guests to accompany him: Floella Benjamin (her second appearance of the day too), Lorraine Chase, Billy Dainty, Jill Gascoine, Lucinda Green, Rolf Harris (who’d been sadly lacking from Christmas Day thus far this year), Nerys Hughes, Barbara Kelly, Patrick Moore, Tim Rice, Barry Took and Kenneth Williams all providing a foil for the rapscallion Daniels and his Bronco Booth. This was followed by seasonal editions of Last of the Summer Wine and The Two Ronnies making this early-evening section an exact repeat of last year’s line-up.

Back over on ITV, and things were looking familiar here too as the Game for a Laugh gang bounded back onto the LWT set for another Christmas of leg-pulling. “Real people are the stars and anything goes when we reveal that children are also Game for a Laugh” went the pre-publicity somewhat ominously. Staying within the LWT stable Bruce Forsyth’s Play Your Cards Right took us up to the 8pm mark where it was movie time on both channels.

Both ITV and BBC1 hit us with British TV premieres. On BBC1 it was Death on the Nile, a fairly classy effort featuring “philosopher” Peter Ustinov in this Agatha Christie whodunnit. Less appealing was the frankly awful The Black Hole on ITV, a woeful Disney take on the Star Warssaga, featuring the crew of the USS Palomino and, in an era of cutesy robots (R2D2, Twiki, K9, Metal Mickey) the cutesiest of them all. Whilst Death on the Nile chugged on for a mammoth two hours 15 minutes, The Black Hole was over and done with by 9.50pm. With a shudder we then took up our invitations to Chas and Dave’s Christmas Knees Up, clocking the guests Jim Davidson, Eric Clapton, Lenny Peters, Jimmy Cricket, Albert Lee and Cosmotheka upon our arrival. Unsurprisingly we had LWT to thank for this ghastly shindig.

Post 10pm as always found the channels winding down, and never as obviously as with Perry Como on BBC 1. This was followed by The Signalman at 11.30pm – Andrew Davies’ adaptation of a Charles Dickens ghost story. Finally, and for the second year running it was Christmas With The Spinners, Tony, Mick, Cliff and Hughie singing out Christmas with their “navvy boots on” – probably.

Over on ITV Cleo and John featured an eclectic mix of musical guests (from Johnny Dankworth, Julian Lloyd-Webber and The Master Singers to … Rowan Atkinson?) bringing us an hour of pop, jazz and classical standards. Our final stop of the day was at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, but this was no throwback to those ’70s Meet the Kids efforts. Instead the programme featured the hospital’s radio station, Radio GOSH and followed the making of their own Christmas programme. In Granadaland, however, the night ended up a little differently. At 11.55pm they stuck on another film, The Triple Echo (an overwrought piece featuring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed) before bringing us Radio GOSH at 1.30am.

It should also be noted that the Beeb reverted back to a variation on Christmas Night with the Stars on Boxing Day (falling on 27 December this year) with The Funny Side of Christmas. Hosted by Frank Muir this 80 minute extravaganza featured mini-episodes of hit BBC comedies such as Yes MinisterSorryOnly Fools and HorsesThe Les Dawson ShowSmith and Jones,Three of a KindLast of the Summer WineReggie PerrinButterflies and Open All Hours. TheFools contribution, “Christmas Trees” saw Del trying to sell telescopic Christmas trees.

The year was notable for the inclusion of a new channel into the Christmas line-up, Channel 4. Establishing a trend it would rigidly stick to thereafter, it put on little to reflect the season. Thus on C4 you could check out “top American illusionist” Mark Wilson performing magic tricks in China, catch-up with goings-on in the Close thanks to the Brookside omnibus, and laugh at Olivier’s “classic” interpretation of Richard III to round off the night. A winter of discontent indeed. The only bright spot came on 26 December with the first showing of The Snowman, the adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ story. For one young chorister from Wales, life was about to change dramatically … and for us viewers it introduced a mainstay in the Christmas schedules.

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1983

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“And no royal Christmas party would be complete with charades, popular with the Royal Family through five generations. As in television’s Give Us A Clue, they divide into two teams to act out film, play, TV or song titles.”

After last year’s effort many would have vowed “never again” at the thought of another ITV Christmas. However, much like Sean Connery who creaked across our cinema screens this December flinging bottles of urine at Cornish wrestlers, it turned into a case of Never Say Never Again, as ITV stumped up with a much improved line-up.

This being a Sunday the morning started with Rub-A-Dub-Tub’s Christmas Day Special from TV-am with Bonnie Langford, Alan Dart and husband and wife Edward Woodward and Michele Dotrice joining in the fun. At 8am it was Christmas with TV-am, which featured the first real utilisation of sick kids for some years as Chris Tarrant reported from the Queen Mary hospital for children. Finally, giving us what we wanted, TV-am went off the air with Roland’s Winter Wonderland. Roland, Kevin, Errol et al broadcasted from their alpine retreat.

After The Moderator’s Christmas Message (in Scotland) at 9.25am we were brought a mercifully brief The Sound of Children before a, briefer still, teaser for the impending arrival of the Jim Henson series Fraggle Rock. This five-minute prequel entitled The Fraggles are Coming surely wins the prize for the most incongruous Christmas Day programme screened by either of the Big Two. Keeping things bite-sized Messengers to Earth was a mere 25 minutes of song put on by the Sheldon Theatre Company in Devon. Being an amusing concept with angels preparing in a celestial “ops room” for the birth of Christ, its relative brevity was probably the soul of any wit here.

At 10.20am, however, something of a revolution took place. As the rest of the ITV network succumbed to the Christmas Morning Service, STV delighted central Scotland with an hour ofGlen Michael’s Christmas Cavalcade. Derived from the regular Glen Michael’s Cavalcade, this fusty old kid’s programme is rightly celebrated by the Scots, featuring Glen (a sort of Casey Kasem via Glendarroch), Rusty (a dog) and Paladin (a lamp) this was stultifyingly awful fodder, built around a mélange of second-rate cartoons (Roger RamjetBatfink – you know the score). The regular highlight would be when Glen would stop the cartoon, and appear within the frozen frame himself thanks to the “magic of television”. “Watch out Spider-Man!” he’d helpfully holler, “It’s the Green Goblin!” before side-stepping out of the picture and allowing the animation to crank up again.

Christmas isn’t Christmas without some sort of ice-skating special, and though The Magic Planet (an ice extravaganza about an astronaut who lands on an alien planet and falls in love with their queen) wasn’t a patch on Runaround on ice three years ago, it filled the brief adequately.

And so to 12.15am and our first film of only three on ITV today: the made-for-TV The Capture of Grizzly Adams. Following was The Royal Year, an hour of highlights from the Queen’s foreign visits this year. In fact, ITV seemed to be very much in love with the royals throughout 1983, devoting their TV Times Christmas edition to a dreadful front cover painting depicting an imaginary scene of Charles and Diana plus sprog bedecking a Christmas tree. Additionally the paper also ran a cut-out and keep royal scrap book over several editions.

After the Queen’s speech it was big movie time with Superman. This good-natured effort from 1978 boasted quite an incredible cast featuring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp and Susannah York. Remaining buoyant ITV followed this up with the Bullseye Christmas Special, and again we had quite a cast list to conjure with: Jim Bowen, Eric Bristow, Kenneth Kendall, Anne Diamond, Judith Hann and special guest scorer Anne Aston. If it wasn’t enough to have this ex-Golden Shot-er back on the telly, than surely the sight of Kenneth Kendall stepping up to the oche made this truly one of the highlights of Christmas ‘83.

After all 10 minutes of the day’s news it was A Royal Concert of Carols at 6.35pm, carols from a hospital choir at a concert in aid of the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children. Commendable, yes, great telly, no. Interestingly the programme was directed by David Liddiment, ITV overlord in waiting.

And so it was 7.15pm and finally LWT got in on the act. Firstly it was a run of the mill edition ofBruce Forsyth’s Play Your Cards Right, which was then followed by ITV’s big number this year,Jimmy Tarbuck’s Christmas All Stars. Tarbuck’s first Christmas show for the third channel in 10 years was basically just another reinvention of the Beeb’s Christmas Night with the Starsformat. Fittingly Bruce Forsyth showed up here as well, prompting Tarby to remember wistfully his first TV appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1963, when Brucie had been hosting. Included in the programme was a pocket-sized edition of Game for a Laugh with the four tricksters still in fine fettle. Cannon and Ball were there too (who had just graduated to their own Christmas Special which went out on 17 December), whilst Robert Wagner, Stephanie Powers and David Hasselhoff (amongst others) contributed via a satellite link.

Our last film today on ITV was Revenge of the Pink Panther, the last fully fledged film in the series (Trail of the Pink Panther made after Peter Sellers’ death being a collection of outtakes thrown into a new plot). ITV then surprised us with a second ITN News today (still only 10 minutes though) winding down the night with The King’s Singers in The King’s Christmas, and at 11.45pm sub-M*A*S*H effort, House Calls (“the staff at Kensington Hospital throw a Christmas show”). All in all this had been one of the stronger Christmas Days on ITV.

And beyond the Day itself could be found some of our favourite Christmas stalwarts with theGive Us A Clue Christmas edition (guest stars: Jane Asher, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Jilly Cooper, Russell Grant, Tracey Ullman and – incredibly – Bob Geldof), The Spy Who Loved Me and Eric and Ernie’s Christmas Show all falling upon Boxing Day. Notably, here too was Minder with “Christmas Bonus”. This series would play one of the most notable roles in the TV scheduling wars in just a few years time.

So what had BBC1 laid on this year? Christmas Day started off looking awfully familiar with those persistent Raccoons followed by the usual carol services. Our annual 10.20am church visit this year came from The Mint Methodist Church in Exeter. At 11.20am “make way for Rolf Harris, little convict Toby and YoYo the dancing koala – all star attractions in this Australian family film” said Radio Times. The Little Convict mixed cartoon characters and live-action backdrops – an unusual inclusion for sure. Ziggy’s Gift followed with music by Harry Nilsson, but singularly failing to set everybody talking on Christmas Day. And then, as if things couldn’t get any more perplexing at 1.05pm it was Glitterball, from The Children’s Film Foundation (as seen on Screen Test). Even Radio Times had to concede “technical skill and imagination help to offset a low budget.” Despite being a TV premiere there was nothing remotely Christmassy about it, making it a baffling contribution to the day.

Come 2pm and we were able to orientate ourselves once more with Top of the Pops ‘83. Featuring a gaggle of Radio 1 DJs this year saw the restoration of the two part Pops with a second edition going out on 29 December. At 3.15pm Sabina Franklyn, Roy Kinnear, Ruth Madoc, Patrick Moore, Beryl Reid and Freddie Starr filled in the blanks, and then we were back into another film:Treasure Island.

The third annual Christmas Jim’ll Fix It rolled along at 5.35pm with the bejewelled one this year fixing it for an 11-year old to be a Hi-De-Hi! yellowcoat, two pupils from a school for the blind to ride at the Horse of the Year Show, an 8-year old Father Christmas and – quite usefully – an item on cracking walnuts. Catching everyone off-guard at 6.15pm, BBC1 threw another carol service at us before getting on with the business of Christmas Specials proper. As ever, The Two Ronnies put in an appearance, however they were followed by something quite exciting: a new episode of All Creatures Great and Small. This was the first time the cast had been together since 1980 when the show had been apparently packed up for good. All of the actors felt quite happy upon returning, although Carol Drinkwater was still smarting from the adverse press reaction she had received during the making of the original series when it had come to light she was having an affair with Christopher Timothy. “I got a name based on lies which I still don’t think I’ve lived down” she said, before adding “And it was wonderful to work with Christopher Timothy again [on this new episode]“. Steady on, Carol!

At 9.35pm Only Fools and Horses rightfully graduated to a Christmas Day episode and did not disappoint. In “Thicker Than Water” Del and Rodney’s father (played by David Jason look-alike Peter Woodthorpe) returned to Peckham, looking to fleece his sons. At 30 minutes this was the best thing on all day. From these peaks, however, BBC1 bottomed-out again with a boring David Niven film Better Late Than Never, and bidding fare thee well to Christmas Day, The Spinners at York.

Overall, ITV had probably aced it this year, despite having nothing comparable with the best of the Beeb’s offerings, they had laid on a stronger schedule.

Of the “minority” channels, Channel 4 had a half-hearted crack at it bringing us a Father’s Day Christmas Special (middle of the road sitcom starring John Alderton which was so cheap that he wore his own clothes and brought in pictures from home to dress the set) and Twice Knightly (The Barron Knights’ “unique entertainment special”). The Snowman was trotted out for its second year on 29 December, this time with an introduction by David Bowie. Meanwhile, on BBC2 we found a channel that couldn’t even be bothered to start until 2pm (so, no Christmas Story from Play School again this year). Highlights of their day were a Christmas Henry’s Cat(always great fun) and one of The Marx Brother’s best films Duck Soup (which BBC1 would trot out on New Year’s Day 1985). Despite this, it seemed that as ever, there was to be no Sanity Clause on BBC2.

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1984

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“Eric Morecambe has gone, but the laughter he left behind is still ringing in our ears.”

Christmas 1984 saw the end of one great telly tradition, and the start of another. In May this year Eric Morecambe collapsed after a charity show and died, thus bringing down a rather final curtain on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials. Nevertheless, this Christmas they appeared on both BBC1 and ITV with Ernie Wise Introduces The Morecambe and Wise Classics on New Year’s Eve on the Beeb (a retrospective clip show), and Bring Me Sunshine – A Tribute to Eric Morecambe, OBE on ITV (being a tribute concert from the London Palladium featuring a wide range of stars from Michael Aspel to Mike Yarwood). Who said that death was good for the career? This was the first Christmas Day slot the duo had landed for four years.

And as for new traditions, at 11.05am, in that post-Christmas Morning Family Service slot came The Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show. This one would run and run in various guises for the next 15 years.

So here we are, then, a Merry Christmas 1984 style. BBC1’s line up this time round was pretty good, and the omens were favourable when finally Play School was back on Christmas Day, albeit now on BBC1. Carol Chell and Brian Jameson did the honours. The chirpy Christopher Lillicrap followed on with Busker’s Christmas Story before just under two hours of religion. Firstly the BBC Welsh Chorus with Born in Bethlehem and then that Morning Service. This year it came from Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast.

As mentioned already at 11.05am came Noel Edmond’s Christmas Day debut. In a format spun-off from the popular Late Late Breakfast Show Noel stayed in the HQ (which was famously the Telecom Tower) whilst Mike “Smitty” Smith went on the road with the roving OB unit. Mixed up in all this was the usual capering and stunts (although without any fatalities) and the BBC “hollycopter” which threatened to drop in on viewers’ homes. Yes, perhaps the whole thing was unappealing, however it was a massively confident initiative by the BBC to lay on a 90 minute live programme as complex as this one on arguably the most important day in the telly calendar. It’s of no surprise that they then chose to bung on hoary old Blue Murder at St Trinian’s afterwards and put their feet up.

At 2pm, this year’s Top of the Pops Christmas Special dispensed with the DJs altogether and instead the featured acts presented. Thus we had Culture Club, Jim Diamond, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Howard Jones, Nil Kershaw, Thompson Twins, Wham! and Paul Young. There would again be a twin programme as Top of the Pops Review of 1984 went out on 27 December, but still with none of the Radio 1 gang involved – instead Lenny Henry hosted.

After The Queen at 3pm came one of the definitive Christmas Day films, Mary Poppins. This filled in the afternoon nicely, perfect fare for the day. After a quick news summary at 5.25pm, it was time for some Light Entertainment. Christmas Blankety Blank found the superbly laconic Les Dawson hosting. Earlier in the year Dawson had taken the role over from Terry Wogan, with some apprehension: “I was a little doubtful when it was first suggested and that is why I insisted on doing two pilots that never went out before making a final decision.” However, Dawson had quickly gone on to ensnare a regular audience of 12 million and conceded himself, “it took about a month to win the critics over – and it was very satisfying when it happened.” This year’s Christmas line-up of celebs conformed to both the quality threshold and seating plan laid out by numerous episodes before it. Starting at the back row from left to right there was Russell Harty, Ruth Madoc and Derek Nimmo. The front row went: Suzanne Danielle, Ken Dodd and Lorraine Chase (the latter surely the quintessential Blank guest, only to be rivaled by Sandra Dickinson).

Our first sitcom of the day rolled in at 6.05pm. Hi-De-Hi! was still doing great business for the BBC, despite the absence of Simon Cadell. This episode represented the last in the present series. Then it was, as we have come to expect, The Paul Daniels Magic Christmas Show. Amongst the usual bizarre cast list could be found – liking it, but not a lot – Robert Maxwell. John Sullivan then landed his second Christmas Day in a row with the Just Good Friends’ Special. This was a mammoth effort running at 90 minutes. Whilst never as enjoyable as Only Fools and Horses (which this time managed only a showing on Christmas Eve, “Diamonds Are For Heather”, and that was a repeat) there was still much to like about this series once you got past the awful Paul Nicholas cocktail bar theme. Adding a sense of familiarity back into the evening, The Two Ronnies followed.

After the news came the welcome inclusion of Wogan into the Christmas Day line up, supplanting Parky from his regular slot. El Tel chatted to Freddie Starr, Dame Kiri Te Kananwa (always to be rolled out somewhere at Christmas time), Elton John and Victoria Principal. This was an amiable enough line up and nicely scheduled as an undemanding night cap. To end the day the Beeb stuck on the Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis farce Some Like it Hot. After some of the dodgy line ups of previous years, 1984 showed a rather more confident BBC, assured that its homegrown programmes could do the business. It’s interesting to note that the most modern film shown by the channel today had been Mary Poppins from 1964.

Outside of Christmas Day it is worth noting that the first run of the children’s programme The Box of Delights came to a conclusion on Christmas Eve. This was a superb adaptation (if ill-disciplined) of John Masefield’s book and would for many signal the end of the line for this sort of quality children’s drama on the Beeb. The other highlight of Christmas Eve showed up in the shape of an old man, sporting ill-advised leisure wear and the coiffure of Catweazle: “Dear Jim, please … can Father Christmas come in the summer? Say we shall go to the ball? Let me ‘Sing in the rain’ with Tommy Steele?”

BBC2, of course, remained as snooty as ever with Charlie Chaplin films, a Noel Coward play and Pavarotti at Madison Square Garden.

By comparison it was a fairly rum day on ITV. The TV-am mob were out in force at 6.25am forGood Morning Britain’s Christmas Party which saw the company once again digging up the “sick kids” format, with Roland Rat phoning children in hospital. The morning continued, up to the Christmas service, devoted to younger viewers, with Cartoon TimeThomas the Tank Engine and Friends and Emu at Christmas featuring the dreadful Grotbags and the even more dreadful kids from the Corona Stage School.

This year’s Christmas Morning Service came from St George’s Cathedral in Windsor , and was followed by The Little Rascals Christmas Special – an updating of the characters made famous in films of the ’30s and ’40s, as if anyone cared. Come 1.15pm and here was ITV’s most audacious attempt to steal the Beeb’s thunder for some years; Top Pop Videos of ‘84 blatantly trampled on TOTP’s ground, thoughtfully finishing up at 2pm when the real thing was about to start on BBC1.

The requisite ice extravaganza featured, unsurprisingly, Torvill and Dean in an hour of repackaged highlights from their career. Dull stuff, indeed. After the Queen at 2pm ITV rolled out “The James Bond Film” – incredibly this was again The Man With the Golden Gun which featured in their Christmas Day line up of 1980. Things finally started to look up come 5.30pm with Give Us A Clue back on Christmas Day. By now Parky was the host, and this year’s guests were Julia McKenzie, Spike Milligan, Nicola Pagett, Wayne Sleep, Julie Walters and Bernie Winters. A curious and eclectic selection, but entertaining surely. As mentioned above the tribute to Eric Morecambe followed at 6pm, and ran for a tremendous 150 minutes. A marathon by any standards, and rather overstaying its welcome.

By 8.30pm we were back on track with the enjoyable Raiders of the Lost Ark – finally a commendable film on ITV. Mirroring Wogan, Des O’Connor popped up at 10.45pm, and then we were into the dregs of evening with “The Christmas Night Thriller” Home for the Holidaysstarring Sally Fields. After the relative triumphs of last year, ITV was back in the doldrums.

Channel 4 meanwhile succeeded in being both utterly impenetrable (black and white French film Jour de Fete) and bawdily populist (See How They Run, a Ray Cooney farce starring Derek Nimmo and Christopher Timothy). A most perplexing turnout, as ever.

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1985

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“I’ve never known a year like it. Talk about hectic … To be honest, the fuss that is sometimes made when we’re playing the theatres scares me. It’s like The Beatles.”

15 years ago might not seem like a long time. However, take a look at the stars rolled out for 1985’s Christmas telly, and you are taking a glimpse into a light entertainment firmament that you probably thought died out at the end of the ’70s. TV Times’ editor Antony Peagam ponders “what are the TV blockbusters this holiday fortnight” before alighting upon “Christmas Day’s Minder on the Orient ExpressThe Best of Morecambe and Wise (Christmas Eve) … and of course, the galaxy of talent that’s due on screen in a host of specials: Freddie Starr, Cannon and Ball, Mike Yarwood, the Grumbleweeds,Copy Cats, snooker-man Dennis Taylor … and Des O’Connor”.

To our sophisticated eyes, it would be difficult to compile a more derisory line-up. Yet over at the BBC, things were only slightly better as Noel Edmonds, Terry Wogan, Kenny Everett, Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Ruth Madoc, Les Dawson, the cast of Only Fools and Horses, Terry and June, Bob Monkhouse, The Two Ronnies, Paul Daniels, and Keith Harris were pulled from the top drawer of entertainment. For those of us who recall Christmas ‘85, it is sobering to reflect that five out of the 17 wheeled out now ply their trade in the comedy afterlife.

So to Christmas Day and the BBC began – as usual – catering for the kids. Fresh from TV-am, the BBC announced (rather tongue-in-cheek) that they were “thrilled to present one of the most sensitive performing artistes … in a sparkling celebration of his historic move to the BBC”.Roland’s Yuletide Binge’s guest list (including Russell Grant, Frankie Howerd and Jan Leeming) confirmed that the Beeb hoped to retain the rat’s anarchic disregard for popular mainstream telly. Noel followed up at 11.55am with the latest in his seasonal Surprise Surprise-type Christmas extravaganzas. However, this would be the last time he’d trade under the name ofThe Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show.

Top of the Pops Christmas Party counted down the top selling records of the year in the company of (amongst others) Dead or Alive and Billy Ocean. The presenters were studiously billed by Radio Times in alphabetical order. Our contemporary understanding of the egos at force at Radio 1 during this time casts new light on this seemingly insignificant fact. Yet someone had to get (nominal) top billing. Congratulations then, to “ooh” Gary Davies who could gleefully show off his Christmas edition of Radio Times for years to come.

After Pops and the traditional look in on Her Majesty, BBC1 then unveiled a classic afternoon/evening schedule that ensnared viewers for the remainder of the day. A celeb packedChildren’s Royal Variety Performance was followed up by a quartet of bonafide hits: All Creatures Great and SmallHi-De-Hi!Only Fools and Horses and The Two Ronnies took us right through to 10pm. Unsurprisingly the Beeb had a clean sweep of the Christmas top 10 ratings this year. However, this was a watershed Christmas in many ways: being the last in which EastEnders would fail to pay an important part in their Christmas strategy, and providing us with the last decent Only Fools and Horses special for 11 years (the great jewel caper “To Hull And Back”).

BBC2 – as usual attempted to offer up an alternative to BBC1. American nostalgia dominated the schedules with Fred Astaire’s The Man in the Santa Claus Suit and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane bookending the daytime broadcast. Kane was BBC2’s opening salvo in a season of films dedicated to the great man who – incredibly – only died in October of that year. Gyles Brandreth and Hinge and Bracket were the minority channel’s entertainment powerhouse in the early evening with the be-sweatered one’s comedic A Prize Perfomance. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Film Buff of the Year (when was the last time “buff” was used on national telly?) and French filmDiva ensured that the more sober viewer had a watching alternative to take them through to the end of the day.

TV-am began your ITV Christmas morning in 1985. This was to be an inauspicious start to a schedule that – although trying hard – was to be resoundingly beaten by the BBC. “The James Bond Film” Moonraker momentarily lit up the schedules at 3.05pm (perfect post-turkey viewing), yet instead of attempting to string together hits, ITV followed this with a seasonal episode of Name That Tune (in which “one lucky contestant … could take home £1250″).Coronation Street was oddly apportioned 35 minutes at 6.10pm and then we were straight intoFresh Fields Christmas Special. As a series that had never truly caught the public’s imagination, here was proof that ITV would never be able to outgun the competition when in came to Christmas specials. At 7.30pm, ITV rolled out their ace card: heavily billed and adorning the Christmas edition of TV Times Minder on the Orient Express was comprehensively outgunned by Only Fools (broadcast at the same time) by almost 5 million viewers. At a stroke,OFAH became a national institution and last orders were called on Arthur and Tel who – arguably – never recovered from this humiliating defeat. Des O’Connor struggled on gamely at 9.30pm with top guests(?) including “Alan King, and Willie Tyler and Lester”, yet here was to be all the proof needed to confirm that 1985 was again not to be ITV’s year.

Like BBC2, Channel 4 looked overseas to fill up its Christmas day schedule. French comedies, an off peak Marx Brothers film (At The Circus), Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks allowed us some respite from the Big Two’s packages of hit after hit. Channel 4’s only homegrown contribution to the day’s festivities was a The Mind of David Berglas Christmas Special. Afforded a status denied most other dime store magicians, this really was Paul Daniels-esque stuff (who was missing his first Christmas for some years) albeit in a more cerebral setting. The late lamented Graham Chapman guested on this one. Could you ever see him helping out the Beeb’s be-wigged conjuror?

So a resounding success for the master of the schedules – Michael Grade. This was a year in which the BBC had an abundance of “hot property” and ITV a litany of mediocre stars that believed their own hype. As to who uttered the quote that began this year’s log? Well, would you believe that the performer aligning himself alongside the Beatles was none other than ITV’s star property Bobby Ball? Obviously, big changes were required on the third channel.

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1986

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“Anything can happen in Last of the Summer Wine and Christmas is no exception – especially when Compo is persuaded to clamber on to Nora Batty’s roof disguised as Santa Claus.”

Just over one year old, and EastEnders is already important enough for Radio Times to feature as the cover star for their Christmas Number. This was the year in which a combined figure of 27.87 million – adding together its first transmission and subsequent omnibus repeat – tuned in to watch Den carve up that old bird, Angie. If Christmas TV ‘86 is to be remembered for anything, then let it be for the spark which sent EastEnderssupernova.

Besides this, there is little else memorable in the festive offerings served up that year. ITV was pinning its hopes on the unlikely trio of TV Times cover stars Torville, Dean and Dumbo the Elephant. The icing skating duo graced “one of the biggest sets ever made for television”, whereas Dumbo was to be shown on British television for the first time ever. If this was ITV’s “A list” then it is no surprise to find that there is little else for the commercial channel to crow about. The theme of this year’s 3-2-1 Christmas Special is – TV Times informs – unsurprisingly “pantomime, and the inspiration is Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.” What else can we look forward to this Christmas on ITV? 12 months on and this august channel is still trying to convince us of the phenomenon that is Cannon and Ball: “they continue on the road to becoming Britain’s most successful double act – but they live in fear of one day finding the magic has gone. ‘We’ve no idea what makes the act work’ says Tommy Cannon. ‘We don’t know what we’ve got. And, frankly we don’t want to know. We’re both afraid that if we analysed it, it would go away’”. Obviously at some point they succumbed to the temptation.

The BBC’s policy over this festive period seemed to be an attempt to repeat last year’s trick, but with added soap. So we got Christmas specials of such hardy perennials as Last of the Summer Wine‘Allo ‘AlloJust Good Friends and (predictably) Only Fools and Horses. For those of you looking for real comedy though, best seek out Channel 4’s welcome, but intriguing decision to re-screen Do Not Adjust Your Stocking.

Just before plunging into the Christmas Day schedules let’s take a moment to observe with derision ITV’s A Christmas Night of One Hundred Stars; which featured (amongst others) Stu Francis, Michael Kilgarriff, Roger DeCourcey, The Copy Cats, Norman Collier and (get this) Gordon Honeycombe.

Honeycombe turns up too on the Christmas day edition of Good Morning Britain. By now something of a tradition, presenter Anne Diamond gushes that “working on Christmas Day is something we all want to do. No one wants the day off because we consider ourselves to be a family programme and the Christmas morning show is probably the most family time of the year”. A quadruple dose of religious programmes then followed on STV, ensuring that – at least – ITV’s Scottish viewers will be reminded of the true meaning of Christmas. This, then was incredibly followed by the first in a new series of Trang Trang, a Gaelic programme for young children and then to compound matters it was over to ubiquitous Scot’s kiddies presenter Glen Michael to patrol the wards of the Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh. Thankfully after this the Scots reverted to the ITV Network for the remainder of the day, and by lunchtime were indulging in Disney’s Rob Roy – The Highland Rogue and a 2pm dose of pop courtesy of Ark Royal – The Rock Show. The rest of the day alternated from film to TV special, with Dumbo providing post turkey entertainment and Never Say Never Again, premiering just in time for the mince pies at 6.30pm. The final film premiere of the day was a Peter Ustinov Poirot film, thus ensuring that this was an ITV light of home grown talent. Only Barrymore’s Strike It Lucky and A Duty Free Christmas represented traditional Christmas day specials of “well-loved” programmes.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 presented an eclectic schedule that – this year – has an emphasis on music. Thus, we are able – if inclined – to catch snatches of Wagner, Benjamin Britten, pianist Vladimir Horowitz and Eric Clapton. BBC2, similarly presented a musical Christmas. It was a particularly late start this year for the Beeb’s minority channel as we were forced to endurePages from Ceefax until 12.20pm. Once underway though we are offered high sea adventure with Judy Garland in The Pirate, Mahler’s Symphony Number 5 in The Christmas Day Concertand a portrait of “America’s greatest living composer” Aaron Copland. In between these musical treats of course were the usual mixture of vintage Hollywood and European art movies.

Once again though, it was BBC1 who ruled Christmas Day telly. As mentioned the schedule was eerily similar to the previous year – so we got Roland Rat in the morning and a dose of Noel Edmonds at lunchtime (this time under the aegis of Christmas Morning With Noel). Top of the Pops Christmas Party was back again at 2pm (this time directly up against ITV’s own pop offering). Billy Ocean was back too, and so was Gary Davies, but this time it was Simon Bates who gleaned top billing due only to his alphabetical prowess. And then just as before, BBC1 began banging out the hits, this time starting at 5.25pm with The Russ Abbot Christmas Show. We were then served up Just Good FriendsEastEndersOnly Fools and HorsesMiss Marpleand a second dose of the Albert Square soap. The clever scheduling of EastEnders displayed a canniness that many did not believe the BBC possessed back in those days. The subsequent clean sweep of the ratings (EastEnders achieving seven million more viewers then the number two watched programme that Christmas) signified a television future in which the playful antics of Del Boy and Co would play second fiddle to the anguish emitting from our favourite soapy streets and squares.

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1987

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“Will the Liverpool canniness of Sheila and Billy Grant be enough to counter Lancashire bluntness from Jack and Vera Duckworth or Yorkshire commonsense from Matt and Dolly Skilbeck?”

No, unfortunately this isn’t a Christmas super soap pitting against each other the warring families of the Close, Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm, rather the byline for 1987’s 3-2-1 Christmas special. OTT would love to know who won this “battle of wits”.

So 12 months on and had ITV learned the lessons of the previous couple of years? The Christmas TV Times cover seemed to indicate that the answer was “yes”. A Santa-Claus Bet Lynch could be seen handing Hilda Ogden a present as the tag line proclaimed: “Be sure to share Hilda’s last Christmas on Coronation Street“. Whilst the ITV soap had still not found the courage to run a traumatic story on Christmas Day, here – by virtue of Jean Alexander deciding to call it a day – they had stumbled upon a story big enough to compete with last year’sEastEnders rip-snorter. Such was the popularity of Hilda Ogden, that even the insipid, emotionally cloying, story of the char-lady leaving to live with “Dr Lowther” was able to draw in the Street’s highest ever ratings of 26.6 million. Hilda’s farewell represented the final dismantling of the series’ pivotal triumvirate of strong females: (Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner having departed some years previously) and it was perhaps fitting that so many should bid farewell to the last vestiges of the “old Street“.

A survey carried out in 1987 sought to capture kids’ favourite heroes. An almost exclusively American list told us that The Centurions, She-Ra, Spiderman, Rambo, Inspector Gadget, Mr T, Dangermouse and He-Man were the height of playground cool – each character befitting of their own Grandreams Christmas annual. Yet Christmas Day’s kids telly was still resolutely uncool, with the BBC failing even to stick Roland Rat on Christmas morning. Elsewhere, there was little change at the Beeb, which was obviously still confident of trashing the opposition. So “hello again” to Christmas specials of Only Fools and HorsesHi-De-Hi! and Last of the Summer Wine (“it’s a recipe for chaos” proclaimed Bill Owen of that year’s hilarious storyline). In 1987, vaguely popular, but resolutely un-Christmassy Dear John even got itself a slice of the action as the BBC pinned its hopes on comedy favourites.

BBC1 felt content just to tinker a little with the Christmas day schedules this year. So, Noel found himself shunted even earlier this morning, with a decidedly off-peak 9am start time for hisChristmas Morning with Noel. Still broadcast from the Telecom Tower, the recipe remained unchanged. As way of compensation, however, he was awarded a second bite of the cherry at 11.45am with another 45-minute helping. Radio Times was keen to inform us that we could phone Noel with our “Christmas dedications” on 01-436-8622, not a telephone number that has found its way in to the popular pantheon of phone-in programmes. A welcome Christmas day repeat of Porridge concluded the morning schedule with – perhaps – the first watchable programme of the day. Present and correct at just after 2pm, we found Gary “just great great, tunes” Davies manning the helm for the Pops‘ Yuletide bash. This time though, Davies was to be displaced from the top billing by Mike Smith. Still, it was nice to see that Smitty had been able to find another Christmas Day TV home after having been dumped by Noel 12 months earlier. After TOTP – as in previous years – BBC1 rolled out the big guns. So, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed EastEnders at 3.10pm, and then Russ Abbot was back to take us into the early evening. Familiarity might breed contempt, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it: so, Only FoolsThe Two Ronnies and Miss Marple led us through the evening yet again, until finally In Sickness and in Health provided a slightly morose end to the day. These first Christmas day schedules without Grade played it safe, yet tellingly there were signs of ageing. Just 12 months ago such a line-up would have been a ratings smash, yet here they did not prove even a match for Dennis Norden’s bunch of old television off-cuts.

“This is the fifth year I’ll have got up to work on Christmas morning, but it’s well worth it”, trilled Anne Diamond in ’87’s TV Times Christmas Number. “Last year, more than 16 million people shared their Christmas with us,” (although we should point out: not all in one go Anne), “we have become part of the festive tradition.” In actual fact, due to an ongoing industrial dispute all TV-am had to offer was a rag-bag of imported programmes and a mere snatch of the normal fodder (Anne being so keen to come into work, she broke the picket lines). After that, ITV turned over its schedules for the next 90 minutes to a variety of religious Christmas messages, but – after that – we were suddenly plunged into a deluge of Disney productions. Mickey’s Christmas Carol was followed up with a Christmas Day repeat of Dumbo (from last year). A break from the saccharine of Uncle Walt’s creations came in the form of one of Moore’s best Bonds: The Spy Who Loved Me. After a 10 minute interval in the company of Her Majesty, it was back to the films, as two more Disney productions (Alice in Wonderland and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) ensured ITV had dished out – effectively – five films back to back. Next, ITV unleashed its strongest evening line-up for years. The phenomenally popular Blind Date kicked off at 6.45pm, followed up Hilda’s farewell in the Street. The aforementioned It’ll Be Alright on Christmas Night was next and then at 9pm a Julian Mitchell scripted episode of Inspector Morse. After that it was all over for ITV. But the decision to concentrate their efforts on the early evening seemed – in retrospect – a canny move.

BBC2 and Channel 4 once again chose to concentrate on providing viewers with an alternative to the traditional, populist fare. As before, BBC2 presented a schedule weighted in equal measure toward Hollywood nostalgia, and musical presentations. So Crosby crooned “White Christmas” one more time and Garbo was the subject of a two-hour documentary broadcast at 8.35pm. Echoes of Mahler and Elgar also emanated from our televisions. Amidst this rather traditional mixture, BBC2 broadcast a one-off short Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation: The Story of a Recluse, “an entertaining tale of a gambler, a young man, a pretty girl and the games they all play”.

Channel 4, meanwhile, was entering its first Grade Christmas, and a more populist, eclectic mixture than previous years re-positioned the channel as a more modern alternative. The Story of Abba provided a bright and breezy wake-up for morning viewers, but was rapidly followed by rather more atypical Christmas viewing. For those who persisted with the Christmas Oratorioand The Mysteries: The Nativities, your reward came at 4.30pm with the climax to series 14 ofCountdown. Gyles Brandeth and Carol Thatcher propped up Dictionary Corner as Richard Whitely hosted 45 minutes of the “tense and thrilling final”. The Queen’s speech at 5.15pm was followed by the consolidation of a real Christmas tradition (now in its fifth year) The Snowman. This was real “comfort food” television. Then the mood changed again as Channel 4’s evening schedule presented a diverse offering. A Mozart recital, a Sean Connery movie, Paul Simon singing American Gospel music, the then wildly popular The Golden Girls, a compilation of the best bits of that year’s The Last Resort and then your dad’s favourite: Dire Straits: Live In ‘85 at Wembley Arena ensured there was almost something for everyone (just so long as you were young, or wealthy). In retrospect, the line-up proved somewhat representative of Channel 4’s changing demographic. Appealing to the young and upwardly mobile would serve the channel well, ensuring its continuance and prosperity. Christmas is a time of security and well being after all.

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1988

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“Cilla Black introduces another selection of lonely young men to similarly placed young ladies.”

Behind a traditional Christmas cover, Radio Times revealed an ailing BBC line up. This year every single Christmas special was to be trounced by those AntipodeanNeighbours. 18.7 million viewers might seems small(ish) potatoes compared to the previous year’s Coronation Street, but this was not bad for a decidedly unseasonable episode of a cheap Australian import. Only that consistent ratings behemothEastEnders (going through something of a dull patch at the time) was able to surpass the Ozzies. Add to the mixture three of BBC’s more regrettable comedies (namelyBreadLast of the Summer Wine and ‘Allo ‘Allo), and you had one of the least creditable top fives of the decade.

ITV failed to build on their soapy success of the previous year, and rather let the BBC off the hook. But it all began so promisingly. The triple allure of Michaela Strachan, Tommy Boyd and Bernard Cribbins kicked off a festive and rather old-fashioned looking TV-am. Christmas this year fell on a Sunday, thus allowing the usual team of Anne and Nick a rare Christmas day off, and also providing ITV with an excuse to contain all of their usual standard Christmas fare within the umbrella of the weekend kid’s show Motormouth. Broadcast from Disneyland, it seemed that ITV was picking up from where it had left off in ‘87 with agreeable, curly-mopped Scouser Neil Buchanan leading the festivities. As we careered through the morning, all seemed pretty standard, with even ITV’s attempt at a lunchtime pop anthology making a re-appearance (this time under the tutelage of French and Saunders). For most viewers though, the fun started on the third channel at 2.15pm with Bullseye Christmas Special. Special guests Les Dennis, Marti Caine, Roy Walker and the Birmingham Cathedral Choir ensured, earthy, but wholesome fun. The game shows kept on coming as Cilla and her lonely hearts found themselves curiously scheduled during the early afternoon. The Empire Strikes Back (for many the strongest of theStar Wars trilogy) was next and certainly made for an agreeable afternoon film, yet still there was nothing thus far that seemed in anyway truly “seasonal”.

Things would get worse before they got better as ITV attempted – yet again – to stage a big Christmas day extravaganza. This time around the “stars” included Anita Harris, Bonnie Langford, Julia McKensie, Paul Nicholas and Colin Wilkinson(?). Coronation Street and Dennis Norden had performed well for ITV in ‘87, and must have seemed like a couple of sure bets. To an extent they were, but the law of diminishing returns saw each drop 6 million viewers from their previous year’s performance (enough to send Alright on the Night plummeting out of that year’s Top 10). 90 minutes of drama took us into late evening in the form of London’s Burning. Never one of ITV’s premier dramas, it was able to pull in only 10.3 million viewers. One More Audience with Dame Edna followed at 10.25pm, and then the game was truly over as ITV decided a triple bill of oldish, unexciting films would finish off this rather insipid day. Appropriately, the next day’s Bond film was the dreadful Octopussy.

BBC1 was slow to start: scheduling a stream of indifferent TV programmes (of which the highlight was The Pink Panther). After a trip to Paisley Abbey, it was off to keep our annual appointment with Noel. Scheduled this year at 11am, Christmas Morning with Noel maintained the same “well loved” format as previous years. Whilst Edmonds might not adhere to many people’s definition of “high art” (or indeed entertainment), what followed truly represented the televisual nadir of 1988’s Christmas broadcasts. The positively ITV-esque line up of Joe Bugner, Bernie Clifton, Annabel Croft, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, Gil (biddy-biddy-biddy) Gerard, George Lazenby and the Fat Boys ensured that the regrettable It’s a Charity Knockout was to be as cheap as Stuart Hall’s jokes. Even his beatific demeanour must have been affected by such a pot pourri of has-beens and never-has-beens. The misery continued at 1pm withEastEnders rather thrown away in an early afternoon slot, losing 5 million Christmas day viewers in the process. At 2pm, Gary Davies found himself the unfortunate “bit in the middle” between “Bruiser” Bruno Brookes and Anthea Turner for BBC1’s Top of the Pops Christmas Show. Those of us making the dinner could to listen to the great man’s efforts to keep the warring twosome apart via a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 1.

After the Queen one would expect BBC1 to kick things up a notch – and to an extent they did. The TV premiere of Back to the Future, provided nostalgic high-jinx and fun packed science fiction and was swiftly followed by the reliable Trotters. In previous years, the Beeb had seemed keen to sustain the momentum of Christmas hits right through the early evening. Strangely, this year Only Fools and Horses was followed by A Christmas Celebration (a Songs of Praisespecial with Cliff Richard and Sally Magnusson). Things seemed to take a turn for the better at 7.15pm with a Christmas day helping of Bread. Retrospectively derided (and rightly so), it is worth remembering that – at the time – Bread was seen as a refreshing, intelligent sitcom, unafraid to explore “real” emotional issues. “Bitter sweet” comedy was obviously the flavour of the day, and the Boswells – in their mighty Coman/Howitt incarnation swept aside all before them (with the exception of the Beeb’s two big soaps). Russ Abbott followed at 8.30pm and then – bizarrely – the Beeb followed ITV’s lead and had an early night. Silverado and Carousel closed out the day. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol had been broadcast just two days earlier and surely would have proved a more popular and appropriate swan song to BBC1’s 1988 Christmas Day schedule.

Unbelievably – on the big day – BBC2 only broadcast nine programmes, didn’t even get out of bed until 10am and even then just stuck a couple of films on. It wasn’t until 2.10pm that BBC2 transmitted something homemade. As always the emphasis was on music and Hollywood nostalgia. This year though none of that opera stuff or classical music. The bulk of the day was taken up with a five hour 20 minute broadcast of that summer’s Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert from Wembley Stadium. This surely must have represented the apotheosis of the television charity concert. Following this, a WNET/BBCTV co-production offered an insight in to Hollywood during the death of the silent movie. Zoë Wanamaker and David Suchet lead a respectable cast through a rather overlong, nostalgic drama. With that BBC2 promptly returned to bed leaving us with only a couple of films from the collection (one Italian, one nostalgic) with which to amuse ourselves with.

Perhaps sensing that it was BBC2’s turn to present musical entertainment involving Dire Straits, Channel 4 regressed somewhat to present a schedule more akin to those broadcast during its earliest years. Although some of our recent favourites remained (most notably The Snowman and a Christmas day outing for Channel 4 smash Treasure Hunt), we were subjected to a barrage of (comparatively) high culture. Mozart, spiritual debate, ballet and a documentary on the restoration of York Minster’s South Transept roof provided an alternative to the stilted line ups on the other channels. This truly seemed to be the season of charity concerts though, and Channel 4 could not resist leading us out of Christmas day with a little politicking – rock style – as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and company boogied on down on behalf of Human Rights Now!

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1989

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“We both knew immediately Oswestry was just right. I mean there are times when Kilburn can fit the bill and others when it just has to be Thames Ditton.”

The inexorable decline of Christmas Day telly (which seemed to have been precipitated by Grade’s 1987 departure from the BBC) continued unchecked as we entered the last Christmas of the decade. Half-baked and undercooked, the respective covers of the TV Times and Radio Times’ Christmas numbers (Des O’Connor and an insipid carol singer) indicated that there would be little cause for celebration.

Hyped TV specials of Run the Gauntlet and Whose Line is it Anyway? were indicative of this year’s meagre pickings. Clive Anderson – in particular – seemed unknowing of the muted reaction his programme would receive (“The show is destined to provoke arguments” he opined “because it’ll spur some viewers on to staging living room versions.”) The comedy writers seemed more attune to the risible Christmas telly spirit with old war horse Johnny Speight cogitating that “Alf (Garnett)’s view on Christmas is becoming rather sour. I mean what has he got? And whatever became of the Christian bit?”) This year our Christmas telly was undeniably weary.

BBC1’s early morning kiddies’ line-up was marginally notable for the inclusion that Harry Nilsson vehicle Ziggy’s Gift again. As ever, Noel was up at 11am to provide us with an of hour of heart-warming gift-giving to “very special people all over the world”. Oddly, from 12pm to 2pm it was regional opt out time with Scottish viewers subjected to the pleasures of The Singing Kettle and Beechgrove Garden. Gary “and now the sloppy bit” Davies found himself bringing up the rear behind a diminutive longhaired pretty accompanied by a soon to be GMTV celebrity correspondent. Yes, Bruno Brookes was back and this time with his latest clinch Jakki Brambles. After The Queen, BBC1 repeated their odd trick of rescheduling new editions of previous year’s hits in earlier slots. This year’s Bread lost 2 million viewers as it entered its rather ill judged Hill/Bickley era. Unable to beat off the Trotters this time, the Boswells still notched up a creditable 16.5 million viewers. Conversely, Only Fools and Horses achieved far higher ratings then the previous year even though it was now broadcast at the earlier time of 4.05pm.

And so in to the traditional late afternoon procession. Russ Abbott gave us “Phantom of the Opera as you’ve never seen him before”, and then it was time for the seasonal film premiere. With only Jim “Nick Nick” Davidson for competition, Crocodile Dundee cleaned up with over 21 million viewers making the Paul Hogan movie the day’s most watched programme. Miss Marplewas – as in 1987 – coupled with In Sickness and in Health, both succeeding in injecting a dose of murder and drunkenness into our festive reverie. The rather weak Clockwise was the somewhat anonymous choice with which to close the day. Riding on the back of the cinema popularity of A Fish Called Wanda, this weak Cleese runaround was indication enough that it was time for bed.

Timmy, then Ulrika guided us through our ITV early morning, and then after a brief regional diversion we arrived at ITV’s attempt at innovation for 1989. Obviously designed as a Noel Edmonds beater, The Other Side of Christmas attempted to combine something of the spirit of that programme along with elements of the upcoming Telethon ‘90. Broadcast from the Arena in London’s Docklands, Anneka Rice faffed around some Glaswegian midwives and mothers at the Royal Maternity Hospital (somewhat invoking the spirit of Christmas telly past in the process), whilst the cast of Coronation Street preached about homelessness and David Bellamy escorted 23 children to Lapland. A truly awful programme that took us from mid-morning to lunchtime. Happily, something of a treat followed, with the best (and most festive) Bond film of them all. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a charming, Milk Tray kind of a film wholly appropriate for Christmas Day. A deluge of films were broadcast on the third channel this day taking in The BFGRaiders of the Lost ArkAll Night Long and Hard Country. As in 1987, ITV seemed keen to save their ratings gold for a concentrated spurt later on in the day. In 1989, “ratings gold” for ITV meant Strike It Lucky at 5.40pm, a compilation of old comedy clips hosted by Jim Davidson (who seemed to have the monopoly on ITV seasonal clip shows), and the ever dependable Coronation Street. This year’s big storyline saw a poodle permed Deirdre Barlow come to the realisation that Ken was up to no good with Weatherfield Gazette colleague Wendy Crozier. Though the Street was attempting to capture lightning in a bottle, this storyline was solid but lacked the drama of the infamous Ken-Deirdre-Mike love triangle. Worse still, it further convoluted the already unbelievable interconnected plotlines between the three characters and precipitated the belief that a big story was essential at Christmas. The tepidAfter Henry effectively ended the run of “hits” as ITV reached – again – for its video collection to see out the rest of the day.

As with the other channels, BBC2 seemed to have decided that the previous year had been a failure and looked to 1987 to provide the template for success. Thus the combination of old was fully restored, the day beginning with a slice of Cinematic nostalgia with a double bill of Buster Crabbe as, firstly, Buck Rogers and then Flash Gordon. After that we swung from Beethoven’s Choral Symphony to the perennial Fred Astaire, to Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. 3pm saw the first foreign film of the day, and then – at 5pm- it was time for the day’s big production: Aida from The Met. By the time we had endured the Danish film Babette’s Feast, a Bookmarkdocumentary on Wodehouse and a Henry Fonda film, there could be no denying that BBC2 had re-established the rather timeless schedule that had seen it through most of the decade.

By way of contrast, Channel 4 seemed a little docile and formless this year. Beginning with the anonymous The Channel Four Daily there was little structure to what followed. A hotch potch schedule gave us a lunch time showing of the Olivier Pride and Prejudice, and a 15 minute slot in which Dame (even then) Judi Dench advised us somewhat confusingly that “the greatest birthday of all is really the birthday of us all.” Yet another charity gig followed: this time an operatic shindig in aid of the Armenian Red Cross. The Snowman was back at 5.30pm and then time for another short opera – The Little Sweep at 6pm. Brookside made a rare Christmas outing at 8pm with Jimmy and Sinbad up to no good, and then the “first in the run of classic episodes” from Cheers was broadcast at 8.30pm. Channel 4’s Olivier tribute continued withRichard III (last seen on BBC2, Christmas Day 1982) and then there was just time to fit in another quick opera before a song or two from some more concerned artistes. Sting might have been missing this time around, but reassuringly Mark Knopfler had made it to the Prince’s Trust 88 Rock Gala, ensuring that this would – as ever – be a bloated occasion, resting on the once creditable reputations of a bunch of ageing performers. The comparisons with Christmas TV at the end of the decade are obvious, but apt. Whilst 1989 might not have been a complete write-off, there seemed an urgent requirement for fresh ideas as we left the ’80s behind.

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