“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.