“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 BFG, Raiders of the Lost Ark, All 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.