“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!”