“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 Clambake, Holiday 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 Pipkins; Christmas Clapperboard; A 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.