“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 Rollo, The Red Hand Gang, Why Don’t You, Play 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.