“Eric Morecambe has gone, but the laughter he left behind is still ringing in our ears.”
Christmas 1984 saw the end of one great telly tradition, and the start of another. In May this year Eric Morecambe collapsed after a charity show and died, thus bringing down a rather final curtain on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials. Nevertheless, this Christmas they appeared on both BBC1 and ITV with Ernie Wise Introduces The Morecambe and Wise Classics on New Year’s Eve on the Beeb (a retrospective clip show), and Bring Me Sunshine – A Tribute to Eric Morecambe, OBE on ITV (being a tribute concert from the London Palladium featuring a wide range of stars from Michael Aspel to Mike Yarwood). Who said that death was good for the career? This was the first Christmas Day slot the duo had landed for four years.
And as for new traditions, at 11.05am, in that post-Christmas Morning Family Service slot came The Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show. This one would run and run in various guises for the next 15 years.
So here we are, then, a Merry Christmas 1984 style. BBC1’s line up this time round was pretty good, and the omens were favourable when finally Play School was back on Christmas Day, albeit now on BBC1. Carol Chell and Brian Jameson did the honours. The chirpy Christopher Lillicrap followed on with Busker’s Christmas Story before just under two hours of religion. Firstly the BBC Welsh Chorus with Born in Bethlehem and then that Morning Service. This year it came from Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast.
As mentioned already at 11.05am came Noel Edmond’s Christmas Day debut. In a format spun-off from the popular Late Late Breakfast Show Noel stayed in the HQ (which was famously the Telecom Tower) whilst Mike “Smitty” Smith went on the road with the roving OB unit. Mixed up in all this was the usual capering and stunts (although without any fatalities) and the BBC “hollycopter” which threatened to drop in on viewers’ homes. Yes, perhaps the whole thing was unappealing, however it was a massively confident initiative by the BBC to lay on a 90 minute live programme as complex as this one on arguably the most important day in the telly calendar. It’s of no surprise that they then chose to bung on hoary old Blue Murder at St Trinian’s afterwards and put their feet up.
At 2pm, this year’s Top of the Pops Christmas Special dispensed with the DJs altogether and instead the featured acts presented. Thus we had Culture Club, Jim Diamond, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Howard Jones, Nil Kershaw, Thompson Twins, Wham! and Paul Young. There would again be a twin programme as Top of the Pops Review of 1984 went out on 27 December, but still with none of the Radio 1 gang involved – instead Lenny Henry hosted.
After The Queen at 3pm came one of the definitive Christmas Day films, Mary Poppins. This filled in the afternoon nicely, perfect fare for the day. After a quick news summary at 5.25pm, it was time for some Light Entertainment. Christmas Blankety Blank found the superbly laconic Les Dawson hosting. Earlier in the year Dawson had taken the role over from Terry Wogan, with some apprehension: “I was a little doubtful when it was first suggested and that is why I insisted on doing two pilots that never went out before making a final decision.” However, Dawson had quickly gone on to ensnare a regular audience of 12 million and conceded himself, “it took about a month to win the critics over – and it was very satisfying when it happened.” This year’s Christmas line-up of celebs conformed to both the quality threshold and seating plan laid out by numerous episodes before it. Starting at the back row from left to right there was Russell Harty, Ruth Madoc and Derek Nimmo. The front row went: Suzanne Danielle, Ken Dodd and Lorraine Chase (the latter surely the quintessential Blank guest, only to be rivaled by Sandra Dickinson).
Our first sitcom of the day rolled in at 6.05pm. Hi-De-Hi! was still doing great business for the BBC, despite the absence of Simon Cadell. This episode represented the last in the present series. Then it was, as we have come to expect, The Paul Daniels Magic Christmas Show. Amongst the usual bizarre cast list could be found – liking it, but not a lot – Robert Maxwell. John Sullivan then landed his second Christmas Day in a row with the Just Good Friends’ Special. This was a mammoth effort running at 90 minutes. Whilst never as enjoyable as Only Fools and Horses (which this time managed only a showing on Christmas Eve, “Diamonds Are For Heather”, and that was a repeat) there was still much to like about this series once you got past the awful Paul Nicholas cocktail bar theme. Adding a sense of familiarity back into the evening, The Two Ronnies followed.
After the news came the welcome inclusion of Wogan into the Christmas Day line up, supplanting Parky from his regular slot. El Tel chatted to Freddie Starr, Dame Kiri Te Kananwa (always to be rolled out somewhere at Christmas time), Elton John and Victoria Principal. This was an amiable enough line up and nicely scheduled as an undemanding night cap. To end the day the Beeb stuck on the Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis farce Some Like it Hot. After some of the dodgy line ups of previous years, 1984 showed a rather more confident BBC, assured that its homegrown programmes could do the business. It’s interesting to note that the most modern film shown by the channel today had been Mary Poppins from 1964.
Outside of Christmas Day it is worth noting that the first run of the children’s programme The Box of Delights came to a conclusion on Christmas Eve. This was a superb adaptation (if ill-disciplined) of John Masefield’s book and would for many signal the end of the line for this sort of quality children’s drama on the Beeb. The other highlight of Christmas Eve showed up in the shape of an old man, sporting ill-advised leisure wear and the coiffure of Catweazle: “Dear Jim, please … can Father Christmas come in the summer? Say we shall go to the ball? Let me ‘Sing in the rain’ with Tommy Steele?”
BBC2, of course, remained as snooty as ever with Charlie Chaplin films, a Noel Coward play and Pavarotti at Madison Square Garden.
By comparison it was a fairly rum day on ITV. The TV-am mob were out in force at 6.25am forGood Morning Britain’s Christmas Party which saw the company once again digging up the “sick kids” format, with Roland Rat phoning children in hospital. The morning continued, up to the Christmas service, devoted to younger viewers, with Cartoon Time, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and Emu at Christmas featuring the dreadful Grotbags and the even more dreadful kids from the Corona Stage School.
This year’s Christmas Morning Service came from St George’s Cathedral in Windsor , and was followed by The Little Rascals Christmas Special – an updating of the characters made famous in films of the ’30s and ’40s, as if anyone cared. Come 1.15pm and here was ITV’s most audacious attempt to steal the Beeb’s thunder for some years; Top Pop Videos of ‘84 blatantly trampled on TOTP’s ground, thoughtfully finishing up at 2pm when the real thing was about to start on BBC1.
The requisite ice extravaganza featured, unsurprisingly, Torvill and Dean in an hour of repackaged highlights from their career. Dull stuff, indeed. After the Queen at 2pm ITV rolled out “The James Bond Film” – incredibly this was again The Man With the Golden Gun which featured in their Christmas Day line up of 1980. Things finally started to look up come 5.30pm with Give Us A Clue back on Christmas Day. By now Parky was the host, and this year’s guests were Julia McKenzie, Spike Milligan, Nicola Pagett, Wayne Sleep, Julie Walters and Bernie Winters. A curious and eclectic selection, but entertaining surely. As mentioned above the tribute to Eric Morecambe followed at 6pm, and ran for a tremendous 150 minutes. A marathon by any standards, and rather overstaying its welcome.
By 8.30pm we were back on track with the enjoyable Raiders of the Lost Ark – finally a commendable film on ITV. Mirroring Wogan, Des O’Connor popped up at 10.45pm, and then we were into the dregs of evening with “The Christmas Night Thriller” Home for the Holidaysstarring Sally Fields. After the relative triumphs of last year, ITV was back in the doldrums.
Channel 4 meanwhile succeeded in being both utterly impenetrable (black and white French film Jour de Fete) and bawdily populist (See How They Run, a Ray Cooney farce starring Derek Nimmo and Christopher Timothy). A most perplexing turnout, as ever.