“I’ve never known a year like it. Talk about hectic … To be honest, the fuss that is sometimes made when we’re playing the theatres scares me. It’s like The Beatles.”
15 years ago might not seem like a long time. However, take a look at the stars rolled out for 1985’s Christmas telly, and you are taking a glimpse into a light entertainment firmament that you probably thought died out at the end of the ’70s. TV Times’ editor Antony Peagam ponders “what are the TV blockbusters this holiday fortnight” before alighting upon “Christmas Day’s Minder on the Orient Express, The Best of Morecambe and Wise (Christmas Eve) … and of course, the galaxy of talent that’s due on screen in a host of specials: Freddie Starr, Cannon and Ball, Mike Yarwood, the Grumbleweeds,Copy Cats, snooker-man Dennis Taylor … and Des O’Connor”.
To our sophisticated eyes, it would be difficult to compile a more derisory line-up. Yet over at the BBC, things were only slightly better as Noel Edmonds, Terry Wogan, Kenny Everett, Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Ruth Madoc, Les Dawson, the cast of Only Fools and Horses, Terry and June, Bob Monkhouse, The Two Ronnies, Paul Daniels, and Keith Harris were pulled from the top drawer of entertainment. For those of us who recall Christmas ‘85, it is sobering to reflect that five out of the 17 wheeled out now ply their trade in the comedy afterlife.
So to Christmas Day and the BBC began – as usual – catering for the kids. Fresh from TV-am, the BBC announced (rather tongue-in-cheek) that they were “thrilled to present one of the most sensitive performing artistes … in a sparkling celebration of his historic move to the BBC”.Roland’s Yuletide Binge’s guest list (including Russell Grant, Frankie Howerd and Jan Leeming) confirmed that the Beeb hoped to retain the rat’s anarchic disregard for popular mainstream telly. Noel followed up at 11.55am with the latest in his seasonal Surprise Surprise-type Christmas extravaganzas. However, this would be the last time he’d trade under the name ofThe Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show.
Top of the Pops Christmas Party counted down the top selling records of the year in the company of (amongst others) Dead or Alive and Billy Ocean. The presenters were studiously billed by Radio Times in alphabetical order. Our contemporary understanding of the egos at force at Radio 1 during this time casts new light on this seemingly insignificant fact. Yet someone had to get (nominal) top billing. Congratulations then, to “ooh” Gary Davies who could gleefully show off his Christmas edition of Radio Times for years to come.
After Pops and the traditional look in on Her Majesty, BBC1 then unveiled a classic afternoon/evening schedule that ensnared viewers for the remainder of the day. A celeb packedChildren’s Royal Variety Performance was followed up by a quartet of bonafide hits: All Creatures Great and Small, Hi-De-Hi!, Only Fools and Horses and The Two Ronnies took us right through to 10pm. Unsurprisingly the Beeb had a clean sweep of the Christmas top 10 ratings this year. However, this was a watershed Christmas in many ways: being the last in which EastEnders would fail to pay an important part in their Christmas strategy, and providing us with the last decent Only Fools and Horses special for 11 years (the great jewel caper “To Hull And Back”).
BBC2 – as usual attempted to offer up an alternative to BBC1. American nostalgia dominated the schedules with Fred Astaire’s The Man in the Santa Claus Suit and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane bookending the daytime broadcast. Kane was BBC2’s opening salvo in a season of films dedicated to the great man who – incredibly – only died in October of that year. Gyles Brandreth and Hinge and Bracket were the minority channel’s entertainment powerhouse in the early evening with the be-sweatered one’s comedic A Prize Perfomance. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Film Buff of the Year (when was the last time “buff” was used on national telly?) and French filmDiva ensured that the more sober viewer had a watching alternative to take them through to the end of the day.
TV-am began your ITV Christmas morning in 1985. This was to be an inauspicious start to a schedule that – although trying hard – was to be resoundingly beaten by the BBC. “The James Bond Film” Moonraker momentarily lit up the schedules at 3.05pm (perfect post-turkey viewing), yet instead of attempting to string together hits, ITV followed this with a seasonal episode of Name That Tune (in which “one lucky contestant … could take home £1250″).Coronation Street was oddly apportioned 35 minutes at 6.10pm and then we were straight intoFresh Fields Christmas Special. As a series that had never truly caught the public’s imagination, here was proof that ITV would never be able to outgun the competition when in came to Christmas specials. At 7.30pm, ITV rolled out their ace card: heavily billed and adorning the Christmas edition of TV Times Minder on the Orient Express was comprehensively outgunned by Only Fools (broadcast at the same time) by almost 5 million viewers. At a stroke,OFAH became a national institution and last orders were called on Arthur and Tel who – arguably – never recovered from this humiliating defeat. Des O’Connor struggled on gamely at 9.30pm with top guests(?) including “Alan King, and Willie Tyler and Lester”, yet here was to be all the proof needed to confirm that 1985 was again not to be ITV’s year.
Like BBC2, Channel 4 looked overseas to fill up its Christmas day schedule. French comedies, an off peak Marx Brothers film (At The Circus), Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks allowed us some respite from the Big Two’s packages of hit after hit. Channel 4’s only homegrown contribution to the day’s festivities was a The Mind of David Berglas Christmas Special. Afforded a status denied most other dime store magicians, this really was Paul Daniels-esque stuff (who was missing his first Christmas for some years) albeit in a more cerebral setting. The late lamented Graham Chapman guested on this one. Could you ever see him helping out the Beeb’s be-wigged conjuror?
So a resounding success for the master of the schedules – Michael Grade. This was a year in which the BBC had an abundance of “hot property” and ITV a litany of mediocre stars that believed their own hype. As to who uttered the quote that began this year’s log? Well, would you believe that the performer aligning himself alongside the Beatles was none other than ITV’s star property Bobby Ball? Obviously, big changes were required on the third channel.