“Anything can happen in Last of the Summer Wine and Christmas is no exception – especially when Compo is persuaded to clamber on to Nora Batty’s roof disguised as Santa Claus.”
Just over one year old, and EastEnders is already important enough for Radio Times to feature as the cover star for their Christmas Number. This was the year in which a combined figure of 27.87 million – adding together its first transmission and subsequent omnibus repeat – tuned in to watch Den carve up that old bird, Angie. If Christmas TV ‘86 is to be remembered for anything, then let it be for the spark which sent EastEnderssupernova.
Besides this, there is little else memorable in the festive offerings served up that year. ITV was pinning its hopes on the unlikely trio of TV Times cover stars Torville, Dean and Dumbo the Elephant. The icing skating duo graced “one of the biggest sets ever made for television”, whereas Dumbo was to be shown on British television for the first time ever. If this was ITV’s “A list” then it is no surprise to find that there is little else for the commercial channel to crow about. The theme of this year’s 3-2-1 Christmas Special is – TV Times informs – unsurprisingly “pantomime, and the inspiration is Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.” What else can we look forward to this Christmas on ITV? 12 months on and this august channel is still trying to convince us of the phenomenon that is Cannon and Ball: “they continue on the road to becoming Britain’s most successful double act – but they live in fear of one day finding the magic has gone. ‘We’ve no idea what makes the act work’ says Tommy Cannon. ‘We don’t know what we’ve got. And, frankly we don’t want to know. We’re both afraid that if we analysed it, it would go away’”. Obviously at some point they succumbed to the temptation.
The BBC’s policy over this festive period seemed to be an attempt to repeat last year’s trick, but with added soap. So we got Christmas specials of such hardy perennials as Last of the Summer Wine, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Just Good Friends and (predictably) Only Fools and Horses. For those of you looking for real comedy though, best seek out Channel 4’s welcome, but intriguing decision to re-screen Do Not Adjust Your Stocking.
Just before plunging into the Christmas Day schedules let’s take a moment to observe with derision ITV’s A Christmas Night of One Hundred Stars; which featured (amongst others) Stu Francis, Michael Kilgarriff, Roger DeCourcey, The Copy Cats, Norman Collier and (get this) Gordon Honeycombe.
Honeycombe turns up too on the Christmas day edition of Good Morning Britain. By now something of a tradition, presenter Anne Diamond gushes that “working on Christmas Day is something we all want to do. No one wants the day off because we consider ourselves to be a family programme and the Christmas morning show is probably the most family time of the year”. A quadruple dose of religious programmes then followed on STV, ensuring that – at least – ITV’s Scottish viewers will be reminded of the true meaning of Christmas. This, then was incredibly followed by the first in a new series of Trang Trang, a Gaelic programme for young children and then to compound matters it was over to ubiquitous Scot’s kiddies presenter Glen Michael to patrol the wards of the Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh. Thankfully after this the Scots reverted to the ITV Network for the remainder of the day, and by lunchtime were indulging in Disney’s Rob Roy – The Highland Rogue and a 2pm dose of pop courtesy of Ark Royal – The Rock Show. The rest of the day alternated from film to TV special, with Dumbo providing post turkey entertainment and Never Say Never Again, premiering just in time for the mince pies at 6.30pm. The final film premiere of the day was a Peter Ustinov Poirot film, thus ensuring that this was an ITV light of home grown talent. Only Barrymore’s Strike It Lucky and A Duty Free Christmas represented traditional Christmas day specials of “well-loved” programmes.
Meanwhile, Channel 4 presented an eclectic schedule that – this year – has an emphasis on music. Thus, we are able – if inclined – to catch snatches of Wagner, Benjamin Britten, pianist Vladimir Horowitz and Eric Clapton. BBC2, similarly presented a musical Christmas. It was a particularly late start this year for the Beeb’s minority channel as we were forced to endurePages from Ceefax until 12.20pm. Once underway though we are offered high sea adventure with Judy Garland in The Pirate, Mahler’s Symphony Number 5 in The Christmas Day Concertand a portrait of “America’s greatest living composer” Aaron Copland. In between these musical treats of course were the usual mixture of vintage Hollywood and European art movies.
Once again though, it was BBC1 who ruled Christmas Day telly. As mentioned the schedule was eerily similar to the previous year – so we got Roland Rat in the morning and a dose of Noel Edmonds at lunchtime (this time under the aegis of Christmas Morning With Noel). Top of the Pops Christmas Party was back again at 2pm (this time directly up against ITV’s own pop offering). Billy Ocean was back too, and so was Gary Davies, but this time it was Simon Bates who gleaned top billing due only to his alphabetical prowess. And then just as before, BBC1 began banging out the hits, this time starting at 5.25pm with The Russ Abbot Christmas Show. We were then served up Just Good Friends, EastEnders, Only Fools and Horses, Miss Marpleand a second dose of the Albert Square soap. The clever scheduling of EastEnders displayed a canniness that many did not believe the BBC possessed back in those days. The subsequent clean sweep of the ratings (EastEnders achieving seven million more viewers then the number two watched programme that Christmas) signified a television future in which the playful antics of Del Boy and Co would play second fiddle to the anguish emitting from our favourite soapy streets and squares.