“Will the Liverpool canniness of Sheila and Billy Grant be enough to counter Lancashire bluntness from Jack and Vera Duckworth or Yorkshire commonsense from Matt and Dolly Skilbeck?”
No, unfortunately this isn’t a Christmas super soap pitting against each other the warring families of the Close, Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm, rather the byline for 1987’s 3-2-1 Christmas special. OTT would love to know who won this “battle of wits”.
So 12 months on and had ITV learned the lessons of the previous couple of years? The Christmas TV Times cover seemed to indicate that the answer was “yes”. A Santa-Claus Bet Lynch could be seen handing Hilda Ogden a present as the tag line proclaimed: “Be sure to share Hilda’s last Christmas on Coronation Street“. Whilst the ITV soap had still not found the courage to run a traumatic story on Christmas Day, here – by virtue of Jean Alexander deciding to call it a day – they had stumbled upon a story big enough to compete with last year’sEastEnders rip-snorter. Such was the popularity of Hilda Ogden, that even the insipid, emotionally cloying, story of the char-lady leaving to live with “Dr Lowther” was able to draw in the Street’s highest ever ratings of 26.6 million. Hilda’s farewell represented the final dismantling of the series’ pivotal triumvirate of strong females: (Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner having departed some years previously) and it was perhaps fitting that so many should bid farewell to the last vestiges of the “old Street“.
A survey carried out in 1987 sought to capture kids’ favourite heroes. An almost exclusively American list told us that The Centurions, She-Ra, Spiderman, Rambo, Inspector Gadget, Mr T, Dangermouse and He-Man were the height of playground cool – each character befitting of their own Grandreams Christmas annual. Yet Christmas Day’s kids telly was still resolutely uncool, with the BBC failing even to stick Roland Rat on Christmas morning. Elsewhere, there was little change at the Beeb, which was obviously still confident of trashing the opposition. So “hello again” to Christmas specials of Only Fools and Horses, Hi-De-Hi! and Last of the Summer Wine (“it’s a recipe for chaos” proclaimed Bill Owen of that year’s hilarious storyline). In 1987, vaguely popular, but resolutely un-Christmassy Dear John even got itself a slice of the action as the BBC pinned its hopes on comedy favourites.
BBC1 felt content just to tinker a little with the Christmas day schedules this year. So, Noel found himself shunted even earlier this morning, with a decidedly off-peak 9am start time for hisChristmas Morning with Noel. Still broadcast from the Telecom Tower, the recipe remained unchanged. As way of compensation, however, he was awarded a second bite of the cherry at 11.45am with another 45-minute helping. Radio Times was keen to inform us that we could phone Noel with our “Christmas dedications” on 01-436-8622, not a telephone number that has found its way in to the popular pantheon of phone-in programmes. A welcome Christmas day repeat of Porridge concluded the morning schedule with – perhaps – the first watchable programme of the day. Present and correct at just after 2pm, we found Gary “just great great, tunes” Davies manning the helm for the Pops‘ Yuletide bash. This time though, Davies was to be displaced from the top billing by Mike Smith. Still, it was nice to see that Smitty had been able to find another Christmas Day TV home after having been dumped by Noel 12 months earlier. After TOTP – as in previous years – BBC1 rolled out the big guns. So, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed EastEnders at 3.10pm, and then Russ Abbot was back to take us into the early evening. Familiarity might breed contempt, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it: so, Only Fools, The Two Ronnies and Miss Marple led us through the evening yet again, until finally In Sickness and in Health provided a slightly morose end to the day. These first Christmas day schedules without Grade played it safe, yet tellingly there were signs of ageing. Just 12 months ago such a line-up would have been a ratings smash, yet here they did not prove even a match for Dennis Norden’s bunch of old television off-cuts.
“This is the fifth year I’ll have got up to work on Christmas morning, but it’s well worth it”, trilled Anne Diamond in ’87’s TV Times Christmas Number. “Last year, more than 16 million people shared their Christmas with us,” (although we should point out: not all in one go Anne), “we have become part of the festive tradition.” In actual fact, due to an ongoing industrial dispute all TV-am had to offer was a rag-bag of imported programmes and a mere snatch of the normal fodder (Anne being so keen to come into work, she broke the picket lines). After that, ITV turned over its schedules for the next 90 minutes to a variety of religious Christmas messages, but – after that – we were suddenly plunged into a deluge of Disney productions. Mickey’s Christmas Carol was followed up with a Christmas Day repeat of Dumbo (from last year). A break from the saccharine of Uncle Walt’s creations came in the form of one of Moore’s best Bonds: The Spy Who Loved Me. After a 10 minute interval in the company of Her Majesty, it was back to the films, as two more Disney productions (Alice in Wonderland and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) ensured ITV had dished out – effectively – five films back to back. Next, ITV unleashed its strongest evening line-up for years. The phenomenally popular Blind Date kicked off at 6.45pm, followed up Hilda’s farewell in the Street. The aforementioned It’ll Be Alright on Christmas Night was next and then at 9pm a Julian Mitchell scripted episode of Inspector Morse. After that it was all over for ITV. But the decision to concentrate their efforts on the early evening seemed – in retrospect – a canny move.
BBC2 and Channel 4 once again chose to concentrate on providing viewers with an alternative to the traditional, populist fare. As before, BBC2 presented a schedule weighted in equal measure toward Hollywood nostalgia, and musical presentations. So Crosby crooned “White Christmas” one more time and Garbo was the subject of a two-hour documentary broadcast at 8.35pm. Echoes of Mahler and Elgar also emanated from our televisions. Amidst this rather traditional mixture, BBC2 broadcast a one-off short Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation: The Story of a Recluse, “an entertaining tale of a gambler, a young man, a pretty girl and the games they all play”.
Channel 4, meanwhile, was entering its first Grade Christmas, and a more populist, eclectic mixture than previous years re-positioned the channel as a more modern alternative. The Story of Abba provided a bright and breezy wake-up for morning viewers, but was rapidly followed by rather more atypical Christmas viewing. For those who persisted with the Christmas Oratorioand The Mysteries: The Nativities, your reward came at 4.30pm with the climax to series 14 ofCountdown. Gyles Brandeth and Carol Thatcher propped up Dictionary Corner as Richard Whitely hosted 45 minutes of the “tense and thrilling final”. The Queen’s speech at 5.15pm was followed by the consolidation of a real Christmas tradition (now in its fifth year) The Snowman. This was real “comfort food” television. Then the mood changed again as Channel 4’s evening schedule presented a diverse offering. A Mozart recital, a Sean Connery movie, Paul Simon singing American Gospel music, the then wildly popular The Golden Girls, a compilation of the best bits of that year’s The Last Resort and then your dad’s favourite: Dire Straits: Live In ‘85 at Wembley Arena ensured there was almost something for everyone (just so long as you were young, or wealthy). In retrospect, the line-up proved somewhat representative of Channel 4’s changing demographic. Appealing to the young and upwardly mobile would serve the channel well, ensuring its continuance and prosperity. Christmas is a time of security and well being after all.