“Cilla Black introduces another selection of lonely young men to similarly placed young ladies.”
Behind a traditional Christmas cover, Radio Times revealed an ailing BBC line up. This year every single Christmas special was to be trounced by those AntipodeanNeighbours. 18.7 million viewers might seems small(ish) potatoes compared to the previous year’s Coronation Street, but this was not bad for a decidedly unseasonable episode of a cheap Australian import. Only that consistent ratings behemothEastEnders (going through something of a dull patch at the time) was able to surpass the Ozzies. Add to the mixture three of BBC’s more regrettable comedies (namelyBread, Last of the Summer Wine and ‘Allo ‘Allo), and you had one of the least creditable top fives of the decade.
ITV failed to build on their soapy success of the previous year, and rather let the BBC off the hook. But it all began so promisingly. The triple allure of Michaela Strachan, Tommy Boyd and Bernard Cribbins kicked off a festive and rather old-fashioned looking TV-am. Christmas this year fell on a Sunday, thus allowing the usual team of Anne and Nick a rare Christmas day off, and also providing ITV with an excuse to contain all of their usual standard Christmas fare within the umbrella of the weekend kid’s show Motormouth. Broadcast from Disneyland, it seemed that ITV was picking up from where it had left off in ‘87 with agreeable, curly-mopped Scouser Neil Buchanan leading the festivities. As we careered through the morning, all seemed pretty standard, with even ITV’s attempt at a lunchtime pop anthology making a re-appearance (this time under the tutelage of French and Saunders). For most viewers though, the fun started on the third channel at 2.15pm with Bullseye Christmas Special. Special guests Les Dennis, Marti Caine, Roy Walker and the Birmingham Cathedral Choir ensured, earthy, but wholesome fun. The game shows kept on coming as Cilla and her lonely hearts found themselves curiously scheduled during the early afternoon. The Empire Strikes Back (for many the strongest of theStar Wars trilogy) was next and certainly made for an agreeable afternoon film, yet still there was nothing thus far that seemed in anyway truly “seasonal”.
Things would get worse before they got better as ITV attempted – yet again – to stage a big Christmas day extravaganza. This time around the “stars” included Anita Harris, Bonnie Langford, Julia McKensie, Paul Nicholas and Colin Wilkinson(?). Coronation Street and Dennis Norden had performed well for ITV in ‘87, and must have seemed like a couple of sure bets. To an extent they were, but the law of diminishing returns saw each drop 6 million viewers from their previous year’s performance (enough to send Alright on the Night plummeting out of that year’s Top 10). 90 minutes of drama took us into late evening in the form of London’s Burning. Never one of ITV’s premier dramas, it was able to pull in only 10.3 million viewers. One More Audience with Dame Edna followed at 10.25pm, and then the game was truly over as ITV decided a triple bill of oldish, unexciting films would finish off this rather insipid day. Appropriately, the next day’s Bond film was the dreadful Octopussy.
BBC1 was slow to start: scheduling a stream of indifferent TV programmes (of which the highlight was The Pink Panther). After a trip to Paisley Abbey, it was off to keep our annual appointment with Noel. Scheduled this year at 11am, Christmas Morning with Noel maintained the same “well loved” format as previous years. Whilst Edmonds might not adhere to many people’s definition of “high art” (or indeed entertainment), what followed truly represented the televisual nadir of 1988’s Christmas broadcasts. The positively ITV-esque line up of Joe Bugner, Bernie Clifton, Annabel Croft, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, Gil (biddy-biddy-biddy) Gerard, George Lazenby and the Fat Boys ensured that the regrettable It’s a Charity Knockout was to be as cheap as Stuart Hall’s jokes. Even his beatific demeanour must have been affected by such a pot pourri of has-beens and never-has-beens. The misery continued at 1pm withEastEnders rather thrown away in an early afternoon slot, losing 5 million Christmas day viewers in the process. At 2pm, Gary Davies found himself the unfortunate “bit in the middle” between “Bruiser” Bruno Brookes and Anthea Turner for BBC1’s Top of the Pops Christmas Show. Those of us making the dinner could to listen to the great man’s efforts to keep the warring twosome apart via a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 1.
After the Queen one would expect BBC1 to kick things up a notch – and to an extent they did. The TV premiere of Back to the Future, provided nostalgic high-jinx and fun packed science fiction and was swiftly followed by the reliable Trotters. In previous years, the Beeb had seemed keen to sustain the momentum of Christmas hits right through the early evening. Strangely, this year Only Fools and Horses was followed by A Christmas Celebration (a Songs of Praisespecial with Cliff Richard and Sally Magnusson). Things seemed to take a turn for the better at 7.15pm with a Christmas day helping of Bread. Retrospectively derided (and rightly so), it is worth remembering that – at the time – Bread was seen as a refreshing, intelligent sitcom, unafraid to explore “real” emotional issues. “Bitter sweet” comedy was obviously the flavour of the day, and the Boswells – in their mighty Coman/Howitt incarnation swept aside all before them (with the exception of the Beeb’s two big soaps). Russ Abbott followed at 8.30pm and then – bizarrely – the Beeb followed ITV’s lead and had an early night. Silverado and Carousel closed out the day. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol had been broadcast just two days earlier and surely would have proved a more popular and appropriate swan song to BBC1’s 1988 Christmas Day schedule.
Unbelievably – on the big day – BBC2 only broadcast nine programmes, didn’t even get out of bed until 10am and even then just stuck a couple of films on. It wasn’t until 2.10pm that BBC2 transmitted something homemade. As always the emphasis was on music and Hollywood nostalgia. This year though none of that opera stuff or classical music. The bulk of the day was taken up with a five hour 20 minute broadcast of that summer’s Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert from Wembley Stadium. This surely must have represented the apotheosis of the television charity concert. Following this, a WNET/BBCTV co-production offered an insight in to Hollywood during the death of the silent movie. Zoë Wanamaker and David Suchet lead a respectable cast through a rather overlong, nostalgic drama. With that BBC2 promptly returned to bed leaving us with only a couple of films from the collection (one Italian, one nostalgic) with which to amuse ourselves with.
Perhaps sensing that it was BBC2’s turn to present musical entertainment involving Dire Straits, Channel 4 regressed somewhat to present a schedule more akin to those broadcast during its earliest years. Although some of our recent favourites remained (most notably The Snowman and a Christmas day outing for Channel 4 smash Treasure Hunt), we were subjected to a barrage of (comparatively) high culture. Mozart, spiritual debate, ballet and a documentary on the restoration of York Minster’s South Transept roof provided an alternative to the stilted line ups on the other channels. This truly seemed to be the season of charity concerts though, and Channel 4 could not resist leading us out of Christmas day with a little politicking – rock style – as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and company boogied on down on behalf of Human Rights Now!