“The commercialisation of it distresses me.”
The first Christmas of the new decade found Eric, Ernie, Cilla and Rolf on the cover of the Radio Times gathered around a table groaning with festive food and gifts. The seasonal schedules this year were great for the BBC – but shameful for ITV. The contrast in quality, imagination and variety was immense; and it was a gap that was to persist for most of the 1970s.
BBC1 opened up at 9am with the usual selection of carols sung by a school choir (this year from Wandsworth) before an hour of children’s programmes comprising Basil’s Christmas Morning – 30 minutes in the company of the insolent fox and sidekick Derek Fowlds – then Michael Aspel introducing three Disney cartoons including “the first complete Mickey Mouse cartoon on British television in colour!”: Pluto’s Christmas Tree. Then came 70 minutes reminding viewers once again of “the real meaning of Christmas” – a Family Service, this year from Glasgow.
ITV stole a short lead on its rival, starting at 8.15am with its own take on the kids carol format, utilising host David Hamilton to link five separate choirs from across the country. Carefully avoiding clashes with BBC1, ITV broadcast its church service – from St Albans Cathedral no less – when children’s shows were on the other side, and vice versa. In this case, youngsters had to make do with the 15 minute Anita in Jumbleland: Anita Harris in a make believe world where, besides trilling Ave Maria, “Anita and the kids discover a Christmas tree, a sleigh and – surprise, surprise – a present for Anita herself.” Then Michael Parkinson rolled up to host ITV’s annual seasonal film clip package for kids, Christmas Cinema.
Next was the regular trip round the hospital wards. Leslie Crowther was back for his second stint wishing A Merry Morning to the bed-ridden of Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield. Besides handing out presents, ventriloquist John Bouchier was on hand to cheer up the sick kids. Just half an hour of this, perhaps fortunately, and then Granada viewers had to put up with the ancient black-and-white film Tarzan and the She-Devil for company until 1pm. Viewers in the Border and HTV regions had the pleasure of a seasonal episode of Crossroads instead, plus some hip-shaking from Tom Jones.
Rolf Harris was also on his second year fronting Meet the Kids on BBC1. It was the fifth annual visit by the Corporation to the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Surrey; and joining Rolf was musician Bert Hayes – but something must have happened to one of the members of Hayes’ group, for earlier in the day it had been The Bert Hayes Sextet appearing with Basil Brush but now here, mysteriously, it was just the Bert Hayes Quintet.
“Sir Robert Fossett’s Elephants. Miss Wendy and her Doves from the Argentine. Phyllis Allen and her Poodles.” Yes, it was circus time again, and ITV were off to their cheap half-arsed big top in Glasgow for Kelvin Hall’s Circus at 1pm, followed an hour later by A Gift for Gracie: 60 minutes of variety from Gracie Fields’ “house” – actually a Yorkshire Television studio converted into a mock-18th century mansion with Bruce Forsyth employed as butler and Miss Gracie entertaining the likes of Harry Secombe, Arthur Askey, Lionel Blair and The Mike Sammes Singers.
Much better viewing over on BBC1 where, after a dull skating television movie – The Story of the Silver Skates, an hour and 40 minutes of Robin Askwith gliding around frozen canals in Holland – it was time for this year’s seasonal Top of the Pops. Joining Jimmy Saville, Tony Blackburn, Pan’s People, Johnny Pearson and The Top of the Pops Orchestra were the biggest selling artists of the year. And as with previous Christmases, this was merely part one – part two was the following day, at 3.30pm, with the same team in charge.
After an unusually long message from the Queen (25 minutes), notable for being the first time other members of the Royal Family had appeared in the broadcast, BBC1 settled into its familiar, popular run of festive regulars. The annual visit to Billy Smart’s Circus, hosted this year by none other than Frank Bough, was followed by Disney Time presented by the great Harry Worth. Then at 5.10pm came the special BBC pantomime; this year it was Robinson Crusoe, with Lyn Kennington in the lead role, Ken Dodd, Peter Glaze and Arthur Mullard supporting.
Christmas Night with the Stars followed, and the BBC had cajoled an impressive army of celebrities into appearing. Along with host Cilla Black, viewers could enjoy special turns from Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Mary Hopkin and Clodagh Rodgers. Specially-recorded sketches involved Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery and Terry Scott besides new scenes with the cast of Dad’s Army and also Bachelor Father, an Ian Carmichael family-based sitcom which had debuted on BBC1 that autumn. But the best was still to come, with the second annualMorecambe and Wise Christmas Show at 8.15pm. Joining Eric’n’Ern were Peter Cushing, Edward Woodward and Eric Porter. For some reason this particular edition hasn’t been remembered as well or repeated as often as the pair’s other BBC Christmas shows. It was still, thanks to Eddie Braben’s script, great fun.
In competition with this, ITV offered up a dismal sequence of programmes. Following the Queen came an episode of The Man from UNCLE: “The Jingle Bells Affair”. OK, not bad, at least it had a Christmas theme. But then came an utterly un-festive episode of the dreadful US soapPeyton Place, Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal overacting their way through a plot involving a runaway child. ITV’s attempt at a panto was decidedly weak too. “Here’s Cinderella with a difference. It’s back to the good old days. Traditional pantomime without the modern idea of introducing pop groups and the like,” snapped TV Times. All this meant was Lionel Blair in tights and The Mike Sammes Singers, all making their second appearance of the day in a matter of hours.
At 6pm came the shameless Christmas Night … rip-off, All Star Comedy Carnival. Now in its second year, it was no less of massive event, with over 70 “Stars” choking up its painful 150 minutes, plus 13 different series or sitcoms jostling for attention, all linked by the Max Bygraves. Production director Peter-Frazer Jones insisted: “Our aim is to provide a final course of fun to Christmas dinners everywhere. Every item is original and independent from the series it represents,” – a dig at the BBC for its compilation effort the previous year. But this was a marathon show, hopelessly over-long, with the familiar – Doctor in the House, Jokers Wild, a special sequence from Coronation Street – awkwardly sequenced with the now long-forgotten:The Worker (Charlie Drake’s short-lived comedy set around a Labour Exchange) and Girls About Town (female-orientated goings-on with Julie Stevens and Denise Coffey).
The remainder of ITV’s evening comprised a special Christmas episode of On the Buses, at that point already half-way through its fourth series (amazing given the show had only first started the year before). Then it was cabaret with Val Doonican, News at Ten, and one last film through to closedown at 12.10am. Granada viewers had to put up with the grisly war movie Guns at Batasi, while HTV swapped this for a much better late evening choice, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. BBC1 also opted for a film to complete its evening, following Morecambe and Wise with the unremarkable 1963 thriller Charade before picking up the mood with some old time music hall in The Good Old Days at 11pm from the Varieties Theatre in Leeds. This had been a staple on BBC1 since 1954, forever chaired by the dry Leonard Sachs – “More Victorian than the Victorians,” he bragged. Anyone still up at 11.50pm found Ernie Wise back again pausing for thought with Joyce Grenfell and Cyril Fletcher to discuss what the nativity story meant to them. BBC1 shut up shop at midnight on the dot.
The youngest of Britain’s TV channels opened at 10.30am with Play School and Julie Stevens and Brian Cant telling the Christmas Story. But then BBC2 shut down until 1.30pm, continuing with the old film Sammy Going South, the story of the 4500 mile trek by a 10 year old boy across Africa in search of his relatives. A Cinderella ballet from the Royal Opera House followed, then a 90 minute dramatisation of the life of Charles Dickens, notable for being the only repeated programme shown today by any of the channels. It’s a Terrible Waste at 6.40pm was a bizarre magic show set in Edwardian England starring Dudley Foster entertaining his family with tricks involving candles, baking powder, vinegar, ice, boiled eggs, needles and decanters.
In fairness, BBC2’s schedule actually seemed far more accessible than some of those it would offer during the ’80s and 90s – all of the programmes on this day were in English for a start. Some aerial photography of British islands, a detective mystery in Thirty Minute Theatre, songs from a country church and the film of Kiss Me Kate rounded off a good effort from a channel at this point still not normally on air before 7.30pm.
Overall, then, a fine Christmas for the BBC, deploying all its big names and stalwart hit shows to make up an entertaining, lively line-up in utter contrast to the poorly realised pensioner-fodder ITV offered. Elsewhere this year’s Beatles film was A Hard Day’s Night on 28 December on BBC1 at 4.05pm, but sadly there was no Carry On … this time. Cliff fans could enjoy their hero in a special festive show on Christmas Eve, where hopefully the man explained what he really meant when he declared to Radio Times that “Christmas is like driving a car in fog.” Thanks, Cliff.