“A cast of 362 animals, birds and lords a-leaping.”
If there was one person above all who was responsible for the BBC’s memorable Christmas schedules throughout the 1970s it was Bill Cotton. Head of Light Entertainment from 1970 to 1977, and then Controller of BBC1 to 1981, he was the man who effectively established the BBC’s reputation as home of great Christmas telly – able as he was to draw upon the huge pool of variety and comedy talent he had often personally recruited to the Corporation, and ensure the Beeb’s complete domination of ITV year in year out.
Cotton was very much of that old tradition of cabaret and music hall, sharing similar tastes and background to his father the great Billy Cotton. Since joining the BBC as a producer way back in 1956, he’d supervised the signing of a vast array of glittering talent: an army of stars ranging from singers, comedians and dancers to all-round entertainers who could be deployed to great success each and every Christmas. Bill Cotton made the careers of so many performers, besides influencing younger figures in the broadcasting business – particularly Michael Grade – and his legacy was immense. In one sense, the fact that BBC1 still resorted to variety of the Little and Large kind beyond even the 1980s is a reflection of the scale of Cotton’s achievement.
In 1973 Bill Cotton was faced with a major change to BBC1’s established Christmas line-up.Christmas Night with the Stars was to be scrapped, never to return (aside from a one-off semi-ironic BBC2 stunt in 1994). In its place, Cotton suggested giving Mike Yarwood his own Christmas special for the first time. The impressionist had already cropped up on 25 December the last two years as part of Christmas Night …, and by Christmas 1973 had made three series for the BBC of his legendary Look – Mike Yarwood! show. With his stock impressions of Harold Wilson, Robin Day and Prince Charles, Yarwood would go on to become as firm a fixture on 25 December as the institution he replaced. Indeed, his role on Christmas Day would turn increasingly important as the decade wore on.
This year he was slotted neatly into a schedule which was virtually a carbon copy of that of 12 months earlier. No early morning carols this time, though, with repeats of two Canadian imports opening BBC1’s day at 9.35am: Along the Trail, a film on native wildlife, and The Selfish Giant, a cartoon of the Oscar Wilde fairy tale. Then came a service from Wimborne Minster in Dorset, and the second annual A Stocking Full of Stars, with exactly the same hosts, location, duration and line-up as last year (though the careless Bert Hayes had somehow contrived to lose another member of his group, appearing here with just his Quartet).
The Black and White Minstrels at 1.30pm were succeeded by Top of the Pops ‘73, hosted by Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmonds. This was the first time since 1966 the show hadn’t been split into two parts; instead, viewers could enjoy a special anniversary retrospective, Top of the Pops: Ten Years of Pop Music 1964 – 74, on 27 December at 5.45pm, with Sir Jim spluttering and gurning to camera between archive clips and live performances. Then after the Queen cameBilly Smart’s Circus, the panto at 4.20pm (Robin Hood, with Anita Harris in the title role), The Generation Game, Mike Yarwood at 7.05pm and Morecambe and Wise at 7.35pm with their obligatory remarkable supporting cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Yehudi Menuin, Rudolf Nureyev, Laurence Olivier and The New Seekers. For once there was a good film to follow: The Odd Couple, running through to 10.30pm when Michael Flanders introduced a special Gala Performance featuring popular classics from Nigel Kennedy and the New Philarmonia Orchestra. A chilling mystery drama, Lost Hearts, closed BBC1 on a distinctly pagan, devilish note. Cliff Richard would not have been pleased.
Over on ITV some familiar faces made their first Christmas Day appearance: the cast ofRainbow, opening at 9am with some festive games and jokes. Cosgrove/Hall’s Sally and Jakeand a film version of The Twelve Days of Christmas led up to A Merry Morning at 10am and Leslie Crowther patronising the afflicted at the Airedale General Hospital in Keighley with ventriloquist Ward Allen. Fans of the school choir would’ve been relieved to find some well-scrubbed kids as part of the morning service at 10.30am.
A dreadful variety based religious production titled The Glories of Christmas, and a return visit to the Chipperfield Circus – this time fronted by Ed Stewart – led up to the Queen at 3pm. Then once more ITV opted for a film to follow her Majesty: the bizarre convent-based nun fantasyWhere Angels Go, Trouble Follows, perhaps the most pointless thing ever screened by any channel in this slot. A Danny La Rue fronted dramatisation of Alice in Wonderland followed –Queen of Hearts, by Bryan Blackburn. But while the Beeb may have dropped their annual celebrity cavalcade, ITV persisted with their rip-off version: All Star Comedy Carnival ran from 6.30pm – 8pm, with Jimmy Tarbuck making his second appearance as host and linking sketches from Man About the House; Doctor in Charge; LWT’s brand new comedy Billy Liarwith Jeff Rawle in the title role; Leslie Crowther’s sitcom My Good Woman; and a new Thames show, Spring and Autumn, written by Vince Powell and Harry Driver of Love Thy Neighbourfame.
One of Bill Cotton’s regrets, he insists, is “never finding the right vehicle for Tommy Cooper.” Aside from his debut TV appearance, an eight-week stand-up series in 1952, Cooper had never worked for the BBC – always choosing to make shows for ITV companies. In 1973 the fez-sporting failed magician was in the middle of a Thames series titled The Tommy Cooper Hour, one of which appeared on Christmas Day this year at 8pm. It was probably about the only truly entertaining programme on ITV all day; the film at 9pm was the premiere of the creaky Frank Sinatra/Trevor Howard war thriller Von Ryan’s Express. Then rounding off the day was a show new to Christmas Day: Celebration, an unashamedly old-fashioned and painful mix of music and celebrity, with crinkly Welsh opera singer Sir Geraint Evans warbling traditional carols in poorly-realised studio sets (such as a South American jungle) with guest rugby player Barry John. It was on this note than ITV ran for cover, pausing for a quick epilogue before closing at 12.25am.
Sadly there was no Carry On film this Christmas – though, as the cover of TV Times promised, you could find some of the stars in ITV’s fourth Carry On Christmas TV special. Disney Timewas on BBC1 on Boxing Day, hosted by a grinning Paul and Linda McCartney. Macca showed up earlier in the day as well in A Hard Day’s Night, this year’s seasonal Beatles film. And it was on 26 December that you could find other festive regulars: The Good Old Days, and also The Two Ronnies (co-stars of Radio Times’ cover together with Morecambe and Wise) in An Old-Fashioned Christmas Mystery, written by one Gerald Wiley, aka R Barker.
As for BBC2 – Carol Chell and Johnny Ball told the Christmas Story in Play School at 11am, and after a brief Thought from the Bishop Of Gloucester came that perennial festive film favourite White Christmas. Highlights of the rest of the day here included a special edition ofWhat’s My Line? with guest panellists Kenneth Williams, Nannette Newman, Isobel Barnett and William Franklyn. An animated version of A Christmas Carol, puppetry from France, Swan Lake from Vienna, a new dramatisation of Alice Through the Looking Glass starring Sarah Sutton as Alice, and another panel game – Face the Music – provided much entertainment; and the superbQuatermass and the Pit, closing BBC2’s schedule, meant that writer Nigel Kneale had his work appear two Christmas Days in a row.