“400 brownies are yelling ‘We want Leslie Crowther’.”
The Radio Times noted that a key element of Christmas was “being able to be sure that you can look forward to the annual programme of fun on BBC1; like positively knowing that the Morecambe and Wise Show is on.” The Beeb was to offer us most of its conventional fare in 1976. There was the Carry On film (… At Your Convenience, on 27 December), at 6.30pm; a new special episode of Porridge (“The Desperate Hours” on Christmas Eve at 8pm), Disney Time (also on 27 December, hosted by The Goodies) and though there was no Beatles film, The Wizard of Oz was back on 26 December.
As for the big day itself, BBC1 began with exactly the same edition of Ragtime that had opened Christmas Day 12 months ago. They continued with entertainment for the kids (carols from school choirs and Hong Kong Phooey cartoons), the grown-ups (a service from Quinton Park Baptist Church in Coventry) and for everyone: Rod Hull and Emu at 11.15am, repeating the formula of last year by enlisting 300 children plus guest (good old Rolf Harris, nice to see him back on Christmas Day) to trill some songs. Then came a black-and-white comedy film (a clip package of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chase) and the skating (Holiday on Ice): in essence, the same pre-Queen’s message line-up three years running. Top of the Popsat 2.10pm found Noel Edmonds and DLT hosting part one of the familiar hits run-down; part two tomorrow with – who else? – Tony B and Jimmy S.
Once the annual date at the Palace was disposed with, it was back to the honking seals ofBilly Smart’s Circus. Then there was another excellent choice of family film – the 1968 version of the musical Oliver – taking you through to Bruce and The Generation Game. After that, Radio Times’ favourite: Morecambe and Wise, and yet another classic Christmas special, featuring Elton John, John Thaw, Dennis Waterman, Kate O’Mara and The Nolans. The big evening film followed, and this year it was Airport – a change from the epic war/western movie that usually cropped up here, but a gloomy choice for Christmas night. A weird note to end on, as well, withThe Parkinson Magic Show at 11pm: Michael plus three of the world’s top conjurers: Fred Kaps, Ricky Jay and Richiardi Junior. Still, at least it wasn’t a re-hash of old clips, or another of Parky’s fawning chats with crotchety Hollywood biddies.
Major scandal on BBC2: no Play School. Instead the channel opened at 12.10pm with a religious Reflection; then Horizon on the legend of King Arthur; a repeat of last year’sChristmas Play Away; then the traditional carol service from King’s College Cambridge, uprooted from its normal slot on Christmas Eve. Two fairy tales followed the Queen: a new dramatisation of The Snow Queen, then a repeat of 1973’s festive version of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
However, after another cartoon and a dull film about a Russian polar bear came one of BBC2’s best ever Christmas evenings: nearly three hours of clips from the BBC archives, celebrating forty years of British television. The retrospective included over 200 extracts of famous and obscure Beeb broadcasts, and had originally been shown to launch the Corporation’s Festival of Television earlier in the year. This was a great choice for Christmas viewing, a wonderful feast of nostalgia and a chance for indulging in shameless reflection and wistful reminiscence. BBC2’s evening ended with another documentary (on being stranded in the Antarctic), carols and a classic film: Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Could ITV, for once, come up with an attractive, popular and consistent schedule to give the BBC a run for its money? Well, the morning line-up wasn’t that exciting (but there again, neither was BBC1’s): carols from Durham Cathedral; a religious parable, The Legend of the Christmas Messenger; a service from Boxgrove Priory in Sussex; A Merry Morning with Jimmy Tarbuck from Harrogate General Hospital; then the film version of the musical Doctor Dolittle. That took us through to 2.15pm when there was an attempt at direct competition with TOTP: Christmas Supersonic, a charity do from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with Russell Harty and Joanna Lumley introducing Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter and John Miles raising money for the Invalid Children’s Aid Association. Princess Margaret was in attendance too; though this was a marked step back from the unashamed pop and rock glamour of last year’s 45.
ITV’s choice of post-Queen material was initially promising: the film spin-off of Please, Sir!, then a special New Faces with Derek Hobson introducing a selection of 1976’s big winners (Our Kid!), and a visit by Nicholas Parsons and his array of kitchen tupperware in Christmas Sale of the Century. But then came The John Curry Ice Spectacular: sure, Curry had won a gold in the 1976 winter Olympics, but skating belonged earlier in the day, and this “spectacular” not only featured Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie but was based around the songs of Stephen Sondheim. What the hell was this all about? It led into the film Waterloo at 8.25pm which ran all the way through to the news at 10.25pm – what a pathetic Christmas evening, a load of musical celebrities stumbling around on a frozen pond followed by Americans putting on iffy French accents and blowing each other up on a muddy field.
Hooray, then, for Two’s Company at 10.35pm: Elaine Stritch and Donald Sinden in an episode that marked the end of the second series of this LWT Brit-meets-Yank sitcom. Though the initial series, which began in September 1975, had only been shown in London, the follow-up run had been fully networked and proved quite popular. Last up, who else but Sir Geraint Evans with another Celebration at 11.05pm. This year we could find him entertaining Petula Clark at Castell Coch near Cardiff – so no wobbly sets this year to close yet another poor Christmas for ITV.