“Best switch off – if you don’t believe in laughter.”
This final year of the decade found the BBC enjoying renewed popularity thanks to a 75 day strike that blacked out ITV throughout the autumn. Beginning in some regions on 6 August, but soon spreading to the entire country from 10 August, industrial action of this kind was unprecedented in Britain. Smaller, low-key disputes had occurred before – such as the one that knocked LWT off the air within minutes of its launch on 2 August 1968. But the scale of this particular disruption was severe – and hugely significant.
It meant that the BBC enjoyed complete supremacy of the airwaves for the 10 or so weeks that ITV was crippled, during which time many of its programmes – both new and old – picked up increased audiences which then stayed with the channel once ITV returned on 24 October. Suddenly, even the Beeb’s run-of-the-mill everyday shows were picking up ratings close to 15 or 20 million – a development that went some way to explaining the Corporation’s total dominance of the Christmas schedules in 1979, where they even toppled Morecambe and Wise on ITV. In particular, three new shows that all began during the preceding 24 months – Blankety Blank, All Creatures Great and Small and To The Manor Born – had scored huge audiences this year, and helped deliver BBC a complete ratings victory over ITV thanks to cunning scheduling by Bill Cotton.
BBC1 began Christmas Day at 9am with another trip round the music of the world in Star Over Bethlehem; then it was a rather dull run-through the morning with a service from Llanedeyrn, Bagpuss, the return of The Spinners at Christmas, the 1971 re-make of Black Beauty, and worst of all a John Curry ice show. “Music is my reason for skating,” claimed Curry implausibly, “I feel I must express it.” The first part of Top of the Pops ‘79 at 2pm hosted by David Jensen and Peter Powell saved BBC1’s early schedule from being a complete write-off (part two turned up on 27 December with DLT and Mike Read in charge).
Once you got the other side of the Queen, things improved drastically with Larry and Isla back for another Generation Game special. Then came another unfortunate lull in the shape of the 1966 Disney film The Gnome Mobile – a huge anti-climax compared to the big films shown in this slot on previous years. Much better was to follow at 5.50pm with a seasonal edition ofBlankety Blank. “Lord Terence of Wogan arrived late for a Christmas party, forgetting that he hadn’t properly done up his BLANKS.” Terry, stick mike in hand, was faced with not just the traditional six celebrity panellists, but a whole dozen – and what a line-up. All the usuals were here: Lennie Bennett, Lorraine Chase, Wendy Craig, Sandra Dickinson, Shirley Ann Field, Kenny Everett, David Hamilton, David Jason, Roy Kinnear, Patrick Moore and Beryl Reid. Some “spontaneous” reason would have been found to have the six comprising the first panel “walk off” in disgust half way through, and for the rest of the guests to then amazingly appear from within the audience to much hilarity.
Next came All Creatures Great and Small, in a festive episode painfully titled “Plenty To Grouse About”. This was actually the first instalment of the third series of this incredible popular drama – one that would apparently end for good a few months later in April 1980 when the collective Darrowby vets were called up to fight in World War II. All Creatures … wasn’t dead, however, next appearing on screens … on Christmas Day 1983. A hefty audience would’ve been passed on to Mike Yarwood at 7.20pm, joined this Christmas by Johnny Mathis, and viewers undoubtedly remained glued to BBC1 for what followed as well: a special episode of To The Manor Born. Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles had found themselves stars of an unlikely hit comedy which had begun on the last day of September 1979 and rocketed up the ratings thanks to the ITV strike, ending up pulling – in one instance – almost 24 million viewers. Audiences of this size wouldn’t be seen again for many years (see EastEnders at Christmas 1986, and Only Fools and Horses at Christmas 1996).
The evening was rounded off with a stunning film, The Sting, before more chat with Parkinsonat 10.45pm. Not surprisingly, the whole line-up thrashed ITV, who vainly tried to piece together a schedule of comparable impact to the one last year, but to no avail. As in 1978, they went for a Bond film to follow the Queen: Goldfinger, a good choice; and also as in 1978, there was a 3-2-1 Christmas special, this time moved to an early evening slot to follow 007. Next up was the very last episode of George and Mildred. This popular and undeniably entertaining Thames sitcom once again found Mildred lusting after the passion her husband would never provide – indeed, the episode’s title was “The 26 Year Itch” – but after four years and five series she was to be left unfulfilled. It may have pulled in some viewers, but these would have switched over come 6.45pm and the start of the dreadful film The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds– a woeful comedy thriller from 1973 with Michael York and Oliver Reed.
That left Morecambe and Wise at 8.45pm. Unbelievably, Thames hadn’t been able to wangle a new show out of the increasingly obstinate pair since last Christmas. No doubt this was in part due to the continuing unavailability of Eddie Braben as scriptwriter; nonetheless, ITV needed them back for Christmas Day – but what they got was diabolical, a complete waste of time, as all this 60 minute show comprised was a long boring interview with David Frost, one solitary new sketch with Glenda Jackson, and some really old clips. A truly low point for this duo who just two years earlier had created one of the best Christmas shows seen on British television ever.
ITV’s evening concluded with yet another special This Is Your Life at 9.45pm; Cleo’s Christmasat 10.40pm – songs, requests and light banter from Ms Laine; but worst of all, the spectacularly inappropriate Vegas at 11.40pm: a US cop show, starring Robert Urich and Bart Braverman. What were ITV thinking? If you survived that, there was always some monks chanting 8th century plainsong at 12.35am to send you screaming to bed.
ITV’s Christmas, then, was a complete mess. Billy Smart’s Circus, which they’d so eagerly nicked from the Beeb, was wasted – dumped on Boxing Day; and if that wasn’t enough, centrepiece of the morning schedule was A Merry Morning – repeated from last year! What if one of the kids had died since filming? Filling up the rest of the hours were a service from Harpenden, the terrible TV movie Lassie: The New Beginning, short Disney cartoons and Christmas Oh Boy! – an attempt to re-stage the famous 1950s ITV music show, but with Alvin Stardust and Shakin’ Stevens croaking old hits while the audience were asked to wear black, white or grey – though “it still promises,” pleaded TV Times desperately, “to be a colourful occasion.” C-list celebrities making fools of themselves in Michael Aspel’s Star Games brought us up to 3pm.
Even BBC2 managed a better line-up than ITV this year – it was certainly more imaginative and entertaining. A Hard Day’s Night was shown at 3pm – part of a fantastic season of all the Beatles films, including Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be, screened over the holiday period. At the other end of the day was another great movie, here receiving its TV premiere: Cabaret. In between there was a Christmas concert from Amsterdam, a repeat of an award-winning dramatisation of A Christmas Carol with Michael Hordern as Scrooge, a survey of British horticulture in The Front Garden, and a special festive edition of Face the Music hosted as ever by Joseph Cooper.
As the 1970s were rung out at midnight on New Year’s Eve, viewers could look back over a decade of Christmas television that had displayed an incredible amount of consistency: while some shows had come and gone (mostly sitcoms), others had persisted in one form or other right through ten long years. A person tuning back in to British telly at the end of 1979 after maybe spending the whole decade abroad would’ve found the Christmas Day schedules in essence remarkably similar to how they originally remembered them. Sure, some familiar programmes had moved days, like Disney Time which here in 1979 was on Boxing Day with Rod Hull and Emu; some had hopped channels, like Morecambe and Wise and Billy Smart’s Circus. But in summary: staggeringly little change. Only the hospital visit had been consigned to the dustbin – though ITV kept up that tradition.
So maybe as we tuned in to BBC2 on 27 December 1979 to enjoy songs, stories, sketches and rhymes with Richard Stilgoe “looking optimistically into the ’80s”, we would have concluded that the 1970s had been an astonishingly successful and memorable decade for Christmas telly; and not without reason imagined that the forthcoming new decade would continue to be just as superb …