“And no royal Christmas party would be complete with charades, popular with the Royal Family through five generations. As in television’s Give Us A Clue, they divide into two teams to act out film, play, TV or song titles.”
After last year’s effort many would have vowed “never again” at the thought of another ITV Christmas. However, much like Sean Connery who creaked across our cinema screens this December flinging bottles of urine at Cornish wrestlers, it turned into a case of Never Say Never Again, as ITV stumped up with a much improved line-up.
This being a Sunday the morning started with Rub-A-Dub-Tub’s Christmas Day Special from TV-am with Bonnie Langford, Alan Dart and husband and wife Edward Woodward and Michele Dotrice joining in the fun. At 8am it was Christmas with TV-am, which featured the first real utilisation of sick kids for some years as Chris Tarrant reported from the Queen Mary hospital for children. Finally, giving us what we wanted, TV-am went off the air with Roland’s Winter Wonderland. Roland, Kevin, Errol et al broadcasted from their alpine retreat.
After The Moderator’s Christmas Message (in Scotland) at 9.25am we were brought a mercifully brief The Sound of Children before a, briefer still, teaser for the impending arrival of the Jim Henson series Fraggle Rock. This five-minute prequel entitled The Fraggles are Coming surely wins the prize for the most incongruous Christmas Day programme screened by either of the Big Two. Keeping things bite-sized Messengers to Earth was a mere 25 minutes of song put on by the Sheldon Theatre Company in Devon. Being an amusing concept with angels preparing in a celestial “ops room” for the birth of Christ, its relative brevity was probably the soul of any wit here.
At 10.20am, however, something of a revolution took place. As the rest of the ITV network succumbed to the Christmas Morning Service, STV delighted central Scotland with an hour ofGlen Michael’s Christmas Cavalcade. Derived from the regular Glen Michael’s Cavalcade, this fusty old kid’s programme is rightly celebrated by the Scots, featuring Glen (a sort of Casey Kasem via Glendarroch), Rusty (a dog) and Paladin (a lamp) this was stultifyingly awful fodder, built around a mélange of second-rate cartoons (Roger Ramjet, Batfink – you know the score). The regular highlight would be when Glen would stop the cartoon, and appear within the frozen frame himself thanks to the “magic of television”. “Watch out Spider-Man!” he’d helpfully holler, “It’s the Green Goblin!” before side-stepping out of the picture and allowing the animation to crank up again.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without some sort of ice-skating special, and though The Magic Planet (an ice extravaganza about an astronaut who lands on an alien planet and falls in love with their queen) wasn’t a patch on Runaround on ice three years ago, it filled the brief adequately.
And so to 12.15am and our first film of only three on ITV today: the made-for-TV The Capture of Grizzly Adams. Following was The Royal Year, an hour of highlights from the Queen’s foreign visits this year. In fact, ITV seemed to be very much in love with the royals throughout 1983, devoting their TV Times Christmas edition to a dreadful front cover painting depicting an imaginary scene of Charles and Diana plus sprog bedecking a Christmas tree. Additionally the paper also ran a cut-out and keep royal scrap book over several editions.
After the Queen’s speech it was big movie time with Superman. This good-natured effort from 1978 boasted quite an incredible cast featuring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp and Susannah York. Remaining buoyant ITV followed this up with the Bullseye Christmas Special, and again we had quite a cast list to conjure with: Jim Bowen, Eric Bristow, Kenneth Kendall, Anne Diamond, Judith Hann and special guest scorer Anne Aston. If it wasn’t enough to have this ex-Golden Shot-er back on the telly, than surely the sight of Kenneth Kendall stepping up to the oche made this truly one of the highlights of Christmas ‘83.
After all 10 minutes of the day’s news it was A Royal Concert of Carols at 6.35pm, carols from a hospital choir at a concert in aid of the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children. Commendable, yes, great telly, no. Interestingly the programme was directed by David Liddiment, ITV overlord in waiting.
And so it was 7.15pm and finally LWT got in on the act. Firstly it was a run of the mill edition ofBruce Forsyth’s Play Your Cards Right, which was then followed by ITV’s big number this year,Jimmy Tarbuck’s Christmas All Stars. Tarbuck’s first Christmas show for the third channel in 10 years was basically just another reinvention of the Beeb’s Christmas Night with the Starsformat. Fittingly Bruce Forsyth showed up here as well, prompting Tarby to remember wistfully his first TV appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1963, when Brucie had been hosting. Included in the programme was a pocket-sized edition of Game for a Laugh with the four tricksters still in fine fettle. Cannon and Ball were there too (who had just graduated to their own Christmas Special which went out on 17 December), whilst Robert Wagner, Stephanie Powers and David Hasselhoff (amongst others) contributed via a satellite link.
Our last film today on ITV was Revenge of the Pink Panther, the last fully fledged film in the series (Trail of the Pink Panther made after Peter Sellers’ death being a collection of outtakes thrown into a new plot). ITV then surprised us with a second ITN News today (still only 10 minutes though) winding down the night with The King’s Singers in The King’s Christmas, and at 11.45pm sub-M*A*S*H effort, House Calls (“the staff at Kensington Hospital throw a Christmas show”). All in all this had been one of the stronger Christmas Days on ITV.
And beyond the Day itself could be found some of our favourite Christmas stalwarts with theGive Us A Clue Christmas edition (guest stars: Jane Asher, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Jilly Cooper, Russell Grant, Tracey Ullman and – incredibly – Bob Geldof), The Spy Who Loved Me and Eric and Ernie’s Christmas Show all falling upon Boxing Day. Notably, here too was Minder with “Christmas Bonus”. This series would play one of the most notable roles in the TV scheduling wars in just a few years time.
So what had BBC1 laid on this year? Christmas Day started off looking awfully familiar with those persistent Raccoons followed by the usual carol services. Our annual 10.20am church visit this year came from The Mint Methodist Church in Exeter. At 11.20am “make way for Rolf Harris, little convict Toby and YoYo the dancing koala – all star attractions in this Australian family film” said Radio Times. The Little Convict mixed cartoon characters and live-action backdrops – an unusual inclusion for sure. Ziggy’s Gift followed with music by Harry Nilsson, but singularly failing to set everybody talking on Christmas Day. And then, as if things couldn’t get any more perplexing at 1.05pm it was Glitterball, from The Children’s Film Foundation (as seen on Screen Test). Even Radio Times had to concede “technical skill and imagination help to offset a low budget.” Despite being a TV premiere there was nothing remotely Christmassy about it, making it a baffling contribution to the day.
Come 2pm and we were able to orientate ourselves once more with Top of the Pops ‘83. Featuring a gaggle of Radio 1 DJs this year saw the restoration of the two part Pops with a second edition going out on 29 December. At 3.15pm Sabina Franklyn, Roy Kinnear, Ruth Madoc, Patrick Moore, Beryl Reid and Freddie Starr filled in the blanks, and then we were back into another film:Treasure Island.
The third annual Christmas Jim’ll Fix It rolled along at 5.35pm with the bejewelled one this year fixing it for an 11-year old to be a Hi-De-Hi! yellowcoat, two pupils from a school for the blind to ride at the Horse of the Year Show, an 8-year old Father Christmas and – quite usefully – an item on cracking walnuts. Catching everyone off-guard at 6.15pm, BBC1 threw another carol service at us before getting on with the business of Christmas Specials proper. As ever, The Two Ronnies put in an appearance, however they were followed by something quite exciting: a new episode of All Creatures Great and Small. This was the first time the cast had been together since 1980 when the show had been apparently packed up for good. All of the actors felt quite happy upon returning, although Carol Drinkwater was still smarting from the adverse press reaction she had received during the making of the original series when it had come to light she was having an affair with Christopher Timothy. “I got a name based on lies which I still don’t think I’ve lived down” she said, before adding “And it was wonderful to work with Christopher Timothy again [on this new episode]“. Steady on, Carol!
At 9.35pm Only Fools and Horses rightfully graduated to a Christmas Day episode and did not disappoint. In “Thicker Than Water” Del and Rodney’s father (played by David Jason look-alike Peter Woodthorpe) returned to Peckham, looking to fleece his sons. At 30 minutes this was the best thing on all day. From these peaks, however, BBC1 bottomed-out again with a boring David Niven film Better Late Than Never, and bidding fare thee well to Christmas Day, The Spinners at York.
Overall, ITV had probably aced it this year, despite having nothing comparable with the best of the Beeb’s offerings, they had laid on a stronger schedule.
Of the “minority” channels, Channel 4 had a half-hearted crack at it bringing us a Father’s Day Christmas Special (middle of the road sitcom starring John Alderton which was so cheap that he wore his own clothes and brought in pictures from home to dress the set) and Twice Knightly (The Barron Knights’ “unique entertainment special”). The Snowman was trotted out for its second year on 29 December, this time with an introduction by David Bowie. Meanwhile, on BBC2 we found a channel that couldn’t even be bothered to start until 2pm (so, no Christmas Story from Play School again this year). Highlights of their day were a Christmas Henry’s Cat(always great fun) and one of The Marx Brother’s best films Duck Soup (which BBC1 would trot out on New Year’s Day 1985). Despite this, it seemed that as ever, there was to be no Sanity Clause on BBC2.