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Retro Crimbo: Christmas TV crackers

December 24, 2010

Walking in the air… flying into a nation’s hearts: the genius animated version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman children’s book became the unforgettable TV event of Christmas 1982

Apparently, it was Christmas Day 1989, around 9pm, and for the next hour or so, famed writer Richard Curtis (scribe of the comedy Blackadder and one of the founders of the biennial Comic Relief) sat down with his family and watched on BBC1 a thoroughly depressing Agatha Christie drama full of rather visceral murder and drug-use. Not exactly perfect telly fare for Christmas evening, he thought.

In which case, being a television writer, he decided to do something about it. And two years later to the day (or just two days before, if memory serves me correctly), was broadcast the fruit of Curtis’s labours, the made-for-TV comedy film Bernard And The Genie. It starred a young Alan Cumming as an incredibly unlucky chap named Bernard and a terrific Lenny Henry as an über-exuberant genie that emerges from the lamp he owns – and I thought it was hilarious stuff. Now, amidst the stuff Curtis was to go on to create – Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) etc – Bernard And The Genie has become somewhat forgotten, something of a curate’s egg. You might say that may be sad, given the high regard I obviously hold it in. Well, not really; I loved it and, for me, that’s enough. It’s one of the fondest festive TV memories of my youth and I’ll always cherish the time I first watched it.

And, my merry mates, that’s exactly what this latest post – and the last on this very blog before Crimbo – is all about. Those televisual delights of years gone by that were specially made for and transmitted at Christmastime just for us, the turkey-stuffed and TV-addicted public. Christmas telly specials often hold a treasured place in our hearts – the best of ’em, that is – and, at least in the UK, traditionally achieve enormous viewing figures owing to the captive audience (families all congregated together in the living room) ready to lap them up. Mind you, let’s not forget, there have been a smattering of real duffers over the years as well – and, don’t worry, for the sake of it we’ll be taking a look at one or two of them too.

Bessie and the Genie: recording The Queen’s first TV Christmas message (left) and Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry and Rowan Atkinson in the raucous Bernard And The Genie (right)

But let’s start at the start, shall we, with perhaps the very first, longest-running and truly most traditional of Christmas specials in the world of television… yes, I speak, of course, of The Queen’s Christmas Message. Like so many of TV’s greatest traditions, its origins lie in radio. The practice of the UK’s monarch delivering a speech directly into the homes of the nation began with the present Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, George V, having a speech broadcast by the BBC on Christmas Day 1932. Bypassing his first son Edward VIII (who wasn’t on the throne long enough to celebrate a Christmas as monarch), the convention moved on to his second son and next monarch, George VI, and then to the latter’s daughter, good old Liz.

In 1957, as the nation (and to a far lesser extent the rest of the Commonwealth, for whom the event is also produced) began to switch over to TV, the speech went out on the gogglebox for the first time; thereafter, that would be its primary means of broadcast. And, very quickly, it established itself as not just a central part of families’ televisual Christmas Day, but also their entire Christmas Day. The slot of 3pm on the BBC, then on both BBC1 and ITV (and repeated later in the evening on both BBC2 and Channel 4 when they came on the scene) became untouchable – it was The Queen’s and, like Til Death Us Do Part‘s Alf Garnett, grandparents and parents up and down the nation would stand up and salute as God Save The Queen struck up and the speech came on. One or two probably still do.

The only time since 1957 that Her Maj hasn’t appeared on our TV sets after we’ve polished off our turkey and stuffing was at Christmas 1969 when, following Prince Charles’s investiture and a major Royal documentary on the box, she apparently didn’t want to overdo her TV profile. Public dissatisfaction ensured that she was back as normal the next December 25 – and, as noted, every following one up until today.

As the decades have progressed though, Liz’s role as the big Christmas Day TV event has been challenged and – eventually – usurped. Perhaps most noticeably by the use of the slot immediately following hers (3.05pm or 3.10pm, say) for the terrestrial premiere or re-showing of a publicly adored movie. Going back, The Sound Of Music (1965) was a staple, if you will, Queen-follower and, no doubt, that other UK festive telly favourite The Great Escape (1960) was broadcast then as well – apparently, though, the latter was shown far fewer times actually on Christmas Day than collective memory would have it.

Mind you, perhaps my most fondly recalled immediate-post-Queen’s-speech-broadcast came in 1990 when E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) premiered on BBC1, not least because ITV showed the Marmite-like love-it-or-hate-it Moonraker (1979) at exactly the same time. What can I say, I love me some Bond even in the face of Spielberg’s greatest ever flick. Which of the two to watch and which to record was a decision not taken lightly by the 10-year-old me, I can tell you.

Long before then, though, the entertainment highlight on Christmas Day tended to be the recorded performance of a major touring circus or a made-for-TV pantomime featuring big variety stars of the day. Both were firm festive fixtures of the ’50s and ’60s. For instance, on December 25 1956 the Beeb showed a version of the panto Dick Whittington, written by the great Eric Sykes and starring the legendary Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Hattie Jacques and even David Attenborough. Indeed, the tradition carried on for the next decade or so with household names Terry Scott, Jimmy Tarbuck and Reg Varney becoming regulars and, once the ’70s kicked in, a smattering of more youth-oriented talent such as Cilla Black and Roy Castle.

Seasonal Seventies: Bruce Forsyth and Andrea Redfern hosting 1973’s Christmas Generation Game (left); Mike Yarwood on 1978’s Christmas and New Year bumper issue Radio Times cover (middle) and Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale full of the festive spirit in Porridge (right)

Aside from a couple of pantomime specials of the BBC’s hugely popular chaos-driven kids show Crackerjack in ’74 and ’75, the TV panto went into decline for the rest of the decade. Both the Beeb and ITV resurrected the thing in the mid-’80s though, the former putting on Aladdin in ’84 with the delectable Sarah Greene as principal boy and feauring Kenneth Williams; the latter doing Cinderella in ’86 with a post-Bucks Fizz but pre-Record Breakers Cheryl Baker. Plus, at the end of the ’90s and into the Millennium, ITV had a go at pantos again with – well, obviously – modern performers. Mind, given most of these were made up of the not exactly suited used-to-be-alternative-comedy-crowd and, frankly, just crap soap stars, maybe the least said about them the better.

Nostalgia almost demands that we look on the 1970s as a glorious television decade – after all, in many ways there’s no reason why we shouldn’t – and, no question, it’s this decade that set the template for the TV Christmas. And that’s probably because it was in the ’70s that the UK version of the ‘Christmas special’ – usually a festive edition of a popular sitcom or variety programme with an extended running-time – was born. It’s a formula that was to become so successful that, aside from the inevitable movie premieres and festive flicks, our screens are still filled with ’em every Crimbo to this day.

Of course, the specific Christmas special that gripped the nation during this decade was that delivered by the late, the great, Morecambe and Wise every December 25 – and, of course, I’ve covered that and them in my previous post to be found here. Eric and Ernie’s show played a large role in defining modern light-entertainment – the old saying that people up and down the country measured how good their Christmas had been owing to how good The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show had been probably wasn’t very far from the truth.

More seasonal Seventies: Steptoe and Son deck the halls in their 1974 Christmas episode (left), Noddy Holder performs with Slade on the 1973 Top Of The Pops Christmas Show (middle) and Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett as The Two Ronnies dress up in familiar festive garb (right)

At just one yuletide during their ’69- ’77 reign at the Beeb did the duo not serve up a festive special for the expectant public and their final show managed to achieve an astronomical audience of 28.5 million. However, amazingly (and flying in the face of popular belief), it actually wasn’t the most viewed programme that Christmas Day. That honour went to The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show, which achieved a fractionally higher figure, ensuring that, to this day, it holds the record for the most watched light-entertainment broadcast in UK television history.

Yarwood was a master impressionist, of course, his best and most popular characters being his recreations of 1970s Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey (Yarwood actually came up with Healey’s catchphrase ‘silly billy’ before the latter used it himself) and future Phantom Of The Opera star Michael Crawford as the unforgettable Frank Spencer. Speaking of Frank Spencer, his sitcom Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em – a slapstick archetype of the ’70s – enjoyed two or three high-profile seasonal episodes, but perhaps more memorable Christmas specials came from other sitcoms. And many of them, like Morecambe and Wise, are still shown on the box today.

Dad’s Army, which charted the antics of a hapless South Coast Home Guard platoon during World War Two, enjoyed a particularly good, and unusually non-formulaic, extended episode on Boxing Day 1976. Entitled My Brother And I, it saw arrogant and prudish central character Captain Mainwaring (the outstanding Arthur Lowe) suffer the indignity of a visit from his boozy and diametrically opposite younger brother (also played, to a tee, by Lowe).

The utterly brilliant, light yet substance-filled Porridge, set in HM Slade prison and centering around the experiences of the perpetually incarcerated Norman Stanley ‘Fletch’ Fletcher (Ronnie Barker), enjoyed two Christmas specials. The first No Way Out, broadcast Christmas Eve 1975, was an utter classic and involved an attempted tunnel escape (covered up by prisoners singing just four carols for hours each day) interfering with Fletch trying to spend a cosy Christmas in the infirmary. The second The Desperate Hours, broadcast Christmas Eve 1976, saw Fletch, his cellmate Godber, kindly prison guard Barraclough and the governor’s secretary held hostage by a rather useless prisoner.

And, last but not least, that most ’70s of sitcoms (and one of my all-time favourites) The Good Life enjoyed an utterly stonking  Christmas special at the end of its fourth and final series in 1977 (see video above). The plot to Silly, But It’s Fun saw Surbiton-based self-sufficiency couple Tom and Barbara Good (Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal) invite their good-living neighbours and best friends Margot and Jerry Leadbetter (Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington) around theirs for a makeshift Crimbo when Margot discovers ‘Christmas has been cancelled’ owing to her entire festive order of food, drink and decorations not arriving. Highlights include both couples getting drunk and the wrong partners flirting with each other, as well as Tom’s crackers that require the pullers to say ‘bang’ – indeed, Margot complains that her newspaper-derived hat from said crackers comes from The Daily Mirror, so she swaps with Tom because his comes from The Daily Telegraph.

At this juncture, though, methinks we might take a breather from all this British jollity and have a punt across the pond. Now, no doubt about it, our American cousins love to celebrate Christmas almost as much as we do in the Old Country (let’s be fair, they do miss out on Boxing Day, though) and over the years US TV has thrown up its fair share of memorable festive broadcasts. Tantamount among these must be the animated classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. First broadcast in 1965, it was the original cartoon version of Charles M Schulz’s Snoopy-featuring Peanuts comic. Its main theme is to point out the importance of remembering the true meaning of Christmas in the face of the festival’s modern commercialisation (a message that can only have more relevance each year its been repeated, surely). And it’s been repeated, all right – the CBS network aired it until losing the rights to NBC in 2000, doing so often that its broadcasts by that network even out-strips showings of The Wizard Of Oz (1939).

Yank yuletide: Michael J Fox is scrooged in the 1983 Family Ties Christmas episode (left), Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, the classic 1964 Rankin/ Bass animation (middle) and David Bowie and Bing Crosby wow the world as they duet on the latter’s 1977 seasonal special (right)

Rather more like the variety specials familiar to UK audiences, Bing Crosby’s Christmas television specials were a staple part of the American yuletide. His first was broadcast in 1961 and was actually filmed in the UK, while his first in colour came the following year and featured Broadway musical star Mary Martin. Surely his most well recalled, though, was his final effort from 1977, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, which included the famed and rather surreal duet with David Bowie of Peace On Earth/ Little Drummer Boy – all hokey banter introducing it, of course. Bowie apparently appeared on the special because he knew his mum liked Crosby. Sadly, Bing died just a month after the show’s recording, but more happily, three years later, the song was released as a single and, of course, went on to become an all-time festive favourite.

Another, well, frankly bizarre and infamous American television event came at Christmas 1978 with the broadcast of, yes, The Star Wars Holiday Special. Its story involved Han Solo and Chewbacca having a difficult time reaching Chewie’s family for Light Day (a sort of Star Wars stand-in for Christmas). The thing’s probably most notable for the original introduction of the Boba Fett character in an animated middle section, for Carrie Fisher singing a song at the end to the tune of John Williams’ Star Wars theme and for Chewie’s son being called Lumpawarrump. Oh and, naturally, for the whole thing being rubbish.

Back in Blighty and as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s – in spite of the TV variety tradition being maintained admirably with specials from ageing but brilliant comic duo The Two Ronnies (check out the incomparably clever-funny Messers Barker and Corbett’s take on Alice in Wonderland in the video below) – Crimbo entertainment on the box at began to take on the tone of the times more. The most popular Christmas specials were no longer cosy variety or family sitcom fare, but instead often something that tended to turn up at the corners.

Take, for instance, the emergence of Only Fools And Horses as a Christmas ratings king. Although seen as very comfortable viewing today, relatively speaking, this sitcom about mis-matched, wheeler-dealer brothers on a Peckham council estate has always had a bit of edge and none more so than in its early to mid-’80s formative years. Yet, that idn’t stop it from establishing itself as a fixture in BBC1’s Christmas Day schedules as earlyas 1983, just two years after the series began. In total, a gobsmacking 15 Christmas specials of the sitcom were made between ’81 and 2003, including the much loved and truly excellent trilogy of episodes for Christmas 1996, during the first of which Del Boy and Rodney (David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst) dress up as Batman and Robin and turn into genuine caped crusaders against crime and at the end of which they finally become millionaires. Indeed, that third episode was watched by a staggering 24.3 million people when first aired.

If Only Fools And Horses introduced edge to the Christmas schedules, then EastEnders managed to inject into them a taste as bitter as a triple whisky on top of six turkey sandwiches. With modern TV upstart Michael Grade (famed for oddly saving ITV’s breakfast-time TV-am with Roland Rat) taking the reins at BBC1 in the mid-’80s, the channel’s Christmas Day evening in 1986 saw a double-bill of its eponymous, yet very young soap opra EastEnders masquerading as the highlight – its characters even adorned the cover of the Radio Times listings magazine that yuletide.

However, the naysayers were proved wrong (at least from a ratings perspective) when the accumulated average  for the two episodes – at the end of which pub landlord Den Watts issued his wife Angie with divorce papers – turned out to be a truly staggering 30.15 million viewers. Since that success, it’s fair to say that Christmas television in Britain has never been quite the same – the comedy specials have endured for sure, but cramping their style have always more than enough soaps, as BBC1 and ITV1 have turned Christmas Day especially into a pitched ratings battle (even if, in truth, the former has beaten the latter hands down for the last 10 or so years).

Eighties festivities: Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in 1988’s Blackadder’s Chistmas Carol (left); Del Boy, Rodders and Uncle Albert spread seasonal cheer in Only Fools And Horses (middle) and Blue Peter’s Janet Ellis, Simon Groome and Peter Duncan go panto in 1985

And yet, despite the changes (some certainly not for the better) that the ’80s brought to Christmas TV viewing, it also brought us one, golden, shining moment of festive televisual delight. It was first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1982 and it was… The Snowman. A stunningly beautiful and moving 30-minute pastel and crayon animation based on a storybook drawn by artist Raymond Briggs, it’s probably my favourite Christmas TV highlight, telling the tale, as it does, of a young boy who makes a snowman and, that night, discovers the latter magically comes to life, whisking him away on an unforgettable journey.

It was an immediate success with the public too, even though it was originally (and has only ever been) broadcast in the UK on the alternative terrestrial Channel 4 – and in that channel’s opening year too. The affecting song Walking In The Air (performed on film by choirboy Peter Auty, see video below; forever afterwards associated with child star turned media star Aled Jones who had a hit with it later in the decade) has now become a firm festive standard across the world. The Snowman possesses a magical but quiet (aside from the song it’s wordless) grandeur and grace; it’s something very special indeed. Quite frankly, as far as I’m concerned, the Americans can keep Charlie Brown and his Christmas, because we’ve got Raymond Briggs’ Snowman – and that’s more than all right with me.

So then, looking back down through the decades at the best – and some of the not so great – offerings that television has served up for us this time of year to digest along with our plum puddings, there’s much to put modern offerings to shame, it has to be said. And yet, for all that, if Christmas is about anything, then it’s surely about goodwill and forgiveness. So why don’t we forgive our modern telly programme makers for their lack of creative merry magic nowadays (after all, as we’ve seen, they’ve a tough act to follow) and, instead, with the season’s spirit of goodwill why don’t we revel – over a rum truffle or two – in the repeats from great TV Christmases past? I know I’ll be doing exactly that between now and New Year – will you…?


Telly highlights this Christmas and New Year (UK only)

The Snowman ~ Christmas Eve, 1.20pm, Channel 4

Only Fools And Horses ~ Christmas Eve, 1.35pm, BBC1 ‘Time On Our Hands’ The 1996 Christmas trilogy conclusion

The Santa Files with John Sergeant ~ Christmas Eve, 5.55pm, ITV1 Documentary on Old Saint Nick

Greatest Christmas TV Moments ~ Christmas Eve, 9pm, Five Countdown of retro Crimbo telly

Elf (film) ~ Christmas Eve, 7.15pm, Film4 Seasonal family comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel

The Muppet Christmas Carol (film) ~ Christmas Day, 8.50am Channel 4 Cracking puppet retelling of Dickens’ classic

Singin’ In The Rain (film) ~ Christmas Day, 11.15am, BBC2 The greatest ever movie musical?

Lawrence Of Arabia (film) ~ Christmas Day, 12.50pm, Fiver Peter O’Toole plays the eponymous TE Lawrence in David Lean’s (in Steven Spielberg’s words) ‘miracle of a movie’

The Man Who Would Be King (film) ~ Christmas Day, 12.55pm, BBC2 John Huston’s outstanding adventure starring Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer

Casablanca (film) ~ Christmas Day, 2.40pm/ New Year’s Eve, 4.50pm, Film4 The all-time Hollywood classic

The Remains Of The Day (film) ~ Christmas Day, 4.25pm, Five Excellent adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (film) ~ Christmas Day, 4.55pm, Film4 Revisionist western comedy drama starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross

The One Ronnie ~ Christmas Day, 5.10pm, BBC1 Sketch-based special featuring Ronnie Corbett to celebrate his 80th birthday

Doctor Who ~ Christmas Day, 6pm, BBC1/ Boxing Day, 7pm, BBC3/ New Year Holiday Monday, 4.10pm, BBC1 The 2010 Christmas special

Stranger Than Fiction (film) ~ Christmas Day, 6.55pm, BBC1 Smart, offbeat comedy starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson

Die Hard (film) ~ Christmas Day, 9pm, Film4 Hard-hitting and yet seasonal action adventure starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (film) ~ Boxing Day, 9.45am, BBC1 Excellent live-action/ animated adventure starring Bob Hoskins

High Society (film) ~ Boxing Day, 3pm, Five Sparkling musical starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra

Top Of The Pops 1985 Christmas Special ~ Boxing Day, 6.40pm, Five Featuring, er, Shakin’ Stevens

100 Greatest Toys With Jonathan Ross ~ Boxing Day, 6.55pm, Channel 4 Children’s playthings countdown

Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? ~ Boxing Day, 9pm, Five 1974 Christmas special of the classic sitcom

When Harvey Met Bob ~ Boxing Day, 9.15pm, BBC2 Drama depicting the staging of Live Aid

Live Aid ~ Boxing Day, 10.45pm, BBC2 Documentary on the legendary event

A Matter Of Life And Death (film) ~ Holiday Monday, 4.55pm/ Sunday January 2, 3pm, Film4 Powell and Pressburger’s wonderful fantasy wartime drama starring David Niven

Big (film) ~ Holiday Monday, 7pm/ New Year’s Day, 4.35pm, Film4 The classic ’80s body-swap comedy starring Tom Hanks

Porridge (film) ~ Holiday Monday, 7.15pm, Channel 4 Big-screen outing for Fletch and co.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (film) ~ Holiday Tuesday, 2.40pm, ITV1 Steven Spielberg’s family film favourite

Time Bandits (film) ~ Holiday Tuesday, 3.05pm, Film4 Terry Gilliam’s evergreen fantasy adventure starring Sean Connery, John Cleese, Ian Holm and Ralph Richardson

The Good Life Night ~ Holiday Tuesday, Begins 8pm, BBC2 Including ‘Silly, But It’s Fun’ at 8.30pm

Doctor Zhivago (film) ~ Wednesday December 29, 2.25pm, Five David Lean’s snowy, romantic epic starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin and Alec Guinness

Mary Poppins (film) ~ Wednesday December 29, 4.05pm, BBC1 Disney’s unavoidable, irresistible classic starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke

Paul McCartney And Wings: Band On The Run ~ Wednesday December 29, 9pm, ITV4 Documentary on the making of the classic album

Butterflies ~ Thursday December 30, 9pm, Five 1979 Christmas special of the fine sitcom starring Wendy Craig and Geoffrey Palmer

Terry And June ~ Thursday December 30, 9.45pm, Five Festive edition of the sitcom starring Terry Scott and June Whitfield

100 Years Of The London Palladium ~ New Year’s Eve, 9pm, BBC2 Documentary marking the world-famous theatre’s centenary

Morecambe And Wise Night ~ New Year’s Day, Begins 7.55pm, BBC2 Including the 1976 Christmas special (7.55pm); Eric And Ernie (9pm) drama about the duo’s beginnings; Eric And Ernie: Behind The Scenes (10.30pm) documentary on their formative years

The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show ~ Sunday January 2, 6.50pm, BBC2 The ratings-busting 1977 Christmas special


And all that leaves me to do… is to wish

you all a very merry Christmas from…

… stay cool and stay retro, peeps – and see you in 2011!

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