The TV schedules of Christmases Past
East of the M60 has delivered you, the reader, a lovely Christmas bonus Not So Perfect Ten. There’s every chance you may be bored stiff from the present offerings on ITV, the BBC and numerous other cable and satellite channels. You’ve exhausted the DVDs, Netflix and Blinkbox. A part of you may be yearning for the days of three or four channels and Christmas specials commanding 20 million or more viewers.
Whilst I yearn for a four legged Granada television set, I also yearn for the old fashioned Christmas specials. The long-awaited blockbuster movie premiere, and waking up to open my presents to the strains of Noel Edmonds. That’s before you get me started on the joys of Jim Pope’s continuity announcements and special Christmas idents.
Before I get to the point of rose-tinting and glossing over for nostalgia’s sake, there was some dross. Our special Not So Perfect Ten will try to have a fair balance between the clunkers and the classics. For the benefit of your enjoyment, our countdown would be detailed in similar order to a typical 1970s and 1980s Christmas Day and Boxing Day schedule.
- Double editions of TV Times and Radio Times;
- Live Hospital Broadcasts;
- Top of the Pops Christmas Specials;
- Junior Kick Start;
- Christmas Circuses;
- One-off variety spectaculars;
- Feature-length Christmas specials;
- Network movie premieres;
- Celebrity special quiz shows;
- Furniture advertisements.
1. Television magazine double editions: till more recent times (well 1992 to be precise), we only had two television magazines. TV Times would only carry listings for ITV regions with different editions for each franchise. Radio Times would only carry BBC listings for BBC One, BBC Two, and its national and local radio stations (again with regional editions). You knew Christmas was on its way if you bought both magazines, planned your viewing and found about twenty pages of adverts for Butlins, Hoseasons and Tourist Boards’ local advertisements (with Freepost address or Freephone number to receive a Skegness brochure (well, other UK seaside resorts are available)).
2. Live Hospital Broadcasts: in the last fifty years, the BBC, ITV and BSkyB have shown our viewers how Christmas can be a dispiriting time for children and young people in hospital. Today, the mere thought of it can be creepy and result in a multitude of DBS checks for its presenters, in spite of its good intentions. From 1964 to 1967, a programme entitled Meet The Kids on the BBC would see Leslie Crowther and a few other celebrities on a children’s wards entertaining them (a bit like Crackerjack with bedpans though set in Hackney and Great Ormond Street hospitals). By 1969, Leslie took the format to ITV. Entitled A Merry Morning, it was usually set in the children’s ward of Seacroft Hospital, Leeds. They would also go to children’s homes such as the National Children’s Home in Harrogate, and Jimmy Tarbuck would also feature.
By the late 1980s, the format was dusted down as Noel’s Christmas Presents on the BBC, only with a helicopter and this continued till 1999. It was revived on Sky One in 2007.
3. Top of the Pops Christmas Specials: sticking with Noel, though often accompanied by a certain disgraced DJ and presenter in fancy dress, the Christmas special of Top of the Pops was a high point of most popular music fan’s programming in the pre-MTV era. As well as playing the whole year’s Number One singles, it saved viewers from watching some of the dross acts in the other 51 weeks of each year. The added Christmas feel made for a more party atmosphere compared with the bog standard Thursday evening episodes.
4. Junior Kick Start: you could tell that Boxing Day had well and truly started if you heard the dulcet tones of Peter Purves and saw a few juvenile wannabe Evil Knievals. As soon as By My Boogie Woogie Baby by Mr. Walkie Talkie started, you knew our competitors would get into some scrapes. Along an assault course. For scrambling bikes. Some of the entrants would continue to bigger and better things. Junior Kick Start was popular enough to spawn a computer game for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 (there was even a Commodore 128 version – a real rare beast!), and it is namechecked in Half Man Half Biscuit’s Footprints (last track on This Leaden Pall).
5. Christmas Circuses: today, the very notion of a televised circus would be deemed politically incorrect. Yet till the 1970s, they would often get the equivalent of 15 to 20 million viewers (note that viewing figures were calculated by homes instead of individuals till 1977). Either the BBC or ITV would show a Christmas circus of some description, often Chipperfield’s or Billy Smart’s. Instead of reality TV stars, Charlie Cairoli and Norman Barrett would have similar celebrity billing as professional footballers. If you were unable to see George Lockhart and his company at Kings Hall, Belle Vue, Boxing Day afternoon on Granada or BBC One was a suitable alternative.
6. One-off variety spectaculars: in the days of two mainstream channels, there was much competition between BBC and ITV to put on a big budget variety spectacular. The former’s trump card from the late 1960s to 1977 was Morecambe and Wise, whereas ITV’s ace was Stanley Baxter. His show was noted for such lavish sets and Mr. Baxter’s versatility as a performer. For many viewers, the most seminal moment was 1977’s Morecambe and Wise Christmas special. For many, it was the sight of Angela Rippon’s legs as well as the newscasters singing There’s Nothing Like A Dame. Today, there seems to be nothing in that vein.
7. Feature-Length Christmas Specials: again we return to the rivalry of the BBC and ITV. Many soap operas and continuing dramas tend to have a Christmas special of some description, but the saturation of present soap opera frequencies ruin the specialness of them all. For many viewers, the most seminal moment would be any of Only Fools and Horses‘ Christmas specials (probably being reran on a satellite and cable channel whilst you are reading this). The absolute apogee would be 1996’s trilogy (Heroes and Villains, Modern Men, Time On Our Hands (‘bidding starts at four million pounds…’)). Besides John Sullivan’s masterpiece, other dramas and comedies would have feature length specials. Equally memorable was Victor Meldrew’s jolly to the Algarve, Arthur Daley’s trip on the Orient Express, and Denise’s waters breaking to the strains of Charlotte Church.
What’s more, even as multichannel television and online streaming services reared their ugly heads, they were still regarded as appointments to view among all families. Along with the turkey, a board game or two, part and parcel of many Christmases past and present.
8. Movie Premieres: two words may sum up the loss of big budget movie premieres on terrestrial channels: ‘blame Sky’. O.K., it may be easy to blame an Antipodian/American media mogul for the loss of film premieres on ITV, but the real issue is fragmented audiences courtesy of multichannel broadcasting. Before we had subscription-based film channels, live streaming services, or video rental shops even, the movie premiere on the BBC or ITV was an ‘appointment to view’. You could be sure of seeing at least one James Bond film on ITV, or a recent Walt Disney film on BBC, and it didn’t bother us in the slightest if the film was nearly five years old. Today, anticipation is stymied by the fact a film could be released on DVD, download or Bluray months after cinematic release. A real shame.
9. Celebrity special quiz shows: a bit of a controversial one here. Before we ditched real families for celebrity families on many popular game shows, a Celebrity Special of a bog standard quiz show was a bit of a novelty. Family Fortunes, The Krypton Factor, and Bullseye would often be the preserve of Vox Populi but Christmas was a time for celebrity specials. As well as the added glitz, its charitable intentions was consistent with the spirit of Christmas. Today, it seems to be a novelty to see vox populi on Family Fortunes these days (only saying of course) and the treat element of a celebrity based game show seems to have been devalued.
10. Furniture advertisements: our final entry is another slightly controversial one as this one is pretty much in the present too. For obvious reasons, ITV’s advertising income on Christmas Day comes courtesy of DFS, Harveys et al, thanks to the Boxing Day sales. In present times, they seem to be a muchness in the other 364 or 365 days of each year as well as on Christmas Day. However, the ones from the 1980s have an endearing brashness which today’s polished productions lack. You could be sure of the late Tommy Vance’s dulcet tones on the (also late) MFI adverts; Patrick Allen’s for Texas (when he’s not on helicopters advertising identikit semis); at the other end, the semi-futuristic Wades Furnishing ads. Today, they knock on wooden tables, feature aspirational family groups sat down or entering out-of-town stores on the outskirts of Oldham. How I miss the old Queensway adverts!
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Returning to 2013, the joys of sitting around a cathode ray tube or flat screen television lacks the same charm as it did in 1987. Technology saw to that long ago, but then again so did uninspiring programmes. Nothing which blatantly screams ‘Christmas’, nothing that raises the viewers spirits in anticipation for weeks or months in advance. The films shown on today’s terrestrial channels this year is atrocious, more so to the lack of anything fresh which would tear us away from our digital devices (or at least enable us to view on iPlayer or similar site whilst performing other tasks at the same time).
Thirty years ago, the showpeople were firmly in the driving seat in terms of Christmas scheduling. Today, it is the accountants where risk taking is frowned upon in favour of tried and tested options (like Christmas versions of favourite soaps and continuing dramas). As we are living in such miserable times, why on earth does our Christmas programming has to be so dreary and nondescript?
And you wonder why I’m sat in front of my computer whinging on about the glory days of pre-DFS era furniture adverts and only having the Radio Times and TV Times astride the arm of a settee.
Enjoy the rest of your Christmas and Yuletide period. If you find, or found something interesting in this year’s TV schedules, feel free to comment. This is Stuart Vallantine, signing off on behalf of East of the M60. Please remember to switch off your television set. Goodnight.
S.V., 25 December 2013.