New Year's Eve television: Should old debacles be forgot...

Let’s be thankful for Jools. British TV has aired some woeful New Year’s Eve fare in the past

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The Independent Culture

Over the past 35 years, British television has celebrated New Year’s Eve in a variety of fashions, from ITV in 1991 screening Down and Out in Beverly Hills with a break for Big Ben, to the BBC’s The 70s Stop Here! fronted by Penelope Keith.

There have also been special live shows, such as ATV’s 1981 offering The Hogmanay Show – "From Scotland, of course. Fun and music, with Fulton Mackay, Aneka, the Gaelic singer, and Kenneth McKellar"– or Southern Television’s And It’s Goodbye from Us, aired on their last night of broadcasting before TVS took over the south of England franchise in 1982. The star-studded entertainment featured the company’s chairman giving a bitter speech about the Independent Broadcasting Authority, songs from Richard Stilgoe about "Portacabin TV", and, just before the station went off air forever, the camera panning over some grumpy-looking newsreaders and announcers.

But for connoisseurs of true television disasters, one of the highlights of 1984 was the BBC’s Live into 85. "The Gleneagles Hotel, in the heart of Scotland, is the sparkling location for this year’s party," promised the Radio Times. There were also genuine guests milling about – the corporation seemingly could not afford to book all of the hotel for the transmission– and the poet John Grieve continually forgot his lines. Meanwhile, a pipe band played on, seemingly devoid of any direction, and the compere, Tom O’Connor, merited a special television award for maintaining his sang-froid.

The highlight of the show was the visibly confused appearance of the comedian Chic Murray, demanding to know which camera was on, despite the fact that he was actually staring into one. Still, if the entire programme provides an object lesson of the perils of live television broadcasting, it is still more entertaining than the prospect of the BBC’s New Year coverage from 1957 – direct from the restaurant overlooking the runway at London airport.

Live into 85 marked the virtual end for the BBC’s mainstream Hogmanay-themed live shows until 1998, breaking a tradition that was crystallised with a television show that began in 1958 as an inexpensive method for filling a 6pm-7pm gap in the schedules.

 

For viewers of a certain age, one name still seems to dominate memories of television on the 31 December: Andy Stewart. He was the star of the BBC’s The White Heather Club, described by the historian Trevor Royle as "a sanitised version of the traditional ceilidh". The programme, which commenced in 1958, was networked three years later and from 1960 until 1968 it dominated the BBC’s New Year’s Eve television – one Hogmanay edition achieving viewing figures of over ten million.

The White Heather Club also enjoys the distinction of being one of the first programmes to be recorded on the BBC’s primitive VERA tape system and six episodes still survive. To look at them now is to be faced with vivid examples of how inaccessible the recent past seems – but despite Jeremy Paxman’s MacTaggart Lecture at the 2007 Edinburgh International Television Festival citing the show as an example of how there was no golden age of television, the 1960 edition has real power and charm, with its short-back-and-sided members of the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band and the impossibly young looking host.

Stewart, a very talented singer-songwriter who originally trained as an actor, believed that the show celebrated "an enormous heritage of traditional Scottish songs that people had never put on in theatres commercially before – and The White Heather Club used these songs as the backbone of its material. We didn’t sing any Harry Lauder songs, for example." The irony was that Stewart became almost inextricably associated with a kitsch vision of Scotland long after The White Heather Club ceased transmission. What had started as an entertaining and fairly low-key show recorded against cardboard-looking sets, but not without a degree of real charm, resulted eventually in Stewart’s image becoming the victim of his own fame. The Hogmanay shows, however sanitized, packaged and generally Brylcreemed, did try to preserve folk music – but an excellent website devoted to Stewart’s memory (andystewart.info) observes that he was "so successful at marketing his brand of 'Scottishness' that it was now regarded as the traditional."

Perhaps the key to a truly entertaining Hogmanay broadcast is one that makes no overt concessions to an audience south of the border. The tape of the first ever 31 December celebrations broadcast by Scottish Television in 1957 is a time capsule, shown at a time when much TV was still predicated on the outside broadcast and aired in a decade when Christmas Day was still a working day in Scotland.

Two decades later, Scotch & Wry, starring the brilliant character actor Rikki Fulton, was only screened once in England in 1983 during its 14-year run. More recently, the Still Game specials, especially the 2006 Hogmanay Special revolving around a broken lift, have provided some of the most consistently funny sitcom, firmly rooted in time and place.

But they’ve never been as dynamic as Scottish Television’s 1978 Out With the Old, In With the New, hosted by none other than Ian Ogilvy, Simon Templar Mk.2 himself, who introduces the audience to "some wonderful Scottish girls"– Annie Ross, Lulu, Aimi MacDonald, Molly Weir and Beryl Reid – and random bouts of disco dancing. It is enough to make you yearn for the short-back-and-sided predictability of Andy Stewart and company.

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