The telly ghosts of Christmas past: What was festive TV like back in the day?

You had The Black and White Minstrels, but you also had Morecambe and Wise in the star-studded festive TV line-ups of yesteryear

Andrew Roberts
Saturday 21 December 2013 01:00
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Top viewing:Christmas Day 1973 in the ‘Radio Times’
Top viewing:Christmas Day 1973 in the ‘Radio Times’

When the television listings monopoly ended in 1991 it destroyed a minor but real ritual of the British Christmas. For many years, the purchase of the festive editions of the Radio Times and the TV Times was followed by marking the forthcoming treats with the traditional red pen, followed by the equally traditional rows about schedule clashes. Now, some of us look back fondly to those days, with sepia-tinted images of the entire family slumped in front of set, parents suffused with sherry, children stuffed with Quality Street into bloated silence.

This basic image is around 60 years old, for the impact of the TV coverage of the Coronation resulted in an increase of licence sales of over a million, despite the average set costing the equivalent of several months’ wages. 1953 was also the year that BBC Television achieved the accolade of its schedules being promoted from two pages at the back of the Radio Times to mainstream of the magazine.

Looking at the Christmas Day line-up for 1953, two elements become obvious – the number of breaks and intervals, lest viewers become over-excited and spill their glasses of Wincarnis and the sheer durability of some of the formats. This does not just apply to the Queen’s broadcast – in sound only until 1957 – but the programmes themselves. The format of the evening’s treat, Television’s Christmas Party, hosted by your favourite announcers McDonald Hobley and Leslie Mitchell, would later be expanded into the long-running Christmas Night with the Stars. And, in the waning years of variety theatre, what BBC Television did uniquely offer then was the chance to see Norman Wisdom and Terry-Thomas broadcasting live.

Ten years later, in the BBC’s pantomime, there was Dick Whittington, starring Terry Scott and Reg Varney, (one can only hope that tapes survive) and Christmas Night with the Stars had a bill that gave new meaning to the term eclectic – Prunella Scales and Richard Briers from the sitcom Marriage Lines, Michael Bentine, Russ Conway, a special Juke Box Jury and The Black and White Minstrel Show. Sandwiching between these two delights like a savoury course was the non-festive Z-Cars and, leaving aside The Black and White Minstrels, it is a strong line-up, the better to compete with the eight-year-old ITV. BBC Television liked to be seen as an essential part of the season but the commercial station had a somewhat déclassé image in the early 1960s. Kenneth More’s best film, 1964’s The Comedy Man, actually concerned an actor reduced to appearing in television adverts – and the evening’s bill of the imported US sitcom My Favourite Martian followed by Startime was unlikely to alter such disdainful views.

By 1973 the basic idea that television would bring the best of entertainment to living rooms across the land still prevailed, but the era of the outside-broadcasting ethos of “see it live” was on the wane – even the Queen’s speech was now pre-recorded. The affluent could now watch in colour, allowing The Black and White Minstrel Show and Christmas Top of the Pops to be seen in the full spectrum and the latter to cause ex-teddy-boy dads apoplexy at the sight of the various glam rockers, although black-and-white receivers were still the norm.

The afternoon also offered a visit to Billy Smart’s Circus followed by Terry Scott in this year’s pantomime, Robin Hood, but it was BBC1’s evening line-up that was unsurpassable by ITV, even though many deemed the sight of Sid James leering at Barbara Windsor on the cover of the TV Times well worth the 12p cover price. The evening commenced with Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game followed by Mike Yarwood and topped with The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show while ITV had Queen of Hearts, with Danny La Rue and Peggy Mount, Jimmy Tarbuck compering All-Star Comedy Carnival, and Tommy Cooper’s Christmas, guest-starring Sacha Distel. Meanwhile, viewers wishing to avoid The Black and White Minstrels and/or chirpy Scouse comperes could enjoy Swan Lake, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, on BBC2 and the late evening film on the Corporation’s second channel clearly established their serious intent. ITV screened Von Ryan’s Express, BBC1 aired The Odd Couple but BBC2 ended the day with the Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit; thought-provoking if not exactly jolly.

In 1983 both mainstream channels tempted viewers with an array of favourites – Blankety Blank, The Two Ronnies, and Only Fools and Horses on BBC1 and on ITV the excitement that was Bullseye Christmas Special and Play Your Cards Right followed by Jimmy Tarbuck’s Christmas All Stars with Bruce Forsyth, Mike Yarwood, Max Bygraves, Cannon and Ball, Michael Barrymore and Shakin’ Stevens (plus an appearance from David Hasselhoff via satellite). BBC2, as was now traditional, offered a respite with screenings of Meet Me in St Louis and Duck Soup plus The Bob Monkhouse Show in the evening; in a strange echo of the early 1950s the star guest was Norman Wisdom.

But the image of a glowing screen avidly watched by a family in a semi-circle of chairs in a darkened room was on the verge of obsolescence. In 1953 the Manchester Evening Chronicle suggested, “put an H-aerial up over your house, and you will be astonished to find how many friends you have in the street”, but 30 years later a Sony C7 was becoming a new guarantor of popularity. Home video recorders were by no means universal in 1983 but seasonal rows were now starting to concern who could “video” what film.

In a deeply poignant reminder of what the channel used to stand for, it was Channel 4 that offered an even better opportunity than BBC2 for illegal off-air taping with The Gang’s All Here in the morning, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in the afternoon and The King of Comedy in the evening. Reassuringly, the channel known as the haven of alternative comedy offered Twice Knightly starring The Barron Knights as their evening comedy treat.

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Perhaps when Britons of a certain age look back in nostalgia to Christmas television of previous years they are more than conveniently overlooking the very existence of The Black and White Minstrels and they are seeking a time when the term “light entertainment” offered genuine excitement. When the BBC recently repeated the Christmas 1973 Generation Game, what was even more noticeable than Bruce’s unsurpassable ability as an MC was that the contestants, all wearing their best clothes, were so nervous at appearing on television. Similarly, that year’s Morecambe and Wise Show, via the guest stars, Eric’s genius, Ernie’s sheer understated brilliance as straight man and the sheer attention to detail, still conveys that palpable sense of occasion. And perhaps that will never return to the medium that is now taken for granted.

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