by Ian Jones
First published December 2000
The now-familiar jigsaw of programmes that makes up your average Christmas Day TV schedule has roots dating back almost five decades. It’s a jigsaw that was fully complete come the start of the 1970s, but one that had nonetheless taken some time to evolve into the form that we can still recognise today. What was Christmas telly like in those faded, black-and-white days?
One of the big reasons to look forward to Christmas Day in the 1950s and ’60s was that it was the one day in the whole year when you could actually watch television programmes from morning right through to night. At this point the channels didn’t usually open up till midday – or early evening, in the case of BBC2. 25 December was the one great exception – a rare chance to look in at 11am, or 3pm, or any point during the day and find something on the box to keep you continuously distracted, amused and entertained.
It also became a useful tool for structuring your day. As the schedule became increasingly fixed and pre-determined as the years went by, you could time all your festive preparations and rituals according to what was being screened: stockings opened while the kids programmes were on, down the first glass of wine with Top of the Pops, get the meal ready just in time for the Queen’s message, and have the dishes done before Morecambe and Wise.
However, certain conventions regarding scheduling and broadcasting meant that your Christmas Day viewing back in the 1950s and ’60s wasn’t always a feast of specially-prepared, one-off entertainment. For one thing, if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday – as it did in 1966 – then any early evening variety shows would be completely scrapped for lengthy church services. There were also no special soap opera episodes made for Christmas Day; you only hadCoronation Street on if Christmas Day happened to fall on a Monday or Wednesday, never at any other time.
Moreover, on-going comedy series, quiz shows, drama serials or even documentaries would not have their run interrupted just because of Christmas Day – quite the reverse. In 1963, ITV’s Christmas Day included editions from running series like Zoo Time with Desmond Morris, Bob Holness’ spelling quiz Take a Letter, and, incredibly, a 30 minute regional news magazine programme (for instance, Scene at 6.30 for Granada viewers). University Challenge, Take Your Pick and Emergency Ward 10 went out on ITV on Christmas Day 1964; Lost in Space and The Avengers in 1965; The Flintstones and The Saint in 1967; Stingray and an episode of the pre-Python comedy Do Not Adjust Your Set in 1968; and Joe 90 and Whicker in 1969.
The BBC did not adhere quite so strictly to these practices, though. You had an episode of the grim documentary The Great War going out on BBC1 at 10.25pm on Christmas Day 1964,Doctor Who at 6.35pm in 1965, Dr Finlay’s Casebook in 1966 and Z Cars in 1967. It was more common to find this behaviour over on BBC2, the youngest channel of the three, which in its early years acted almost as if Christmas Day didn’t happen. Late Night Line-Up, its influential, live, open-ended review show, ran on Christmas Day in 1964, ‘65, ‘66 and ‘67 – meaning that none of its team of presenters could over-indulge on the turkey or spirits if they wanted to still be awake when they went on air. BBC2’s Christmas would also nearly always offer up some ballet or a three hour opera, or maybe a documentary made up of aerial footage taken on a flight round the coast of Britain.
But from 1967 there was extra incentive to tune over to this new channel: not only was it broadcasting some programmes in colour – the only station in the country to do so – but it had now chosen to mark this special day by opening at the early hour of 11am for Play School - then closing 20 minutes later until the Queen came on. By 1968 BBC2 could boast a Christmas schedule entirely in colour, unlike its older sister – though 1969 found both BBC channels offering a line-up with no programmes in black and white whatsoever.
Come 1970, a template for Christmas Day schedules on BBC1, ITV and BBC2 was firmly established. What did it comprise? What would be on your traditional Christmas telly menu of this time?
In roughly the order in which they were transmitted, first you could expect a good …
Church carol service. By 1970 this was already a long established feature of both BBC and ITV Christmas Day schedules, usually taking the form of a straightforward religious service in mid-morning. In the mid-’60s however a new tradition began for having a programme earlier in the day based around school kids singing carols. A selection of children’s choirs and youth bands would be amassed and forced to croon some seasonal favourites, usually with a celebrity on hand to provide commentary. If you were lucky, the kids acted out some scenes from the nativity using teatowels, baby dolls and crepe paper crowns. Next up would be a cartoon or proper kids’ programme, before it was time for …
The trip to a children’s hospital. This notoriously recurring staple of Christmas Day telly has taken many forms over the years, some more ludicrous and far-fetched than others. Back in the 1950s and ’60s it was a very sober affair, a simple outside broadcast from the kids ward of a provincial hospital somewhere in Britain. A celebrity host – usually Leslie Crowther – would wander around amongst the army-issue metal beds, gamely chatting to youngsters with all manner of injuries from the comical (foot stuck in saucepan) to the serious, before introducing a surprise celebrity to sing a song or, if it was Tony Hart or Rolf Harris, draw a picture. BBC1’s show was called Meet the Kids and was first hosted in the early ’60s by the unlikely choice of Frankie Howerd. Crowther fronted it from 1964 – 67, Ray Alan in 1968, and Rolf himself in 1969.
Typical locations were children’s wards in Great Ormond Street or Hackney Hospitals, or from 1966 onwards the Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Surrey. Only in 1969, when Leslie Crowther had defected to Yorkshire Television, did ITV begin carrying a regular hospital look-in on Christmas Day, titled A Merry Morning. Here Crowther repeated exactly the same job he’d done for the BBC, except now up in the Seacroft Hospital in Leeds. From this distinctly downbeat and worthy feature, you came to undoubtedly the most important highlight of every Christmas Day …
Top of the Pops. This traditional round-up of the year’s pop hits only settled into its familiar slot in 1967. TOTP had been launched on 1 January 1964, and for its first Christmas decided to hold a special hour-long review at 7.25pm on Christmas Eve, fronted by its four resident DJ hosts: Jimmy Saville, David Jacobs, Alan “Fluff” Freeman and Pete Murray. The same quartet presented TOTP ‘65 (as these seasonal shows became dubbed), this year on Christmas Day itself – but at 10.35pm! Thankfully it won a repeat the following day at 12.15pm, a far more appropriate timeslot.
Something different was tried the following year. TOTP ‘66 was in two parts; the first, on Boxing Day at 6.15pm, was introduced by Jimmy and Pete; the second on 27 December at the memorable time of 6.17pm and presented by Alan Freeman and Simon Dee. This idea of having a two-part TOTP Christmas special lasted for several years; and in 1967, a natural home was found for part one: Christmas Day, round about early afternoon (2.05pm in this instance). Jim, Fluff and Pete hosted both this and the second part the following day.
1968 was the same, part one on Christmas Day at 1.25pm, part two the day after and both segments this time hosted by Jim and Pete. And 1969 was again the same, but with presenting duties varying: so you had Pete and Jim on Christmas Day at 2.15pm, but for part two Fluff was joined by Tony Blackburn. ITV tried to experiment with running similar music-based shows early on Christmas Day afternoon, most notably in 1964 with a special Ready Steady Go review of the year at 1.05pm; sadly later in the decade this was swapped for the dreadful Cliff Richard fronted affair Wish Upon a Wishbone.
By the end of the ’60s, it was a firmly cemented convention that after an hour or so in the company of the number one singles of the year you all stood to attention for …
A televised “message” from the Queen. The first seasonal message from a ruling British monarch went out on BBC radio on Christmas Day 1932 when King George V broadcast a short speech live from Buckingham Palace. His message began: “Through one of the marvels of modern science I am enabled this Christmas Day to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. I speak now from my home and my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the deserts, or the sea, that only voices from the air can reach them.” Reflecting the mood of the age, Radio Times informed readers that on this Christmas Day “if there is any News, it will be broadcast at 9pm.”
The first televised Christmas message from a monarch took place in 1957 – still live, of course, but now delivered by Queen Elizabeth II. The idea to pre-record the message, and therefore give the Queen time to digest her lunch in peace, was only implemented in 1960; though technical problems meant that the 1963 message was broadcast on television in sound only accompanied by slides and drawings of the royal family.
1964 saw 3pm established as the traditional hour for the royal message (previously it had ranged all over the place, often as early as 9.30am). When BBC2 began, also in 1964, it too carried the Queen’s message, meaning that 3pm on Christmas Day was for a long time the one point in the whole year that all British TV channels, including ITV, were showing exactly the same thing.
For some reason, it was assumed the nation wanted to spend their Christmas Day – rather than any other day in the year – finding out about their rulers. So in 1969, though there was no royal message, BBC1 and BBC2 simultaneously screened the famous documentary The Royal Family, a 105-minute fly-on-the-palace-wall affair, at 12.30pm; it remains, however, the only time since 1964 that there has not been a word from Her Majesty on the box on Christmas Day. After the Queen, it was off on …
A trip to the circus. One of the most enduring features of BBC1’s historic Christmas Day schedule was a broadcast from Billy Smart’s Circus. This happened every single year without fail from the late ’50s, right through that supposedly revolutionary decade the ’60s and well into the 1970s. This throwback to an earlier age of music hall and cabaret was, like the trip to the hospital, copied by ITV who in 1968 launched The Kelvin Smart Circus. Filmed in a fake big top in Glasgow, this was such a bare-faced rip-off that it was ironic the first such show went out at exactly the same time Billy Smart was on BBC1; the following year it was moved earlier to 1pm, but still looked ragged and half-hearted compared to its illustrious cousin. Following that …
Disney Time. Here was BBC1’s annual seasonal clip package made up of various Disney classics. It was another staple feature, was always fronted by a guest celebrity, and always went out straight after Billy Smart’s Circus and straight before …
The celebrity pantomime. Girls dressed as lads, old men dressed as women, and all in front of the children. Kicking off in 1964 on BBC1 with Robinson Crusoe, these traditional run-arounds bridged the transition in the schedule from daytime to early evening. All your favourite celebrities and variety stars would fill the familiar roles, and the panto was either filmed in a special studio set or out at a theatre somewhere in London. After ‘64 the Beeb went on to offer Mother Goose, Aladdin, Cinderella, Humpty Dumpty and Cinderella (again) through to 1969. Not to be outdone, ITV began its own annual panto in 1967 with Aladdin, only to drop the idea in 1968, before returning in 1969 with … another Aladdin.
After the panto, there was usually a news summary, an appeal on behalf of a Worthy Cause by a Famous Person, then at last it was time for …
The early evening showbiz variety extravaganza. It was back in 1951 that the first real regular special Christmas programme on British TV began. Television’s Christmas Party was a BBC production, at the time the only television service transmitting to the country. It was broadcast completely live, meaning that popular celebrities and performers of the day had to effectively go to work on Christmas Day, having spent most of the festive season in serious rehearsal to ensure the smooth running of these cabaret style packages.
Each show lasted between 90 and 105 minutes in total, with Terry Thomas, Norman Wisdom, Arthur Askey, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Max Bygraves and Bob Monkhouse amongst the many entertainers contributing a short song and dance routine, or brief comic monologue. Broadcast at 7.30pm sharp each year, they established the convention for an early evening revue style event on Christmas Day British television, a tradition which persisted for many decades.
Television’s Christmas Party ended in 1954, and game shows and special one-off editions of music, dance and revue spots ran on the BBC from 1955 – 57 before the legendary Christmas Night with the Stars first appeared in 1958. It quickly became the lynchpin of the BBC (and later BBC1’s) regular Christmas Day schedule, running all the way through to 1972 (save for 1961 and 1965 – 66). Although self-consciously harking back to Television’s Christmas Party, this was on a much larger scale, was pre-recorded, and rather than having solo spots from numerous performers, it comprised specially recorded five – 10 minute sketches from top comedy series, sitcoms and other programmes of the day sequenced together linked by a star host.
For instance, the first show in 1958 featured newly written sketches from Tony Hancock, The Charlie Chester Show and The Ted Ray Show; the 1962 package included The Rag Trade andSteptoe and Son; 1963’s show was hosted by Eamonn Andrews and boasted Juke Box Jury(with Stanley Baxter playing all the panellists) and Dixon of Dock Green; 1964 was introduced by Jack Warner himself and featured The Likely Lads, Meet the Wife and The Benny Hill Show; 1967 was hosted by Rolf Harris and included Till Death Us Do Part, Harry Worth and a special monologue from Kenneth Williams; and 1968 boasted Dad’s Army and All Gas and Gaiters. The 1969 show was the first to be made up of previously transmitted sketches, though these did include the wonderful contrast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus alongside The Dick Emery Show.
These entertaining, diverse and imaginatively compiled shows were perfect Christmas evening viewing, made for dipping in and out of, with their pick and mix style format well-suited to that post-Christmas lunch atmosphere of the snooze, the brandies and the chocolates. Sometimes they’d almost swallow up the whole evening, often ballooning to 120 minutes in length.
1968’s Christmas Night with the Stars was hosted by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. The pair had found fame in their long-running ATV series for ITV but by 1968 felt constricted by their contract and signed with the BBC, returning to make their first shows with the Corporation since 1959. Their work fronting Christmas Night with the Stars on BBC1 portended the beginning the following year of another historical high-point in Christmas Day telly: The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.
It is surprising that, given how often they seem to have been repeated ever since, and how famous and well remembered they have become, only eight of these special Christmas shows were made by the duo with the BBC. The first, an hour long edition at 8.15pm on Christmas Day 1969, proved so popular both critically and with the public that the various subsequent heads of BBC Variety and Light Entertainment made sure Morecambe and Wise joinedChristmas Night with the Stars as another rock of the BBC’s festive schedule. Indeed, so successful was Christmas Night … that ITV once more launched a rip-off version, All-Star Comedy Carnival in 1969, a 90 minute package following exactly the same formula of clips and sketches from established shows, and which went out at exactly the same time.
The 1960s saw several other shows join these as permanent fixtures on Christmas Day telly, both on the BBC and over on the various ITV regional stations. In particular, you had the strong variety and showbiz feel maintained through the evenings, often combined with blockbuster film premieres – which back then were enormously popular, with the novelty of watching a famous western or war film in your own home rather than at the cinema considered a rare treat. Also, a tradition was established for running one of The Beatles films every Christmas (in 1967 this took the form of the debut screening of the great Magical Mystery Tour) and also the newestCarry On film, usually on Boxing Day (hard to think back to a time when a Carry On could be trailed as being a “TV premiere” …)
It’s possible to detect faint echoes of these long gone Christmasses in TV schedules of more recent times. But how quickly did the early traditions and conventions change, develop, or even die with the passing of time? By considering the shape and feel of each of the schedules for the subsequent 30 years, up to and including those for 2002, we can piece together a history of Christmas television that reflects on changing times and passing trends, besides featuring a festive line-up of a thousand stars, plates of left-over turkey, and some nostalgic seasonal memories.