Many years ago, early December was marked by a minor but enjoyable ritual – the scanning of the Christmas TV Times and the Radio Times. The programme listings would be painstakingly analysed and red biros wielded, with many a spirited debate about the respective merit of ‘the Bond film on ITV’ versus the festive edition of a popular sitcom. The latter often bore the following trademarks:
- The theme tune must be augmented by the sound of bells.
- The titles should be decorated by snow, holly, robins or a combination thereof.
- At least two members of the regular cast must don a brightly coloured party hat.
- The pudding must fail/sink/explode with hilarious consequences.
- Someone must over-imbibe cooking sherry only for The Boss/The Vicar/The Mother-In-Law/The Five-Years-Out-Of-Date Hippy Son to walk in, (again) with hilarious consequences.
Seasonal episodes of popular dramas tended to be even more notable, including those moments when Noele Gordon broke the fourth wall during the Crossroads Christmas singalong. Although, the award for “The Most Bizarre Special Edition Show” has to go to Granada’s Crown Court, which, from 1972 to 1984, was essential viewing. The cases were often very serious, which is why 1973’s Murder Most Foul is so remarkable, with William Mervyn presiding over a form of Whitehall Farce.
And then there were the variety programmes such as All Star Comedy Carnival, which ran from 1969 to 1973. The 1972 show was ITV’s alternative to BBC1’s Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game (followed by Christmas Night with the Stars), with such treats as Terry Wogan, clad in a quite splendid blazer, encountering the casts of My Good Woman and Lollipop Loves Mr. Mole.
All Star Comedy Carnival and its ilk were very much in the tradition of the BBC’s Christmas Party of the 1950s, in which Terry-Thomas, Norman Wisdom, Arthur Askey, and other well-known faces performed “a comic turn” live on the 25th December. Twenty years later, variety specials still conveyed this sense of occasion – a television event as eagerly anticipated as the tin of Quality Street. To view David Nixon’s Christmas Magic in 2019, is to be transported to an even earlier age, when a Victorian paterfamilias would treat his guest to a magic display.
However, towards the end of the decade, affluent households were now starting to boast of their new Ferguson Videostar De Luxe. The era of the family gathered around the set to watch a spectacular – and possibly never to be repeated – programme was becoming superseded by rows over who taped over The Sound of Music with French Fields…
Let us know your favourite Christmas TV Special in the comments!
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA