The Art of the Christmas TV Special

December 16, 2019

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:

  1. The theme tune must be augmented by the sound of bells.
  2. The titles should be decorated by snow, holly, robins or a combination thereof.
  3. At least two members of the regular cast must don a brightly coloured party hat.
  4. The pudding must fail/sink/explode with hilarious consequences.
  5. Someone must over-imbibe cooking sherry only for The Boss/The Vicar/The Mother-In-Law/The Five-Years-Out-Of-Date Hippy Son to walk in, (again) with hilarious consequences.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

Order Crown Court: Volume 6

Order All Star Comedy Carnival

Order David Nixon’s Christmas Magic

Order Fresh/French Fields: The Complete Series


  1. Jeremy Clarke Reply

    My absolute favourite Christmas special was children’s BBC Show “all star record breakers” which was basically the BBC Children’s department equivalent of “avengers: endgame” in as much as all the stars from all the BBC kids’ shows were shoulder to shoulder (but rather than attack Thanos they tended to participate in a song , a skit or a world record attempt). You could expect Blue Peter, Rent-a-ghost, Jackanory presenters and solo heroes such as Bernard Cribbins and Johnny Ball. In those strange days decade ago there was little cross-over between different shows (I can remember as late as the early nineties feeling slightly put out that Anthea Turner (an onscreen continuity announcer already ) was to become a Blue Peter presenter . So in a CBBC world decades earlier to show such largesse was remarkable . And if it wasn’t live , it was as-live and had a delicious unscripted vibe . The only artefact from it left in the collective memory is the record-attempt by Roy Castle and a legion of tap-dancers around the BBC fountain . No forced mania from a studio audience , which seems to be the new vogue for Christmas specials. Just millions of delighted eyes in living rooms across the country – all watching the same programme at the same time – that truly is the ghost of Christmas TV past !

  2. Robin John Barlow Reply

    As a kid I really enjoyed the Pink Windmill specials that came along. The ‘normal’ series of Emu’s World and the like were something special already but somehow at Christmas their essential pantomime nature lent itself spectualarly. Later on, the gameshows You Bet!, the Generation Game, Cluedo and The Crystal Maze followed suit and I was equalled enraptured. Even Knightmare had a Christmas flavoured series finale! I’d love for Network to release any of these titles.

  3. Nigel Phelan Reply

    Although I lapped up the Xmas editions of Radio Times and TV Times it was very much the same as it is today. Most that interested me was at the fringe of the schedule or just what was used as filler. I’ve grown to enjoy the classic Xmas specials much later on thanks to Network. Undoubted highlight of Xmas as a kid of the 70’s
    was how BBC would fill their mornings. 1974 an 1975 we had daily episodes of Star Trek, 1976 was daily Tarzan movies, 1977 was Elvis everyday and 1978 was a repeat of Fantastic Journey. Thanks to scans of all these magazines on discs available on ebay I can see that the BBC seemed to lose interest after 1978 which was lucky as 1979 was my last Xmas at school. Unfortunately the regionalisation of ITV meant that how good your Xmas holiday mornings were was very dependant on where you lived in the UK.
    Overall for ITV, while they seemed to throw in the towel at Xmas and let the BBC have the festive season in exchange for beating them the rest of the year the ITV Christmas Comedy Carnivals stand out so its disappointing they ended in 1973 and that only 2 complete episodes exist – both on a Network dvd naturally.

  4. Owen Peake Reply

    Personally, I certainly don’t concur with your comment that;
    “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,”
    I still perform this supposedly ‘archaic’ ritual even now (and, indeed, do so throughout the whole 52 weeks of the year) and set my PVR accordingly. The problem over which programme to set does still often occur now though as TV companies still seem to believe that people watch programmes ‘live’ which I, for one, have rarely done so since the 1980’s and my first video recorder. Consequently, three programmes can be shown at, especially, 9.00 prime time and, at least with my PVR, only two can be recorded at a time. The only saving grace in this particular circumstance are the various internet catch up players.

  5. Richard Muirhead Reply

    Number 1 on my Christmas Special wishlist would be the Christmas shows where Bruce Forsyth and Frankie Howerd teamed up to compere. I believe they were on ITV in the b&w days. Would be great if copies still existed . Merry Christmas!

  6. Joe Dredd Reply

    That’s a very short list of links! Where’s the ITV Christmas Comedy Collection?

  7. Ian Gumbley Reply

    I loved The black and White Minstrel Show at Christmas followed at New Year by The Good Old Days. What a pity these shows are not available on Dvd

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