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Posted By Steve Williams On Wednesday, December 24, 2008 @ 2:55 pm In | No Comments

Steve Williams on New Year’s Eve programmes

First published January 2001


“Of course, New Year’s Eve is a terrible time to be doing a live TV show, as I can’t watch Andy Stewart retiring again.”
Terry Wogan, 1986

It’s very easy for some people. Tong. Carl Cox. The Queen. Pipers. All of these are working on 31 December, and none are aware of the absolute terror that is New Year’s Eve television. Neither are those people who enjoy being in a sweaty club and hugging people they’ve never met before at midnight. Nor viewers in Scotland, who are offered up an all-new schedule of special programmes. But those of us in the rest of the UK who stay at home on 31 December have, year after year, been witnesses to some of the worst TV programmes ever to be transmitted. Every single year, every single channel presents a range of programmes that, any other night, would simply not be allowed on the air.

The idea, of course, is that The Nation Goes Out That Night, and so it’s a waste of time putting anything half decent on. This is a fairly new concept – about 20 or 30 years ago, New Year’s Eve was very similar to most other nights of the year. The regular programmes would go out in their regular slots, then there’d be The White Heather Club at around 11.30pm which you could watch while getting ready for bed. Then it’d be lights out at 12.05am. When Andy Stewart packed it in, we still had a fairly exciting schedule – on New Year’s Eve 1979, BBC1 scheduled a special Generation Game, a great movie premiere - Murder on the Orient Express, and then at 10.40pm Penelope Keith was joined by the stars of the decade to say The 70s Stop Here! A pretty good night’s viewing.

It was in the 1980s that the rot started to set in – the broadcasters mounting a series of abysmal specials to see us into the following year. The all-time low was the BBC’s notoriousLive Into ’85, a shambolic outside broadcast from Gleneagles where Tom O’Connor had to hold the show together while the poet John Grieve forgot his lines over and over again, a pipe band went completely out of control and wouldn’t stop and Chic Murray was so confused by his stage directions he was reduced to just staring at the camera for five minutes. In 1986, Channel 4 invited Jools Holland to front their Hogmanay outing, Come Dancing, where massive technical problems led to most of the participants being unaware when they were on the air and using the sort of language that got Jools suspended from The Tube a few weeks later – the programme being so badly received that some senior executives at Tyne Tees, the producers, almost lost their jobs.

“We’ve received no New Year’s Eve party invitations. So, as you shake your tailfeather, think of us trying to digest such fare as Woodstock 94.”
John Peel, 1994

The New Year’s Eve schedules then found themselves getting stuck in a rut – the BBC asked Clive James to see the viewers into 1989, and his own brand of sub-Have I Got News For You“satire” and unpleasant sneering was something of a success in this slot – or at least, it was pre-recorded, so couldn’t go completely wrong as most of the others had done. James stayed in this slot for another six years, and then Angus Deayton took over and presented an almost identical blend until 1998. These programmes remained on tape for the entire decade, with only Big Ben being live, so adding insult to injury to the viewers – not only did we have to watch insincere presenters wishing us a happy new year, we knew that in reality they were having a great time as far away from a TV as possible. Indeed, at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1997, four out of the five channels were showing pre-recorded programmes at midnight, and Channel 5 reached a new low by being in a commercial break at 12.00.

That said, live programmes on New Year’s Eve have also managed to be dire – those producing the programmes forgetting in what state the viewers will be while watching it. Thus C4′s sports phone-in Under the Moon, which ran a special edition between 12.15am and 4.30am in the morning of 1 January 1998, got what they deserved when all the callers were drunk, or boring, or both. Similarly Graham Norton, seeing out 1999 on the same channel, found himself drowning a little when he invited viewers to phone in at five past midnight and received no response at all. And as for The Big Breakfast‘s Richard Bacon attempting to present live reports from parties in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2000 … words fail me.

ITV never really worked out what they wanted to show on New Year’s Eve, and in the late ’80s mounted two special programmes (Goodbye to ’88 and Goodbye to the ’80s) introduced by Cilla Black from the London Palladium. Both went on for ages – the latter lasting two and a half hours, and ridiculously, finishing at 11.55pm, thus the job of ushering in the new decade fell to the unlikely face of Taggart‘s Mark McManus, giving us “his guide to Glasgow as the European City of Culture”. Sounds fun. The following year found Bobby Davro heralding the New Year’s Eve fun, presenting a two-hour “tribute” to the Palladium – basically, a Royal Variety Show without the Monarchy. In 1991, ITV opted out of New Year altogether, instead screening the filmDown and Out in Beverly Hills with a gap half way through for Big Ben, an idea that was reused for most of the decade.

A further problem for the third channel was that the ITV franchises ran up until New Year’s Eve, meaning that on more than one occasion regional companies were going off the air that night. Thus in 1981, viewers in the South of England were offered up an excellent New Year’s entertainment, seeing the chairman of Southern Television make a nasty, bitter speech about how awful the IBA had been and Richard Stilgoe performing a song slagging off TVS, the new franchise holder (whom he dubbed “Portakabin TV”). Happy new year to you, too. Similarly, but with rather more dignity, Richard Dunn said goodbye from all the staff at Thames on New Year’s Eve 1992.

Channel 4 often acted as if New Year’s Eve was a hassle, which in some ways was fair enough – given the insincerity of the other channels – but then transmitted some of the most depressing programmes ever at midnight. In the early years of the channel, David Frost was joined by all his mates for a self-indulgent review of the year as they saw it. Best of all, in 1996, there was a day of live transmissions from Birmingham City Hospital, including one at midnight which included, nicely, a tour of the mortuary.

“If there’s nothing decent later on I’m walking.”
Mark Lamarr, 1998

1998 deserves special attention as the most pathetic New Year’s schedule since television began – every single channel was dire. BBC1 had the gift, earlier in the evening, of the death of Martine McCutcheon in EastEnders, but anyone who tuned in for this probably didn’t hang around for what was to come – a documentary about Jane McDonald, a look behind the scenes of the Eurovision Song Contest postponed from May, and Shirley Bassey in concert, a programme getting about three million viewers which, for 9pm, was appalling. Then bizarrely there was a new episode of They Think It’s All Over - shown as part of the regular series, even though practically everyone who would normally watch would be out of the house. It therefore received it’s lowest audience ever. Then Angus Deayton came along, on tape as ever, but ridiculously the programme ended at 11.40pm – so what was the point of it at all? Seeing us into the New Year were Carol Smillie and Fred Macaulay transmitting live from Edinburgh Castle with a traditional Hogmanay celebration, joined by those famous Scottish entertainers … Duran Duran.

ITV were equally poor, with a screening for The Dingles Down Under, an Emmerdale spin-off that had been released on video some 18 months before. When soap spin-offs are released on video they usually come with the disclaimer “Not to be shown on TV until …” but surely this is an idle threat? Why would they want to show a video that most fans will have bought, and that relates to a storyline that appeared in the soap months before? Answer – because they’re cheap. Also screened was a Ruth Rendell Mystery filmed about a year before and a Stanley Baxter clip show – then from 11.45pm, Jenny Powell and John Leslie transmitting live from … Edinburgh Castle! Only they were outside, the BBC having booked the interior, and reduced to asking revellers if they were excited about midnight.

BBC2 got Mark Lamarr to introduce an evening of programmes, which he did with his customary charm. Starting brightly with a programme all about the legendary Live Into ’85 and other New Year Horrors, we were then offered up a series of weak shows - The Making of Robot WarsThe Best of Naked Video - that made viewers conclude that at least Tom O’Connor’s effort had something of an innocent charm. Channel 4, though, was even worse, offering almost non-stop repeats – the ancient movie The Best of Benny Hill, an old Frasier, and compilations of TFI Friday, The Adam & Joe Show and Eurotrash, the latter actually being broadcast at midnight. As for Channel 5, two words – Chevy Chase.

“I only wanted to work. I was waiting for the call. If they hadn’t asked me, I would have sat depressed in my house.”
Phillippa Forrester, 1999

But then – the millennium! And 2000 Today was conceived, the BBC’s massive 27-hour marathon celebrating midnight all around the world. Alright, there were lots of mistakes (Dame Edna going off at a very odd tangent, John Simpson being spectacularly unemotional at the first midnight of the millennium, a demented sequence at 4am when everyone still awake sat around talking over each other while Jamie Theakston told them to “shut up”) but it was a proper, live, welcome to the new year, hope-you’re-having-a-great-time-at-home programme, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for years. 12 million people were watching at midnight, probably more than all the people who had watched on New Year’s Eve the previous decade put together.

But the most useful aspect of the millennium was the fact that BBC executives had to sit in Television Centre and watch the programmes to ensure that there’d be someone there if the Millennium Bug kicked in and everything went wrong (as well as “a government minister” ready to “address the nation”). So perhaps now, with the top brass having seen the quality of New Year’s Eve programming, we’d get something better in the following years.

So we saw in 2001 with … Angus Deayton! Some things never change.

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