by Graham Kibble-White

First published December 2000

“He pulls the rabbit of verbal spontaneity from the hat of immediate circumstance.”

After last year’s great showing, Christmas ’81 was a rather damp squib on ITV, with their two most notable programmes not going out on Christmas day at all. Interestingly, both featured ex-BBC properties passed their best.

On 23 December Eric ‘n’ Ern were back with The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. The cast list this year went as follows: Ralph Richardson, Robert Hardy, Ian Ogilvy, Sussanah York, Alvin Stardust, Suzanne Danielle, Steve Davis and Valeri Minifie. Arguably not their most stella line-up (Stardust surely long since passed his best). Perhaps sensing that things were on the wane for the duo, Ernie was a little melancholic, and reflected on their lack of success in America in TV Times. He recalled his appearance on a US edition of What’s My Line? as a mystery guest. Alas, he beat the panel, who thought he was a vicar. “I think I’d rather have lost” he said wistfully, and advised us “when I die my epitaph will probably be ‘He was still on his way to Hollywood’.”

Fellow BBC refugees The Goodies also found themselves in the doldrums with The Goodies Christmas Special going out on 27 December. “Snow White 2″ crossed the traditional fairy-tale with Star Wars and featured an evil Snow White, 11 actors playing seven dwarfs and a wicked godmother called Timbalina. This special was their first effort for LWT and would be followed by a single series. Neither matched their BBC work. But what of the big day itself? Well, firstly let’s see what was on the other side.

Much like last year, Christmas Day on BBC1 would not really start until Top of the Popsshowed up. Thus in the morning the festivities commenced with Star Over Bethlehem at 8.40am (“a musical celebration for Christmas”) followed by a nod to the See-Saw constituent with a repeat of the always awful The FlumpsRolf at Christmas brought us the unsavoury trio of Keith Harris, Darts and 200 kids, and based it all in Chester. Then (and forever and ever amen) it was Christmas Morning Service. This year it came from both St George’s Chapel and Windsor Castle, with HRH in attendance.

Curmudgeonly old Jack Scott ducked in with a quick look at the Weather followed by Disney’s first contribution of the day: The Donald Duck Story – part 1. tom thumb (yes, all in lower-case) followed. Starring Russ Tamblyn as the titular “tom”, this 1958 film blessedly gave way to Top of the Pops at 2pm. Peter Powel and that Despicable Little Toad did the honours, with Mike Reid hosting a review of the year’s records on 31 December.

Meanwhile, ITV had a slightly better run at it in the morning, dispensing quickly with The Moderator’s Christmas Message (in Scotland), Worzel’s Christmas Special showed up at 9am. Now this was more like it, featuring turns from Barbara Windsor (the superbly named Saucy Nancy), Billy Connolly, Bill Maynard and Bill Pertwee alongside the mighty-nosed Jon Pertwee at his comedic best. Written, as ever, by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall this edition had the quintessential episode title: “A Cup O’ Tea An’ A Slice O’ Cake”. Superb.

But then it was back to those religious commitments and Christmas Family Worship. At midday ITV chucked on The Three Lives of Thomasina; Disney again with a 1964 effort about a witch who heals animals. Amazingly enough, Patrick McGoohan starred. The obsequious Alastair Burnett then put in an appearance, toadying to the royal family with A Wedding in the Family which looked back to 29 July and that “wedding of the century” – namely Charles and Diana.

As ever, both BBC1 and ITV showed The Queen at 3pm (BBC2 picked it up at 6.35pm). The Beeb then dished up another Christmas day edition of Larry Grayson’s Generation Game. ITV, however, plunged on into “The James Bond Film” picking the oldest one from the canon, Dr No.

Disney got strike three of the day at 4.10pm with their adventure film In Search of the Castaways starring Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier on BBC1. “Enjoy it”, Radio Times advised us. Things improved however with the first ever Christmas day edition of Jim’ll Fix It: “Dear Jim, Please may I … Have a new set of angels wings? Go to Disneyland? Spend my 105th birthday by the sea? Work for Father Christmas?” The evening on BBC1 would continue – for a bit – in this improved vein.

Back over on ITV, Eamonn Andrews was on the prowl again looking for a celeb to hijack in This Is Your Life, before we joined Mel Brooks, James Colbourne, Bob Hope and Telly Savalas for ITV’s third film of the day, The Muppet Movie. Never as acerbic or funny as the TV series, this was still fairly enjoyable stuff. Going on into the evening one of ITV’s new hit shows was afforded the Christmas Day honour. Thus Jeremy Beadle, Sarah Kennedy, Matthew Kelly and Henry Kelly all bounded down the stairs (the latter doubtlessly buttoning his blazer as he did so) for Game for a Laugh. Fast turning into an annual engagement, Dennis Norton followed on, annoyingly delaying the next cache of funny clips by pondering “h-h-h-have you ever noticed” inIt’ll Be Alright On the Night 3.

ITN turned up at 9.30pm to give us five minutes of news before we were then tipped into another film, Harry and Walter Go To New York. Finally Barry Took and The King’s Singers brought us up to Late Call and the closedown with We Six Kings. Music director for this was Howard Goodall, who would achieve some infamy with the closing themes for Blackadder and Red Dwarf at the tail end of the decade.

All in all, a bit of a disappointing day on the third channel, which peaked with Worzel in the morning and never really came back. Back on BBC1 things were a little better. First up at 6.35pm was 40 minutes of Paul Daniels in his Magical Christmas. At 7.15pm this year’s big-hitter sitcom Last of the Summer Wine ambled out. In an episode entitled “Whoops”, Compo, Clegg and Foggy looked up some old schoolmates in an effort to recapture the Christmas spirit of bygone days. With hilarious results. Even better was to follow, with The Two Ronnies and their superlative guest stars Sheena Easton and Chas & Dave. Buried deep down in the Ronnies’ writing credits could be found the benefactor of some of the Beeb’s future Christmas hits, David Renwick, who this year was also taken on by Mike Yarwood to contribute to his tenth (count ‘em!) Christmas Special.

The nation still bewitched by the Ewing clan, a normal episode of Dallas was punted at us at 8.35pm, followed by the TV premiere of Loophole, a bank heist film made the previous year and starring Albert Finney. Moira Stuart popped up at 11.05pm to bring the day’s main news (all 10 minutes of it) and then it was – as it ever was – Parky with Parkinson on Comedy. Here was a compilation of his encounters with the likes of Dave Allen, Rowan Atkinson, Cannon & Ball (who were very much in the ascendant as we will find out later in these logs) and Kenneth Williams. Finally, packing us off to bed we found those blood-giving folkies The Spinners at the Spa for a musical celebration of Christmas.

Outside of Christmas Day itself, the Beeb’s most notable programme was a Grange Hill special on 28 December written by Phil Redmond from a storyline by Paul Manning. Manning was the 16 year old winner of a competition run by Blue Peter to come up with a story for the Hill at Christmas. How many other young prospective writers must have fumed as Manning outlined his winning entry which culminated in Tucker and co enjoying themselves at a disco (rather than getting chased by the local nutjobs which is really what we wanted)? In a spate of scheduling bliss, this episode went out before the premiere of K9 and Company (of which more,elsewhere).

As expected, grumpy old BBC2 remained resolutely stony-faced throughout, fulfilling their Play School commitment at 11am (Carol Leader and Ben Thomas this time) and then shutting down for another couple of hours. No opera this year, but this was more than made up for by the inclusion of a Russian film (Dersu Uzala) and Margot Fonteyn Introduces The London Festival Ballet. Lowlight of the BBC2 day, however: Sounds of Christmas in which Richard Stilgoe introduced a concert of carols and Christmas music, featuring various choral groups and ensemble bands. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo … and out.