by Ian Jones

First published December 2000

“Music composed and conducted by Ronnie Hazelhurst.”

As ever, BBC1′s morning schedule ran to form: some carols, kids programmes -Camberwick Green, and Cartoon Christmas Box fronted by Paul Jones – the Appeal, the church service (from the Scottish village of Killearn Kirk), then at 11.25am A Stocking Full of Stars. Rolf Harris returned to co-host this third mixture of sketches and songs with Michael Aspel, once again from the Harpenden Children’s Home. Only an hour with the residents, however, for at 12.25pm came the 1937 Laurel and Hardy film Way Out West featuring our heroes as a pair of gold prospectors on The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. This, and the skating special that followed - Holiday on Ice - were close to your standard ITV festive fare, and therefore an unusual lapse in the Beeb’s previously strong seasonal schedules.

Thankfully Top of the Pops appeared on cue at 2.15pm, part one of the 1974 review hosted as ever by Sir Jim and Tony Blackburn. Part two could be found on 27 December at 5.20pm, though this time with Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis doing the honours. As with last year, Christmas Day 1974 found another major change to BBC1′s traditional post-Queen menu: no panto. Instead, after Billy Smart’s Circus came the popular western True Grit - which, as the second film on in just less than four hours was another surprisingly lazy bit of programming from this normally lively channel.

Worse was to come, however. After The Generation Game there was a special Christmas episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. The distinctive face of Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer was emblazoned on the front of the seasonal Radio Times, hinting at the prominence the BBC were giving him and his irritating show. The character was a huge hit; the first series ofSome Mothers … had begun in February 1973, and the second had culminated in the much-publicised birth of Frank’s first child on 27 December last year. “Jessica’s First Christmas” was the title of this special, with Frank and Betty given a whole 50 minutes to faff and flap. There was no escaping Frank Spencer this Christmas: his annoying features, beret and mac had already shown up once today during A Stocking Full of Stars. And immediately after this special episode came Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show - with this host appearing as Frank Spencer!

For some reason there was no Morecambe and Wise special this year, which just weakened the whole evening line-up further. If you survived the Christmas night film – as per usual incredibly long: Bridge on the River Kwai, lasting two hours 40 minutes without a break – there was some kind of reward: the stupidly titled Parkinson Takes a Christmas Look at Morecambe and Wise. A new interview with the pair, plus some classic clips, rounded off the first poor BBC1 Christmas schedule of the decade.

ITV started badly with a repeat: 1972′s carols from Kirkgate at 8.45am. Princess Grace of Monaco then read a story from the Bible, before puppet action with Sooty made for a fun if repetitive half-hour and an alternative to Windy Miller and Captain Flack. After a service from Sandringham Parish Church, A Merry Morning (Leslie Crowther enlisting Keith Harris and Cuddles to help tame the kids in Hull Royal Infirmary) and the expected film - Captain Nemo and the Underwater City - came something completely unexpected. “It’s part rock. It’s part pop. It’s all action.” Granada’s 45 show, hosted by David “Kid” Jensen and Emperor Rosko, had begun earlier this year as token opposition to Top of the Pops. Here, appropriately, was a special Christmas Rock with 45, with our hosts promising Queen, Mud and – gasp – the Bay City Rollers. Perhaps the best thing ITV had shown in this slot for many years.

An hour of magic with the redoubtable David Nixon led up to the Queen, then came the second film of the day: Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines - at last, a proper Christmas Day family movie with the right mix of celebrities and action, and a great alternative to BBC1′sTrue Grit. ITV then squandered their chances of delivering a top rate schedule for the first time this decade by showing Meet Peters and Lee at 5.45pm: 30 minutes of comedy and music with Lennie P and Dianne L, together “for the first time,” and hopefully the last.

Another Tommy Cooper Hour preceded a special This Is Your Life at 7.15pm (no record of who the subject was, sadly), then a film to replace All Star Comedy Carnival, axed at long last after five painful years. John Wayne, already familiar to viewers of True Grit, now showed up here in yet another Western movie, The Undefeated. Of course, sticking to tradition this was yet again way too long to be shown on a Christmas evening (130 minutes). After the News at Ten came yet another unexpected choice: a one-off documentary, part of Granada’s Private Lives strand which had run through the autumn and comprised producer/director Denis Mitchell profiling the great, the good and the neglected.

Sir Geraint Evans’ lusty Welsh vocal chords rang out once more at 10.45pm, his second mix of old carols and even older guests titled For This Christmas Only (a blatant lie – see next year). In a wobbly HTV studio recreation of a Victorian mansion, Kiri Te Kanawa and Spike Milligan warmed themselves by the fire. Best programme of the day was the very last one, and a repeat at that: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, at 11.45pm, and a tale titled “Back For Christmas”, featuring Hitch stalwart John Wilson (who’s appeared in more of the director’s work than any other actor) as a wife-murderer typically undone by the episode’s end.

Even BBC2 relied on a lot of repeats: Henry V again, two years since it was last on Christmas Day; golf highlights; a re-showing of David Frost’s film of Evel Knievel’s sky-cycle jump across Snake River Canyon … Even the ballet (La Traviata) was a repeat. The post-Play School (Derek Griffiths and Chloe Ashcroft on duty) closedown was back too. There were a couple of interesting programmes to be found: Ronnie Barker’s 1970 silent short film Futtock’s End, andWhen The Angels …, a Seven Up style documentary, focusing on the group of kids who’d performed the first ever TV nativity in 1956 and how their lives had developed over the intervening 18 years. Elsewhere the Beatles film was present - Help, on Boxing Day at 10.30am; Disney Time was also hanging on, albeit back on 21 December and hosted by Derek Nimmo. A grim year, though, for all channels. And no Carry On at all – infamy!