Christmas Day on Associated-Rediffusion… in 1957 

24 December 2017

Christmas 1957 can be looked at as forming a turning point in the development of a more contemporary way of Christmas. It was for example the last year that there was a full set of Football League fixtures in England, although this TV schedule, unlike that of the BBC, makes no reference to sport.

This was the last year when Christmas television had to be presented either live or from film as video tape would only start to spread through UK broadcasters from spring 1958 onwards. The practicality of this, and the companies still struggling to make money anyway, means that regional variations outside of the choice of acquired film series were limited.

Independent Television had already spread to four regions, with Scottish Television starting less than four months earlier. TWW test transmissions had just started, with a special introductory message read by actress Siân Phillips on Christmas Eve. These tests were however suspended on Christmas Day itself.

Associated-Rediffusion starts its day with a service from St Martin in the Fields, as it did in 1956. This is timed, probably not coincidentally, to start just as the BBC’s service from Plymouth has come to an end. The next programme though is somewhat of a surprise as they have decided to import an extra-long edition of Lunchbox from the Midlands. Did the London viewers of the time wonder why if it was so popular, as stated here in the billing, that they never usually saw it? A-R had dropped their own lunchtime programmes in the depths of 1956 red ink and could have chosen like Granada to close until 2pm. They didn’t repeat this experiment on Boxing Day. Scottish Television meanwhile had its own popular local programme The One O’Clock Gang to fill this spot instead.

Mantovani was still a regular feature on television appearing on both the BBC and ITV. His first radio appearance had been on 2LO, and as well as being on television pre-war he was also participated in the programme that re-opened the BBC Television Service in 1946. Bill Ward had even by this time over 10 years of experience in producing Light Entertainment shows, having been specifically poached from the BBC by Lew Grade. From the singers on the programme ranging from opera soprano Jacqueline Delman to crooner Dave King, this may have been somewhat of a musical assortment.

At 3pm for the first time the Christmas Day message from The Queen was delivered in vision as well as sound, which required using a larger room at Sandringham to fit all the equipment in. Maybe they all pitched in then with the washing up.

The relatively recent film The Lady From Boston, also known as Pardon My French, follows. This was made at the tail-end of Merle Oberon’s career and lacks many things including a plot. However, it may have drawn a larger than expected audience as the result of the BBC’s live OB of Billy Smart’s Family Party having fallen off the air because of equipment failure after only two minutes. According to a spokesman explaining this debacle: ‘the Windsor area was difficult to transmit from’. Lucky that The Queen Christmases at Sandringham then.

The fourth musical programme of the day is the rather more contemporary Cool For Cats featuring current discs that were played, danced to The Dougie Squires Dancers and commented upon by Kent Walton. Innovative in 1956 it would eventually be terminated in 1961 for being too static compared with other pop music programmes from lacking the original performers but in after a year was fresh enough to appear on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day as well.

Although no longer billed specifically as such, the next few programmes were aimed more at younger children if not entirely for them exclusively. Rin Tin Tin staring the fourth dog of that name (although there were many others used in production) was a soft-edged Western. Granada chose a different programme of the same genre, Annie Oakley, for this slot, whereas Scottish paid a visit to the Sick Children’s Hospital in Glasgow.

All then joined back together for Popeye and The Big Top. The latter programme provided the circus fix on film that the BBC couldn’t do earlier live. Wolf Mankowitz presenting this Russian film had been under investigation for ten years previously by MI5 as a suspected Russian spy, with the BBC in the early 1950s being warned off him as a security risk because of his ties to various Anglo-Soviet friendship groups. However, having been overtly critical of the USSR invasion of Hungary in 1956, MI5 had started to lose interest in him. It was after this point that his career mysteriously took off both in television and film. The BBC opposed this programme with news, sport and a relay through Eurovision of Bayerischer Rundfunk’s production of the Mozart opera Don Juan sung in German. Act 1 only, so viewers didn’t get to see how it ended.

After the news, A-R decides unlike the other companies to take a break from entertainment with a soft religious piece, directed by Bill Perry who had performed the same duty earlier that day for the service. He was latterly at Anglia Television where he produced and directed many series including over 100 editions of Sale of the Century.

Two more music-based shows followed, Spot the Tune being both the only game show and Granada production of the day aired by A-R. The Carroll Levis Show normally aired on a Wednesday but in a post 10pm slot. Not clear here who the discoveries are, but they may have benefitted from a new agreement just signed between the Variety Artists’ Federation and ITV, raising the performance fee for an unknown artist by a guinea.

You Were Never Lovelier was a fifteen-year-old film but continues the emphasis on music and dance. It is also somewhat better regarded by critics and had been nominated for three Academy Awards, although won none. Curiously it is listed as an ATV Presentation; film buying was not yet centralised, so it is probable that ATV had acquired it outright, selling it on to the rest.

The evening is rounded off before the epilogue by a seasonal episode of The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, certainly more appropriately scheduled than on its original air date in May 1956. It is a one-off, A-R not being in the middle of a repeat series. Despite being an uncredited Towers of London Production for ITC, it was not shown by ATV, who were airing Dateline Europe, aka Foreign Intrigue, a rather creaky film noir American-financed espionage series.

Looking over the schedule overall it seems remarkable how dominated it was by singing, music and to a lesser extent dance, and lacking specially produced drama. Although the BBC did also have programmes of this type, including its last live pantomime with the staff announcers playing various roles it also, unlike ITV, found room for ballet as well as opera. By 1958 this had been swept aside.

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3 responses to this article

Victor Field 26 December 2017 at 6:28 am

“Dateline Europe, aka Foreign Intrigue, a rather creaky film noir American-financed espionage series.” It wouldn’t have been THAT creaky in 1957, as it ended in 1953.(Remember the BBC was still showing ’50s series “Whirlybirds” in 1987… and ITV was happy to show “The Streets of San Francisco” in primetime in the mid-1980s!

Alan Keeling 27 December 2017 at 3:52 pm

Associated Rediffusion was on the second season of Rin Tin Tin (1955/56 with episode 4.

Jeremy Rogers 30 December 2017 at 5:23 pm

Creaky is my value judgement today, having subjected myself to an episode for the purposes of researching this article (although not the specific one here which I could not locate, so could possibly be unfair to it). How I suffer for my art …

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