Almost a silent night 

24 December 2018

“Minute for minute, I think Morecambe & Wise is costing [ITV] more than The Sound of Music is costing us”, surmised Bill Cotton, controller of BBC-1, as he announced details of the channel’s Christmas line-up for 1978.1 The Corporation had paid an eye-watering $4.25m [$16.5m in 2018, allowing for inflation] for ten screenings of the Julie Andrews classic over the next decade2; with not only Eric & Ernie but Bruce Forsyth and Billy Smart’s circus all having made the jump to commercial television, the mammoth musical would act as the centrepiece of BBC’s seasonal offering.

However, financial matters of a different kind would put Maria’s appearance – and the entire BBC Christmas schedule – in jeopardy. An on-going dispute over pay – three years in the making – left the Corporation facing the prospect of blank screens for the holidays.


In July 1978, Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey proposed a limit of 5% for industry pay increases, as part of a wider plan to control inflation – whilst maintaining a harmonious relationship with the trade unions – dating back to 1975.3 Although the 5% cap – a ‘guideline’ – was not mandatory, sanctions were threatened against public and private sector organisations which broke it; the White Paper – Winning The Battle Against Inflation – included the vague threat of the government exercising, “discretion in awarding contracts and giving companies assistance from the state.”4 Crucially, the proposal also allowed some flexibility, “to restore differentials where appropriate.”5

Although the Dividends Bill – part of Phase 4 of the government’s wage strategy – was passed in the House of Commons, the Trades Union Congress voted to reject the 5% rule6; a series of industrial disputes ensued in the period now remembered as the Winter of Discontent.

Against this backdrop, the BBC was engaged in a long-standing impasse with broadcasting unions over pay; specifically, how wages within the Corporation compared with those for similar occupations at Independent Television and elsewhere. The BBC acknowledged that there was, indeed, disparity with ITV in many technical roles but maintained that its hands were tied by the 5% limit. In this, the threat of sanctions could – in theory – mean limitations on future licence fee settlements with the government.7

Citing Phase 1 – introduced in July 1975 – the Corporation acknowledged that wage levels, already lagging behind those in the commercial sector, required urgent rectification to combat declining morale and a gradual exodus of skilled staff; however, the continuing restrictions imposed by Whitehall made this impossible. Following the introduction of Phase 4, the BBC felt emboldened to offer a 5% increase plus 2.4% to correct anomalies, however the latter proposal did not meet with government approval; subsequently, the Corporation and the broadcasting unions agreed to allow the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) to adjudicate on the matter, with talks scheduled for late December.8


On Monday 30 October, BBC-2 began a trial, thirteen-week run of early evening programmes commencing with a series of Laurel & Hardy shorts. However, two weeks later – Monday 13 November – industrial action by members of the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs (ABS) curtailed the experiment amidst continuing disquiet over pay and manning levels. Shortly thereafter, an overtime ban involving staff working in drama, news and current affairs began at midnight.9

BBC 2 We are unable to show our early evening programmes because of an industrial dispute The next programme is AND NOW THE GOOD NEWS which follows at 6.50
Monday evening dispute caption from White Powder Christmas tape, 1978

Initial casualties of the early evening schedule – running from approximately 5.35pm – 7pm Monday to Thursday, 6pm on Fridays – included a history of blues music, nature documentaries, Tammy Wynette’s country music shows and the cave exploration series Beneath the Pennines – all repeats – plus a new, week-long profile of Franz Schubert.

BBC 2 We are unable to show the published programmes at the moment because of an Industrial Dispute. They will begin again with EMPIRE ROAD AT 6.50
Tuesday evening dispute caption; credit: ‘Beer and Sandwiches’, RAX118G

Similarly, Radio 2’s planned move to a 24-hour schedule was postponed. (See Andy Walmsley’s site for details)

The situation was further compounded when the Home Office rejected the BBC’s request for special dispensation – on the grounds of pay disparity – to exceed the 5% guideline.10 Then, on Friday 8 December, the ABS escalated its action; the union wrote to its members paid by the Corporation on a monthly basis – those most affected by pay increase limitations since 197511 – stating that such staff would not be permitted to work in excess of 12 hours a day or 42 hours a week.12 The ABS also announced the establishment of an action committee empowered to call a strike in television or radio at any time.13

The dispute threatened key Christmas programmes such as Larry Grayson’s Generation Game and a pantomime-themed edition of Parkinson, with production schedules revised to ensure the completion of high-profile shows.14 Meanwhile, disruption to BBC-2’s early evening schedules – including coverage, via satellite, of the Australia vs England test match series – continued. Then, on Thursday 14 December, the dispute spread to BBC-1.


BBC Television as a whole would now close early, with neither channel broadcasting later than 11.40pm. Thus, following the (by now, standard) disruption to early evening BBC-2 – including the National Cat Club Championship Show – nightly current affairs programme Tonight was the first BBC-1 broadcast to be affected, followed by an episode of the American crime drama series Most Wanted. On BBC-2, a repeated edition of the public access show Open Door was dropped.

On Friday, viewers in London and the South East (L&SE) enjoyed a full hour of the trade test music tape ‘Villa Vista’ in place of Nationwide15 (thankfully, normal service resumed in time for Tom & Jerry in ‘Cruise Cat’); coverage of the second day of the Olympia International Show Jumping Championships were blacked out from 10.45pm and the late film – Ask Any Girl starring Shirley MacLaine and David Niven – was similarly absent. On BBC-2, the final episode of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven was postponed.

By this point, the apology caption was somewhat more pointed:

We regret that we are unable to show the published programme owing to industrial action over the Government Pay Policy.

The decision – beyond the enforced early closedowns – to decline airing replacement programming was seen by some as an attempt to avoid further conflict with the ABS. “Senior management believe that…any attempt to minimise the effect of industrial action could provoke a full-scale strike”, wrote Peter Fiddick in The Guardian,16 whilst the Daily Mail hypothesised that, “It was almost as if the BBC was using the loss of TV to demonstrate to the government its need to pay over the 5 per cent limit.”17

Weekend viewing, hitherto untouched, was now also subject to disruption; on Saturday 16 December, there was no Multi-Coloured Swap Shop; Grandstand (partially interrupted) and the evening’s peak-time programmes survived but Match of the Day was curtailed after twenty-five minutes. Following a brief interruption, a mere twenty minutes of show jumping followed before Parkinson was omitted in favour of an early closedown. In Scotland, recorded hockey highlights replaced the normal football content of Sportscene; Rod Stewart in concert at the Belle Vue, Manchester did, however, make it to the screen.

Sunday’s disruption was minimal, with just two scheduled broadcasts (BBC-1’s Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan and BBC-2’s Film of the Week, the American drama Class of ’44) dropped. Despite the early finishes, the channels still maintained the standard closedown procedure following the final programme of the day.

BBC-2 We regret that we are unable to show the published programme owing to industrial action over the Government Pay Policy Programmes resume tomorrow morning at 11.00
BBC2 post-closedown caption, Sun 17th Dec 1978; credit: Rory Clark

On Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 December, BBC-2’s early evening programmes along with BBC1’s Tonight were once again absent; Tuesday’s Sportsnight carried cricket highlights displaced from BBC2. Then…


On Wednesday 20 December, BBC-2 opened at 10.20am with its scheduled line-up of Asian magazine programme Gharbar, repeated educational programme Parosi and, of course, Play School after which the channel closed, as usual, at 11.25am – there would be no further broadcasts that day.

Over on BBC-1, the 12.45pm news bulletin was just two minutes long; programmes resumed at 1pm with Pebble Mill and Over The Moon in the Watch With Mother slot. Following the afternoon’s scheduled closedown, Mike Oldfield’s In Dulci Jubilo opened proceedings in L&SE18 whilst the rest of the country received its local news before the afternoon repeat of Play School. Children’s programmes went out as scheduled – with the exception of John Craven’s Newsround – prior to the BBC Evening News; again, only two minutes’ worth, after which the following caption appeared in L&SE:

BBC Television regrets that no further programmes will be transmitted tonight because of industrial action by the Association of Broadcasting Staff. Programmes will be resumed as soon as possible.

The rest of the country joined the slide following the conclusion of regional news programmes,19 and BBCtv concluded for the night. The series finale of Secret Army and a BBC2 special featuring Beryl Reid were amongst the programmes blacked out.

Earlier in the day, eleven members of staff had been suspended for refusing – on instruction from the ABS – to process film of two news items: a train crash which had occurred in Brighton the prior evening and a police hunt for two IRA suspects in Farnham.20 In both instances, the material had been produced by contract crews – as opposed to full-time members of staff – working at the BBC’s Southampton office. The ABS claimed that this activity breached their overtime ban; up to this point in the dispute, the Corporation had accepted an ABS restriction on film shot by outside sources. In these instances, BBC management maintained that the importance of the events warranted the use of freelance staff.

Following the suspensions, the ABS instructed its television members to stop work. Paddy Leech, deputy general secretary of the ABS: “Every one of our 5000 members working in BBC TV in London has been called out. They will not return until the suspensions have been lifted.”21

The dispute continued to affect programme production; at Television Centre, the staging of Top of the Pops for transmission the following night was cancelled whilst Thursday’s recordings of Marti Caine’s variety show and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in studios 3 and 4 respectively were postponed. As the Daily Mail noted, “Even the famous BBC canteen… was almost deserted. A management man hammered futilely at a coffee vending machine.”

BBC Television remained off air throughout Thursday, as talks between BBC management and the ABS at the offices of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) failed to break the deadlock; however, whilst the issue of the suspended film processors remained unresolved, both parties were largely united in their position on pay. Alasdair Milne, Managing Director of BBC Television, commented, “We would love to be able to pay our staff enough to come close to the money earned at ITV but our hands are tied by government policy.”22 For his part, Paddy Leech was critical of an alleged threat of sanctions by the Home Secretary: “We think this is intolerable interference in the bargaining process”.23

A selection of gay rights themed badges from the 1970s
Mary Whitehouse (bottom centre) appearing amongst a selection of LGBT+ Pride badges from the 1970s. Source: Gay News Archive Project

Not everyone was disappointed at the prospect of Christmas Day without The Sound of Music or, indeed, anything else on the nation’s screens, with the Daily Mirror reporting that one Mary Whitehouse, “said she was dreaming of a blank Christmas…she said it would be a good idea for families to switch off and enjoy an old-fashioned traditional Christmas.”24

This idea was expanded upon by the Glasgow Evening Times, whose readers were facing the prospect of an entirely TV-free holiday with a separate dispute at Scottish Television rumbling on. Various dignitaries were unmoved, with the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and the chairman of the Scottish Development Agency all expressing little concern at the prospect. It was left to STV’s national treasure, Glen Michael, to speak for the masses: “I am a television addict. I sit and watch until the little light disappears… I’ll miss the television but I suppose it will give me an opportunity to do something healthy, like take a good long walk in the country.”25

STV ident

Thankfully, such drastic measures would not be required. STV announced that they would be operating as normal throughout the holiday period after the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians suspended an overtime ban until Thursday 4 January.26

Then, whilst BBC-1 viewers should have been enjoying the aforementioned Pops and the penultimate Mastermind of the year, the Corporation announced that BBC Television planned to stage a makeshift service on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day, airing pre-recorded material including The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and the Queen’s Christmas Message; the master copy of the latter was reportedly locked – in a safe – in Alasdair Milne’s office.27

“The management will be manning the machinery to put these programmes out”, a BBC spokesman told the Glasgow Herald. In place of live broadcasts, the Corporation planned to air substitute material: “We know there are programmes advertised over the holiday period and where it is not possible to put them on we will offer replacements.”28 News of the BBC’s intentions angered the ABS: “We consider their emergency Christmas plans to be a considerable provocation”, a union spokesman told The Guardian.29

BBC 1 BBC Television will be on the air with a full programme of holiday entertainment on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. For the moment we regret that no programmes are being screened owing to industrial action by the Association of Broadcasting Staff.
Management service announcement slide; credit: ‘ATV Christmas Tape promotions’, LufthansaTerminal

The dispute finally came to the crunch on Friday 22 December.


BBC Television remained off air; meanwhile, the ABS signalled its intention to call out radio staff later that day; in response, Aubrey Singer, Managing Director of BBC Radio, announced plans to maintain a single service.

The impasse continued as the Corporation offered to reverse its suspension of the eleven film processors if the ABS agreed a return to normal working hours; in response, the ABS offered – upon the staff’s reinstatement – merely to call off the all-out strike and resume the previous overtime ban.

As noted in the Glasgow Herald, “The last hope of saving the Christmas programmes will come today at a meeting of the Central Arbitration Committee, but no one was at all optimistic about a happy outcome.” The CAC was not expected to reach a decision until January.30

Despite some positive reports emerging from the ACAS talks, with the time approaching 4pm, David Hamilton advised Radio 2 listeners, “We regret… that because of industrial action, we have to leave our advertised programmes at this junction. From now until further notice, BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 will combine to bring you an all-network radio service.”

The subsequent news bulletin, read by Paddy O’Byrne, confirmed that the radio strike was on. Thus began the short-lived “Radio 10” with an eclectic schedule featuring John Dunn, Brian Perkins, Kid Jensen and Radio 3’s Cormac Rigby holding the fort with a makeshift line-up designed to appeal to… everyone.


The long-awaited talks at the CAC were finally underway, with both the BBC and the ABS having submitted evidence to support their argument regarding the widening pay gap with Independent Television. As stated, the CAC’s ruling was expected the following month; in fact, the committee came to a rapid decision that evening, announcing an interim pay increase of 12.5% plus 4% of the total wages bill for anomalies.31

The award did not breach the government pay policy, as the CAC’s decision was based on the disparity between the Corporation’s staff and those working elsewhere in comparative roles since Phase 1 – the Employment Protection Act allowed for ‘comparability payments’ to address such anomalies – and thus was outside the 5% guideline; further talks under Phase 4 were planned for the new year. The eleven suspended staff were immediately reinstated.32

At 8pm on Radio 10, Jan Leeming brought news of the CAC award; then, during the first hour of Cormac Rigby’s programme of popular classical music, came the official confirmation of the strike’s conclusion. Later, the 10pm radio bulletin was also heard on BBC Television, which was now displaying the following festive slides:

BBC 1 The BBC has reach agreement with the Association of Broadcasting Staff and normal working will resume at midnight tonight. We will be back with our published programmes at 3.00pm on BBC 1 and at 1.30pm on BBC 2
Dispute resolution caption; credit: ‘Beer and Sandwiches’, RAX118G
BBC 2 The BBC has reach agreement with the Association of Broadcasting Staff and normal working will resume at midnight tonight. We will be back with our published programmes at 3.00pm on BBC 1 and at 1.30pm on BBC 2
Dispute resolution caption; credit: ‘Beer and Sandwiches’, RAX118G

Bill Rennells, manning the desk at Radio 10, responded to the announcement: “[In the studio] we’re all very happier…after all, we like to watch Match of the Day ourselves…”, whilst over on LWT, News at Ten was preceded – and followed – by a cheeky rundown of ITV’s forthcoming festive delights, taking advantage of the final evening of its televisual monopoly.

LWT continuity, Fri 22 Dec; credit: ‘LWT / London Weekend Television junction – 1978’, DELTIC1976

There were no Saturday morning programmes on BBC-1 or BBC-2; although Multi-Coloured Swap Shop was again off the air, Noel Edmonds would appear on Christmas Day hosting Top of the Pops from a makeshift ‘office’ set.

BBC tv We will be back on the air with our published programmes at 3.00pm on BBC1 Details of Christmas Programmes in Radio Times

BBC-2 opened at 1.30pm with the Saturday Matinee – Around the World in Eighty Days, whilst BBC-1 resumed at 3pm, the Sports Family of the Year contest offering scant consolation for those deprived of both Grandstand and World of Sport, the latter having fallen victim to a further dispute at LWT regarding holiday payments. (On Sunday, The Big Match was similarly affected, replaced in London by the Alan Ravenscroft documentary Robert Redford on the Outlaw Trail).

Following hectic production activity upon the conclusion of the dispute, disruption to the BBC’s Christmas line-up was relatively minimal. On Christmas Eve, Sunday Worship was replaced by the 1975 documentary Inside Canterbury Cathedral whilst substituting for André Previn’s Christmas Music Night was the BBC Bristol film Here We Come A-Wassailing, itself an earlier casualty of the strike; over on BBC-2, Rugby Special was reduced to twenty-five minutes, thus providing space for Thursday’s unscreened Mastermind.

Julie Andrews in front of an Austrian mountain
Julie Andrews in ‘The Sound of Music’. Source: Salzburg Panorama Tours GmbH

BBC-1’s Christmas Day schedule was unaltered; on BBC-2 at 2.30pm, the Sounds of Christmas carol service from the Royal Albert Hall was replaced by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and a brief, animated version of A Christmas Carol.

It was not all good cheer for seasonal broadcasting; a seventeen-day dispute at Yorkshire Television deprived local viewers of all ITV programming throughout the holiday; the service eventually returned at 5.45pm on Wednesday 3rd January, with the station airing Morecambe & Wise and the James Bond premiere Diamonds Are Forever in a makeshift Christmas schedule at the end of the month.

Further industrial disputes would follow in 1979 – not least at ITV – but for now, 26.5 million viewers33 could enjoy The Sound of Music after all.

Before then, it was time to put the finishing touches to the Christmas symbol…

BBC News, Sat 23 Dec

With thanks to Simon Coward, Al Dupres, Iain Hepburn and Ian Greaves for their assistance.


  1. The Guardian, 7th Dec 1978, p. 6.
  2. Halliwell’s Horizon, Michael Binder, p. 167.
  3. The Times, 21st July 1978, p. 1.
  4. The Times, 22nd July 1978, p. 1.
  5. Hansard, HC Deb 21st July 1978, vol 954 cc1012-35
  6. The Guardian, 27th July 1978, p. 1.
  7. The Stage, 21st Dec 1978, p. 1.
  8. BBC Handbook 1980, p. 66.
  9. The Times, 14th November 1978, p. 2.
  10. The Guardian, 9th Dec 1978, p. 1.
  11. BBC Handbook 1980, p. 66.
  12. Glasgow Herald, 9th Dec 1978, p. 1.
  13. The Guardian, 9th Dec 1978, p. 1.
  14. The Guardian, 14th Dec 1878, p. 1.
  15. The Test Card Circle, issue 23, ‘A Day In The Strike of 1978, Part Eight’, Andrew Evans, p. 45.
  16. The Guardian, 14th Dec 1878, p. 1.
  17. Daily Mail, 21st Dec 1978, p. 2.
  18. The Test Card Circle, issue 25, ‘A Day In The Strike of 1978, Part Ten’, Andrew Evans, p. 46.
  19. The Test Card Circle, issue 25, ‘A Day In The Strike of 1978, Part Ten’, Andrew Evans, p. 45.
  20. The Guardian, 21st Dec 1978, p. 1.
  21. Daily Mail, 21st Dec 1978, p. 1.
  22. Daily Mail, 21st Dec 1978, p. 2.
  23. Daily Mail, 22nd Dec 1978, ‘It’s Closedown at the BBC’
  24. Daily Mirror, 22nd Dec 1978, p. 1.
  25. Evening Times, 22nd Dec 1978, p. 21.
  26. Glasgow Herald, 22nd Dec 1978, p. 1.
  27. Daily Express, 23rd Dec, p2
  28. Glasgow Herald, 22nd Dec 1978, p. 1.
  29. The Guardian, 22nd Dec 1978, p. 1.
  30. Glasgow Herald, 22nd Dec 1978, p. 1.
  31. BBC All Network Service (22nd Dec) 1978, Random Radio Jottings,
  32. Daily Mail, 23rd Dec 1978, p. 1.
  33. The Stage, 11th Jan 1979, p. 1.

You Say

6 responses to this article

Steve Gray 24 December 2018 at 4:21 pm

..And a very Mery Christmas to you all..

Timbo 24 December 2018 at 11:23 pm

Er, 4.25m dollars for the Sound of Music? Pounds sterling please, license payers tend to pay in pounds!

Russ J Graham 25 December 2018 at 1:01 pm

It’s very hard to get anything like an accurate GBP-USD conversion figure for the past, due to there being so many variables in divergent economies. But a rule of thumb would be that $4.25m in 1978 would be about £8.3m at average spot exchange rates; that’s a shade under £50m in 2018, allowing for UK inflation.

Graham Pearson 27 July 2020 at 4:53 pm

BBC management would have considered industrial action over the festive season as strictly illegal, extremely dangerous and putting a heavy burden on the viewers and may have threatened to sack all the strikers.

Arthur Vasey 24 March 2022 at 9:13 am

An all-network service probably sounded odd even then – imagine tuning into your network of choice and hearing something atypical of it – music of any kind on Radio 4, other than programme themes, Sailing By, the Radio 4 theme in the mornings and the extracts on Desert Island Discs, Radio 2 or 3-type music on Radio 1 (although, in those days, Radio 1 carried the FM service of Radio 2 in the evenings, so it was not uncommon, but somewhat unusual, to hear brass bands and orchestras on what was meant to be a pop music network), Radios 2 and 3 playing pop music and even getting Radio 1 in stereo!

They only had four networks then – with twice as many networks, it wouldn’t work today – unless they largely ignore the Asian Network and 1Xtra – and imagine the furore if the music was replaced by a football commentary!

I can also recall various disputes on television throughout 1978 – one of which saw that week’s Top Of The Pops replaced by a David Hamilton-fronted edition from 1977 – a year ago at the time – David Hamilton had decamped to Radio 2 by this point and, as Top Of The Pops had to be presented by a current Radio 1 DJ, he couldn’t have presented it – seemed strange hearing all those golden oldies, as those whose music tastes don’t go beyond the charts would have it!

There was also a dispute affecting viewers in the Tyne Tees region that, I think, lasted about a week – I was at school at the time, so I wasn’t fully aware of it – programmes that were networked went out as normal, but local programmes – and even advert breaks – were replaced by a static caption that said that the programme will return in a few moments – depending upon if any programmes that were networked after News At Ten actually were networked, from what I was told, it was not uncommon for Tyne Tees to shut down after half ten – mam was a bit disappointed that she couldn’t watch Northern Life and had to make do with Nationwide!

SJ 29 March 2024 at 9:51 pm

The exchange rate in 1978 would equate to £1 being worth between $1.80 and $2, varying thoughout the year. It roughly works out that the Beeb paid around £2.25 to £2.5 million for The Sound of Music in 1978. Quite a sum for a film that was well over a decade old by that time. But in that pre-video age, it equated to monster ratings.

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