The ghost of Christmas programmes past 

24 December 2021


Year after year it happens, howls of anger and disappointment as the great British TV viewing public get their first sightings of the upcoming Christmas TV listings, holidays ruined by a lousy line up on the box. You know, I really don’t see what all the fuss is about because, let’s face it, despite what the rose tinted memories of the complainants tell us, Christmas telly has never been that great and I can guarantee that there were similar gasps of desperation as the Christmas Day pages of these 1973 Radio Times and TVTimes festive editions were scanned in anticipation.

We were in a three-channel world with no VCRs for at least another decade in most homes, so everything had to be viewed ‘live’. The restriction of TV broadcasting hours had only been eased the previous year, but the extra time allowance had yet to be fully exploited; regular morning transmissions on BBC-1 and ITV were still largely occupied by schools programmes while the BBC still went back to periods of test card in the afternoons, so the opportunity at Christmas of switching on the TV in the daytime (especially the mornings) and seeing an actual programme was still a novelty.


Courtesy of The Glamtastic 70’s


Christmas daytime is pretty much the standard fayre on BBC-1 and ITV, after opening around 9am with a couple of shows for the under-fives we’re treated to the obligatory religious element to the day’s broadcasting. The next staple of the Christmas morning diet comes at 10.0 on ITV with A Merry Morning and at 11.30 on BBC-1 with A Stocking Full of Stars where Leslie Crowther (on ITV) and Michael Aspel (on BBC1) would land themselves complete with a camera crew and a few “celebs” in a children’s hospital or a children’s home, dishing out presents along with a bit of festive jollity to the poor unsuspecting inmates. I have a longstanding memory of Max Bygraves hosting one of these programmes, chatting to a young boy and then sitting at the foot of his bed while singing “I’m A Blue Toothbrush, You’re A Pink Toothbrush”…

Meanwhile BBC-2 has quietly woken up as it always did at 11.0 with Play School but today it stays on air at 11.20 (usually it would be trade test transmissions all the way to 7pm), bringing us heaps of culture starting with a dose of religion and a festive film at 11.35. ITV are also dishing out a lunchtime movie at 11.30 and what you get to see depends on where you live and what your local ITV company has decided to splash the cash on. Christmas Day was one of the rare occasions when all the ITV regions actually kept to the same schedule, this being the only point in the day where they went their separate ways. Another “joy” (I’m really stretching the imagination here) of Christmas Day telly rears its head at 1.0 on ITV and at 3.15 on BBC-1 as we’re off to the Circus, Chipperfield’s and Billy Smart’s respectively. Actually I don’t respect them at all, this was back in the day when animals were exploited for our TV entertainment. I cringed at it back then as I do now.

There is actually a rose amongst the thorns in the daytime though, on BBC1 at 2.15 (after The Black And White Minstrel Show about which I’m saying nothing…) we have the regular Christmas edition of Top Of The Pops, summing up that year’s Number One hits. Totally and thoroughly unmissable and strangely enough it’s still going. ITV wave a white flag at this point, they really have no chance up against TOTP.

The Queen has a thing or two to say on all three channels at 3pm after which it all starts to go downhill again towards the next fixture in the schedules, the trip to a panto (4.20 on BBC11, 4.50 on ITV), as if the circus wasn’t enough…


Courtesy of VHS Artifacts


So we’re into the all important evening schedule now and, as happened every year, it’s become a one horse race as BBC-1 loads its big guns and fires them loudly and proudly. I do have to say that it’s at this stage in the proceedings that the rose-tinted specs come off for a short while. Modern generations scanning these pages may be at a bit of a loss as to where the ‘soaps’ are, the real clue being that there were no soaps whatsoever in peak-time, EastEnders was still twelve years away, Crossroads would conveniently get pushed to one side, Emmerdale was still a Farm residing in the afternoon schedules and Coronation Street (according to Granada) was serial drama and NOT a ‘soap’, as such it had no place on Christmas Day. Instead, from 6.05 through to 8.35 BBC-1 set out to unashamedly entertain you. Okay, I will admit I found Brucie and The Generation Game quite enjoyable from time to time but I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see it, same can be said of Mike Yarwood, but there’s no denying just how popular these shows were back then and how they could really pull a big audience and, although it’s not quite the same type of show a festive edition of Strictly… seems to continue where The Generation Game left off.

But of course it was at 7.35 that the real ‘appointment TV’ moment happened across the land. Eric Morecambe once mentioned a conversation he had with Ernie Wise and their writing team, suggesting that in putting out a sub-standard M&W show they could quite possibly find themselves accused of ruining the nation’s Christmas. I’d like to think he was wrong, but seeing how people seem to measure the quality of their Christmas by what’s on the telly I don’t rule it out. Throughout the ‘seventies the Morecambe And Wise Christmas Shows simply got better and better.


Courtesy of UzumakiPlayroom


At 8.35 after M&W it all went a bit dull again on BBC-1. Meanwhile on ITV it hadn’t been anything but, their All-Star Christmas Carnival being a complete steal of the BBC’s Christmas Night With The Stars (which the corporation had dropped a couple of years previous), a ninety-minute variety show interspersed with mini-episodes of current sitcoms. The trouble was that with a few exceptions, ITV sitcoms were not really in the same calibre as what was on offer on BBC-1. Even the great Tommy Cooper struggled when put up against Morecambe and Wise, especially as their show had started twenty five minutes earlier. In 1978 ITV thought they could finally win the Christmas night battle when Thames Television in London poached Morecambe And Wise from the BBC, a plan which couldn’t quite work for the simple reason that Thames was a weekday company, handing over to London Weekend Television on Friday evenings. If Christmas Day fell upon a Friday, Saturday or Sunday it would be bereft of Morecambe and Wise, as LWT would resist with all its might a relay of a Thames show.

As I said, it all goes dull again for the rest of the evening, both main channels resorting to films (Von Ryan’s Express running from 9.0 almost until closedown on ITV; what is it with war movies on Christmas Day?) and a posh music gala on BBC-1. BBC-2’s evening is missing here but I can tell you that while Brucie and co were doing their bit, BBC-2 gave us a silent Buster Keaton movie followed by a performance from the Champs Elysees Puppet Theatre. At 7.35 they were off to the ballet with a performance of Swan Lake and a dramatisation of Alice Through the Looking Glass at 9.15, rounding off the day with a Quatermass movie at 10.30. All three channels were off the air by 12.20.


Courtesy of George 1010th


The 1973 example here is very typical of Christmas TV schedules of that period and while the programmes themselves have changed, with the exception of Morecambe and Wise, I can’t truly say that what was on offer then was any better than today’s pickings, but then, neither was it any worse. Through the ‘eighties and ‘nineties Only Fools And Horses took over from Morecambe and Wise as the Christmas TV event, while two-part editions of EastEnders and Coronation Street along with a specially extended Emmerdale dominated the evenings as the dreaded soaps invaded the patch previously and lovingly occupied by light entertainment. At the end of the day, Christmas telly is just normal TV with a bit of tinsel. If you didn’t like it throughout the rest of the year, a few jingly bells and snow on the opening titles are unlikely to sell it to you on the day.

It’ll be the same again next year and the year after that, believe me, it will.


You Say

2 responses to this article

Jasper Brannigan 25 December 2021 at 10:48 pm

Watching TV (especially the all day viewing aspect) on Christmas day has always been a mostly English/UK-centric custom.

In other countries where Christmas is observed as a public holiday, people tend to engage in family oriented activities instead of vegetating in front of the TV.

Ysthaf Gynghori 9 February 2022 at 12:43 pm

Well, I loved Xmas Day T.V. in 1973. No soap operas with people getting stabbed, for one thing. And the comedy – such as the previous night’s ‘The Goodies And The Beanstalk’ – was marvellous. Rose-coloured spectacles? Not for me, it wasn’t!

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