Once Christmas Day TV meant opera, circuses and variety shows. Now, its soap operas, blockbuster films and spin-offs. So are we better off?
Here's my piece from today's Daily Express.
Christmas Turkey, described as ‘a demonstration of turkey carving by B.J. Hulbert’ doesn’t sound like the sort of programme for which you would rush to set your video. But the 15-minute programme, broadcast just after 3pm on 25th December, 1936 holds a unique place in the annals of television history, as it was the first television programme ever broadcast on Christmas Day, not just in Britain, but anywhere in the world. In those pioneering days, television had a tiny audience of only 400 households in the London area. On that first television Christmas, the BBC was off the air from 4pm to 9pm, before it returned with carol-singing and
A Seasonal Tour through the Empire. Closedown was at 10pm.
The Christmas television schedules of the 70 years since B.J. Hulbert first carved his turkey, provides us with a fascinating insight into how much society has changed. The mainstay of Christmas night TV in the Fifties- and, indeed, right up until the early 1970s, was variety shows. Television’s Christmas Party featured stars such as Terry-Thomas, Norman Wisdom and Max Bygraves.
In 1958, it was renamed Christmas Night with the Stars and continued its run with comperes such as David Nixon and Eamonn Andrews.
Billy Smart’s Circus made its first appearance on the BBC on Christmas Day 1957 and, for the next twenty years, made the slot following the Queen’s Speech its own, with audiences- unthinkable today- of up to 22 million people. A year later, the BBC began showing a film after the main variety show. Nowadays, we are accustomed to seeing a modern Hollywood blockbuster with such gems as Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a film made over twenty years earlier. It wasn’t until 1978, when the BBC broadcast The Sound of Music, previously unseen on our TV screens that the competition between BBC and ITV as to whose film could gain the highest Christmas Day ratings began.
By 1960, over 10m Britons owned a TV and programming expanded accordingly. The BBC pantomime began and The Black and White Minstrel Show ran until 1973. Then came the comedy pairing who would dominate festive viewing for the next decade: Morecambe and Wise. Eric and Ernie’s 1971 special, starring Shirley Bassey, Glenda Jackson and Andre Previn, remains a classic: who can forget Previn complaining that Eric is playing all the wrong notes of Grieg‘s Piano Concerto? Eric, holding Previn by his lapels, replies: "I am playing all the right notes... but not necessarily in the right order."
The Morecambe and Wise shows represented the zenith of the shared television experience with more than 28m people tuning in to watch their 1977 special. Andrew Collins, TV critic and author of bestseller Where Did It All Go Right? About his Seventies childhood, says: “Schedulers are still aware that families need something to unite over at Christmas, but I doubt they get excited about gathering to watch the latest Harry Potter film in the way I used to about watching the Mike Yarwood Specials - everyone on the planet has already seen the film on satellite TV or DVD.”
Soap operas and special Christmas editions of sitcoms began to dominate in the Eighties and in 1986, the first Christmas Day episode of East Enders was watched by 30m. Only Fools and Horses made its Christmas debut in 1983 and Del Boy and Rodney went on to become festive regulars from 1991 to 2003. Its creator John Sullivan says: “There was a time when the schedules were packed with family-friendly shows. Perhaps, now that the average family owns more than one computer to keep the kids entertained, there is less of a need to cater for us all at once.”
The birth of Sky and the dawn of the multi-channel age, has transformed our viewing.
The schedules of decades past paint a picture of a society that was not only more homogenised, but also gentler. The humour of Ken Dodd, Harry Worth and Tommy Cooper was devoid of cruelty, something we can’t say about contemporary series such as Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show. Swearing and obscenity was strictly off limits and up to the mid 1970s, it’s hard to find a single show that wouldn’t have been suitable for all the family. Now they all feel like the ghost of Christmas past.