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The Christmas Sunday Post: Festive Episodes

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without... Christmas Night with the Stars? Dad's Army had already earned a place in the 1968 edition after one series

Television and radio schedulers have always given special attention to the festive period, and pull out the stops to come up with a range of programmes that will keep the family entertained when they settle down to watch the box, after the annual avalanche of turkey, sprouts, pigs in blankets, Christmas pudding and too many chocolates (not to mention more tiny oranges than you can shake a stick at).

There are a plethora of Christmas episodes to consider, from all periods of broadcasting and in all genres.  Last year we picked out the schedule of fifty years ago for special attention, but one programme which was absent from the line-up that day was the variety show Christmas Night with the Stars.  First seen in 1958, this was a successor to previous years' all-star pantomimes and Television Christmas Parties - one difference being that Christmas Night with the Stars featured pre-recorded sketches and short episodes of popular entertainment series rather than being a live, continuous show.  

By 1958 pre-recording of inserts was more easily achieved, and so the necessity of getting all the performers together at the same time was avoided - the sketches might be recorded during the studio session for a normal episode in fact.  Those appearing in Christmas Night with the Stars that first year included Tony Hancock in his Budgerigar sketch, Billy Cotton and his Band, Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray, the George Mitchell Singers and the cast of Dixon of Dock Green - a regular presence in the show for the next few years since Dixon was made by the light entertainment department, not the drama department, at that time.  With occasional breaks, Christmas Night with the Stars continued until 1972.

However, not all programmes shown at Christmas are stand-alone specials:  sometimes the series in question was going on anyway, and there just happened to be an episode on Christmas Day or nearby, that acknowledged the event one way or another.

PC Jock Weir (Joseph Brady) auditions to join The Swinging Blue Jeans! The first Z Cars episode of Z Cars to be shown on Christmas Day, 1963

One example of that would be the Z Cars episode It Never Rains…, shown on Christmas Day 1963.  The main plot is about a garage robbery, and there is a thief dressed as Father Christmas, but there is also a special guest appearance by the Merseybeat group The Swinging Blue Jeans (also appearing on the Light Programme the following day).   Though Z Cars was usually live, a custom was established to prevent the cast and crew having to work through Christmas itself by pre-recording an episode about half way through the autumn on a scheduled transmission day, with that date covered by pre-recording another episode before the start of each season.

Z Cars, from its inception until the mid-1970s, was on for long periods of the year, so there were plenty of other episodes around Christmas time, although only one other on Christmas Day itself.  The same applied to many other long-running series, though with shorter and shorter episode counts for all but the soap-operatic drama, it’s no longer so common now for series to co-incide with Christmas except by appointment.

Casualty is another drama series which has tackled the perils of Christmas time on a regular basis, and now tends to go on through most of the year, so there is no escape from Christmas editions.  Since the early 90s there have been a series of notable Christmas adventures, with sister show Holby City joining in as well, sometimes even in a combined edition Casualty @ Holby City.

Another medical drama joining in the Christmas spirit was Dr Finlay’s Casebook, the 1920s set series originally adapted from the stories of A.J. Cronin.  Fifty years ago to the day came the episode The Gifts of the Magi, in which Doctors Finlay and Cameron, and housekeeper Janet, are called on to perform their party pieces for the cottage hospital Christmas party.  Other popular series however have generally eschewed the seasonal special, perhaps considering the festivities would get in the way or compromise their hard-hitting edge.

The Doctor and Rose battled robot Santas and the alien Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion, 2005, the first of a run of regular Christmas episodes of Doctor Who.

EastEnders has established a firm tradition of saving some of its more spectacular plot twists for Christmas Day, from the first event-episode in 1986 which saw Den serving Angie with divorce papers in one of the biggest rated episodes in the series’ history (anyone out there who doesn’t know who Den and Angie were, congratulations, you have now made me feel very old).  There have been a number of high profile storylines at this time of year, and presumably 2016 will go out with a similar bombshell…  But perhaps surprisingly, the first Christmas during the run of EastEnders, 1985, was comparatively low-key, and there wasn’t even an episode on 25 December itself.

For the last 11 years Doctor Who has also always had a Christmas episode, though they have not necessarily involved the series' most spectacular turning points.  That said, David Tennant had his first full episode in that first modern era Christmas episode, and bowed out in 2009 in a two part Christmas and New Year double episode story.

As I discussed this time last year, the only time, before Doctor Who was revived, that there was a Christmas Day episode was in 1965, and in other years the programme went out of its way to avoid transmitting on the big day, even if that involved a big gap in the series, as in 1976.  This year, 2016 having been without a full series, we will get in The Return of Doctor Mysterio the first new episode of the show since last Christmas Day.

Comedy too has its Christmas episodes, though given the shorter length of comedy series it is rarer for their yuletide editions to be an integral part of a series.  In fact it is not unknown for a Christmas special to be the only outing in a given year for a particular programme – as with the 1976 Porridge special, or the Dad’s Army episodes in 1971 and 1976.  As with The Good Life’s one and only Christmas special, these programmes are among those which are revived to fill out the Christmas schedules on a regular basis - which probably tells you something about how to make a comedy that stands the test of time.  

Another series which became a Christmas fixture, was the 1980s monster hit Only Fools and Horses...., though it wasn't until its third series that the Christmas episode was seen on the big day itself, and then in a somewhat dark story about Del and Rodney's father turning up (but was he really Rodney's father...?)  The 1990/1 series of Only Fools, of which the Christmas episode was an integral part, turned out to be the last full run of the show, with only Christmas episodes until 1996 when the series ended - or so it was to be at the time - with the Christmas trilogy that saw Del becoming a millionaire at last.  A further three episodes were made, but they two were spread out over Christmas Days from 2001 to 2003 (on the same day, co-incidentally, as a one-off revival of Christmas Night with the Stars).

It’s Chriiiiiiiiiiiistmas!!! (to quote the song, written by Noddy Holder and Jim Lea) The original caption to this photo pointed out helpfully that there were BBC cameras in the shot. Really? Where???

Top of the Pops of course has now become a traditional part of the Christmas season, even though it stopped being broadcast as a weekly show ten years ago.  The Christmas special has gone out every year since 1964, the first year of the programme’s existence, though at first at least it did not always go out on the Christmas Day itself.  The Christmas edition is now the only chance for artists to say they have been on Top of the Pops

Of necessity, the programme was always live, or recorded very close to transmission, and though there is now a little leeway with the Christmas edition, they are still taped fairly shortly before transmission.  There was also a tradition for many years of having two editions at Christmas, so that the programme could become an in-depth look back at the whole year’s music, rather than just covering the Christmas chart and the (admittedly important) Christmas number one.

Radio is perhaps more prone to continuing existing series at Christmastime, as much of its output is generally very regular.  Radios 1 and 2 tend to continue with the same programme slots, with occasional special programmes, and sometimes there are different presenters in the normal slots. 

On Christmas Day 1967, the first under the new regime of Radio 1 and 2, when they still shared many programmes, regular shows like Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Young were interspersed with specials like Kenny and Cash with Kenny Everett and Dave Cash, and The D.J.s’ Christmas Party hosted by Pete Murray.  Radio 2, when not sharing Radio 1’s programmes, had special editions like a Christmas episode of Round the Horne and Cotton’s Christmas Knees-Up starring Billy Cotton.

Ernie and Eric (unlike Ant and Dec, they don't always stand in alphabetical order) appear in their 1972 Christmas Show - the sketch featured a guest appearance by Bruce Forsyth

Of course, the concept of special Christmas episodes only really came to fruition once the actual concept of series of programmes gradually had developed in the early decades of broadcasting.  The first Radio Times Christmas edition shows that the early programmes on offer for December 25th were modest enough.

Children’s Hour is one of the earliest regular programme strands, though there were different regional versions of it, often under different names, rather than one centralised networked edition.  The London edition on 25/12/23 was mostly concerned with a play, On Christmas Eve.  The evening schedule consisted of a programme of music played by the Wireless Orchestra (forerunner of all BBC orchestras), the News, a talk on Wit and Humour and more dance music, this time by the Savoy Orpheans direct from the Savoy Hotel itself.

Of all the myriad seasonal shows that have been created since those early days, one institution that seems never to disappear is the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, one example of which always seems to be shown on or around Christmas Day.  This has become the archetypal Christmas special, though to be fair in its day it was responsible for some of the highest ratings of any programme.

When Morecambe and Wise returned to the BBC in 1968 after many years on ITV, it was partly due to the fact that the BBC could offer them colour television, although it meant their programme would be on BBC2 at first.  Eric Morecambe was sadly victim to a heart attack after the first series aired, but had recovered enough by the end of the year that he and Ernie Wise were able to host the annual Christmas Night with the Stars.  1969 saw the series return with a new writer, Eddie Braben, and longer, 45-minute episodes which allowed them the room to expand their characterisations.  The hour-long Christmas episode gradually became a showcase for even more elaborate staging and more impressive guest stars.

Given concerns for Eric’s health, the BBC was careful not to overtax the duo by demanding too many shows, and eventually in 1977 the only programme they made was the Christmas show.  Even so, it was Eric who took on the stress load, with his perfectionism meaning he worried about whether each year’s show would be good enough - if it wasn’t, he thought it might spoil people’s Christmas.

But they didn’t.  The classic shows from 1971 (Shirley Bassey and the army boot, André Previn and 'all the wrong notes') to 1977 are full of classic moments and stand many many repeat showings.  Angela Rippon dancing, South Pacific performed by a chorus of BBC presenters and newsreaders, Glenda Jackson as Queen Victoria… and Ernie’s ‘dry’ version of Singin’ in the Rain – the list goes on…

John Noakes, Lesley Judd and Peter Purves, with schoolchildren and the Chalk Farm Salvation Army Band, look forward to Christmas 1974 in Blue Peter

In the field of current affairs, there was naturally less by way of Christmas editions, other than the Money Programme looking at its financial side, but the early evening magazine Nationwide contributed to the festivities from the mid-70s, until its demise in 1983, by organising a Christmas carol competition, which was carried on with afterwards by the likes of Breakfast Time and Pebble Mill at One.  Carol competitions on the BBC go back at least to one held by Children's Hour in 1936, and survived until the 1980s A Song for Christmas.  

And who could forget the Blue Peter Christmas celebrations, in the 1970s especially, with the studio full of well-behaved kids singing carols, led by the band of the Chalk Farm branch of the Salvation Army?  The run-up to the big day was also trailed with present-making ideas and the ceremonial lighting of the Advent Crown.

Other popular children's series have also done their bit for the cause of festive fun - from Jackanory to Crackerjack to the Rentaghost special Rentasanta (a programme that had the misfortune to miss its original transmission slot in 1978 due to industrial action and only turned up the following year).

So there you have it – some samples of the kind of fare available for our Christmas entertainment and edification.  All it remains to do now is go off and enjoy (hey, why are you looking at your computer anyway – go and indulge in some festive frolics…!)  A Merry Christmas from the Genome Blog - we'll be back next week (aka Next Year...)

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