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I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek... (or not)

Fifty years ago, the BBC's Christmas Day was more or less fully developed into a form recognisable now, with a full range of programmes on radio and the small screen. 

1965 was the first full year where there were two BBC television channels, following the launch of BBC2 in April 1964.  The second channel was gradually becoming available in more parts of the country, though it would be a while before it reached the same level of coverage as BBC1.  But many people still had television sets working on 405 lines only, so were unable to receive the 625-line BBC2 even if they lived in an area where it was available. 

Television programmes on BBC1 began at 9.15 with Welcome Christmas, a music programme featuring singers Ivor Emmanuel (then perhaps best known for his appearance in the film Zulu) and Ursula Connors. 

At 9.45, Laurel and Hardy were seen in their 1937 film Way Out West, featuring the song The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was to become a top ten hit in 1975.  This was the fifth showing of the film, it having been first televised in 1950. 

At 10.45 See the Children Sing was a carol concert from the Royal Festival Hall, and was followed by a Christmas Morning Service live from the village church in Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, at 11.15

Midday saw the regular Meet the Kids programme, this year hosted by Leslie Crowther, and relayed from St. George’s Hospital, Tooting, where Crowther and guests Tony Hart and ventriloquist Ray Alan, accompanied by Tich and Quackers, helped entertain children confined to hospital for the festive season.  The show had first been televised in 1961, when the presenter was Max Bygraves.  This was Crowther’s second stint as compere, and he would do the next two years as well. 

Champions on Ice at 12.45 featured international ice skaters including the new British ice dance champions Diane Towler and Bernard Ford.  At 1.25 The Andy Williams Show included regular guests The Osmond Brothers, long before their fame as 1970s pop stars. 

Afternoon All

Usually shown in the early evening, Dixon of Dock Green was relegated to 2.15 because of the Christmas schedule. The series had been going for 10 years at this point, and by now the only remaining characters from its first series were the lead, George Dixon, played by Jack Warner, and Peter Byrne as Detective Sergeant Andy Crawford (there were occasional appearances by George's daughter Mary, who was also Andy's wife).  This Christmas Day episode was called Georgina, written by Eric Paice.  It took place in real time and saw the avuncular Sergeant Dixon deal with a medical emergency when help is unable to reach a sick woman.  It’s notable that there is no character called Georgina in the cast list...

Several time-honoured Christmas staples followed this dramatic interlude, with the Queen’s Christmas message at 3.00, Billy Smart’s Circus directly afterwards, Disney Time at 4.00, presented by Maurice Chevalier, and at 4.50 the pantomime Mother Goose.  Terry Scott took the title role with Norman Vaughan playing ‘her’ son, and the cast included Jon Pertwee as the Squire, and right at the bottom of the list, one David Jason (his first BBC appearance, though he had previously appeared on ITV in Crossroads).  After the 6.25 News Summary, Val Doonican fronted the Christmas Day charitable  Appeal.  At the same time - 6.30 - BBC2 started its transmissions for the day, with When Comedy Was King, a compilation of early American comedy movies from the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.

On BBC1 at 6.35 was the latest episode of Dr Who.  Now just beginning its third year, it had been decided to continue with the current story, an epic twelve-episode adventure known internally as The Daleks’ Master Plan, rather than skip a week for Christmas.  

The episode was called The Feast of Steven - a festive pun on the name of the Doctor's companion Steven, played by future Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves.  Like the current series, at this time every episode had its own title, although they were always part of a story consisting of a number of 25-minute episodes, most often four or six. Allegedly commissioned because BBC executive Huw Wheldon’s mother liked the Daleks, the original six-part story written by Dalek creator Terry Nation was extended to 12 episodes, with former story editor Dennis Spooner contributing the extra scripts from a storyline by Nation.

'A Minstrel's eyelids are his own responsibility.'

Since it would go out on Christmas Day (the only time this happened until 2005), it was decided that unlike the rest of this dark and disturbing story, which had already seen two sympathetic characters killed off, the instalment would not feature the Daleks, despite the fact that half the country had probably unwrapped items of Dalek merchandising that morning, as this was still the height of ‘Dalekmania’. 

The episode was split into two mini-stories, with the first set in a Liverpool police station, although the production team of Z Cars had turned down a proposal for an appearance by its cast.  The second half of the episode took place in 1920s Hollywood.  The episode was played for laughs, and was topped off by William Hartnell, as the Doctor, turning to the camera at the end and wishing “A Merry Christmas to all of you at home”.

I've arrived, and to prove it, I'm here...

Following Dr Who was Max Bygraves meets the Black and White Minstrels at 7.00.  The Minstrels' founder and choirmaster George Mitchell had been broadcasting since 1945, and had become the BBC’s go-to man for light choral singing.  His choirs made frequent radio and occasional television appearances, including a regular spot on Off the Record, an ancestor of Top of the Pops. 

The Mitchell Minstrels first appeared in Gentlemen, Be Seated!, part of the National Radio Show coverage in 1957.  The first Black and White Minstrel Show was shown on 14 June 1958, and it was soon a popular favourite with its mixture of old-style minstrel songs, show tunes and other middle-of-the-road material, gaining huge ratings by the early 60s.  The use of black-face make-up (ironically it was actually red when the show was made in monochrome, for technical reasons) was not controversial at first, as minstrel shows were a long-established tradition, but by the late 60s some protests were received and a series called Music, Music, Music was made without the make-up, but this was not as successful.

Max Bygraves was, like Mitchell, one of the rich wave of talent that emerged after the Second World War, and regularly broadcast as a singer and comedian.  He made a big impression in Educating Archie, the hit 50s comedy series based around ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews, and Bygraves made many more radio appearances in the 50s and early 60s.  He was also a successful recording artist, and had spent most of 1965 on a world tour, beginning in South Africa.  His next appearance on BBC tv after this Christmas show was on New Year’s Day 1966, together with two of his children and ‘Uncle Eric’ (Eric Sykes, one of Educating Archie's writers), as the panel of Juke Box Jury.

One notable absentee from this year’s Christmas schedule was Christmas Night with the Stars, which began in 1958. This was only the second time, the other being 1961, that it had not been broadcast.  The annual show consisted of short episodes of popular entertainment shows, usually specially made.  The programme was also missing from 1966’s schedule, but then returned every year until 1972, and was revived in 1994 as Fry and Laurie Host a Christmas Night with the Stars, and in 2003 under the original title, presented by Michael Parkinson.

The big Christmas night film at 8.00 was Road to Bali, receiving its first BBC screening, in an era where you were unlikely to see recent films on television. It was made in 1952 and starred the classic team of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. 

Hollywood studios were becoming more willing to allow their output to appear on television, having previously been wary of the effect of the medium on cinema attendances. As it had become clear that television was here to stay, film companies protected their future by making films and series specially for television.  Nevertheless it is still noticeable how few feature films were shown at this time.

Comedy continued at 9.30 and The Ken Dodd Show, with special guest star Sandie Shaw, and John Laurie and Patricia Hayes among the cast.  The script was by Dodd and his then regular writer Eddie Braben – they parted company a few years later and Braben became the writer for Morecambe and Wise.  The main news was at 10.30, where stories covered included carol singing on President Johnson’s Texas ranch, American troops celebrating Christmas in Vietnam, and the traditional Christmas Day swim in the Serpentine.  

Davies, Davies, Quaife and Avory - Number 1 in '65

Surprisingly late in the day, at 10.35 (although it was repeated the next day at 12.15), was Top of the Pops ’65.  This was only the second Christmas the show had seen since its debut on 1 January 1964.  The programme was pre-recorded and featured ‘The No.1 Records of the Year’, including the Beatles, inevitably, as well as newer stars like Tom Jones, Sonny and Cher and the Rolling Stones, and was a bumper edition lasting 75 minutes.  The last programme on BBC1 was A Christmas Reverie, a talk by the popular religious broadcaster Werner Pelz, followed by the Weather and Close Down at midnight.

BBC2’s alternative television schedule, after When Comedy Was King, consisted of a News Summary at 7.55, Berlioz’s The Childhood of Christ at 8.00, the prize-winning Swedish nature film Island Yearbook at 9.35, then episode two of a three-part adaptation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet at 10.35, with Valerie Gearon in the title role.  It was directed by former BBC children’s staff producer Rex Tucker in the BBC’s Glasgow studios, where he had been producing classic serials since leaving the Doctor Who production team in 1963, while the series was being developed. 

The evening concluded as usual with Late Night Line-Up at 11.20.  As the programme was open-ended, no closedown time was listed, but it is likely to have been around midnight.

Christmas Listening

BBC radio was still composed of the post-war Home and Light Programmes, plus the Third Network, which itself comprised the Music Programme in daytime and the Third Programme in the evening (and, depending on the day, the Sport Service or the Study Session between the two, though neither of these broadcast on Christmas Day).

Radio highlights for Christmas Day 1965 included another Ken Dodd show at 1.10 on the Home Service, followed by Desert Island Discs where the castaway was the Earl of Harewood;  an adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Ralph Richardson as Scrooge was at 2.15, and at 4.00 Spike Milligan starred in The Naughty Navy Show.  The Home Service Christmas Day ended with Richard Burton reading his own Christmas story, then at 11.02 the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, repeated from the previous day. 

Over on the Light Programme, Brian Matthew introduced the usual mixture of pop music in Saturday Club at 10.00, including Cliff Richard and the Shadows, there was a Christmas episode of the sitcom Sid and Dora with Sid James and Dora Bryan at 5.00, and composer and former head of BBC Light Entertainment Eric Maschwitz recalled Some Foolish Things at 6.00

Home and Away at 7.30 was a Forces Christmas show from Berlin, then Gracie Fields sang at 8.15.  The night was rounded off with Music for Your Party at 10.15, where the bill was headed by Freddie and the Dreamers. 

On the Third Network, the Music Programme had Wagner’s The Mastersingers all afternoon from 1.30,  while the Third Programme schedule had Breath of Fresh Air at 7.30, a drama of a Sussex childhood during the First World War, and a Mozart concert with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim at 8.35.  Closedown was at 11.15, following the News.


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