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Ring in the New

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Red hot jazz on the menu from the Savoy Orpheans in 1926

Since the UK adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, it has been established that New Year’s day falls a week after Christmas Day, so we are stuck with the rituals of those two festivities arriving in quick succession...

Broadcasting at this time never quite seems to know what to do with itself.  In the immediate aftermath of Christmas we get all the shows that weren’t quite good enough to be shown on the big day, plus a raft of programmes looking back on the year, sometimes the decade - or even century/millennium that has just passed.

From its earliest days the BBC has covered New Year celebrations in some form, always tinged with that note of melancholy that comes with the season.  The first New Year period covered in Radio Times is that of 1923/4, which at that time was fairly minimal:  the chimes of Big Ben are not listed that year, but the singing of Auld Lang Syne is mentioned. 

The celebrations started at 11pm on 31 December 1923 with a relay of the Savoy Orpheans and Savoy Havana Bands from the Savoy Hotel, followed by a religious talk by the Rev. Dr. Archibald Fleming, then a hymn, before midnight. 

Oddly, the only one of the BBC’s stations that did not broadcast what was emanating from 2LO in London was the Aberdeen station 2BD:  it had R.E. Jeffrey reciting Tennyson’s The Death of the Old Year at 11.55 pm, a chime of bells at midnight, then the song A Guid New Year to Ane and A’ – well known north of the border as an alternative to Auld Lang Syne.  At 12.10 Aberdeen celebrated the Scottish custom of First Footing, then there was music from a jazz group until closedown at 12.30.

Both the Savoy Orpheans and colleagues, and Dr Fleming’s missives became regular New Year features, as did a 1925 innovation, A Grand New Year Greeting by the BBC’s newly appointed Director of Education, J.C. Stobart.  1925 also saw celebrations going on well after midnight for the first time, with the relay of the Happy New Year Ball from the Royal Albert Hall, where entertainers included the cast of hit musical No, No, Nanette.  There were variations in the programmes carried by Scottish transmitters again, but this lessened over time as networking of London output became more the norm for the BBC. 

In 1926, all stations carried Ring out the Old, Ring in the New, with the bells of St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, followed by a programme of dance music by Jack Hylton’s Massed Dance Band, again from the Happy New Year Ball at the Albert Hall.  This also had the privilege of being the first full programme broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation as opposed to the British Broadcasting Company, as the change from private to public ownership occurred at midnight.

By 1929 international links between broadcasters allowed the BBC to mount The Birth of the Year, in which contributions were received from mainland Europe, who were already into 1930 early into the programme which started at 11.50 pm.  The contribution from America was a little behind still, as it was 1929 for several more hours in New York.

Seeing the New Year In

Television began properly in 1936, but it closed down at 10.15 pm on 31 December, the last programme being called Diary for 1936.  This was the first clip show in TV history, using footage from the Baird intermediate film programmes so far transmitted, including the speeches on the opening day of the high definition service, Henry Hall, ventriloquist Arthur Prince, and housework expert Mrs Daisy Pain. There were also extracts from newsreels and Adele Dixon singing, from the film Television Comes to London. 

The following year TV still did not make it to midnight, but there was another similar programme looking back at the first year or so of television, From Alexandra Palace: 1936-37.  This time there was minimal intermediate film material available, as the Baird system ceased broadcasting at the start of 1937.  It meant that a mixture of pre-filmed items from the BBC’s already established film library, and studio reconstructions of past programmes was used. 

Finally in 1938 television saw in the New Year, with an outside broadcast relay from the celebrations at the Grosvenor House Hotel ballroom in Park Lane.  The programme started at 11.31 pm, 10 minutes later than billed, and was hosted by Leslie Mitchell.  The station closed down at 12.05 am.

By 1939 things were a little different:  war had broken out at the start of September, and the TV service had closed.  Radio was reduced from the National and Regional Programmes established in the early 30s to a single Home Service, which meant that no single transmitter could be used as a homing beacon for enemy aircraft.  1939’s New Year’s Eve offerings were quite sober, even though the land war in Western Europe had not really started, this was the time of the so-called Phoney War.  The BBC broadcast a drama documentary called The Face of Courage at 11.05 pm, followed by a Watch Night Service from the studio, and closedown was again at five past twelve.

Moira Anderson recovers in full colour from Hogmanay '69

Jumping ahead to 1949, we see that peacetime didn't quite unleash a rampaging tide of entertainment:  the Home Service finished its evening with a review of the year, then the Watch Night Service, now from St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by Big Ben’s chimes at midnight and a Toast to the New Year before close down.  The Light Programme had dance music then joined the Home for the religious service.  The newly established Third Programme featured poetry reading and the music of Haydn, closing at midnight.

Television had restarted by 1949, but was little changed from the 1930s.  The evening’s programmes were slightly extended for the New Year.  After an edition of Picture Page at 10.10 pm, there was Retrospect 1949 which used footage from the BBC’s own Newsreel programmes.  The Newsreel was established in 1948 when the cinema newsreel companies would no longer supply the BBC as they had done before the war.  1949 concluded on BBC tv with Greeting the New Year, a live programme that ended 5 minutes into 1950.

A decade later, the broadcasting landscape had changed again.  Though radio was relatively stable, and the programmes heralding the start of the 60s were remarkably similar to those a decade before, there was now the Third Network to make more use of the wavelength assigned to the Third Programme.  On New Year’s Eve 1959, however, it still closed down not long after 11.  The Light now had its own music programme, Serenade in the Night, but both channels still closed down just after midnight.

Television was a little more adventurous, and went on till 12.35 am, with a Hogmanay special of Scottish music programme The White Heather Club.  It started in Scotland only in May 1958, and was highly popular despite criticism in some quarters of its stereotypical tartan-and-kilts presentation of Scots culture.  It had first hosted the networked New Year show in 1958 (or in fact 5 minutes into 1959) and would continue to do this for several years. 

With New Year traditionally celebrated more than Christmas in Scotland, it became established that New Year celebrations would be Caledonian in flavour, although the chimes of midnight were usually from Big Ben in London.   The White Heather Club was preceded by a Russian film, The Carnival, subtitled in English – which doesn’t exactly sound like an incentive not to turn over to ITV, which was now available in most homes around the UK since its 1955 launch.

Colour Me Moira

Another decade later, at the end of the 1960s, the BBC was no longer the staid institution it had been in the 50s, at least in some respects.  The 1969 television New Year celebrations were still coming from Scotland, but as a stand-alone programme Ring in the New hosted by singer Moira Anderson and Dr Finlay’s Casebook actor Bill Simpson.  One innovation was that it was in colour –  BBC1 had been officially in colour since the middle of November, although BBC2 had been since July 1967, the UK narrowly beating Germany as the first European nation to introduce a colour service.  BBC2 for its part all but ignored the start of 1970, showing the 1935 film of David Copperfield, starring Freddie Bartholomew, W.C. Fields and Lionel Barrymore.

Radio had been shaken up in 1967 when Radio 1 was introduced, although for significant parts of the day it shared programmes with Radio 2, the former Light Programme.  From 11.30 pm both networks broadcast Night Ride, with the start of the programme coming from Aberdeen, presented by Johnny Mack, until Ray Moore took over in London at 2.30 am.  Radio 3 was oblivious, having closed down at 11.20 pm, but Radio 4, after 45 minutes of Music at Night, briefly cut to Big Ben and Welcome to the New Year, before the coastal weather forecast.

In 1979 BBC1 concluded its offerings with The 70s Stop Here!, a compilation of television highlights of the decade, which given the changing attitude to preserving material by then was reasonably comprehensive.  Big Ben at midnight was swiftly followed by the still-obligatory Scottish welcome to the New Year in A Toast to the 80s.  BBC2 was still going down the old-film route, with Sunset Boulevard, then a coda in the form of Music at Night, a performance by Rhondda Gillespie of Liszt’s Christmas Tree Suite.

Over on the BBC’s radio networks, since the 1978 reallocation of frequencies Radio 1 and 2 were able to offer different output, at least until 2 am, with Adrian Juste on Radio 1 and on Radio 2, Ray Moore with the New Year Late Show.  Both networks broadcast You and the Night and the Music from 2 am through the night – by now Radio 2 never closed down.  Radio 3 was now going on till midnight and beyond, with Big Ben followed by Test Match Special, and Radio 4 offered a meditation for the New Year and a Watch Night service from Belfast after midnight, but closed down after the Shipping and Inshore Forecasts at 12.15.

Mistajam in charge of New Year sounds on 1Xtra.

1989 saw Clive James on the 80s, a spin-off from his BBC2 chat show Saturday Night Clive, concluding BBC1’s offerings for the year.  After Happy New Year at midnight with the usual Big Ben bongs, and a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury, BBC1 showed The Ipcress File, closing down at 1.55 am. The Scottish-flavoured Hogmanay shows were now confined to Scotland, after some unfortunate episodes over the years…

Over on BBC2, The Late Show presented the three-hour compilation of pop music entitled Eighties, then more music in the form of Heavy Metal Heaven, showcasing an Arena documentary on the genre and highlights of the Castle Donington metal festival.

Radio 1 offered U2 Direct from Dublin, while Radio 2 had Chris Stuart’s ‘music and memories’ programme from 11 pm until midnight, and started 1990 with Ellis Hill presenting Nightride.  Over on Radio 3 there was Last Things, an anthology of words and music to see out the old year, followed at midnight by Is That a Fact?  Radio 4 gave us The 80s RIP, a spoof awards show, then Bliss at the Dawn, a meditation by the Rev. Peter Mullen, before closing with the midnight news.

1999:  the last New Year’s Eve of the 20th Century (OK, I know it wasn’t, but everyone else seems to think otherwise, so let’s move on shall we…?) was pre-occupied with the Millennium celebrations, so was radically different from previous celebrations. 

BBC One featured 2000 Today from 9.15 am, running almost continuously (if you don’t count EastEnders and Live and Kicking) through to the middle of the next day, when the whole world had entered the year 2000.  Proceedings were overseen by David Dimbleby. 

BBC2’s alternative was Nineties Night, with episodes of Top of the Pops 2, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and Goodbye to the Nineties.  It presented Into the New Millennium at 11.50 pm, then at 12.05 am there was We Gotta Get Out of This Business, a music documentary about Fatboy Slim.

The film The Book of Life was at 12.55, and the network went over to simulcasting BBC News 24 from 2 am.  There were more digital television channels to consider by this time, although with analogue still being the main broadcast format, most people could not receive them.  BBC Choice, precursor of BBC Three, had a Simply Red concert across midnight, and its whole day had been heavily music-oriented, with the exception of EastEnders and children’s programmes from 6 am to 5 pm.  BBC Knowledge closed down at 11.30 pm after Have Words.  Over on BBC News 24, there was… well, news.

Radio 1 had a series of shows from different locations, with Dave Pearce in Glasgow covering the midnight hour.  Radio 2 had the Ken Bruce show from 11 pm, with a relay from Manger Square in Bethlehem, presented by Roger Royle.  Radio 3 had spent the day considering 2,000 years of Western music, with the last half hour of 1999 featuring a radio montage inspired by John Cage’s 1937 lecture Credo in The Future of Music.

 After the news at midnight, 2000: Fade to Black was the end of the theme night, with a computer programmed by Jonathan Finn creating an instant composition, before the regular strand Through the Night at 12.05.  Radio 4 had spent the day considering the end of the millennium in its own way, and finished with George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury and The Millennium Moment, then his Millennium Blessing at midnight. 

The News at 12.01 preceded New Beginnings, an ‘audio experience’ presaging things to come, then Radio 4 joined the World Service at 1 am.  The BBC Radio offering had expanded to include Radio 5 in the early 90s, and its rolling news service covered events around the world from the studio and at the Millennium Dome, as well as those all-important National Lottery draws, all presented by Julian Worricker and Victoria Derbyshire.

A Lifetime Ago (if you're 6)

2009/10 was the last New Year which comes under the remit of Genome at present, and being a mere six years ago, the broadcasting landscape does not look too different.  There was still BBC One and BBC Two of course, now joined by BBC Three and Four, and by children’s channels CBeebies and CBBC, all launched in 2002-3.  News 24 had been rebranded the BBC News Channel in 2008.  On Radio, Radios 1 to 5 were joined by 1xtra, BBC 6 Music, BBC7 and the Asian Network.

BBC One ended 2009 with an edition of the Graham Norton show, then Myleene Klass presented New Year Live, incorporating Big Ben’s chimes and the obligatory firework display.  The feature film Bandits filled the gap until we joined the BBC News Channel at 2.20 am. 

On BBC Two, Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny was a regular fixture, to be followed by the Best of Glastonbury 2009 and the 1948 film noir They Live By Night (appropriately enough at that hour).  The channel then closed down for just over an hour until 6 am.

BBC Three was showing a repeat of a comedy gig by Russell Howard as the year changed, and carried on until 5.25 am with assorted reruns.  Similarly, BBC Four was part way through an edition of comedy panel show We Need Answers as 2010 started, and filled the night with another chance to see the likes of Meet the British and Guitar Heroes at the BBC.  CBeebies and CBBC of course had closed down as Three and Four began.  Goodness knows what the News Channel was showing.  What’s that?  Oh, really…?  There’s a novelty.

Radio 1 and 1xtra shared an edition of Mistajam, then there was New Year Live at midnight, with special mixes from the O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome).  1Xtra itself offered 1Xtra Mixed at this time.  On Radio 2 there was Dave Pearce’s New Year’s Eve, and Radio 3 had a Proms concert until midnight, when Verity Sharp took over with an eclectic selection of music to herald the New Year. 

Radio 4 featured UK Confidential from 11 until midnight, then 15 minutes of News followed by Dear Darwin and Book of the Week.  Stephen Nolan was on Radio 5 from 10.30 pm on December 31 until 1 am on  January 1, and on 6 Music there was 6 Music Superstar DJ NYE Special.  BBC7 had a 2000 episode of Absolute Power until midnight, and episode 3 of The Phantom of the Opera afterwards.  Over on the Asian Network, there was Murtz with new Asian beats, starting at 10 pm, and the channel joined Radio 5 Live at 1 am.

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