Readers of a certain vintage will remember Christmas television having more of the “wow factor” rather than The X Factor. The musical behemoth might be regarded as the seasonal barometer these days, but in the 1970s and 1980s things were very different. One could argue that fewer channels meant quality over quantity and TV bosses wheeled out the big guns in a concerted effort to win the ratings war. Shows like Morecambe and Wise, Top of the Pops and The Two Ronnies drew huge audiences but the mainstay of the Christmas schedule wasn’t a programme at all, but an advertisement.
The Woolworths’ Christmas advert was must- see television and, for many families, marked the start of the festive period. They were gloriously lavish productions and featured a galaxy of stars from stalwarts such as Derek Nimmo, Anita Harris and “Diddy” David Hamilton through to madcap DJ Kenny Everett and eccentric scientist Magnus Pyke. The John Lewis advert might make all the headlines these days, but once upon a time Woolworths was the only store that had you searching for the Christmas decorations. For a decade, beginning in the mid- Seventies, the Woolies’ advert was a TV selection box with something for everyone. A veritable Who’s Who of British light entertainment, the promotion also offered the opportunity to play “spot the celebrity” — prompting the whole family to argue over the identity of the toy soldier, the fairy and Father Christmas. Another difference from today’s rather dramatic efforts was the music which accompanied the adverts. Always rousing and cheerful ( take note, John Lewis!), the tunes were specially written
for the occasion and contained memorable lyrics such as: “Here’s a charming timepiece, put it on your mantelpiece, buy two tapes from Memorex and get one free.”
In the days when an entire commercial break lasted barely 90 seconds, the Woolworths’ adverts were a full two minutes of epic delight, becoming a talking point in schools, factories and offices across the country. Sadly, Woolworths closed in 2009, taking their Christmas adverts with them.
For many viewers the Morecambe and Wise Show was Christmas. From 1969 until 1980, with the exception of 1974 ( when Eric Morecambe was recuperating from a heart attack), the comedy duo kept the nation entertained with a mix of skits and sketches sending up the great and the good. The 1977 Christmas special attracted 28 million viewers, one of the highest ratings ever achieved by the BBC.
An appearance on the Christmas show was on the wish- list of various celebrities, all of whom queued up for the pleasure of being humiliated in the name of comedy. Stars such as Peter Cushing, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and Vera Lynn all took part in Christmas specials, although the 1971 show involving Shirley Bassey and André Previn (“Preview”) is widely regarded as the most memorable, with a chastised Eric Morecambe informing the accomplished conductor that he was playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order! Classic stuff. Previn’s schedule was extremely tight, causing Eric and Ernie to worry about the limited time in which they had to rehearse. The routine became a classic and was described by their biographers as “... probably their finest moment.”
Shirley Bassey, now Dame Shirley Bassey of course, attempted valiantly to perform “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” with the hapless duo doing their best to put her off. Wearing a shimmering pink gown and elegant shoes, Dame Shirley ends the sequence in a pair of huge working boots while Morecambe and Wise, dressed as stagehands, lurk around in
the background attempting to resolve issues with the set. Despite the chaos going on around her, Ms. Bassey was a true professional and managed to keep a straight face throughout. Morecambe and Wise left the BBC in 1977, moving to Thames Television where they continued to make programmes until 1983.
Just as Morecambe and Wise had dominated the Christmas scheduling in the 1970s, the Two Ronnies similarly held sway in the 1980s with their own particular brand of comedy becoming another muchloved loved British institution. Their first foray into Christmas programming was in 1972 when the duo provided links during the Christmas Night with the Stars show. With Morecambe and Wise still reigning supreme however, the BBC were reluctant to produce a stand- alone Two Ronnies’ Christmas Show, but they did make another seasonal appearance the following year starring in The Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery. The format was a little different from the Morecambe and Wise Show, but contained all the hallmarks of future Two Ronnies’ programmes.
With Morecambe and Wise leaving for Thames, Messrs. Barker and Corbett gained in prominence at the BBC and Christmas specials followed in 1982, 1984 and 1987, after which Ronnie Barker decided to retire. The shows, a mixture of monologues, sketches and pantomime- like finales, featured a host of big- name musical guests such as Elaine Paige, Elton John and David Essex.
After Ronnie Barker’s retirement various repeats and compilation programmes were shown ( as was the case with the Morecambe and Wise
Show) but the end of the 1980s also signalled the end of original variety type comedy shows, as alternative comedians became more popular with the television executives.
Top of the Pops, despite its demographic, was another family favourite at Christmas time. Without the plethora of channels we have to choose from today the Christmas Day edition, with all the family gathered together, prompted sing- songs ( and arguments!) in households up and down the land. First broadcast on New Year’s Day 1964, the weekly programme ran for 42 years before being consigned to TV heaven, although a seasonal edition is still broadcast today.
What constitutes “good television” is very much personal preference of course, but I can’t help thinking that Christmas past was better than Christmas present.
The Two Ronnies bring festive cheer to the cover of the Radio Times in 1971.
The Woolworths’ advert was always a highlight on the festive viewing schedules.
Eric Morecambe, Glenda Jackson and Ernie Wise in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show ( 1972).