TV Mem­o­ries

Paul Wil­liams

Evergreen - - Contents - PAUL WIL­LIAMS

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.

AF AR­CHIVE/ ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Eric More­cambe, Glenda Jack­son and Ernie Wise in the More­cambe and Wise Christ­mas Show ( 1972).

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