The bbc.co.uk/archive pages are always worth skimming through as they contain plenty of interesting clips. Today I think I’ll be entertaining myself with Blue Peter’s makes through the ages – from 1963 to 1999.
There’s no reason why Christmas specials have to be set at Christmas – even though most of them are. Roy Clarke, who established a mild anti-festive tone in his previous LOTSW festive special, has his (Christmas) cake and eats it in this one – there’s plenty of Christmas talk, even though the setting is late summer.
It’s always a little jarring to revisit these early episodes and witness our three heroes doing their own stunts. The sight of Sallis, Owen and Wilde indulging in a spot of plastic bag sledging is a joy though – especially since even the normally reserved Foggy seems to be enjoying himself for once.
It’s not long before Foggy’s normal character clicks back into gear though. Back at Clegg’s house he – with typically military precision – inflicts a slide-show on the other two. Neither are exactly delighted. Compo hopes that it’s not Foggy’s holiday snaps again whilst Clegg is slightly anxious, re his curtains (“I hate drawing my curtains during the daytime. Suppose the neighbours start sending flowers”).
Foggy’s pictures reveal a dismal picture of last Christmas – after taking Compo’s advice all their Christmas shopping was carried out on the 24th of December, with the result that they had no trimmings and a rather paltry Christmas dinner (a fish finger and a chip). But the attentive viewer will know that their previous Christmas as transmitted on television wasn’t like this at all, so clearly time in LOTSW land runs in a different way to the rest of the country.
Determined not to be caught napping a second time, Foggy decides the time is right to start their Christmas shopping (but finds that festive cards and treats are thin on the ground in August). Things get no better later on after he buys himself a bargain (100 Christmas trees for just £10). The Forestry Commission are having a summer sale you see.
It slowly dawns on Foggy that he’s been had (but then if you exchange money in the pub with someone called Big Eric, what do you expect?). Poor Foggy is eventually brought back to reality when the three trek over to see his purchases – since each tree is 100 ft high, they’re going to be a tad tricky to cut down ….
Brian Wilde rather drives this episode. I love Foggy’s wistful shake of the head when Compo asks him whether MI5 had attempted to recruit him. “I dropped hints that I was available when me time was up in the army. I watched for the postman every morning since, but nothing”. The final scene – which plays over the end credits – of Foggy left alone also rather tugs at the heartstrings.
Elsewhere, Ivy and Nora enjoy a cup of tea and swop notes about the sex-pest in their lives – Compo. Over the years, as the regular female cast grew, these interludes would become a regular fixture. This one, despite being a two-hander, is still good though – Ivy advising Nora to take a spoonful of sugar occasionally (“you might find it might relax you. Keep your hands off your airing cupboard”). The mundanity of their conversation (“troublesome as men are, their old vests make for lovely dusters”) is delightful.
They then plot to stop Compo in his tracks. Nora advises Ivy to drop the chip pan down his trousers (“the sooner it gets covered in batter the safer it’s going to be”). Ouch! In the end they elect to just forcibly remove his trousers, but maybe – for the moment – it may have done the trick.
Small Tune On a Penny Wassail opens with Wally – still dressed in his pyjama top – briefly tasting a moment of freedom before being dragged back into the house by Nora to continue his festive obligations. A reflective Compo, observing this domestic fracas, sighs before walking down the deserted streets. This is an early sign that Roy Clarke won’t be bashing you over the head with false Christmas sentiment – that’s simply not his way.
A moment of levity then occurs when Compo spies a lad with a new skateboard. Ever the child at heart, he can’t resist having a go (as you might expect, he falls off rather abruptly). This isn’t a big set-piece moment, but it does set things up for the episode climax.
The others are also given their solo moments. Foggy, after attending church, manages to accidentally hit the vicar in a very delicate place with his stick. It’s a typical Foggy moment – for a brief moment he’s given an air of authority and respectability, which is then abruptly punctured.
Meanwhile Clegg, never one to be overflowing with Christmas cheer, has nevertheless stirred himself and wandered off to the phonebox to ring up his friend, Gordon (Larry Noble). Gordon’s not in the mood to receive yuletide greetings though, due to the fact a fire’s broken out in his shed. What caused the fire remains an unresolved mystery ….
Eventually all three meet up at Clegg’s house for Christmas dinner. Compo’s assistance in the kitchen is clearly not called for, so he stalks around the house like a bored child whilst the other two reflect on the time of the year. Clegg: “Christmas comes but once a year, it just seems longer.”
The cynical Clegg gets most of the best lines during these scenes. “I gave up smoking so that I could live longer. It’s at times like this you wonder if you’re doing the right thing”. At least the meal prepared by Clegg looks like it was worth eating – which almost makes up for the air of melancholy that’s descended over them. Although when we drop in on some conventional family units later on it’s plain they’re not having a particularly sparkling time either.
Foggy suggests they pop down the hospital to visit poor old Edgar (Teddy Turner), who there all on his own. But of course it’s revealed that Edgar’s got everything he could wish for – all the food he can eat and plenty of attention from the nurses. Compo acidly mentions later that even the man dying in the next ward is having a better time than they are.
We’re then given a little vignette showing Ivy and Sid at home in their kitchen. They’re busy feeding the hordes of (unseen) relatives who have descended on them – Ivy with an air of duty, Sid with an ever increasing sense of exasperation. There’s a matching moment with Nora and Wally, where Wally is given a killer putdown. “Why don’t you go sit down, Nora? You’ve been on your mouth all day”.
Back at Clegg’s house it’s finally time for the presents. It’s always seemed slightly odd to me that Clegg and Foggy wrapped their presents for Compo in the same type of wrapping paper (plus their presents to each other were also in identical paper, albeit different from Compo’s). If you see what I mean. It’s probably easier to understand when you watch the scene but there’s something not quite right there.
They all seem quite chuffed with their gifts, as does Ivy when she receives an unexpected present from Sid. Sid and Ivy’s café based warfare can be vicious at times but there’s clearly still a frisson of love between them, even if it’s buried very deep. Her look of pleasure at the black negligee gifted to her by her husband suggests that his luck might be in later. Or not, depending on your point of view ….
We’re heading into the era when stunts (and stunt doubles) would dominate. This episode has been much more reflective and downbeat, but I suppose you can’t blame Roy Clarke for wanting to end things on a high – so an irresistible force (Compo on a skateboard) manages to navigate his way through a seemingly immovable object (the Dodworth Colliery Brass Band).
I’ve still yet to work out how the episode title ties back to the episode itself though. Answers on a postcard please.
The 1979 TOTP Xmas Special has an unusual opening. There’s no cheery greetings from that year’s R1 jocks, instead we go straight to Boney M – a vision in furry white – who give us Mary’s Boy Child. An odd way to kick off proceedings, especially since the song was a hit from the previous year.
No matter, once they’ve departed up pop David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Peter Powell to get things started for 1979. Like previous years, the songs are a selection of some of the top-selling Number 1s and 2s of the year. Will that mean that some of this new-fangled New Wave music will start to appear? Let’s see ….
Hurrah! Up first are Ian Dury and the Blockheads (who’ve clearly come straight from the building site) to entertain us with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Christmas trimmings for this first performance are fairly modest (a smallish tree popped on the piano). Let’s see if things pick up later.
Next is Janet Kay with Silly Games. Christmas trimming watch – there’s a few sad looking Christmas tree twigs dotted about the stage (complete with a handful of baubles). As Janet does her thing, it becomes clear this is another of those audience free shows. Although since Peter and the ‘Kid’ are lurking rather noticeably in the background (looking down upon Janet from on high) it means she has a small (but appreciative) audience.
The good songs keep on coming with Gary Numan and Cars (performing on a tinsel free stage). He makes way for Roxy Music with Dance Away. This is a little smoother than I generally like my Roxy, but it’s always fun watching Bryan Ferry, who’s come dressed for the occasion (as has Gary Tibbs). On the other hand Phil Manzanera looks like he’s just rolled out of bed and grabbed the first clothes that came to hand.
Ding Ding! Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell is danced to by Legs & Co. They have plenty of small bells to ring, so make something of a racket as they cavort on top of six chimney pots.
The ‘Kid’ is particularly pleased to see this next song – The Buggles with Video Killed The Radio Star. Christmas trimming watch – Camera 7 is covered in tinsel, the stage less so. This song, their debut single, did pretty well for them – topping the charts in sixteen countries. Their debut album – The Age of Plastic – is also jolly good, an ideal Christmas present in fact.
We’re getting into this Christmas spirit now as B.A. Robertson (Bang Bang) has turned up. He’s wearing a Father Christmas coat (although he clearly drew the line at the beard) and is accompanied by two attractive young ladies who bang big drums at regular intervals. Pity the rest of the band though, who must have been deemed less photogenic than the two drum ladies and were shuffled off to an adjoining stage.
TOTP certainly seem to be getting into the New Wave swing as Blondie give us Sunday Girl and M (“New York, London, Paris, Munich”) then appear with … Pop Muzik (what else?).
After all this excitement it’s time to relax with one of my favourite Legs & Co performances (they’re dancing to Tragedy dressed as sad-faced clowns).
Disappointingly, Elvis Costello hasn’t come dressed as Santa Claus (and the stage is a Christmas free zone), but he and the Attractions are performing Oliver’s Army, so I’ll let them off.
For those who have been missing their middle of the road musical entertainment (compare this show with Christmas 1977 and 1978 for example) there’s salvation at hand with Lena Martell and Once Day At A Time. I always thought she was American, so it came as something of a shock to learn she actually hails from Glasgow. She’s put her glad rags on – a glittery jacket and dress – which fits in nicely with the Christmas tree stuck at the back of the stage.
First live vocal of the show comes courtesy of Chris Difford (nice cap, sir) as Squeeze gives us Cool for Cats. It’s a rather truncated performance though (even by TOTP standards) clocking in at under two minutes.
Dr Hook (When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman) are the next act. It’s obvious who the star turn is – the eyepatch wearing, maraca shaking Ray Sawyer. No matter that the maracas must be empty (as no sound comes from them) he shakes them like there’s no tomorrow whilst mugging at the camera like a good ‘un. Now that’s entertainment.
There’s a quick return for Blondie. Debbie’s taken off her sunglasses as the tinsel comes pouring down (hopefully she didn’t swallow too much of it). Dreaming is the pop platter they serve up. Gary Numan also returns for an encore. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that nobody dared to release the tinsel on him – which is fair enough as it wouldn’t have fitted in with the moody tone of Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Racey entertain Peter and the ‘Kid’ with Some Girls. Throughout their performance a barrage of clips featuring Legs & Co down the ages are spliced in (which allows the viewer to boggle yet again at some of their more interesting costumes).
Sir Cliff of Richard closes the show with We Don’t Talk Anymore. Sporting a natty pink jacket and a sprig of tinsel in his buttonhole, Cliff – always the trouper – gives a typically polished performance.
Musically, TOTP Xmas 1979 was very strong. A pity that there wasn’t an audience yet again, but then a surprising number of seventies TOTP Christmas shows suffered the same fate. Unlike previous years there were no performances played in from promo films – which helped to make the show feel just a little more special.
TOTP Christmas 78 is somewhat running on reduced power. Due to strike action, Noel Edmonds is forced to link the show all on his lonesome from a fairly cheerless office (although the Christmas tree looks nice). With the music pre-recorded there’s not a great deal that’s festive about this one, but let’s press on anyway.
Darts open the show with The Boy From New York City. It’s jaunty retro fun. Equally jaunty is the next song, Rasputin (who was Russia’s greatest love machine, you know) sung by Boney M. This performance is, of course, all about Bobby Farrell, who flings himself about with wild abandon. He’s going to do himself a mischief if he carries on like that.
Legs & Co (and some male friends) dance to Summer Nights and then the tempo slows down a little with Wings and Mull Of Kintyre. Until Band Aid, it was the UK’s top selling single (the first to exceed two million). Like last year, we have the video rather than a studio performance (so expect to see once again an unconvincing grassy knoll, plenty of mist and the Campbeltown Pipe Band wandering through the shot at exactly the right time).
Next up are the Brotherhood of Man with Figaro. Looking very coordinated (gleaming white trousers and red jackets) the foursome give their all. Like most of the studio performers they don’t have an audience to bounce off (but given that TOTP‘s audience members could sometimes border on the apathetic, this isn’t too much of a problem). I can understand why some find this sort of middle-of-the-road fare unpalatable (when I mentioned on Twitter that I’d be covering TOTP Christmas 76 there were grumblings that the punk era was long overdue) but personally I love it. Well most of it ….
Father Abraham and the Smurfs with The Smurf Song is a step too far, even for me (but it does have a strange hypnotic quality after a while). Following the Smurfs, there’s Legs & Co in shorty nighties, dancing to Night Fever. Hang on, nighties = Night Fever? If the decision to deck out Legs & Co in nighties was due to a fairly poor play on words, then I for one won’t complain too much.
Cloth caps are to the fore as Brian and Michael give us their one and only hit (Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs). A number of songs featured in last year’s Christmas show (including the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band with The Floral Dance) were given another airing in 1978. It’s another of those tracks which won’t earn me any street cred if I admit to liking it (but then I daresay my street cred days are long over).
We then briefly dip our toe into current musical trends with Kate Bush and Wuthering Heights (although this track does have a sort of novelty disc element which makes it fit in nicely with the rest of the show). After that, Showaddywaddy (a group who surfed the fifties nostalgia wave better than most) make an appearance, and they give way to Boney M with Rivers of Babylon. This song gives far less opportunity for Bobby to fling himself around like a madman, which is a mark against it.
Legs & Co go all classy next, with The Commodores’ Three Times A Lady. Then it’s ABBA on video with Take A Chance On Me. Noel Tidybeard, still marooned in his office, introduces the next song (Rose Royce – Love Don’t Live Here Anymore) with a sad sniff, telling the audience that no doubt its tragic tone caused an awful lot of problems this year. Not quite the vibe you want for a (hopefully) jolly Christmas afternoon.
Never mind, the tempo soon picks up as Legs & Co (working hard today) and their male chums give us another song from Grease – this time it’s You’re the One That I Want. By this point I’m reeling in a slightly punchdrunk fashion from all these festive treats, but let’s crack on as we’re nearly at the end.
Returning for a third(!) time are Boney M with Mary’s Boy Child. And that’s your lot, apart from James Galway who is heard but not seen as Annie’s Song plays out over the end credits. Studying these credits, it looks as if the recent BBC4 repeat has been jiggered about with a bit (replacing the clips from Grease with performances by Legs & Co) but apart from that everything seems to be intact.
As touched upon before, TOTP Xmas ’78 is going to disappoint those who find it difficult to stomach seventies LE, but I found it slipped by rather nicely. However, the winds of change were blowing and even TOTP eventually began to reflect that. Next time, we’ll see those changes in TOTP Xmas ’79 ….
Stuck in between Holiday on Ice and It’s A Christmas Knockout, part two of the 1977 TOTP festive retrospective was hosted by DLT (don’t expect to see this on BBC4 anytime soon then) and Tony Blackburn.
We open with Boney M and Ma Baker. Good news, we have an audience and even better news – the M are singing live. Considering that Bobby Farrell apparently never sung on any of the records, how does he do? Hmm, well his performance is interesting to say the least (plus DLT pops up as the mid song radio reporter). The curious can check it out here.
Rod Stewart tackles The First Cut Is The Deepest (the clip lifted from a television special, it seems) before making way for Heatwave and Boogie Nights. It’s a playback performance, which given the amount of jigging about the lead singer – Keith Wilder – does is probably just as well.
Legs & Co dance to David Soul’s Silver Lady. They’re dressed in silver (which is one of the more logical costume/song interpretations). After they’ve shimmied off, we get Joe Tex on video with Ain’t Gonna Bump No More. This leaves me with the feeling that we’re being fobbed off with post Christmas leftovers. What we need are a few more memorable TOTP studio performances.
Ah, here come The Brotherhood of Man riding to the rescue with Angelo. Even though I find it difficult not to substitute their lyrics with the Barron Knights’ pastiche version, this is still good fun. The group have been provided with some simple Christmas staging – a tree and balloons – whilst a few members of the audience are wearing party hats. And as ever, the TOTP audience are always entertaining even when the song isn’t (in this case, it’s the chap in the front row who spends part of the song turned away from the stage and gawping into the camera who naturally catches the eye).
There’s a touch of class next with Billy Ocean and Red Light Spells Danger. Possibly played in from an earlier edition, since I can’t see any Christmas trimmings, it’s nevertheless top notch – thanks to his live vocals and the TOTP orchestra going for broke.
Billy gives way to Julie Covington and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. With no Julie in the studio, the song plays out over a series of photographs of Eva Perón. Film again for the next clip – The Floaters with Float On. This is one of those songs that I’ve attempted to block, but once you hear it again the memories just come flooding back. Those suits! Those spoken word lyrics!
Legs & Co return, dancing to I Feel Love by Donna Summer. Their choreography choice mainly consists of them twirling around and shaking their long skirts. Frankly all their energy is beginning to tire me out.
Back to film with Queen and We Are The Champions and ABBA with The Name of the Game. For a change we then go onto tape with The Jacksons (Show You the Way to Go). Not surprising that they couldn’t be bothered to fly over to London (well it was Christmas) but this recycled clip (along with all the others) does give the show something of a half-hearted feel. Maybe it would have been better to just have had the one ninety minute show this year, mainly sticking to new studio performances.
At least Elvis Presley had a good reason for not turning up in person. The montage of photographs and film clips set to Way Down was a little bit touching I have to say.
Showaddywaddy have ditched their glow in the dark suits for something more subdued (white jackets and trousers, brown shirts). They treat us to Under The Moon Of Love, which seems to go down well with the audience – well they’re vaguely clapping in time and looking at the stage, which are both good signs.
And that’s it – apart from watching DLT in his horrible cardigan attempting to punch balloons away whilst the end credits roll. Not a classic then, since most of the best stuff had already been included in the Christmas Day show (Boney M, Brotherhood of Man and Billy Ocean are the ones unlucky enough to have been relegated to this division two fixture).
Sandwiched in between a repeat of Are You Being Served? (The Father Christmas Affair) and HM The Queen was the 1977 TOTP Christmas shindig. As with some previous years it was split into two (the second installment popping up on Boxing Day). Since I’m a glutton for punishment I’ll be watching both (wish me luck). Let’s tackle the 25th first though ….
David ‘Kid’ Jensen (velvet suit, ruffled shirt, dicky bow) and Noel Edmonds (blue suit, stripy wide tie) are your hosts today. But they’ve barely time to exchange yuletide felicitations before up pop Showaddywaddy with You Got What It Takes. The sort of group designed for colour television (pity those still watching in black and white as they’re denied the full glory of the Showadd’s stage outfits) the group do their retro rock’n’roll shtick as well as ever. And not only do they manage to sing and play, they also pull a few crackers and tuck into some Christmas nosh.
Denice Williams, with Free, is next. Sorely lacking in Christmas trimmings, she has to get by with just the power of her song. Luckily it’s a good one and – singing live – manages to hit the warbly high notes without embarrassing herself.
1977 has seen lots of new names in the charts, the ‘Kid’ tells us. The ears prick up at that – could this be, at long last, one of those new-fangled punky bands? Things seem promising when he goes on to say that the next act were one of the most outrageous. Hurrah! Who could these anti-establishment types be?
Ah it’s the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.
I’m not too disappointed though, as I do love this version of The Floral Dance (so much so, it’s one of the tracks on my ‘favourites’ playlist in Spotify). In fact, I love it so much I think I’ll listen to it again. Excuse me a moment ….
Noel and the ‘Kid’ are reunited for some torturous banter, which is their way of introducing Legs & Co dancing to Fanfare for the Common Man by ELP. Legs & Co are looking mighty fine today it has to be said. There’s plenty of Christmas trees and dry ice too (for those who like that sort of thing).
Leo Sayer, presumably wearing the jumper his mum bought him for Christmas, is next on with When I Need You. Unfortunately no-one seems to have needed him, as the audience are conspicuous by their absence. Keeping the ambiance at a fairly soporific level are the Manhattan Transfer with Chanson D’Amour (rat de dat de dah). It’s almost like I’ve switched on to an episode of The Two Ronnies.
Hot Chocolate and You Win Again are wheeled on next. Not a very jolly song for Christmas Day, but Errol attempts to leaven the tone of the lyrics by smiling throughout – which sort of works. The set decoration (balloons) also helps to raise the party atmosphere a smidge, although by now the absence of a studio audience is becoming rather noticeable.
David Soul (Don’t Give Up On Us) and ABBA (Knowing Me, Knowing Me) are both on film and both continue the downbeat relationship feel of the show. At least David seems hopeful that things might work out (he’s probably deluding himself though) whilst ABBA are certain it’s the end. Hey ho. Let’s hope for something cheerful next.
Ah, that’s better – it’s Space with Magic Fly. Things then settle down again with Johnny Mathis and When A Child Is Born (one for the mums I think). Sitting amongst a pile of greenery in a director’s chair, it’s one of the odder TOTP staging decisions. Couldn’t they have popped a few baubles on the trees to make them look just a little Christmassy?
Legs & Co (dressed as Reindeers) are joined by a black Father Christmas, no doubt to reflect the fact that they’re all dancing to Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. Yes it’s as bonkers as it sounds, thank goodness.
The maudlin tone of the show returns with Kenny Rogers and Lucille on film. Fair to say that if you’re feeling a bit down this isn’t the TOTP Christmas show to lift your spirits. Luckily Baccara jolly things up with Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.
We close with the UK No 1 – Wings and Mull of Kintyre. Paul, Linda and Denny were already booked for The Mike Yarwood Show, so appear here in video form (complete with an unconvicting grassy knoll, plenty of mist and the Campbeltown Pipe Band walking through the shot at exactly the right time).
Would things cheer up for the Boxing Day show? Give me a few days and I’ll let you know.
DLT and Noel Edmonds are your hosts for this year’s Christmas show. They wish the viewers at home seasonal greetings in a short CSO-tinged pre-credits sequence, most notable for the way Edmonds stumbles over his few words. Couldn’t they have afforded a take two? And as the show wears on it’s noticeable that the pair seem to be marooned in a CSO bubble, well away from the audience ….
Slik are on first with Forever and Ever. It starts moodily enough but once the lights come up the song transforms into more of a chugging sub-Bay City Rollers sort of track (understandable really since the song had originally been written for the Rollers). It’s cheesy fun, with little Midge giving his all.
Elton John & Kiki Dee then pop up on video with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart before Legs & Co entertain with Dancing Queen (which judging by the way DLT starts to froth at the mouth, gained his approval).
It was a canny piece of scheduling for J.J. Barrie (No Charge) to appear next. All those dads (and DLT) who had got just a little hot under the collar watching the six young ladies of Legs & Co jigging around could now cool down with J.J. Somebody (well many bodies) obviously loved this as it made the UK Number 1 (J.J.’s only Top 40 hit). Alas, his 1981 collaboration with Brian Clough (You Can’t Win Them All) failed to trouble the scorers. As for No Charge, it’s a bit grim really ….
Let’s raise the tempo with Laurel & Hardy who (obviously enough) are appearing on film with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. A surprise hit this year, there’s some interesting background to the song’s re-release here.
Tina Charles, wearing a nice scarf, belts out Love to Love (a live vocal!). That’s quite exciting, but even more exciting is the fact she performs the song from a gantry high above the studio floor (which means we get a rare birds-eye view of the studio). It’s a bit grim and grimy up there, but that all adds to the charm.
I love The Wurzels (in a totally non-ironic way). The Adge Cutler era is obviously closest to my heart, but post Adge they still came up with a few gems (such as today’s Combine Harvester song). Another performance featuring a live vocal, it’s ideal Christmas Day fare. The audience (some of whom have been given pieces of straw to chew) seem to be enjoying themselves.
Tip top Cliff Richard with Devil Woman. It’s easy to mock Cliff, but give him the song and he could deliver. Decked out in a nice pinkish shirt (which is cut quite low to show off his medallion collection) he gives full value during this performance – pointing dramatically throughout whilst half-hearted flame effects are overlaid onto the screen.
ABBA entertain a handful of audience members with Mamma Mia. The ABBA foursome are decked out in silky blue suits, although clearly they couldn’t afford to buy stage clothes for their two additional guitarists and drummer, who are forced to wear their normal clothes.
Most of the performances in this show have been pretty basic, but the boat’s pushed out when Hank Mizell turns up with Jungle Rock. We get a jungle set (of course), Hank stuck in a cooking pot, Legs & Co gyrating around and a load of extras dressed as elephants, crocodiles, etc. With so much going on it’s no surprise that the camera rarely focuses on Hank (who nevertheless would have been pleased to see Jungle Rock finally becoming a hit – some eighteen years after it was first released).
Pussycat (live vocals!) do Mississippi. The instrumental backing is a little off, so it’s one of those instances when playback might have been the better option. But they gave it a go, so deserve a thumbs up for that.
We’re coming towards the end of the show, but first there’s the substantial hurdle of Demis Roussos to leap over. If I was watching the show for pleasure no doubt I would have skipped this – but since I’m in review mode I felt it was only fair not to take the easy way out. But since I’ve made the sacrifice, if you wish to wind him on then I quite understand.
Queen close proceedings with Bohemian Rhapsody. Given that it first hit Number 1 at the end of 1975 (although it held the top spot until early 1976) the song probably would have seemed a little old-hat by December 1976. It would have been nice to see them in the studio, but they no doubt had better things to do, so sent the video instead.
And that’s it for 1976. Punk may have begun exploding, but it had yet to reach the Christmas TOTP studio ….
Given that it stars Sid James, Peggy Mount and John Le Mesurier, it’s a little surprising that George and the Dragon isn’t better known (especially since, unusually for a mid sixties series, all twenty four episodes still exist). Maybe its relative anonymity is down to the fact that it’s in black and white – had it been made a few years later in colour it might have been one of those selected series granted eternal life on ITV3.
Based on the opening titles (which feature the names of Sid James and Peggy Mount battling for supremacy) and the name of the programme itself, you could be forgiven for assuming that George and the Dragon revolves around George Russell (Sid James) and battleaxe Gabrielle Dragon (Peggy Mount) constantly being at each other’s throats.
The series isn’t really like that though – Gabrielle does raise an eyebrow at George’s philandering ways, but there’s a lot more humour in her character than you might expect. George, on the other hand, is not terribly loveable – the fact that it’s Sid James helps to cushion the blow, but George is rather a selfish type ….
Both George and Gabrielle (as driver and housekeeper) are in the employ of the affable but rather vague Colonel Maynard (a perfectly cast John Le Mesurier). A gardener called Ralph (Keith Marsh) rounds off the household.
As this episode opens, George is attempting to seduce a with-it sixties dollybird called Irma (Yootha Joyce). Interesting to see that before Yootha made her name as a seventies battleaxe, she had her share of more glamourous roles. Lecherous old George is deprived from taking things with Irma as far as he hopes after suddenly realising that it’s eight in the morning (Eh? What have they been doing all night?). So the race is then on to get shot of her before everyone else wakes up.
Gabrielle is up and about though and highly amused at the sweet nothings George is whispering into Irma’s ear. “She’s going to get her death of cold, that’s more like a belt than a skirt” mutters Gabrielle through gritted but smiling teeth, as Irma wanders off into the morning.
There’s a good example of George’s selfish nature during the scene where they all exchange presents. Gabrielle has bought something nice for George, but his present to her is simply one of his unwanted gifts (and he’s so dim that he’s forgotten to take the original tag off). As I’ve said, thanks to Sid James’ playing he’s able to soften moments like these, but it’s far easier to be on Gabrielle’s side than George’s.
I adore the moment when Gabrielle stands longingly under the mistletoe and the other three – after preparing themselves – all troop over to give her a kiss!
They then depart for their separate Christmas destinations – George for a spot of one-on-one time with Irma, Gabrielle to stay with her sister, Ralph to spend time with his niece whilst the Colonel is off to his club to meet his brother.
But all their plans fall through, one way or another. George discovers he has a rival for Irma’s affections (her sailor friend returns from the high seas). There’s a brief spot of bedroom farce as Irma attempts to juggle both of her paramours, but this isn’t really developed as much as it could have been.
Gabrielle’s sister had forgotten that she invited her – so after realising that there’s no room at the inn, Gabrielle silently slips away. That feels slightly tragic, but not as tragic as Ralph’s admission that he doesn’t actually have a niece (he always spends Christmas alone in the big house after everyone else has left).
With the Colonel also returning, the mismatched quartet then resolve to spend Christmas together. This is a rather touching moment, nicely played by all four. Vince Powell and Harry Driver’s sitcom work may never have been particularly subtle, but George and the Dragon is one which I still enjoy revisiting today. If you haven’t seen it, then you could do worse than spending some of your Christmas money on the DVD set.
Sykes isn’t necessarily the sort of sitcom you’d imagine would delight in breaking through the fourth wall – but this Christmas edition does just that. We open with Eric and Hattie addressing the viewers at home (which helps to make it plain that this won’t be a run of the mill show) before the action cross-fades back to last year’s Christmas.
We find a distinct lack of Christmas decorations (and indeed cheer). Eric does encourage Hattie to take a swig of wine, but from her expression it’s more of a chore than a pleasure. Corky briefly pops around but doesn’t linger – which leaves Eric to wonder where the magic of Christmas has gone. And indeed, the magic of television ….
This is a good reminder that people complaining about the current state of television isn’t a new phenomenon. Eric hankers for the good old days – a single channel with Muffin the Mule, the potter’s wheel and Sylvia Peters. She’s very much a name from the past, but I daresay the majority of the audience watching at the time would still have fondly remembered her. Even though her television heyday was already twenty years in the past.
Then both Eric and Hattie fall asleep (yes, I know, a little Christmas indulgence is required) and a good fairy (a dressed up Hattie achieved via the wonder of CSO) pops up and grants Eric a wish. He wishes for Sylvia and she duly appears.
If Sykes had been a modern sitcom, then no doubt there would have been plenty of mileage to be found in examining the character of the socially stunted Eric – a man whose one true love was a television favourite from a past decade. This angle isn’t a feature of this seventies sitcom of course, instead we can either view Eric’s awkward attempt to kiss Sylvia as rather charming (or rather creepy, depending on your point of view).
Even when he invites her up to his bedroom you know that no funny business (of a sexual type, anyway) will be going on – despite what Hattie, listening aghast on the other side of the door, might think. The reason for him taking her upstairs is delightfully odd – he’s got a cardboard cut out television set and asks her to sit behind it, reading 1950’s news headlines ….
I like the way that when Sylvia begins by mentioning Mr Callaghan, Eric immediately stops her – he wants the comfort and security generated by names from the past, the unpleasant present isn’t required. The ironic implication that old television can be used as a security blanket isn’t lost on me – although I don’t watch archive tv just for nostalgia purposes (honest). Still, it was amusing to see an archive television programme reach back even further back in time to a previous “golden age”.
Hattie also gets a wish (from a fairy Eric) but her desire for Paul Newman goes awry – Jimmy Edwards in a tennis outfit doesn’t quite cut the mustard for her. The arrival of Edwards delights the studio audience, although he doesn’t have a great deal of screentime.
The conclusion – Sylvia Peters is at a party next door, but Eric refuses to believe it (thereby missing the chance to really meet his heroine) – seems almost as unreal as the rest of the episode. Are we still sleeping or has Eric finally woken up?
As you might expect with a Jack Rosenthal script, there are so many sparkling dialogue moments scattered throughout the episode. But it also contains a very downbeat story thread which won’t be resolved until the New Year. Ena’s daughter, Vera, is terminally ill (Ena knows this, but Vera doesn’t).
The episode opens with Elsie attempting to push a little more food into her already stuffed friend, Dot (Joan Francis). Dot tiredly declines before Elsie moves on to contemplate a sausage lying on the floor. “You know there’s been a sausage lurking underneath that table just before dinner time. He knows I’m not going to shift it and it’s not going to shift itself so we’re just sitting here, staring each other out”. Dennis’ first stab at a fancy dress costume for tonight’s contest (Biggles) is good for a laugh.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Ena attempt to care for Vera, but the mood is lightened when Minnie turns up (she’s come dressed as Old Mother Riley). I love the way Minnie enthusiastically recites Christmas is Coming when she’s on the other side of the Vestry door. Once Ena opens it and Minnie claps eyes on her stern face, the singing gradually tails off ….
Any Ena/Minnie interplay is always welcome, although this brief scene is the only time they meet during the episode. The way that Violet Carson could machine-gun through her lines so rapidly is something that never fails to impress. A good example of this is when Ena caustically wonders why Minnie has decided to go to the party dressed up as her own mother.
A visit to the Ogdens is always a Christmas treat. There’s Stan, puffing away on a large cigar without a care in the world, whilst Hilda does all the work (although heating up frozen food possibly wasn’t the most taxing chore ever). Meanwhile their daughter Irma (by now married to David Barlow) delights in sitting on the sidelines, sniping at both her parents whilst David attempts to act as a peace-maker.
As the episode progresses more fancy dress suspects turn up. Len and Jerry as Batman and Robin raise a smile – especially for the way a bashful Jerry attempts to hide his costume under a mac (leaving a perplexed Jack Walker to wonder if they’re actually wearing anything underneath). Len stirs the pot by saying they’ve got nothing on but fig leaves ….
Ken, as Lawrence of Arabia, appears to be narcissistically proud of how dashing he looks, whilst Val is a fairly sedate Nell Gwynne. Hilda hasn’t made much of an effort, instead she spends her time sniping at Elsie, who’s sporting a suitably vampish outfit. Dennis also comes dressed as Batman, so there’s a brief Bat-off between him and Len.
Pride of place has to go to Annie though. She arrives quite late, but doesn’t disappoint – as Queen Elizabeth I she’s impossibly regal (perfect casting for Mrs Walker). As Elsie says to Len: “I don’t think she’s pretending. I think she’s always been Queen Elizabeth dressed up as Annie Walker.”
Who will be judged best in show? By the way that Annie casually calls the whole contest just a bit of fun, you can just tell that’s she’s incredibly keen to walk away with the prize (inconsequential though it is). So when Jerry is declared the winner it’s no surprise that she begins to storm out, sporting a face like thunder.
But all is well when Annie is then awarded a prize as the best dressed female (all her bonhomie comes flooding back). She quite happily shares her spoils – a box of liqueurs – and harmony is restored.
This is a lovely one. As touched upon before, it zings with so many incisive lines (we can forgive director Michael Apted for the way microphone booms often pop into shot – given the production treadmill, it often happened). Although most of the episode is very light, the spectre of Vera’s illness does cast a pall over proceedings, even though it’s only a minor plot-thread today.
In years to come, a death would be grist to the Christmas soap mill. It’s interesting to observe that back in 1966 it wasn’t something which was allowed to interfere with the optimistic post-Christmas tone.
It’s panto time in the Street (Cinderella). This means several things, firstly that poor Miss Nugent is an absolute bag of nerves. Mr Swindley, cast in his familiar role of impresario, is implacable though – giving her, and the rest of the players, a very stirring speech before the curtain goes up.
Arthur Lowe was, of course, so good at this sort of comic business. And speaking of comic business, it’s easy to imagine that the way Swindley recoils after almost bumping into Ena following his impassioned homily was an unscripted extra.
Ena’s not been called upon to tread the boards and neither has Minnie. But Minnie does have a vital role – she’s the prompt. I love the fact that she’s spent all night memorising the play from start to finish, meaning that she can now recite everyone’s lines perfectly. Another nice moment is the tender way Ena wakes up the slumbering Minnie – for all her bark, there’s clearly a caring side to Mrs Sharples.
The regulars have a packed hall of children to play to. The camera often cuts away to their rapt faces and it seems like they were genuinely enjoying themselves (either that or they were very good actors). The panto is a real time capsule of the period, with numerous pop culture references dropped in (most notably The Beatles and Ready Steady Go).
Both Elsie (Prince Charming) and Miss Nugent (Dandini) display fine sets of pins whilst Dennis is endearingly gormless as Buttons (not much acting required then) and Lucille makes for a winsome Cinders.
Any guesses who’s playing the fairy godmother? Mrs Walker of course. There’s a nice moment early on when Annie asks Jack to serve her a crème de menthe (to steady her nerves before the show). Jack slyly enquires if she intends to pay for it, or whether he should simply make a note!
Also stocking up on Dutch courage is Albert, who seems to find the prospect of playing Baron Hardup more terrifying than living through two world wars ….
It’s not a highbrow sort of panto, but nobody wants highbrow at Christmas. We want to see Len get a custard pie in the face, don’t we boys and girls?
The sixth and final 1964 script by Tony Warren (he wouldn’t return to the series until 1967) it’s an episode very low on drama. This isn’t a criticism though – in recent decades it’s become de rigueur for Christmas soaps to ramp up the drama and excitement (and misery).
Today’s episode is a reminder of a simpler time, when all that was required during the festive period was a bit of indulgence on the part of the viewers as we watched our Coronation Street friends letting their hair down and enjoying themselves.
It’s a pity that the telerecording is so grotty, but it’s better to have it in this state than not at all.
Favourite exchange of the episode. Mr Swindley and Minnie are standing in the wings, admiring Lucille’s performance.
Mr Swindley: I wouldn’t mind adding my signature to a letter recommending her for the Royal Society of Dramatic Art.
Minnie: Last time I spoke to her she said she wanted to go on’t buses.
Noel Edmonds (dressed as Fred Astaire) and Tony Blackburn (dressed as Buttons) are our genial hosts today. Could be worse I suppose ….
First up are Pilot with January. It’s all quite bouncy and rather agreeable – live (or re-recorded) vocals and massive guitars are firmly to the fore. A good start.
Johnny Nash gives us Tears On My Pillow. There’s not a great deal to say about this performance, but luckily the next turn – Don Estelle and Windsor Davies with Whispering Grass – contains plenty of talking points. Davies’ outrageous mugging to camera (well I guess he had to do something, since Estelle was handling most of the singing) still raises a smile today, whilst you have to tip your hat to Don Estelle – he was a very good vocalist.
Pan People’s are wearing candelabras on their heads. That was unexpected.
Ralph McTell with Streets of London is up next. Given the sentiment of the song, it fits well into the Christmas show. As expected, it’s a no-frills performance, but none the worse for that.
The Tymes, Ms Grace. I love everything about this performance – the red suits, the coordinated dancing, the off-screen parping of the TOTP orchestra. Tammy Wynette, plonked next to half a dozen or so tinselly Christmas trees, belts out Stand By Your Man whilst the TOTP orchestra once again scrapes away as best they can.
The Bay City Rollers with Bye, Bye Baby would no doubt have whipped the teenage audience into a frenzy – but like last year, all the turns have to perform to an empty studio. That’s a little odd, as it means that the party atmosphere seems even more stilted than usual. Mud then pop up for the second year running with Lonely This Christmas. This time Les is standing up, rather than pouring out his tale of woe at the piano.
Guys and Dolls, A Whole Lot of Loving. Consisting of three pairs of guys and (well) dolls, this is quite the performance. The chest hair (from the men you’ll be glad to hear), their stack heels, their impossibly tight trousers. Crickey. The dolls can’t compete with that sort of competition.
Telly Savalas, sporting the widest shirt collars I’ve ever seen, appears on film to intone If. It’s quite remarkable. It’s not good, but it’s quite remarkable.
More Pan’s People, this time they’re dressed as Christmas parcels.
10cc, with I’m Not In Love, arrive in the nick of time with a quality pop song. That just leaves diddy David Essex, in maximum Cockney mode, with Hold Me Close. Live vocals, the worst jacket seen in the programme and plenty of chest hair. That’s the way to bring the show to a memorable conclusion.
Following on from the Glam-tastic treats of Christmas 1973, the 1974 TOTP Special does feel a little pale in comparison. Still, let’s press on ….
Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Savile are on presenting duties (which of course means that the chances of this one ever receiving another television airing are slim to zero).
Ignoring as best we can the spectre of Savile, first up are Mud with Lonely This Christmas. Sincerity oozes out of Les’ every pore as he recounts this sad, sad tale. Not quite the jolly start to the programme you might have expected, and this early feeling of mild gloom is only enhanced by the fact that Mud are performing to an empty studio.
Tony chats to the Rubettes (well he asks them one question) before introducing the Osmonds on VT. Then it’s Sweet Sensation and Sad Sweet Dreamer which is quite jolly – and those purple suits are very impressive. Still no sign of the studio audience, so maybe this was one of those strike-bound years where things had to be done in a rush.
Pan’s People dance to You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me by The New Seekers. PP always favoured very literal song interpretations, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that they’re all sporting red noses like very sad clowns. The whole sequence has to be seen to be believed – dignity at all times, girls ….
Thing are looking up, both on the Christmas and also on the music front. Cheeky little David Essex, surrounded by tinsely Christmas trees, treats us to Gonna Make You A Star. This gets the thumbs up from me.
Paper Lace with Billy Don’t Be A Hero shuffle on next. This tragic story (war is hell and it’s best to never volunteer for anything) has always been one of those seventies novelty songs that I’ve never been able to forget (whether this is good or bad I’m not sure). Possibly there were live vocals on this performance or maybe they were miming to a re-record. Either way it helps to make it a little more interesting.
The Three Degrees, performing on a set with plenty of tinsel, give us When Will I See You Again? Like the rest of the show it’s far from cutting edge, but perfectly pleasant and undemanding – ideal Christmas afternoon fare in fact.
Throughout the show, Messrs Blackburn and Savile hobnob with the musical acts, asking them inane questions or (as with David Essex) forcing them to read Christmas cracker jokes. This does manage to raise a titter from the crew though – I guess it’s the way you tell them.
Everything I Own by Ken Boothe is another somewhat soporific hit, but the pace picks up about 75% with Waterloo by ABBA. It’s early days so their clothes don’t look ridiculous, but the song remains a cracking one.
After that bouncy interlude, we once again slow down the pace to a crawl with Charles Aznavour and She. Plonked in front of the same artificial Christmas trees as David Essex, Mr Charles certainly gives the song his all. A great favourite of grannies everywhere no doubt.
A double dose of Pan’s People today. They’re back to jig about to a Barry White song, You’re the First, the Last, My Everything. It’s a classy little dance, they keep their clothes on and everything.
We close with Slade and Merry Christmas Everybody. Like everyone else, Noddy and the boys don’t have an audience to perform to, but at least they amble off the stage towards the end of the song and join all the other acts who are still hanging about the studio. This does mean that a little bit of atmosphere is generated.
Not a classic Christmas year then, but not totally devoid of interest. I wonder what gifts 1975 will bring?
Unsurprisingly, the message of Silly, but it’s fun is that you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to have an enjoyable Christmas – all you need is the company of good (no pun intended) friends.
The Goods, of course, have no other choice than to economise (Tom scavenging a Christmas tree – or at least part of it – from the greengrocers, Barbara using her craft skills to make a yule log with a rather substantial Robin). But on the plus side, it does mean that this year’s Christmas has only cost them fifteen pence!
But next door, commercialism is rampant – with Margo railing against tradesmen. David Battley is the tradesman in question, offering a wonderfully phlegmatic performance which was something of a trademark of his (a similar turn in The Beiderbecke Tapes immediately springs to mind).
Margo’s unhappy that her tree – part of her Christmas delivery – is slightly under the required height, so she decides that everything will have to go back (it’s all or nothing for her). Given that it’s Christmas Eve this seems a little reckless. I know that the seventies was another era, but surely nobody would have been expecting another delivery on Christmas Day? And yet, this is the crux of the story.
Suspension of disbelief also has to come into play when pondering the question as to why Margo’s left it so late to take delivery of all her Christmas provisions – not only the tree, but the food, drink and decorations. A severe lack of forward planning? Or maybe back in the seventies, Christmas really did begin on Christmas Eve and not – as it seems today – in late November ….
The upshot is that when no fresh delivery is forthcoming, she’s forced to ring up all her friends and fob them off from coming around (claiming that Jerry has chickenpox and therefore is out of bounds for the duration). Jerry’s “political” chickenpox cheers him up, as he wasn’t looking forward to spending yet another Christmas with all their friends, mouthing the same pointless trivialities at the same round of endless parties.
I daresay his wish (which came true) to simply have a quiet Christmas at home would have struck a chord with many ….
So Margo and Jerry spend Christmas Day with Tom and Barbara. It may just have been the especially potent peapod burgundy, but Jerry does get rather frisky with Barbara (although you can’t really blame him). The same sort of sexual tension doesn’t crackle with Tom and Margo (the mind boggles at the thought of that) but they do share a rather intimate scene in the privacy of the kitchen – although this is more about Tom forcing Margo to unbend a little, and embrace their silly Christmas revels.
It’s rather touching that Margo confesses that she’d like to, but simply doesn’t know how. But it doesn’t take long before she’s completely warmed up and throwing herself into all the party games with gusto.
Some sitcom Christmas specials, especially from the eighties onwards, tended to offer something more expansive than their usual fare. Silly, but it’s fun revels in the fact that nothing much happens except that the Goods and the Leadbetters have a jolly enjoyable Christmas day. The way it’s content to embrace the joy of simple pleasures may be one of the reasons why this episode always seems to strike a pleasing chord whenever it makes a Christmas appearance.
For obvious reasons, many Christmas editions of TOTP are unlikely to ever surface again on British television (instead they’ll live out the twilight of their lives on YouTube and other streaming services). But it’s lucky that one which is mostly still available for rescreening – 1973 – is something of a corker …
Presented by Tony Blackburn (nice tanktop, sir) and Noel Edmonds, it’s a glamtastic forty minute treat. Well, maybe that’s overselling it – let’s say that the glam quotient accounts for a good half of the running time whilst the other half is more of a mixed bag.
Many people (including one positioned right behind Tony and Noel) are wearing impressive hats. That can only mean that Slade are in the building. They kick off proceedings with Cum On Feel the Noize, a piledriver of a song which gave them their fourth UK Number One single. Forty five years on it’s still ridiculously entertaining – as is Dave Hill’s remarkable clothing (I’m sure someone else has already observed that he appears to have come dressed as a Kraag, so I won’t crack that gag).
Donny Osmond (on film) brings the mood down with Young Love (not my cup of tea) but no matter, things soon get back on track with Suzi Quatro and Can The Can. Suzi, a vision in black leather, is very compelling (I believe there were other people on the stage with her, but I can’t remember what they looked like).
Her first UK number one (surprisingly it only stayed at the top spot for a week) Can The Can was another gem from the Chinn/Chapman writing team. 1973 was a pretty decent year for them, as they also penned several classic Mud tracks (including Dyna-Mite) as well as the Sweet standards Blockbuster and The Ballroom Blitz. Indeed, it’s a pity that The Sweet’s performance has been snipped from recent repeats (as has Gary Glitter, but I can live with that) .
Another change of mood as Tony introduces one of the surprise hits of 1973 – the Simon Park Orchestra and Eye Level. The theme to Van Der Valk, it’s always been a favourite of mine. It was composed by Jan Stoeckart. who worked under various pseudonyms – one of the better known being Jack Trombey. As Trombey, he composed a fair few library tracks, several of which were used as the themes for series such as Callan and Never The Twain.
Oh god, it’s little Jimmy Osmond and Long Haired Lover From Liverpool. Press the fast forward button quick ….
Up next is Tony Orlando and Dawn – Tie A Yellow Ribbon. Singing live, Tony certainly puts his all into this tale of a convict, his sweetheart, a tree, a bus-driver and a yellow ribbon. It’s cheesy stuff, but I love it.
Pan’s People interpret Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Get Down in their typically literal way (they spend their time wagging their fingers at some dogs and flouncing about – the girls that is, not the dogs). Indeed, the dogs fascinate me as they’re so incredibly well behaved, none of them move a muscle (well, apart from one who made an early exit).
After a spot of film (David Cassidy – Daydreamer) we’re back in glam mode with 10cc and Rubber Bullets. Well, it’s a glamish sound (albeit riffing classic-era Beach Boys) but the boys haven’t really come dressed for the occasion. Another favourite, it’s slightly amazing that the lyrical content didn’t earn the song a ban in the UK (maybe the jaunty music helped to divert people’s attention).
Peters and Lee perform their debut single, and by far their biggest hit, Welcome Home. There’s something very warm and very seventies about it. A track that’s aged well I think.
If the boys in 10cc didn’t make much of an effort clothes-wise, then you can always rely on Roy Wood and Wizzard. Teddy boys, an angel on roller skates, gorillas and Roy himself all make for an intoxicating mix. Oh, and the song’s pretty good too (See My Baby Jive).
Slade play us out with Merry Christmas Everybody. Sadly we miss the moment where Noddy Holder gets a pie in the face (but then some of the camerawork does seem a little off during this song) but no matter, it’s the perfect way to conclude a show that always brightens up my Christmas.
Episode 317, written by H.V. Kershaw, is a game of two halves. Part one has a slew of small pleasures, beginning with Miss Nugent timidly asking Len if the rumour she’s heard (that the evening’s entertainment at the Mission Hall will be the Street’s version of This Is Your Life) is correct. Len confirms this is so and offers Miss Nugent a swig from his bottle. She declines (“I know it’s the season, but I don’t much like drink”). Nobody could squirm quite like the young Emily Nugent.
Christmas dinner with Ena, Minnie and Martha is a sedate and trouble-free occasion. Whilst Minnie and Martha do the washing up (their way of thanking Ena for the unseen fare) Ena muses. “If every family in England bought a leg of pork this Christmas and said ‘blow your turkeys’ they’d be three bob a pound next year”.
Who will be the This Is Your Life subject? Ena seems to relish the possibility that it might be her (seeing it as an opportunity to air some home truths in public) whilst Elsie has a simple request for Dennis (who has cast himself in the Eamon Andrews role) if she turns out to be the chosen one. “No Americans”.
Len and Elsie find themselves flung together in a deserted Rovers. His sweet talking (well, sweet for Len anyway) charms her and she accepts a gin and tonic from him (he elects for a pint of mild). This costs him the princely sum of four and two. Those were the days ….
Just before the end of part one it’s revealed that Annie Walker is the recipient of the big red book. This should be fun.
It does seem a little mean to leave an old man like Albert outside in the cold, waiting for the arrival of Annie and Jack’s children – Billy and Joan. The wind (a sound effect of course) helps to sell the illusion that it’s rather a nippy night. This was long before the outside street had been built, but the studio street – dimly lit – does look very effective, although the sound is rather dead (making it obvious at times that we’re inside rather than out).
The Street’s version of This Is Your Life mimics the television original, right down to having guests who are unable appear in person relay a pre-recorded message. Arthur Forstythe-Jones (Ian Collin), who earlier in the year had seemed a little smitten with Annie, is cast in the role of her long-distance admirer.
The date of Annie and Jack’s arrival at the Rovers is a subject of mild debate. Dennis maintains it was January 1939 whilst Annie is convinced it was the 4th of February 1939. Ena, brought on with Minnie and Martha, elects to stick her oar in, also supporting the January date. That’s a nice moment, as is Minnie’s air of desperation when Dennis asks her what happened on that never-to-be-forgotten day when she met Annie in the Rovers for the first time. Of course, Minnie’s forgotten. She eventually does remember, only for Ena to flatly contradict her story!
Doris Speed is called upon to switch between happiness (as Billy and Joan are wheeled out) and disgust (as her performance as Lady Godiva is dragged back into the light). Nobody could do disdain quite like Doris Speed, so we’re in safe hands.
These embarrassing moments help to give the episode a comic spark, but it’s essentially a warm-hearted tribute (nice to see some old pictures of Doris Speed too). Most soap stars would have to wait until they were due to leave the series before receiving such acclaim, but not Mrs Walker. An enjoyable twenty five minutes.
This year’s Christmas entertainment is an all-star performance of Lady Lawson Loses at the Mission Hall. Miss Nugent has the plumb role of Mrs Gilda Montefiore (aka Lady Lawson), a notorious jewel thief who has eyes for young Gerald, Duke of Bannock (Ken Barlow) much to the dismay of his mother, the Duchess of Bannock (Annie Walker).
You won’t be surprised to hear that before the curtain goes up Miss Nugent is all of a fluster and works herself into a pitch of maximum anxiety. Mrs Walker is perfectly serene though – and offers Miss Nugent a little something to soothe her nerves.
The play is a somewhat impenetrable drawing room drama, but it draws some big laughs from the audience (unintentional ones, of course). All of the pitfalls of am-dram are present and correct, from a curtain which refuses to open, doors which are similarly problematic and numerous forgotten lines and stumbles.
At one point, Minnie (cast in the role of Lady Rhona Philbeach) observes backstage that the audience really seems to be enjoying themselves. A beat later she concedes that they shouldn’t be laughing, but no matter – at least they’re having a good time.
Minnie looks very regal, it’s just a pity that we don’t actually see her perform on stage (we do hear second-hand that she delivered her big line without a stumble though). It would have been nice to see Ena on stage as well, but she’s relegated to providing the pre-curtain entertainment with some tunes on the piano. Once this duty’s over she’s able to take her place in the audience, where she and Martha offer a waspish commentary (plus they rustle a mean sweet paper).
The most interesting thing about Pauline Shaw’s direction is that until the final scene all of the on-stage performances are viewed from the point of view of the audience at the Mission. This denies us any close-ups of the sweating actors, but it helps to sell the illusion to the viewers at home that we’re in the thick of the action.
Lady Lawson Loses is deliberately long-winded and not terribly interesting, which is a slight problem since it does take up a fair portion of the episode. The mishaps are amusing enough (plus it’s always nice to see the regulars dressed up) but this is one of the less essential Christmastime episodes. I do like Mr Swindley’s closing speech at the curtain call though, which is rudely curtailed by Jed who closes the curtain with alacrity (like the audience, he’s clearly keen to hot-foot it to the pub!)
The final moment with a swooning Miss Nugent (buoyed through the second half thanks to a mixture of pills and alcohol) is another good touch.
To begin with, there seems to be a clear division of the sexes. Whilst the men – in the shape of Albert, Frank, Ken, Harry and Len – are heading off to a football match, the women (such as Concepta and Elsie) are fretting about their Christmas lunches.
The episode opens with some boisterous children running down the street, but their antics are mild compared to Len – who’s waving his football rattle, bellowing at the top of his voice and dancing in the street with Annie Walker. Goodness, he’s irritating – not the sort of person you’d want to run into first thing on Christmas morning.
As for the match, it’s between two teams of ladies (which might be the reason why all the lads are up and about so early – if not, then they really, really, love football).
The notion that the menfolk have all the pleasure whilst the women are confined to the kitchen is challenged after we see Jack slaving away. Clearly that’s one household where the roles are reversed. Jack, as always, has to be a man of many talents – not only doing a spot of cooking but also serving behind the bar. Annie must be taking it easy.
This year it’s Minnie’s turn to cook Christmas dinner for the others. There’s a vague air of melancholy at work here (Martha decides that it’s “a funny Christmas isn’t it? More like a very long Sunday”). Martha’s still grumbling as she tucks into her meal, but Ena – for once – is in a good mood. “Martha, goodwill to all men, including Minnie Caldwell. She may be wilful but she is human and she is our friend”.
The fragile peace doesn’t last long though (Ena swallows one of Minnie’s sixpences and chokes). Classic, classic comedy then ensues (Martha wonders if they should pat her on the back but Minnie decides not, as Ena might hit them back!). Poor Ena, all four sixpences (wrapped up in tissue paper and cotton) found their way into her portion of pudding. “Have you never heard of windpipes?” mutters a despairing Ena. Lovely stuff.
Prior to this, there’s another touch of sadness after Martha and Ena grumble that their families steer clear of them on Christmas day. It’s worse for Minnie of course, who has no family. But at least she has friends around her.
Ena/Minnie/Martha might be the Christmas highlight, but there are some nice character moments elsewhere as well. Ken and Frank share a moment of reflection as they celebrate their first Christmas without Ida. Lucky that Esther was on hand to cook them something, otherwise no doubt they would have gone hungry …
Hapless Harry continues to get an ear-bashing from the very shrill Concepta. You can see her point though. Mind you, his present to her – a gold watch – does cheer her up somewhat. At least for a short while.
Interesting that the Queen’s speech is still seen as the centrepoint of the day, at least for some (Annie, Concepta). Annie’s total devotion to Her Majesty even extends to exhorting poor old Jack (who lest we forget has been on his feet all day) to stand up when the National Anthem is playing.
Christmas at the Tanners is rather fraught. Dennis, having seen that the cupboard was bare, went out for his meal, not knowing that Elsie had rustled up something as a surprise. So when he does return she’s determined to force-feed him, whether he likes it or not. Pat Phoenix and Philip Lowrie raise the roof for a few minutes, but things then settle down. Elsie and Dennis may scrap on a regular basis, but since neither has anybody else the spats don’t last for long.
The episode had a slightly fraught production, as Derek Grainger disliked elements of Tony Warren’s first draft. Warren allowed Grainger to rewrite it, but insisted that his name didn’t appear on the credits (so the fictitious Carol Nicholas was used instead).
AYBS? is a curious beast. No other series in the Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry canon has quite the same feel – this was a show that often resembled Frankenstein’s monster (in the way that numerous disconnected pieces were jammed together in order to form a whole).
I’m not entirely sure how the writing process worked – presumably Croft and Lloyd worked separately and then cherrypicked the best moments from each of their scripts. If so, that would explain how in today’s episode we jump from Mr Grainger performing the hits of Al Jolson to the whole department dressing up as Santa Claus ….
If there’s one moment from The Father Christmas Affair which has endured then it’s the flashing Father Christmas. BBC Visual Effects seemed to relish working on AYBS? almost as much as they did on Doctor Who and this very silly Santa is well up to their usual standard. It’s Mr Humphries’ reaction which really sells the moment though – but since we’ve already had the reveal (Santa – like Action Man – is bereft of working parts) this doesn’t quite satisfy. Surely it would have been better not to have shown exactly what Santa was hiding under his robe, that way we would have been left guessing about why Mr Humphries suffered such a dramatic swoon.
If I was the sort of person to worry about these things, then I’d worry about who was looking after the customers whilst all the staff were crowded around this work of technological art. Luckily I don’t.
I always enjoy the canteen scenes. In the first phase of the series they provided Mr Lucas with the opportunity to grievously insult Mrs Slocombe on a regular basis (he doesn’t disappoint on this score). They also provided ample scope for some ramblings from Mr Grainger (again, we’re well served today). Possibly the most notable thing about the scene is the way that Wendy Richard very visibly corpses on more than one occasion. Something was clearly tickling her fancy.
The middle part of the episode is where things get a little odd, although as I touched upon at the start, complaining about structure in an average episode of AYBS? seems to be a pretty futile pastime.
Mr Grainger has, once again, elected to entertain the old folks at Christmas. And since his impression of Winston Churchill has been deemed to be old hat, he’s decided to come right up to date – by impersonating Sir Stafford Cripps. There’s something rather delightful about this reference, which would have been dated in 1976 (after all, Cripps passed away in the early 1950’s) never mind forty or more years later.
This idea is quickly knocked on the head and it’s suggested that miming to an Al Jolson record would be a safer bet (although maybe not if you want to earn any repeat fees in the twenty first century …)
There’s no reason why Mr Humphries and Mr Lucas should have learnt such an intricate series of dance moves, but it provides us with a few minutes of entertainment, so let’s be generous (it is Christmas after all).
Since the automated Santas wern’t a great success, a human replacement has to be found. With a handy cash bonus on offer from young Mr Grace it’s no surprise that everybody rushes into their suits with alacrity. Mrs Slocombe has some lovely lines, reminding a nonplussed Mr Rumbold that since “Parliament has passed a Sexual Relations act” there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t take on the role.
Mr Humphries once again steals the show with his Santa ensemble. I wonder what the rest of the cast felt, every time that Inman was handed a prime bit of comedy business? With a few exceptions they remained together for a long time, so presumably they accepted that there was a definite pecking order.
When Mr Grainger arrives he’s still blacked up as a Minstrel (he was unable to get the make-up off). This provides us with the episode’s punchline – a young child (Donald Waugh) is brought in to pick out the best Father Christmas from the line-up and naturally picks the one who – like him – is black.
This moment hasn’t aged well, but since AYBS? never comes across as unpleasantly dated as the likes of On The Buses, it seems more like an innocent gag rather than anything inherently racist. Certainly it’s of its time, but since this a strong – if bitty – Christmas special, it’s a slight shame to think that it’s probably not now going to be the first to get a repeat airing. Mind you, it last surfaced on BBC2 as recently as 2009, so you never know.