George and the Dragon – Merry Christmas (24th December 1966)

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 At Christmas (22nd December 1977)

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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?

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Coronation Street – 26th December 1966

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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.

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Coronation Street – 23rd December 1964

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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.

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Top of the Pops – 1975 Christmas Special

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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.

Top of the Pops – 1974 Christmas Special

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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?

The Good Life – Silly, but it’s fun (26th December 1977)

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.