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.

 

Top of the Pops – 1973 Christmas Special

 

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.

Coronation Street – 25th December 1963

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.

Coronation Street – 24th December 1962

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. 

Coronation Street – 25th December 1961

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).


Are You Being Served? – The Father Christmas Affair (26th December 1976)

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.

Are You Being Served? – Christmas Crackers (22nd December 1975)

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It’s Christmas, so we can forgive the employees of Grace Brothers for indulging in a spot of dress up. Mind you, as the series progressed they tended to do it virtually every week ….

Christmas Crackers is a game of four halves.  It begins with a brain-storming meeting called by Mr Rumbold – although in his absence Captain Peacock moves into his seat with alacrity. He also quickly acquires Mr Rumbold’s cup of tea (the only one in a real cup – the others have to make do with plastic ones). It’s a reminder of the rigid herichary which exists at Grace Brothers.

Elsewhere the chat is, as you’d expect, very dependent on double entendres. Mrs Slocombe frets about her pussy whilst Mr Grainger – late once again – tells the others that Mrs Grainger failed to rouse him this morning. Mr Lucas supplies the obvious punchline.

The strangest moment occurs just after Mr Humphries suggests that they should organise a glee club.  This seems reasonable enough, but it tickles the fancy of one member of the audience who hoots in a very distracting fashion.  John Inman, pro that he was, carried on regardless which meant they didn’t have to go for a retake.

When Mr Rumbold eventually does turn up, he reveals that young Mr Grace has already decided exactly how the department should get into the Christmas spirit, thereby negating the previous ten minutes of chat.  This is either a clever touch or it reveals that the plotting of AYBS? was never that solid.

The second section of the episode revolves around a shop-floor spat between Mrs Slocombe and Captain Peacock.  Mrs Slocombe doesn’t like the high-kicking automated display model which has been wheeled onto the floor by the ever-annoying Mr Mash. She wants it removed, but Captain Peacock stands firm and tells her to return to her counter.  So she turns it on when his back is turned and the inevitable happens (it kicks him up the backside).  Mr Humphries then notes that it’s playing the Nutcracker Suite ….

Christmas dinner is next on the agenda, which is a good example of the fact that Grace Brothers remains the most parsimonious of employers.  A microscopic chicken has to be shared amongst them all, whilst their Christmas pudding deflates after Mr Mash liberally sprinkles it with a dose of powerful wood alcohol.  Mind you, their crackers were very large and did include decent novelties, so it wasn’t all bad. Chief amongst these were Captain Peacock’s googly eyes and Mr Grainger’s sticky-out ears, which allows him to cosplay as Mr Rumbold.

This just leaves the reveal of the shop floor, now transformed into a very credible Christmas grotto (clearly all the money went on this, rather than the staff Christmas dinner) and the emergence of the regulars, all decked out in their costumes (this was young Mr Grace’s brainwave).  Whenever dress up was on the cards it seemed there was a strict pecking order (with Mr Humphries always being the last to show his face). This suggests that the writers had quickly latched onto the fact that Inman had clicked with the audience (he certainly gets the loudest whoop of appreciation – although it’s debatable whether his costume is the funniest).

Captain Peacock’s snowman is wonderful (I think it’s the addition of the pipe which really sells it) whilst Miss Brahams and Mr Lucas, as a fairy and Long John Silver, don’t let the side down. Mrs Slocombe’s Robin Hood isn’t too way out but it’s counterbalanced by Mr Grainger’s egg costume (my favourite). As always, Arthur Brough helps to sell the moment – Mr Grainger’s long-suffering miserablism is pitched at just the right level.  Like all Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry series, AYBS? was never the same once the original cast began to break up and Brough’s death (following the conclusion of series five) undeniably affected the balance of the show.

Once all the staff have assembled, out of nowhere music begins to play and also out of nowhere everybody starts to sing a song based on the way their day has gone.  This isn’t quite as jolting as raising a glass and wishing everyone at home a very Merry Christmas, but it’s not far short.

The Mrs Merton Show (27th December 1997)

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After 1996’s half-hearted Christmas titles, I’m pleased to report that things were much better this year – not only was there a snow effect, we also had sleigh-bells added to the opening theme (always a quick and easy way of Chrismassing something up). Well done!

1997 was a busy year for Mrs Merton. Following the transmission of series three during February and March, she and the gang then decamped to Las Vegas for several more shows. Fair to say that her humour didn’t always translate – with one show (featuring Tammy Wynette and La Toya Jackson) deemed unsuitable for transmission. Hopefully it still exists in the archives, as it would be fascinating to see it. Unlikely it’ll ever resurface, but you never know.

Mrs Merton’s final Christmas special opens with the audience in a very jolly mood. But she’s got just the answer to deal with these hi-jinks.  “There’s only one way to dampen down this party atmosphere, and that’s with my first guest – yes it’s very scary spice, Edwina Currie!”

The Merton/Currie encounter is as awkward as you’d expect although, at least to begin with, Currie is fairly game (allowing Mrs Merton to check the back of her neck to see if ‘666’ is tattooed there). However it doesn’t take long before the initial lukewarm temperature drops well below freezing.   The first flashpoint occurs when they have a difference of opinion about exactly when Currie’s husband left her – Mrs Merton maintains it was on the day her book was published, Currie says it was a week later.

It’s when Currie mentions that she’s currently suing somebody for making the same claim (and Mrs Merton should therefore proceed with caution) that you sense they’re not going to be the best of friends. There’s a fairly obvious edit immediately after this, which suggests that some contentious material was snipped out.

Currie’s ordeal isn’t over yet though, as Horace is plucked out of the audience and settles down on the sofa beside her. A heated political debate then breaks out for a few minutes, with Horace managing to hold his own whilst Mrs Merton sits back and has a chat to the audience.

Mrs Merton’s first words to Max Bygraves – “he’s not dead at all” – sets the tone for an enjoyable ramble in which Bygraves gives as good as he gets. Maybe he dwells a little too much on his double hernia operation (you do get the sense that once Max launches into an anecdote nothing’s going to divert him) but there are some nice nuggets uncovered along the way.

Every so often, a question from the audience actually paid dividends. And so it was here, after Max was asked about playing the Wigan Hippodrome in 1947 (where he had to face some tough audiences mainly made up of coal-miners).  The acrobat on before him broke both his arms, leaving Max to muse that he never got laughs like that ….

Max is corralled into a duet with Mrs Merton (whose singing voice hasn’t improved since last year) before the big closing number – Perfect Day. In the style of the BBC promo, each line of the song is taken by a different person. Mrs Merton couldn’t quite run to a full celebrity line-up, so her loyal audience filled the gaps with performances of variable tunefulness.

The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1996)

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Alas, there’s no festive border slapped round the opening titles this year. Humbug!

Having enjoyed two series in 1995, Mrs Merton sat out most of 1996 with only this Christmas Eve special airing (series three would begin in early 1997).  It was the last show to feature three guests and whilst some of the caveats previously expressed still stand, this one is stronger than the 1995 Christmas special, mainly because the guests are a little more engaging.

It’s somewhat jolting to remember that we’ve gone far back in time – to a period when the likes of Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter could be mentioned in casual conversation without a sharp intake of breath. Since the first guest, Clive James, is an Australian he’s clearly the perfect person to discuss the enigma that is Rolf – especially his wobble board and digeridoo. Innocent times.

Later, Noddy Holder is quizzed about Gary Glitter, although it’s mostly innocent fun. Mind you, Mrs M doesn’t miss the opportunity to crack the gag about her son Malcolm taking his friend to a new nightclub named after the seventies glam rocker (that’s right, they were going up the Gary Glitter). Judging by the very muted reception this comment received I think we can assume it was a reference which flew over the heads of most of her audience.

Both Clive and Noddy are good fun, with Clive musing about whether people up t’North say t’North (they don’t apparently) and Noddy reminiscing about his younger days as a window cleaner (although Mrs Merton was concerned that climbing up ladders in those big platform boots would have been tricky).  There’s also time for a quick audience burst of Merry Christmas Everybody – although it seems a bit remiss to have Noddy on and not get him to perform his party piece.  But there was clearly only room for one musical guest and it’s pretty obvious who has stolen the hearts of both Mrs Merton and the audience ….

Clive and Noddy are unceremoniously bundled out of the studio in favour of Mrs Merton’s star guest – lovely Daniel O’Donnell. Daniel has the second half of the show to himself, which means there’s plenty of time to answer such burning questions as to whether he likes to scratch himself and trump when he’s lying in bed (although this took a while to settle as Daniel didn’t understand what ‘trump’ meant at first – the penny did drop eventually).

The highlight of the interview must be when Horace wades in.  One of Mrs Merton’s rogues gallery of elderly questioners, Horace could always be guaranteed to launch into a rambling monologue with seemingly no end.  And so it proves here – after issuing a backhanded compliment (he hadn’t heard of Daniel O’Donnell until several weeks prior to the recording of this special) he then redeems himself by revealing that he’s booked tickets for one of Daniel’s shows in the new year. But due to a prior commitment he’s found that he can’t now attend it (I’ve given you the edited highlights – the actual explanation is a good deal more tortuous than that).

Ending with Daniel and Mrs Merton duetting on One Day At A Time, Sweet Jesus, this was very decent fare. I wonder what the third and final Christmas special (featuring the unlikely combination of Max Bygraves and Edwina Currie) will be like? Time will tell.

The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1995)

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Following a couple of pilots (the first on ITV and the second on the BBC) the series proper of The Mrs Merton Show began airing in early 1995. Clearly it did well, as the second run started later that same year and culminated in this Christmas Eve special.

Top marks for the Christmassy border around the opening titles – a cheap way of creating a spot of festive cheer without having to go to the expense of shelling out for new titles.  Mrs Merton is in full holiday mode – handing out mince pies and greetings – prior to her first guests, Alma and Mike from the Street ….

It was an unexpected treat (I think that’s the right word) to witness Amanda Barrie and Johnny Briggs duetting on the evergreen Something Stupid.  You have to give them top marks for being game (the largely octogenarian audience lapped it up of course).

We’re still in the early days of the series, which meant three guests jostling for position in each half hour show.  Later, TMMS would drop down to just two guests – this was a wise move as it meant that there was the possibility a half-decent interview might develop.  Amanda and Johnny are amiable enough but they’re really never given any questions that they can actually answer (a pity, but not surprising, that they didn’t confess which of their co-stars they hated ….)

There’s slightly more substance when Mrs M meets Glenys Kinnock. It’s always fun to see a combative guest who isn’t content to simply take the blows, but instead elects to gently go on the offensive.  When Glenys started to deal with the questions by asking her own, you got the sense that Aherne was forced to do a bit of speedy adjustment. As entertaining as the show often was, this was its main weakness (especially to begin with). Aherne often appeared to be more interested in delivering her scripted barbs than dealing with the answers she might receive.

Up next is by far the oddest part of the show. Seven year-old orphan little Tommy Regan is subjected to a special treat – a song from Mrs Merton. As she begins to blub her way through The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot, some of the audience are clearly getting a little misty-eyed too.  The punchline to this spot of mawkish sentimentalism? There isn’t one, which I guess was the point.

Gary Rhodes closes proceedings with some entertaining back and forth banter and a spot of food, tested by some of Mrs Merton’s most trusted lieutenants. That leaves just enough time for Hooky and the boys to play us out with that Slade song.

An entertaining enough half-hour, but many of  the series’ most entertaining moments (the unforgettable Bernard Manning/Richard Wilson face-off, for example) were still in the future at this point.

The Rag Trade – The Christmas Rush

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Following on from the original BBC run during the early sixties and an abortive BBC attempt in the early seventies to revive the series via an unscreened pilot, The Rag Trade finally returned to television during 1977 and 1978 thanks to this LWT series.

Although only Peter Jones (Fenner) and Miriam Karlin (Paddy) reprised their roles from the BBC incarnation, all of the new characters weren’t terribly dissimilar to the old ones – which made sense, as some of the LWT scripts were directly recycled from the BBC originals.

Christopher Beeney, as Tony, stepped easily to the role vacated by Reg Varney whilst Diane Langton (Kathy) had something of the vague air of Carole, Sheila Hancock’s character (although Kathy was much more pneumatically enhanced).   One interesting conundrum is whether Anna Karen’s character is meant to be the same Olive from On The Buses.  She certain looks and acts like her and since both series were written by Chesney and Wolfe it does seem likely, although it’s never directly confirmed.

The Christmas Rush (tx 24th December 1977) finds a typically harassed Fenner attempting to chivvy the girls (and token male, Tony) into finishing up their latest order.  But of course, they’re much more interested in planning for Christmas …..

There’s a few different story threads in this one.  The first concerns Fenner’s annual dilemma – what to buy both his wife (played by Rowena Cooper) and Paddy for Christmas?  For the last fifteen years he’s abdicated this responsibility by asking Paddy to shop for his wife and his wife to shop for Paddy.  That Paddy elects to buy a smart handbag for Mrs Fenner but then pockets the accessories (purse, manicure set) is characteristic.  Mrs Fenner seem equally contemptuous about Paddy as she decides to give her one of her old presents (a manicure set!).  Fenner reacts in horror, since this was yet another gift selected by Paddy for his wife …..

The set piece comedy moment occurs after Tony bemoans the fact that he’s getting nowhere with Lyn (Gillian Taylforth).  His constant attempts to catch her under the mistletoe haven’t gone the way he planned, so Paddy suggests that if he waits until Lyn’s alone in the rest room and then switches out the light, he could embrace her in the dark.  Paddy tells him – and the other girls agree – that a woman shouldn’t be asked her consent, in fact quite the reverse (they like to be dominated).

Although Paddy later arms herself with a jug of water – all the better to pour over the randy Tony – it seems that the girls weren’t entirely lying when they suggested that the role of the female was to be submissive (although this is undercut in some of the dialogue).  You probably won’t be amazed to learn that things don’t go the way Tony planned since he ends up groping the unfortunate Mrs Fenner instead.

In today’s climate, it’s hard to imagine any scene being deemed less appropriate for broadcast (so don’t expect to see this popping up on ITV3 any time soon).  Mrs Fenner might be a little traumatised by her experience, but everybody else laughs it off and even Fenner doesn’t seem too concerned (telling his wife that Tony looks more upset than she does).

Whilst this scene, like most of the episode, is played very broadly, there’s one quiet moment – which closes the show.  With one dress ruined from an important order, Fenner needs to knock up a replacement quickly, but all the girls are keen to leave – all except Paddy.  Despite their combative relationship, she can’t bring herself to walk out (telling him that he was always a rotten machinist).  This is a beautifully played scene by Jones and Karlin which sees Fenner and Paddy share a drink in the peace and quiet of the workshop before she gets on with the job.  It certainly leaves us with the suggestion that this isn’t the first time they’ve shared a quiet moment together ….

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The Rag Trade – Christmas Box

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Like the later LWT Christmas Rag Trade, this is a programme you can’t imagine receiving a repeat these days – with this one it’s due to the fact that the girls have been making golliwogs on the side.

Although Fenner (Peter Jones) constantly bemoans the poor productivity of his staff, this never seems to be a problem when they’re working on their own initiative.  It’s very impressive that they’ve been able to knock up several hundred golliwogs over the last few days, although since they’ve used Fenner’s materials without his knowledge they have to keep him in the dark …..

Poor Reg (Reg Varney) is deputised to dress up as Father Christmas and is sent out to flog the golliwogs from a street corner, but he runs foul of the law – in the formidable shape of Colin Douglas.  Always good to see Douglas and he’s his usual stolid self as the constable.  This officer may not be the brightest of chaps, but he’s certainly dogged in his determination to run the rogue Father Christmas to justice.

Reg, in haste, has to ditch the Father Christmas costume and so he gives it to Fenner.  It’s not hard to work out what happens next – the constable spies Fenner dressed as Father Christmass and arrests him.  But surely Fenner’s staff will vouch for him?  Mmm, not so.  They have a buyer for the golliwogs coming round and so it suits their purpose for the boss to be out of the way for a few hours.

This seems a tad cruel, especially the way Peter Jones milks the moment.  Fenner can’t even get through to Reg (we learn that they attempted to join the army together but were refused for the same reason – flat feet).  Once Fenner’s been carted off, Fenner’s Fashions undergoes a rapid transformation to become Union Toys!  This may be slightly hard to swallow, but it’s still amusing – especially the way that Reg quickly steps into the role of the boss and Paddy (Miriam Karlin) and Carole (Sheila Hancock) transform themselves into femme fatales as they prepare to use all of their wiles to persuade the hapless buyer that he really should purchase their golliwogs.

The fact that the buyer, Terence Nutley, is played by Terry Scott is something of a bonus since it ensures that every possible bit of comic potential will be wrung from these scenes.  As the girls ply Terence with drinks, he becomes more and more insensible, which creates something of a problem once Fenner returns ….

As with the rest of The Rag Trade, this one’s highly predictable from start to finish, but since everybody attacks the material with such gusto I’ve never regarded this as a problem.  Sheila Hancock is delightful as the dippy Carole whilst Esma Cannon can’t help but steal every scene she appears in (she plays the even dippier Lily).

The ending is quite neat.  After Fenner discovers the toys, the girls are forced to lie and pretend that they’ve made them for the kiddies at the local hospital.  Fenner, touched by this, happily promises to drop them off to the hospital on the way home.  So the workers don’t benefit by their pilfering, instead the only victors are the children – which seems appropriate for a Christmastime story.

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All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part Two

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Christmas With Wogan

I think this could just be the greatest piece of television ever.  Things start sedately enough, with a song from Carl Wayne and Penny Lane (oh, their names rhyme) but after that the fun really begins.

Recorded on the set of Lunchtime with Wogan (all of which sadly seems to have been wiped) you can see that they’ve attempted to get the audience into the Christmas spirit by handing out some party hats.  But since there weren’t enough to go round, the camera tends to focus on the handful of lucky souls who do have one.  The audience shots are fascinating by the way (average age seems to be about eighty).

This segment is a celebration of ATV, so Crossroads naturally features quite heavily.  The sight of Amy Turtle (Ann George) pushing a tea trolley would surely melt even the hardest of hearts whilst Nurses Price and Shaw (Lynda Bellingham and Judy Buxton) from General Hospital also shuffle on.

The fun just keeps on coming as Peggy Mount, Hugh Lloyd, Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Syms appear as two ordinary couples who have been pulled out of the audience to play a game.  The sight of Crowther and Wogan attempting to shovel Mount’s ample form onto a high stool is something that will live long in the memory.

Larry Grayson, resplendent in a black cloak and mask, is brought on as the mystery guest. He has to recite his most famous catchphrases whilst the others attempt to guess his identity.  Simply sublime.

And just when you think things can’t get any better, Meg Richardson (Noele Gordon) arrives …..

Easily worth the price of the DVD alone, this is a rare Christmas treat.  Indeed, had the whole show come from the Wogan studio I would have been quite happy (although had this happened no doubt it would have been wiped along with the rest of his shows).

The Wandsworth School Choir are up next, entertaining Jimmy and the studio audience with The Holly and The Ivy.  Then Jimmy gets in the act and joins them for a trot through Do-Re-Me.  Bob Todd, as a drunken milkman, causes a little havoc for Jimmy.

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On The Buses

Like Love Thy NeighbourOn The Buses was one of those programmes which pulled huge contemporary audiences but hasn’t (in critical terms) aged well.  Although unlike Neighbour it does run regularly on ITV3, so clearly somebody still seems to enjoy it.  Like a number of later episodes, this was written by Stephen Lewis (Blakey) and Bob Grant (Jack).  Reg Varney is conspicuous by his absence, but he seems to have left the show after the 1972 run.

If you enjoy broad slapstick and incredible feats of mugging to the camera then this should appeal.  The story – a goose has been left on the bus and they have to stop it escaping – is the cue for everybody, including Olive (Anna Karin) and Mum (Doris Hare), to get covered in soot and flour.  For me, a little of On The Buses goes a very long way, so this is another series that I don’t have in my collection (but I don’t feel I’m missing out).

Jimmy welcomes David Nixon, who restores a touch of class to the programme.  It’s a mystery why Nixon’s existing magic shows aren’t available on DVD as he’s such an affable entertainer.  He does the eggs in the glass party trick which Tommy Cooper also attempted on his 1973 Christmas Show.  Tommy managed to get two out of four eggs in the glasses whilst David went one better – three out of three.

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Sez Lez

Les Dawson is on fine monologue form here.  “I bought my mother-in-law a nice fireside chair which cost me twenty five pounds and the first time I plugged it in, it fused”.  The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and Les’ dancers (Les Girls) also get in on the act.  The band are clearly all professionals as the sight of a group of attractive young ladies leaping about in silk pyjamas doesn’t put them off, not one little bit.

A moustachioed Tony Jacklin has a chat about golf with Jimmy.  They also sing ….

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The Fenn Street Gang

Spun out of Please Sir! after it became painfully obvious that the actors were no longer convincing as schoolchildren (they were well into their twenties by this point) The Fenn Street Gang followed their misadventures, post school.  Never as popular as Please Sir!, possibly due the fact that the characters no longer had a reason to be together and therefore the plotlines had to be split up, it still racked up an impressive thirty eight episodes.  This sketch has a good excuse for a reunion – Christmas dinner – and it passes the time nicely enough, although it’s not exactly an all-out showstopper.

Jimmy leads everybody, including Moria Anderson, Rod Hull & Emu and David Nixon, in a rousing singalong of White Christmas.  A traditional end to a real selection box of a programme – not every chocolate is especially tasty, but luckily there’s only a few hard centres.

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All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part One

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Airing for five years from the late sixties, All Star Comedy Carnival was ITV’s answer to the long-running BBC institution that was Christmas Night With The Stars.  Like its BBC counterpart, not all of All Star Comedy Carnival has survived intact, but at least the complete shows from 1972 and 1973 do exist.

“Mixed bag” is a far summation.  There’s some comedy greats and then there’s Love Thy Neighbour ….

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Love Thy Neighbour

Love Thy Neighbour is one of those programmes that seems to ebb in and out of fashion.  Incredibly popular in the early seventies, by the eighties it had deeply fallen out of favour.  But whilst you shouldn’t expect a re-run on ITV3 any time soon, over the last few decades it’s begun to attract the odd kind comment – arguing that it’s not just a series of (ahem) off-colour jokes, but that there’s also an element of satire – as with Till Death.

Eddie (Jack Smethurst) tells next-door neighbour Barbie (Nina Baden-Semper) that he wishes to give her husband, Bill (Rudolph Walker), the compliments of the season (“peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Even Sambos”).  Eddie is quite happy to extend this goodwill to the wives too, which he demonstrates when he forcibly kisses Barbie under the mistletoe.  That she’s wearing the tiniest pair of hotpants imaginable suggests that the disdain Eddie shows towards Nig Nogs doesn’t extend to the attractive female ones ….

As might be expected, Bill storms in to find his wife being pawed by Eddie and then Eddie’s wife, Joan (Kate Williams), also appears.  What happens next?  Yep, Bill and Joan have a snog under the mistletoe.

To be generous, you could argue that Eddie and Bill are always equally as combative as each other and that, deep down, they have a spark of friendship.  This can be seen when Eddie (after losing the Christmas turkey on his way home from the pub) and Joan are invited round to share Christmas dinner with Bill and Barbie.

But the joke, such as it is, to close this segment is that Bill and Barbie have invited a fair few others – all of them black – which causes Eddie to visibly flinch at the thought of spending time in a room with them.  “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas”.

At the very least Love Thy Neighbour is a fascinating time capsule of the period, but I don’t think I’m going to be shelling out for the boxset anytime soon.

Jimmy Tarbuck, resplendent in an orange jacket, is our ebullient host – on hand to link all the segments. He’s also present to receive visitors, such as Rod Hull and Emu.  Jimmy has the perfect face for some loving attention from Emu and luckily the bird doesn’t let us down.

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Nearest and Dearest

It’s Christmas time and brother and sister Eli and Nellie Pledge (Jimmy Jewell and Hylda Baker) are in a reminiscent mood.  As Nellie mentions that she gets filled with neuralgia (nostalgia) thinking about Christmases past, we’re transported back in time via the age-old trick of making the camera go in and out of focus.  Hylda Baker was a true one-off and therefore sight of her dressed as a young girl is worth the price of admission alone (the reaction of the studio audience makes it plain that they weren’t in on the gag).  Jimmy Jewell, resplendent in a sailor suit, and Madge Hindle (Lily) and Edward Main (Walter) also make for the most ridiculously unconvincing children imaginable.  Which is the point of the skit I guess.

Given that Baker and Jewel reputably loathed the sight of each other, it gives the combative relationship between Nellie and Eli something of an edge.

Once we’ve negotiated this part of the show, Jimmy Tarbuck introduces Moira Anderson singing Silver Bells.  It’s a slightly upmarket sort of song, given that the tone of most of the comedy segments are fairly low brow.  That there’s a full orchestra in the studio suggests that All Star Comedy Carnival had a more than generous budget.

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Father Dear Father

Father Dear Father may have had a fairly thin premise – Patrick Glover (Patrick Cargill) finds his life endlessly complicated thanks to his two grown-up daughters Anna and Karen (Natasha Pyne and Ann Holloway) – but it’s still very agreeable.  Partly this is because of Cargill’s affable performance, although the attractiveness of Pyne and Holloway is another obvious plus (for this viewer at least).  So whilst Cargill bumbles and pratfalls about (here he manages to trip on a roller skate and fall into a lake whilst pulling the most incredible faces throughout), the girls provide an oasis of beauty.  The plot – Patrick’s dog has gone missing – shouldn’t really detain us for too long.

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Thirty Minutes Worth

Harry is the increasingly disgruntled butler of a Lord and Lady.  Fuming because he hasn’t been given Christmas day off, he buttles between each end of their very long dining table, giving them increasingly garbled messages from the other whilst all the time helping himself to their port and brandy.  You’ve got to love a bit of Harry Worth.  His comic stumbles and general air of befuddlement isn’t subtle, but then the All Star Comedy Carnival isn’t really the place to find subtle.  It’s also a bonus to see the peerless William Mervyn playing the Lord.

Now we’ve reached the mid-way point it seems like the right time to take a break.  Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the remainder – Christmas With Wogan, On The Buses, Sez Lez and The Fenn Street Gang whilst various guests – including David Nixon – pop in to join Jimmy.

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