Porridge – No Way Out

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1975

Christmas is approaching in Slade Prison and Godber, for one, is getting into the spirit.  He’s encouraged by the number of cons who have congregated around the Christmas tree to sing carols, but Fletcher has to break the bad news to him.

They’re singing in order to drown out the noise of a tunnel that’s being dug in order to allow Tommy Slocombe to escape (“Yeah, that’s the big occasion around here.  It’s not the coming of our Lord, it’s the going of Tommy Slocombe”).  Genial Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan) is behind the escape, so everybody will have to play their part, as Fletcher so memorably puts it “If we are asked to assist, we are in no position to refuse are we?  Otherwise, we’ll wake up one morning and find two more things hanging on the Christmas tree.  Us”.

Fletcher plans to go away for Christmas by wangling a stay in the comfort of the prison infirmary.  But the doctor (Graham Crowden) is having none of it and packs Fletch off to the local hospital for some tests instead.  This allows somebody to slip Fletcher a package containing a blank passport, which is another piece of Grouty’s puzzle, but he still needs something else – a bicycle.  “Certainly” says Fletch.  “What colour?”.

Fletcher, Godber and Warren are able to relive the unfortunate Mr Barrowclough of his bike and Fletcher then professes ignorance when Mr Barrowclough asks him if he knows where it is (“Let’s get this straight.  You are saying that you came to work this morning as a cyclist and will be leaving as a pedestrian?”).

But all of Grouty’s plans seem to have come to naught after some petty pilfering means that the screws declare that Christmas will be cancelled.  This seems to scupper the escape plan but Fletcher has an idea.  Why don’t they let the screws discover the tunnel and whilst they’re busy congratulating themselves, Grouty can quietly spirit Slocombe away by another route?

Grouty agrees and Fletch is delegated to reveal the tunnel to Mr Mackay.  He wants to arrange that Mackay will literally drop right into it.  Unfortunately, it’s Fletcher who drops into the tunnel, right before the astonished eyes of Mackay, but this does mean that Fletch will be able to spend Christmas in the infirmary after all.

Mackay has one unanswered question and promises Fletcher a bottle of scotch if he’ll answer it.  What did they do with all the earth from the tunnel?  Fletch’s answer (“They dug another tunnel and put the earth down there”) is a killer final line.

The first of two Porridge Christmas specials, No Way Out adds another ten minutes to the normal running time, which allows for a few more gags but isn’t so long that it begins to feel drawn out.  That’s one of the problems with Christmas editions of sitcoms when they started to be produced in a 90 minute format – what works in 30 minutes doesn’t always work when extended to 90.  Thankfully, Porridge didn’t go down that route.

Harry Grout is probably the role that Peter Vaughan is most associated with, which is a little surprising when you consider that Grouty only appeared in a handful of episodes.  He is mentioned in a number of others though, so that his presence is always felt (even when he’s not actually seen).  Vaughan’s ability to play everything deadpan and calm is one of the reasons why Grouty works so well – he doesn’t have to raise his voice, just a word or a snap of his fingers will do the trick.

No Way Out is a hardy Christmas perennial, usually to be found each year on BBC2 and certainly receiving several airings on Gold.  Its familiarity might have dimmed a little of its power (and it’s difficult to rewatch it now without hearing the man with the irritating laugh in the audience) but it’s still a Christmas treat.

Porridge – The Desperate Hours

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1976

The second and final Porridge Christmas special splits rather neatly into two sections.  The first fifteen minutes or so follow Fletch and Godber’s illegal booze making activities and their attempts to interest their fellow prisoners in purchasing the fruits of their labour.  Two selections were on offer – the two-star and the five-star.  Upon sampling the five-star, Fletcher had very specific instructions.

Now, I must warn you, this should be sipped delicately like a fine liqueur.  It should not be smashed down the throat by the mugful.

Judging by their expressions, Warren, McLaren and Tulip found it powerful stuff – although quite what was in it was something of a mystery.  Next up was the two-star and Fletcher warned them that this wasn’t quite so smooth.

So go carefully, otherwise not only will you lose the flavour and the bouquet but you’ll also lose your powers of speech.

Sadly, their activities were discovered by Mackay who promptly marched them off to the Governor’s office.  The second part of the episode runs for about thirty minutes and it’s possible to believe that this was a normal episode which was expanded with the home-brew opening to produce this Christmas special.

Things take an unexpected turn when the new trusty, Urwin (Dudley Sutton), takes Barrowclough, Fletcher, Godber and the Governor’s secretary (Mrs Jameson) hostage.   He has two demands for Barrowclough (“shut that blind and get me a helicopter”).  The first is easy enough, but the second is going to be more of a problem.

During the course of the siege we learn that Mr Barrowclough and Mrs Jameson are more than friends (something which Fletcher will no doubt make use of in the future) and we also discover a great deal about Urwin.  It’s a lovely performance from Sutton who really is the focus of the episode.

Urwin is a somewhat pathetic character.  Passed over for psychiatric treatment, it looks as if the system has driven him to this desperate course of action.  Eventually, Fletch is able to take his home-made gun off him (a tense and well-acted seen between Barker and Sutton).  Just prior to this, Fletch spells out to him exactly why he’s never going to make it.

There ‘aint no way.  The worst thing that could happen to you is if they say OK.  ‘Cos you know as well as I do that you’d never make it to that helicopter.  They got marksmen out there that can shoot a fly’s eyebrows off at 400 yards.  And if flies had other things they could shoot them off ‘an all.

Fletch shrugs off the admiration of Godber.  It was nothing, he says, since he knew that Unwin’s gun was a fake (it wasn’t, of course, which Fletch inadvertently demonstrates by shooting a hole in the ceiling!).

Less Christmas orientated than No Way Out, The Desperate Hours is a cracking episode, full of the usual witty banter and a fine guest turn by Dudley Sutton.

K9 and Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

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Originally Transmitted – 28th December 1981

K9 and Company might be something of a guilty pleasure, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless.

When devising a spin-off series for K9, there were already two ready-made possibilities.  K9 Mk 1 was on Gallifrey with Leela, whilst K9 Mk 2 was journeying through E-Space with Romana 2.  Possibly neither Louise Jameson or Lalla Ward were interested in playing second fiddle to a tin dog, so this left the way clear for the return of Sarah-Jane Smith.

Elisabeth Sladen is, of course, the main selling point of K9 and Company.  And although we didn’t know it at the time, this was essentially the first of a two part story (the second, School Reunion, would follow a mere twenty five years later).

A Girl’s Best Friend is an odd story.  It’s full of red-herrings and innocent people acting in the most suspicious way (in order to con us into believing that they’re wrong-‘uns).  Colin Jeavons and Bill Fraser liven up proceedings with some interesting performances that teeter on the edge of credibility (and Jeavons later topples over completely).

Given that a running thread through the story is the mysterious disappeance of Aunt Lavinia, it’s a little anti-climatic to find out that nothing at all has happened to her.  And the reason why Brendan (Ian Sears) should be lined up for sacrifice is a bit vague – unless it was explained and I just drifted off for a moment.

Terence Dudley’s novelisation managed to put some more meat on the bones of the story (just likes his novelisations of Black Orchid and The Kings Demons) which proved that there was a decent tale buried here, but it just didn’t quite come over on television.

Doctor Who – The Feast of Steven

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Originally transmitted – 25th December 1965

I can’t have been the only person to have the cockles of their heart warmed by the prominent sight and sound of William Hartnell in the new BBC Christmas trailer.  Of course, if they hadn’t wiped the tapes some forty years ago then we wouldn’t have had to have a shot of Hartnell from The War Machines matched up with audio from The Feast of Steven, but as it’s the season of goodwill we’ll let that pass.

That brief clip of Billy wishing everybody the compliments of the season made me think that The Feast of Steven would be an ideal addition to my Christmas television viewing.  I wouldn’t normally watch an individual episode of Doctor Who, but let’s be honest – The Feast of Steven has no connection to the rest of The Daleks’ Master Plan, so why not?

Indeed, as others have noted in the past, The Daleks’ Master Plan is a curiously constructed story.  The beginning and the end of the serial can be said to form one story, whilst the episodes in the middle are essentially The Chase Part Two.  And since it’s debatable whether The Chase was a good idea to begin with, the notion of a sequel is an interesting idea.  Within this second story, sits The Feast of Steven, an odd episode (yes, a very odd episode) all on its own – broadcast on Christmas Day 1965.

The fact it was broadcast on Christmas Day must explain the tone of the episode.  Presumably it was felt that 25 minutes of the Daleks exterminating all and sundry would be out of place – so instead we have something much lighter.  It’s difficult to believe that the original plan was to have the cast of Z Cars appear in the first section, but if they had it would have been a bizarre crossover, more in the nature of a Children in Need skit than a normal episode of Doctor Who.  But it does give us one of Hartnell’s best lines, when the Doctor describes himself as “A citizen of the Universe, and a gentleman to boot”.

After the Doctor, Steven and Sara extract themselves from the clutches of the police, the TARDIS drops them in the middle of Hollywood’s golden age, where they rub shoulders with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby.  This section of the story is probably not best served by the lack of visuals (you can be sure Douglas Camfield would have had a few tricks up his sleeve).  There are a few memorable lines, though some (like Hartnell’s “Arabs”) are memorable for the wrong reasons.

And it ends with that line from the Doctor, wishing everybody at home a Happy Christmas.  A Hartnell ad-lib or something scripted? I’m not sure, but I do find it bizarre that some recons (although fortunately not the LC one below) have removed it.  This seems to be similar to snipping out the fast-talking Ogron (“no complications”) from the Day of the Daleks SE.  Don’t they know that you can’t re-write history, not one line?

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1969

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Compared to their later BBC Christmas shows, the 1969 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was a rather modest affair.  After reaching an early peak in 1971, they (together with writer Eddie Braben), obviously felt the need to try and make each successive Christmas show better than the last – with bigger production numbers, more impressive guests, etc.

But when the 1969 special was transmitted all this was in the future, so what we have here is basically an extended version of one of their normal shows.  There is a reason for this though – Eric was taken ill with flu during recording, so most of the programme was culled from material already taped for the upcoming series (this helps to explain why M&W don’t reference Christmas in their opening monologue).

So whilst it might be a patchwork effort, there’s still a decent roster of guests.  Fenella Fielding stars in the end play, whilst Frankie Vaughan, Nina, Sacha Distel, The Pattersons and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen provide the music.  Five musical guests seems rather overgenerous (some are certainly better than others). For me, Nina and Kenny Ball are the pick of the musical acts.

Eddie Braben had started writing the Morecambe and Wise show in 1969, during the second series (following the departure of Sid Green and Dick Hills who had worked with M&W throughout the 1960’s up to this point).  As the second series was only four episodes long, the 1969 Christmas Show was still very early days for Braben, but many of the familiar traits were already in place.

Braben’s chief innovations were to turn Ern into a writer, giving a shape and form to the end of episode productions as well as softening the byplay between the two (the Green and Hills M&W tended to be rather more combative).

Chief pleasures in any Braben scripted M&W show always includes the opening byplay and the flat sketch.  This opening sees Ern dressed in a hip and happening way.  Since by December 1969 the Swinging Sixties had run their course, he looks even more ridiculous than if he’d been dressed that way in 1967, which I presume is part of the joke (although from the modern perspective it’s possibly not as clear).

There’s plenty of great lines here as Ern tells Eric, “A couple of nights ago, I had a happening.  I freaked out in the King’s Road.  Pow!  I went to this discotheque.  I met this dolly bird and we really moved it!”.   Whilst Ern is chuntering away, Eric remains fascinated by his coat, “Does it tug when you go past a lampost?  Now, promise me one thing, Don’t ever go to the countryside wearing that coat.  If a big lusty farmer sees you, you’ve had it.  You’ll be dipped and sheared before you know where you are”.

In the flat sketch, Ern is taking a bath and of course Eric has to interrupt.  Ern’s far from pleased (“You did this the last time I had a bath”) to which Eric replies, “You’ve got a good memory”.  Eric’s also impressed with Ern’s chest hair.  “By golly, aren’t you hairy?  That is hair, that, isn’t it?  Thick hair all over your body.  I wouldn’t have had a bath if I were you.  I would have got dry cleaned”.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen were a reguar feature on M&W’s shows dating back from their time at ATV earlier in the 1960’s and they’d continue to pop up during their BBC shows for a number of years.

The lovely Nina appears to sing Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? which had featured in that years James Bond film.  This begins a short-lived tradition (Shirley Bassey appeared on the 1971 M&W Christmas show to sing Diamonds are Forever).

Elsewhere, the ventriloquist dummy sketch is incredibly stupid, which probably explains why I like it so much.

Fenella Fielding is suitably alluring as Lady Hamilton playing opposite Ern (and Eric) as Lord Nelson.  The playlets always tend to drag a little (some like the John Thaw/Dennis Waterman one seems to last forever) but this isn’t too bad and at least it allows Eric the opportunity to dress up as Long John Silver.

A modest start then, but the 1970 show would see the stakes raised with a notable increase in the quality of the guest stars.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1970

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Ern’s less than delighted with Eric’s Christmas present to him – a pair of socks that Eric has just removed from his own feet.  When Ern complains that they’re still warm, Eric explains that he was airing them for him.  Ern’s present to Eric is much more impressive – a silver fob watch, although Eric isn’t pleased when he opens it up and it plays the Colonel Bogey march.  There might be a reason why this would have offended him, but it’s a bit of a mystery to me (presumably a topical reference).

Later on, Eric plans to do something different – sawing a woman in half.  When he asks Ern to get into the box, Ern protests that he isn’t a woman, to which Eric replies, “I haven’t used the saw yet”.  Luckily, there’s a diversion – Peter Cushing turns up, still looking for his fee from his appearance as King Arthur several years ago.  It’s always a pleasure to see Cushing and they’d certainly get some mileage from this running gag over the years.  His appearance here gives Eric the chance to “saw a Peter Cushing in half”.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen perform Hello Dolly with a few changed lyrics welcoming Eric and Ernie back (my first thought was that this was something to do with Eric’s heart attack, but the dates don’t match so I’m not sure why Kenny changed the words).

The flat sketch features Eric cooking Christmas dinner for Ern and their guest Ann Hamilton.  Ann Hamilton was such a good utility player for M&W, able to pitch in and play a wide variety of roles over many years. There’s an interesting interview with her here.

Next, Eric and Ernie are joined by Eric Porter, much to Eric’s alarm (“A drunk’s just come on. Play it cool. Don’t worry about it”). Eventually they twig that he’s not a drunk but the famous actor Eric Porter, although Eric’s still not happy (“We don’t want him on. He was rotten the last time”). They then all perform a song and dance act, which allows Porter to demonstrate his hoofing skills. This was always one of the pleasures of the M&W show – watching familiar faces demonstrating unfamiliar skills.

Nina’s back and like Shirley Bassey the following year, she performs two songs – one straight and the other with “help” from Eric and Ernie.  She should have realised there’d be trouble when they told her they’d built a special set just for her …..

The stars keep coming, with a special appearance by John Wayne – although he looks a little different from his big screen appearances (see picture seven below).   And then a real star turns up – Edward Woodward.  It’s difficult to tell if he’s genuinely a little ill at ease or if he’s playing at being irritated – I’d assume the later, since numerous interviews over the years seemed to indicate that he had a healthy sense of humour.

He’s not come on to act though – instead he wants to sing, which he does (performing The Way You Look Tonight).  Although it’s something of a footnote to his career now, he had some success as a recording artist as well as a short-lived Thames series (The Edward Woodward Hour) where he was able to demonstrate his vocal talents.

William Franklyn joins Eric and Ernie for barely controlled chaos in the closing skit, loosely adapted from The Three Musketeers.

The 1970 Christmas Show was a step up from 1969, and the 1971 Show would be better still.

Christmas Night with the Stars

Christmas Night with the Stars was a BBC staple, running between 1958 and 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966).  The format remained the same – a familiar face would introduce specially made Christmas editions of popular BBC shows (each running for about ten minutes).

There’s several examples on YouTube.  The 1958 edition, features Tony Hancock amongst others and is introduced by David Nixon.

The 1964 edition features the likes of James Bolam & Rodney Bewes in The Likely Lads and Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and is introduced by Jack Warner.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1971

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The 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show is where everything came together.  Three consecutive sequences are all-time M&W classics and have been endlessly re-shown over the past four decades.

The show opens with Eric registering his appreciation of the audience. “Lovely audience. They’ve done us proud, haven’t they, the BBC. Not bad, considering they fell off the back of a lorry. I love them when they’re like this, all drunk. Beautiful”.  Eric and Ernie then discuss just how much the BBC values them.  It appears that Dick Emery is top-rated, with Ern below him and Eric right at the bottom (if the size of the tankards they receive are anything to go by).  Eric’s certainly dismayed with the size of his (“I’ve only got a little-un”).

The sight of M&W dressed as turkeys is something that lingers long in the memory.  Presumably they decided not to do a retake at the start (where Ernie almost falls over) as it would have dulled the audience’s appreciation of their initial appearance.  It’s broad stuff, but there are some good lines, such as Eric’s “I don’t fancy lying in a tin of hot fat, on me back, with a roast potato stuck between me knees”.

There’s something missing from this show – no Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.  And frankly, Los Zafiros are no substitute.  Following that disappointment, we then move into the heart of the show.  The next thirty minutes or so (Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey) are pretty much as good as it gets.

After Glenda indulges in some crosstalk with Eric and Ernie they launch into a big song and dance number, paying tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  This initially concerns Glenda, who protests that she can’t dance a step, but she manages very well.

There’s also the chance to see some familiar BBC faces (Cliff Michelmore, Frank Bough, Eddie Waring, Patrick Moore, Michael Parkinson and Robert Dougall) make quick cameos.  By paying tribute to a song and dance act from the 1930’s, nobody could claim that Morecambe and Wise had their finger on the pulse of current trends, but frankly that’s not a problem.  There’s a timelessness to great entertainment (whether it’s M&W or Fred & Ginger).

Next up is Andre Previn conducting Greig’s Piano Concerto, soloist Eric Morecambe.  This sketch dated back to the mid 1960’s and was written by M&W’s previous writing team of Sid Green and Dick Hills.  It’s a little strange that they didn’t receive a credit for this at the end (which has led many to assume that it, like the rest of the show, had been written by Eddie Braben).

The obvious change from the original to the 1971 version is the inclusion of Andre Previn as the conductor (displacing Ernie).  This does mean that Ern has less to do, but as it’s Previn who makes the sketch so memorable, that’s unavoidable.  As is probably well known, due to his busy schedule Andre Previn was unable to take part in any rehearsals, which worried Eric who was convinced that this whole sketch (the centrepiece of the Christmas show) would be a disaster.

As it turned out, Previn had great comic timing and it’s possible to see the point at which Eric begins to relax (“Pow! He’s in. I like him. I like him”) and realise that he was going to be fine.  Another part of the sketch which works well are the shots of the orchestra in the background, who are visibly enjoying themselves as some of Eric’s lines (“Which one’s the fixer?”) clearly hit home.

Shirley Bassey’s appearance has a similar template to Nina’s appearance on the 1970 Christmas Show – a chat, a song in which her attempts to sing are sabotaged by a specially designed set which doesn’t behave and a song performed with no interference (although Nina’s was in a different order).  As M&W were masters of making rehearsed moves seem like ad-libs, it’s difficult to know if Shirley Bassey’s slapping of Ernie’s face was quite the surprise it appeared to be, but it’s a nice moment nonetheless.

Her performance of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is another clip that’s very familiar from numerous broadcasts over the years, but it still seems as fresh as ever.  And she then gives us a cracking performance of Diamonds Are Forever.

After all that, the Robin Hood play does come as a little anti-climax, although Ann Hamilton is a winsome Maid Marion and Francis Matthews throws himself into the spirit of things as King Richard.

The 1971 Christmas Special was easily the most consistent of their BBC Christmas specials to date.  Could they equal or better it in 1972?

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1972

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It’s astonishing to think that the responsibility for writing virtually all of Morecambe & Wise’s BBC shows (both the series and the Christmas specials) fell on the shoulders of one man – Eddie Braben.  Other programmes, such as The Two Ronnies, would employ numerous writers, enabling them the luxury of picking the best material from a large pool of talent.

But apart from the odd recycled sketch (such as the Grieg sketch from the 1971 Christmas Special) pretty much everything was down to Braben.  And given how well received the 1971 Christmas Show had been, the pressure was on to equal or better that.  Braben would later explain the strain this put him under.

The real pressure came when I was sat in front of that typewriter with all those blank pages and there was a deadline and there was nothing happening. That’s when you realised there were 20 million or 25 million people looking over your shoulder – all saying ‘make me laugh’.

In 1972 the pressure proved to be too much and Braben had a breakdown.  Whilst he recovered, the scripting of the 1972 Christmas Special would be handled by Barry Cryer and John Junkin with Mike Craig and Lawrie Kinsley providing the Reindeer sketch and Morecambe & Wise contributing “additional material”.

It’s possible to detect right from the start just how much Braben will be missed this year.  The opening crosstalk sees Eric play a number of practical jokes on Ern (a buzzer in his hand, a flower that squirts water and a telescope that leaves a black mark around Ern’s eye) whilst Ern has the last laugh by presenting Eric with a present that squirts foam into his face.  It’s funny enough, but it’s difficult to imagine Braben ever writing anything like this.  One of Braben’s greatest contributions to the legacy of M&W was to change their crosstalk personas, as he would later explain –

I hadn’t liked their stage ­persona. Eric was too gormless, in my view. Ernie was too abrasive and hard-edged. Yet, at that meeting it was obvious there was genuine friendship and affection between them. There was humility and innocence, too. None of that was being shown in their work, so I reckoned if all that could be developed, it would show a different, softer side to ­Morecambe and Wise.

I came back with 30 pages of material with my vision of a new, reinvented Eric and Ernie. In a way, I was caricaturing the two men as they really were. I never told Eric and Ernie that this was really a showcase for their mutual affection, because I was afraid they might become self-conscious and spoil it. Ernie was delighted with his new role. ‘At last I’ve got something to perform,’ he told me.

Until then, Eric had always referred to Ernie as his Wellmaboy. So called because as the straight man, it was his job to draw the funny line out of Eric — ‘Well, my boy, so what happened next?’ Eric would be more worldly, but as the funnyman would still bounce off Ernie, who for years had been the archetypal straight man. Now, for the first time he would have a personality of his own — he would be a playwright; conceited, pompous, and vain.

The warmth developed by Braben is largely absent from the 1972 Christmas Show (it’s notable for example that there isn’t a flat sketch – a key Braben contribution).  But at least Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen are back, so it’s not all bad news.  The Reindeer sketch is a highlight (even if it’s recycling the dress-up idea from the previous year) with a surprise cameo from Bruce Forsyth at the end.

One area where it seems that inspiration was running low concerns the appearances of Jack Jones and Vera Lynn.  Both of their spots are identical – a chat, a song where M&W appear in the background to upstage them and then a song performed without interference.  It’s a winning formula, but to repeat it wasn’t probably the best idea.

We get two plays here – Dawn Patrol with Pete Murray and Victoria and Albert with Glenda Jackson.  Dawn Patrol would probably have been twice as funny had been half as long.  Victoria and Albert is better, since it doesn’t outstay its welcome and there’s a nice song and dance at the end, ensuring that the show ends on a high.

Overall, the 1972 Christmas Show is something of a disappointment which serves to highlight just how important Eddie Braben had become to the M&W show.  Hopefully, normal service would be resumed in 1973.

The Box of Delights – Episode One – When The Wolves Were Running

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Originally broadcast thirty years ago, The Box of Delights became an instant classic (it was awarded three BAFTAs in 1985 – Best Children’s Programme, Best Video Lighting and Best VTR Editing) and has remained an ever-present staple of many people’s Christmas viewing.

It was adapted by Alan Seymour from the novel published in 1935 by John Masefield.  The book was a sequel to The Midnight Folk which had been published in 1927 and also featured Kay Harker.  Other characters who return in The Box of Delights having first appeared in The Midnight Folk include Abner Brown and Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, so it’s intriguing to wonder whether the BBC ever considered adapting both novels.

Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield) is returning home for the holidays.  On the way he meets a strange Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton) and two even stranger clergymen, Foxy Faced Charles (Geoffrey Larder) and Chubby Joe (Jonathan Stephens).

Both Cole Hawlings and the two clergymen seem to know a great deal about Kay.  By magic, possibly?  Quite why Charles and Joe decided to con Kay out of half a crown by playing Find the Lady (and then presumably steal his purse and watch for good measure) is a bit of a mystery.  Did Abner Brown (who we later discover employs Charles and Joe) ask them to target him or was it simply a piece of opportunistic thieving?

They also seem to have considerable powers (it’s not explicitly stated, but they appear to change from human form into wolves) and this is apparently confirmed by Cole Hawlings later, when he states that their new magic is sometimes too powerful for his old magic.

But Cole Hawlings has something they want – the Box of Delights.  It can make a Phoenix rise from a fireplace (a lovely piece of traditional animation) and also brings a photograph to life, allowing Cole Hawlings to make his escape.  This is another very impressive piece of work, particularly when the animated mule changes to a live one and then back again.  It’s easy to overlook just how tricky that would have been to achieve, especially when working with traditional animation.

Nowadays, the effects seen in The Box of Delights could no doubt be easily achieved with CGI, but there’s a certain undeniable charm about the effects they used here.  They may seem crude to some people, but they work – and thats all that matters.

Cole Hawlings tells Kay that “The wolves are running”.  He doesn’t elaborate too much on this enigmatic warning and elsewhere there are other oblique messages (delivered by an old lady with a ring who disappears at will and a mysterious man on horseback who tells Kay that “If you see someone … say someone is safe”).

At the end of the episode we get our first sight of Abner Brown (Robert Stephens).  Stephens is, from this first scene, mesmerising and remains (along with Patrick Troughton) the best thing about The Box of Delights.

Next Up – Episode Two – Where shall the ‘nighted Showman go?

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1973

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After the disappointment of the 1972 Christmas Show, Eddie Braben was back on writing duties for 1973, so there’s a definite upswing in the quality of the material.  The show opens with Eric advising Ernie to check the Stop Press of The Harpenden Bugle and Advertiser.  Ernie has been awarded the following title – Lord Ern of Peterborough (“She was going to make you a sir, but she didn’t think knights were that short”).  There’s some more choice lines, such as –

ERIC: You’ll realise you’ll have to have a monogram?
ERNIE:  I’ll have no time for playing records

It’s this sort of banter that was largely absent from the previous Christmas Show.  Of course, there’s the inevitable disappointment for Ern when he realises that Eric’s put his new present of a typewriter to good use by typing in the Stop Press of The Harpenden Bugle and Advertiser ….

When Ernie introduces John Hanson as England’s number one musical comedy star, that gave me pause for thought.  If that was so, time hasn’t been kind to him as he’s pretty much forgotten today.  But his M&W appearance will probably continue to keep his name alive, and he does work well with Eric & Ernie.  His chat with them in front of the curtain is a joy.

Eric’s in a particularly playful mood, especially when John has trouble saying The Chocolate Soldier.  Ernie asks him if he meant The Chocolate Soldier, just to make things clear for the audience, but Eric’s not going to let the moment pass, “No, what he said … Socolate Choldier”.  After some more good-natured banter with M&W he gets the chance to sing, backed by Eric & Ernie, who are joined by Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, Jeremy Thorpe and Enoch Powell!

Hannah Gordon’s up next, but she’s surprised to find that she’s not been hired to act – instead they want her to sing, which concerns her (“I can’t sing a note”).  But she’s game, so has a bash at The Windmills of Your Mind.  M&W have built a set for her, which should strike a note of caution for anybody who’s watched the previous Christmas Shows.  It boasts a very impressive windmill which picks up Ern (or at least his stunt double) and whirls him around.

Up next is a flat sketch.  It lasts for just over six minutes and I think out of everything they ever did, it’s my favourite bit of Morecambe and Wise.  Virtually every line is a winner –

ERN: Have you cut yourself?
ERIC: No, no no. My face is a bit sore, thanks to that new bathroom cabinet.
ERN: Why, what’s wrong with it?
ERIC: It’s all those fancy designs on the mirror.
ERN: What do you mean?
ERIC: I’ve just spent the last 20 minutes trying to shave a seagull off me left cheek

ERN: You’ll have sciatica in the morning.
ERIC: I won’t, I’ll have shredded wheat like everybody else.

And the best line (as a police car races past the window) from Eric – “He’s not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed, is he?”

No Kenny Ball alas, but The New Seekers aren’t too bad. The last twenty five minutes or so feature Vanessa Redgrave and they get good value from her in both a musical number as well as a play. She’s suitably vampish in the musical number (the part where she makes Eric’s maracas drop off never fails to make me laugh) and playing Josephine she attempts to seduce Eric’s Duke of Wellington. Ernie is a suitably diminutive Napoleon with a fondness for concealing rabbits in his tunic.

If somebody was compiling a Morecambe & Wise best of, possibly only the flat sketch would make the grade. But the rest, whilst not hitting the heights of 1971, is consistently good – which makes this show a pleasure from beginning to end.

The Box of Delights – Episode Two – Where Shall The ‘nighted Showman Go?

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Given the potency of his performance, it’s remarkable how small Patrick Troughton’s screen-time in The Box of Delights actually is.  The majority of his scenes are in the first episode, whilst in episode two he only has one scene of importance before disappearing.  He returns at the end of the sixth episode but does little of note.

Basically though, once Cole Hawlings passes the Box to Kay in episode two, his function in the story is over.  And whilst he’s still vague about what’s actually happening, he does share one important piece of information – the Box isn’t his, it belongs to Master Arnold who appears to be stranded somewhere in the past.

After Kay and Peter witness the old man being scrobbled by Abner’s men, they report it to the Inspector (James Grout).  The Inspector, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it, preferring to think that Hawlings was spirited away by some of his friends who were playing a prank on him.  James Grout is lovely in this scene, as he is throughout the story.  There’s a real warmth to his conversation with the children – he may disbelieve everything they say, but he’s never abrupt or unkind.  It’s a staple of children’s literature that adults tend to not to believe anything the children say, forcing them to solve the mystery by themselves and the Inspector falls nicely into this pattern.

There’s a major sequence with the Box in this episode – Kay ventures into the wood to meet Herne the Hunter and both of them are transformed firstly into deer, then into birds and finally into fish.  It’s a gorgeous example of animation that is enhanced by Roger Limb’s fine score.  This sort of animation was never cheap, but it’s immeasurably to the series’ benefit that they spent the money – even if it does look a little the worse for wear on the 2004 DVD release.  If the original elements still exist, it would be nice to think they could be restored one day for a special edition re-release.

The reason for this scene is obliquely explained  to us by Herne.  “Did you see the wolves in the wood?  That is why we became wild duck.  Did you see the hawks in the air?  That is why we became fish in the pool.  Now do you see the pike in the weeds?”  Which seems to imply that there is danger everywhere, even in the Box – it’s not a safe haven.

One thing that the second episode has lacked is an appearance from Robert Stephens.  We have to wait until the final scene before we see him – but even though he has only a brief moment of screen-time he still oozes villainy, which leads us nicely into episode three.

Where is that Rat? And where is the Box? As for the boy … that interfering, overreaching boy … reporting to the police, talking on telephones.  What I won’t do to that boy!

Next up – Episode Three – In Darkest Cellars Underneath

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1975

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Things get off to a bad start almost straight away.  Somebody decided that the title music needed rearranging – so it’s gone all funky (wah-wah guitars and saxophone).  This isn’t helped by the fact that while the titles are running there’s no clips of what’s to come (everything we see is of past glories – Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey, etc).  Watching these brief moments of old classics would really only work if the current show was of a similar standard.

And sadly, it’s not.  Eddie Braben’s on writing duties – but he seems to have struggled this year.  It opens brightly enough though.  Ernie’s less than impressed with Eric’s present to him – a ballpoint pen with a piece of chain still attached (“That’s where I snapped the chain at the post office”).  But that’s nothing to the shock Eric receives from Ern’s present – a Des O’Connor record (“God, if you want me to be a goner, get me an LP by Des O’Connor”).

After some more digs at Des (“That’s the best record Des has ever made … You mean there’s nothing on it at all?”) he turns up to demand an explanation for the years of cruel jokes.  The byplay between Des and Eric & Ernie is one of the best parts of the show, especially when Des seems to go off script, much to the bewilderment of Eric (“This is all new.  You never once said ‘indelible thought’ at rehearsal”).

This then sets up a running gag of Des attempting to sing and getting thwarted each time – until he eventually manages to send the boys off on a wild goose chase, so that he can finally serenade the audience.

Apart from that, there’s not a great deal that’s really memorable.  There’s a quick sketch with Robin Day that descends into a punch-up at the end.  Periodically throughout the show we cut back to them as the fight gets more intense.  One rule of comedy is that something doesn’t necessarily become funnier if it’s repeated – and that’s borne out here.

There is one great sketch though – Eric and Ernie visit a maternity shop to buy a present for Ern’s expectant sister.  Ern seems to be totally oblivious to how babies are born (“Hey. Why are those frocks so big?”) and then takes offence to the innocent questions asked by the girl behind the counter (Ann Hamilton).

My sister hasn’t got a husband.  My sister’s not married!  As a matter of fact, my sister will have nothing to do with men.  She doesn’t like men.  She wouldn’t let a man touch her any time, I’m telling you!  I don’t like that sort of thing meself, either.  All that nasty business that goes on.  It’s not nice.  All that fumbling and crumbling that goes on, I know all about that.

Diana Rigg is the big guest star and rather unusually she first appears, completely unheralded, in a sketch about a psychiatrist before starring in the big end of show play.  Ernie is Samuel Pepys, Eric is King Charles II and Diana is Nell Gwynn.  It’s long – possibly a little too long – running at just under twenty minutes, but there is some filming to break up the studio stuff as well as an unexpected appearance from Gordon Jackson (who was a favourite with the viewers at the time, thanks to Upstairs Downstairs).

If his final line “What would Mrs Bridges say?” is a little obvious, then that sort of sums up the show.  M&W would jump ship from the BBC to Thames a few years later, mainly because they were concerned that their shows were becoming stale and felt that a different network would give them new impetus.  Whether the Thames shows were an improvement over the later BBC ones is a debate for another time, but on the evidence of the 1975 Christmas Show, M&W were somewhat treading water.

The Box of Delights – Episode Three – In Darkest Cellars Underneath

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Director Renny Rye was keen to cast Robert Stephens as Abner Brown, although given his reputation as a heavy drinker, this was seen as something of a gamble.  Rye got his way though and Stephens was no trouble at all – and it’s his brooding performance which adds so much to the quality of The Box of Delights.

Stephens’ Abner is a man constantly on the edge (with only Sylvia being able to restrain him).  It’s not subtle (it veers towards melodrama at times) but it’s perfectly in tune with the tone of the story – and he contrasts well with the apparently servile nature of Charles and Joe.  Frankly, whenever Robert Stephens is on the screen, he tends to act everybody else off it.

Abner’s partner-in-crime is Sylvia Daisy Pouncer (Patricia Quinn).  She was formally Kay’s governess and has a low opinion of the boy.  “That little ruffian.  He was a child for whom I had the utmost detestation and contempt.  A thoroughly morbid, dreamy, idle muff!”.

Events take an unexpected turn when Maria (Joanna Dukes) turns up at Abner’s rooms.  Dukes gives a lovely performance throughout as a girl who appears to have been thoroughly influenced by the latest gangster films (“I’ve generally got a pistol or two on me and I’m a dead shot with both hands”).  Is this the reason why Abner thinks she’ll make a good recruit and decides to scrobble her?  Logically it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but arguing about logic and The Box of Delights is rather fruitless.

The Christmas celebrations at the Bishop’s palace at Tatchester are delightful – and it’s a chance for the story to stop for a few moments to enable us to enjoy the Christmas mise-en-scene.  But the news that they had a break-in during the party (Abner’s gang looking for the Box) highlights that danger isn’t far away.

Since Abner doesn’t know who has the Box (he discounts Kay as surely nobody would entrust such a precious artifact to a boy like that) he goes through all the other possibilities.  It doesn’t seem to be the Bishop, so maybe Hawlings gave it to Kay’s guardian – Caroline Louisa?

Caroline Louisa’s disappearance en-route from London seems to suggest she’s been scrobbled by Abner, although a telegram for her seems to solve that problem.  There’s still the question about what’s happened to Maria, but Kay and the others apparently forget about her and decide to sail Kay’s new toy boat instead.

Charles, Joe and some others are after them though, so Kay uses the Box to reduce them all in size, enabling them to sail the toy boat down the stream.  It’s an endearing sequence (the CSO looks as effective as CSO always used to do, i.e. not always terribly convincing) but it does work – especially at the end when the boat and its tiny occupants are facing a literal cliffhanger.

Next Up – Episode Four – The Spider in the Web

The Box of Delights – Episode Four – The Spider in the Web

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Maria’s back – and she has a strange story to tell.  She was scrobbled by Abner and his gang and offered the chance to join them.  But Maria had a pretty low opinion of them and refused.  Abner then asked her if she knew anything about the Box.

Although Maria denied any knowledge, Abner wasn’t convinced.  Sylvia then had a suggestion. “You can soon find out if she’s telling the truth! Put her in the scrounger! You know what the scrounger is, my dear. We put you in it, and it has a thing in it that goes round and round. That is the scrounger. And presently you come out as dog biscuit”.

Maria’s interrogation is shot very nicely.  The cell is quite small, with two barred windows (one either side) high up  Sylvia appears first, on the one side and after a few minutes of fruitless questioning Abner appears at the other window (“Ladies, ladies! Do let us have unity”).

The list of Abner’s captives is growing – Cole Hawlings, Caroline Louisa, the Bishop and other assorted clergymen – so it’s somewhat strange that he then allows Maria to go free.  In story terms it makes sense, since she has to return to the others to tell them what she knows, but it does somewhat dent Abner’s reputation as a criminal mastermind.  Still, Peter gets scrobbled later on – so it’s a fair swop, I guess.

As this is the fourth episode of a six part serial, the story can’t really advance too far – therefore this installment has to mark time somewhat.  But the last few minutes do fill in some of the back-story of Arnold of Todi (the original owner of the Box) and Cole Hawlings.  Abner explains this to Joe, who is an odd choice since he’s always appeared pretty much clueless, but we can assume the information is more for our benefit than his.

Have you ever heard of Arnold of Todi? Arnold was a philosopher in the Middle Ages.   Now … did you ever hear of a certain Ramon Lully? He also was a philosopher in the Middle Ages. They show his tomb at Palma.  But in those days, a philosopher studied many things in his endless search for knowledge.  Ramon Lully travelled all through Spain and France and over the Alps into Italy, just to meet this Arnold of Todi, and to offer him his Elixir of Eternal Life in exchange for Arnold’s magic powers, which were contained in the Box of Delights.

Arnold disappeared and he appears to be lost somewhere in the past – as the Box will allow you to travel back in time but you can’t take it with you (you need to find your own way back).  Legend has it that Ramon Lully then took possession of the Box – and the image of Ramon Lully in Abner’s book is clearly that of Cole Hawlings.

So Ramon Lully is Cole Hawlings, a man who’s lived at least 700 years, knows the secret of eternal life and is also is the custodian of the Box of Delights.  This revelation closes the episode and leads us into episode five

Next Up – Episode Five – Beware of Yesterday

The Box of Delights – Episode Five – Beware of Yesterday

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Beware of Yesterday is where we really see Abner Brown begin to lose his grip on reality.  His obsession with finding the Box has driven the plot so far, but now even loyal henchman like Joe are beginning to question why he’s scrobbled so many clergymen (not to mention choirboys).  Joe then mentions to Abner that the Church at Tatchester is due to celebrate the Thousandth Christmas Midnight Service this year and all the disappearances have stirred up a great deal of publicity.  But Abner will brook no compromise –

If the Box is not delivered to me by midnight tonight, I will stop their precious ceremony if it’s the last thing I do!

Robert Stephens is gloriously deranged throughout the episode, whether he’s ranting at Joe or counting his jewels and debating whether to leave everybody (including Sylvia) behind.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s such a wonderful pantomimic performance (apt for the time of year) that really makes the story zing.  I also love the idea that his alter-ego, the Reverend Boddledale leaves to deliver his Christmas lecture to the pensioners.  It would have been lovely to see that!

Apart from showing us Abner’s continuing fruitless searches for the Box, the other major plot-thread concerns Kay’s quest to find a solution.  The Inspector is still no use – he refuses to believe that the Reverend Boddledale (a man he knows well) could possibly be a criminal – considering Kay’s continual accusations to be nothing more than an “hobsession”.  So Kay decides to try and find Arnold of Todi.

This won’t be easy – as Arnold is stranded somewhere back in time.  Herne agrees to send an image of Kay (which will cast no shadow) back – and there’s a possibility that he will be able to return to the present unscathed, although there’s no guarantee.

Although Kay shouldn’t cast a shadow he clearly does (but then it would have been impossible to totally remove it) and he is successful in finding Arnold (Philip Locke) who lives in a fairly unconvincing world of CSO.  It wasn’t uncommon for productions from the 1970’s and 1980’s to somewhat overdose on what CSO could do (and as we can see here, clearly couldn’t) and The Box of Delights certainly used CSO to the limit.

Kay wants Arnold to take the Box back into the past (despite the fact we’ve been told several times that it’s impossible to do so).  Arnold’s not interested, so this whole sequence doesn’t really go anywhere (and could easily have been excised).

Kay does make it back in one piece and returns to spy on Abner.  But he loses the Box – which is a problem since he’s reduced himself to only an inch in height.  Abner has problems too – Charles, Joe and Sylvia are convinced that he’s going to double-cross them, so they decide to double-cross him first.

Next Up – Episode Six – Leave us not Little, nor yet Dark

The Box of Delights – Episode Six – Leave us not Little, nor yet Dark

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Following his threat in the last episode, Abner Brown now seems determined to stop Tatchester Cathedral celebrating its Thousandth Christmas Midnight Service.  He gains nothing from doing this, but since he seems fated not to have the Box of Delights it’s one way of getting a measure of revenge.  Later, he decides to flood the dungeons when it’s clear he’s lost completely – which is the final sign that his grip on reality has gone.

He dispatches two creatures of the night (both created very nicely with traditional animation and mixed well into the picture) to prevent anybody getting to Tatchester – by road, rail or air.

Abner and Cole Hawlings face off.  It’s at this point that Abner realises he’ll never possess the Box and so he decides to take everybody with him (by flooding the dungeons).  Hawlings and Kay manage to escape and find Peter, Caroline Louisa and the Bishop along the way.

It has to be said, it’s a mystery why Cole Hawlings allowed himself to stay locked up for so long.  He was able to create a key from nothing more than a piece of card and a stub of pencil, not to mention turning his hat into a motorboat – so maybe he just liked the underground ambiance?

Abner Brown’s final moments (as he sinks beneath the cold, dark water) is nicely shot and accompanied by a musical sting from Roger Limb that sounds not unlike the music he composed for Revelation of the Daleks the following year.

So, all’s well that ends well.  Thanks to Herne the Hunter and the old lady everybody gets to the Cathedral in time for the service.  After the adventure, this gives us time to catch our breaths – and it’s suitably Chrissmassy.  It’s even more impressive when you realise that the service was shot during the day and at the height of summer, with black paper over the windows to hide the sunlight!

Not everybody is in favour of the ending, but it’s as good a way as any to conclude the story and bring Kay back to reality.

Thirty years on, The Box of Delights is still as enjoyable as ever.  Whilst the production does occasionally overreach (particularly with the CSO effects) so much is right (the animation, the music and especially the actors) that it seems churlish to complain.  It’s always a Christmas treat.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1976

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The 1976 Christmas Show was the second that Eddie Braben didn’t write – although it’s certainly better than the previous non-Braben show (1972) and something of an improvement on the 1975 show.  Mike Craig, Barry Cryer, Lawrie Kinsley and Ron McDonnell were on writing duties (with additional material from M&W).  Although Ern sometimes seems a little dim (not realising that Eric’s Christmas gift was incredibly duff, for example) overall it’s a good attempt at synthesising the Braben style.

There’s a dress-up sketch, similar to efforts from some of the previous Christmas shows (Turkeys/Reindeers).  Here, Morecambe and Wise are two members of a table-top football team.  Ern’s the new left back, whilst Eric has been there a while.  “42,338 consecutive games. And only had the trainer on once. And that was for a coat of varnish.”

The Nolans sing When You Are A King.  They’re very pink.

Elton John’s good value.  Initially he attempts to provide piano accompaniment for the boys.

ELTON: Do you want this blues, reggae or funky?
ERIC: (looks offstage) Can he say “funky”? No, “funky”. You were close. The studio manager is looking it up. It’s a gift he has.

Eventually Elton gets so frustrated he grabs Eric (although slightly too hard as they bump faces – watch out for Eric and Ernie’s expressions, priceless!).  He then appears a few more times, before getting the chance to sing Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.  He obviously made a good impression as he’s back the following year.

By this time, Ernest Maxin had taken over as producer.  He had choreographed some of the musical numbers on previous shows – so it’s maybe not surprising that song & dance numbers tended to feature quite strongly during his time as producer.  Since M&W (especially Ernie) both loved song & dance, it’s something that plays to their strengths and there’s two good examples in this show.

Ernie performs Singing in the Rain whilst staying bone-dry (it’s Eric who gets wet).  As Ernie was always something of a frustrated song-and-dance man, it’s a lovely segment for him.  The street set looked very impressive, especially for such a short sequence – which was a clear indication just how highly the BBC rated M&W (clearly money was no objective when crafting the Christmas show).

The play boasts appearances from John Thaw, Dennis Waterman and Kate O’Mara.  They help to liven things up – especially John Thaw – but like a number of the other plays it’s just far, far too long.  At twenty minutes, it feels very padded out.

Nowadays it’s a common sight for newsreaders to dress up and perform (Children in Need  or Strictly Come Dancing, amongst others).  Back in 1976, it just didn’t happen – which explains why Angela Rippon’s appearance caused such a sensation.  M&W get to dress up in top hat and tails and it provides a nice end to an entertaining show.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1977

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The 1977 Morecambe  and Wise Christmas show was the end of an era – their last before moving to Thames.  It’s well known that this show attracted the largest ever Christmas audience – 28 million viewers – except of course that it didn’t.  The 1977 Mike Yarwood Christmas Show (which preceded M&W) also attracted 28 million viewers – but had a slightly larger audience share – therefore it’s Yarwood who can said to be King of Christmas.

It’s slightly splitting hairs though – 28 million (at that time roughly half the population of the UK) was an incredible figure.  Yes, it was the pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-VHS age, so the choice of alternative entertainment wasn’t large, but it’s still an impressive achievement that’s unlikely ever to be matched.

What would this audience have seen?  The show opens with a Starsky and Hutch parody – Starskers and Krutch.  It’s virtually a shot-by-shot recreation of the Starsky and Hutch title sequence, which works so well due to the attention to detail.  The film work (shots of the car travelling down the street through a blizzard of paper, for example) gives it a glossy, expensive feel.

Elton John’s back – although he finds a great deal of difficulty in locating the studio.  Along the way he meets a variety of familiar faces, such as newsreader Kenneth Kendall as well as John Lawrie, John Le Mesurier and Arthur Lowe.  Quite why the three Dad’s Arny soldiers are sitting fully-dressed in a sauna is something of a mystery – and the segment seems to have been designed just so Arthur Lowe can call Elton a “stupid boy”.  It’s a nice moment though, and all of Elton’s encounters help to sell the idea that the BBC was one large entertainment factory, with stars lurking behind every corner.

Angharad Rees looks gorgeous and Eric is fulsome in his praise. “I’ll tell you something Hand Grenade. I was thrilled when I realised that you’d escaped from Colditz.”. Eventually, Ern manages to explain that Angharad was the star of Poldark and not Colditz.

Angela Rippon’s back – this time as a member of the chorus line.  They were obviously pleased with this – as it’s repeated (slightly faster each time) throughout the show.

The sense that this is the end-of-an-era is strengthened by the final BBC flat sketch.  Everything is packed up as they’re preparing to move.  But there’s still time for Eric to make some familiar digs at Ern’s expense.

ERIC: I remember the first time you ever stuck your head out this window.
ERN: When was that?
ERIC: It was blowing a gale. It blew your wig off. It landed in that garden down there. A little old lady came out and gave it a saucer of milk.

Nothing Like A Dame is one of the crown jewels from Morecambe and Wise’s BBC career.  Apart from the pleasure in seeing some familiar BBC faces, it’s mainly the excellent editing (making them appear to be responsible for incredible feats of acrobatic prowess) which is the reason why it’s so memorable.  Eric was famously sure that it wouldn’t look convincing, but it really does work well.  It must have taken some time to edit and assemble, but it’s another sign that M&W could call on all the available BBC resources.

Penelope Keith and Francis Matthews star in Cyrano de Bergerac.  Several of Keith’s Good Life co-stars make cameos (Richard Briers, Paul Eddington) and it’s an improvement over the 1976 play simply by being a little shorter.  Penelope Keith also wanted to take part in a big song and dance number – and she gets her wish, sort of.  It’s just a pity that somebody forgot to complete the staircase …..

That would appear to be the end of the show, as the credits roll.  But afterwards we see Elton John reach the studio – but he’s too late.  The show’s over, the audience has gone home and there’s only two cleaners left (played by Morecambe and Wise).  This allows us to see how tatty the audience seating was (i.e. very tatty) and it provides a somewhat melancholy ending to the show as Elton performs his song to an audience of two.  Wisely, they didn’t dub any audience reaction onto this section later.  It’s also noteworthy that Elton’s complete performance was recorded on one camera and with one take – quite impressive.

It’s an interesting ending to Morecambe and Wise’s last hurrah at the BBC.  In retrospect, the 1971 Christmas Show was by far their best (and it seems clear that the pressures of repeating that success caused some problems in the years following) but the 1977 show does run it quite close.  Morecambe and Wise would carry on, but things would never be quite the same at Christmas again.

 

The Two Ronnies Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery (1973)

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Apart from their links and sketches for the 1972 Christmas Night with the Stars, this was the Two Ronnies’ only Christmas special during the 1970’s.  With Morecambe and Wise reigning supreme, there was less need for a Two Ronnies Christmas show as well – but after M&W jumped ship to Thames, the Ronnies would gradually fill the void – with stand-alone specials in 1982, 1984 and 1987 (as well as Christmas shows from other years as part of their regular series).

The 1973 Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery was an attempt to do something a little different from the norm.  It takes place at the country house of Sir Giles (Ronnie Barker) and Lady Hampton.  The year is 1872 and the mystery of the title refers to the Christmas turkey – somebody’s stolen it, so what will Sir Giles’ guests have to eat for Christmas lunch?

He decides to engage the services of that ace detective Piggy Malone (and his trusty assistant Charley Farley).  Given that Malone and Farley appeared in four serials during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s a little surprising that none of them were set in Victorian times – maybe something of a missed opportunity.  As might be expected, they bumble about for a while, and the mystery is never really solved (although they do inadvertently provide an alternative for the Christmas dinner).

Although on the surface this looks different from the normal Two Ronnies shows, underneath there’s still plenty that’s familiar.  Ronnie B delivers a monologue, Ronnie C sits in a chair (more comfortable than his usual one) to spin a shaggy dog story and both of them end proceedings with some musical numbers (new words to the familiar tunes of Gilbert & Sullivan).

Along the way there’s some guest stars.  Tux (a man who balances plates on his head) was a throw-back to the specialty acts that were a regular feature during the first series.  Gabrielle Drake is gorgeous as Emma, who has her eye on Ronnie C – although he seems totally immune to her charms.

Cheryl Kennedy provides one of the stand-out moments by performing a monologue, Christmas Bells.  Given the opulent surroundings it’s something that certainly has an impact and serves as a timely reminder that we should always stop to remember (and help) those at Christmas who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Hear the bells are ringing, Bill? That’s cos it’s Christmas Eve. But it ain’t for you and me as there’s a ringing. When we is cold and hungry, Bill, it’s hard to make believe, as we can hear the happy angels singing. If we had a bed to sleep in, and could get a bite to eat, then bells of angel’s voices might remind us. But not when you’re to doss, Bill, in the cold and cruel street, where the Bobbies are nearly always sure to find us. Ah, it’s dreadful hard on you, Bill, cos you’re such a little kid, what didn’t oughta know a bit of sorrow, and wouldn’t if them Christian folks would do as they was bid. Why, him whose birthday’s gonna be tomorrow. But it was him what said, “Let little children come to me.” And meaning just such little coves as you, Bill. But I ain’t got no chance, cos I’m fourteen you see. And I’ll tell you, as I knows a thing or too, Bill, you can’t sell evening papers so as to get a bit to eat, like I done since the time as I was seven, without picking up enough of badness in the street to leave no earthly chance to get to heaven. Them coves what comes around with tracts summed me up a treat. I’m an outcast, little heathen, poor lost sinner.
Perhaps they’d be the same if they’d been brought up in the street and hardly ever had no proper dinner. But Bill, when you and me is dead, I’ll come along wi’ you, and you shall introduce me as your brother. And him who’s knows what sorrow is, he’s sure to let me through. Cos why? We’ve been such pals to one another. Ain’t we, Bill?