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

cracker 01

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)

m4.jpg

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)

m1

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)

m1

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

rag 01

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 ….

rag 02

 

The Rag Trade – Christmas Box

rag 01

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.

rag 02

All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part Two

all star 02-01.jpg

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.

all star 02-02

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.

all star 02-03

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 ….

all star 02-04

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.

all star 02-05

All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part One

star 01

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 ….

star 02

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.

star 03

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.

star 04

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.

star 05

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.

star 06

Tommy Cooper’s Christmas – 25th December 1973

cooper 01

Tommy Cooper’s ability to keep the audience in hysterics whilst apparently doing very little is firmly in evidence at the start of this Christmas Special.  Maybe it’s simply because the audience can see tables laden with magic props and therefore know that almost anything could happen ….

The first fifteen minutes is typical freewheeling Cooper – a captive audience, a wide selection of props and an almost endless supply of gags (“my wife’s just had a facelift. But it’s not high enough, I can still see her”).  How scripted this part of the show was is open to debate – there’s certainly a few sharp edits which suggests that some flab was excised (the fact that Cooper dashes from one trick to the other, apparently at random, may not entirely be an act then).  There are a few successes (a vanishing watch for example) but the standard of illusions here never rises above trick shop fare – although he does have a nice line in dexterity.  But then nobody watches Tommy Cooper for skilful magic.

In order to pad things out to an hour, Cooper later takes part in various sketches.  These are often not quite as entertaining as his magical efforts, but two of the longer efforts – playing snooker with Allan Cuthbertson and cooking with a puppet duck – stand out.

Cuthbertson was a Cooper regular during this time.  He’s the perfect straight man – able (almost always) to keep his composure whilst Cooper causes anarchy.  The premise of the sketch (Cooper is a golfer, not a snooker player, and so attempts to clamber on the table to take his shot, etc) may be thin but the pair of them make it work.  One of the best moments is an unscripted one after Cuthbertson has a temporary dry and garbles the order of the colours.  His slight loss of composure is palpable, although after sharing a wry grin with Cooper he pulls himself together (it’s noticeable that Cooper didn’t attempt to make capital from Cutherberton’s stumble – easy to imagine some other comics wouldn’t have been so forgiving).  The arrival of snooker legend Joe Davis (attired, like Cooper, for the golf course) proves to be a nice moment to close the sketch on.

Clodagh Rodgers and Sacha Distel provide the music.  Both have their own solo spots before joining forces for a duet.  Rogers essays a Christmas medley whilst standing in front of a series of silvery Christmas trees (maybe there was a lack of baubles that year – the trees look very underdressed).  Distel plumps for the non-Christmassy Playground in My Mind.  He doesn’t have to contend with denuded Christmas trees – instead he’s surrounded by slightly menacing masks.

Although Tommy Cooper tended to work better in the half hour format (The Tommy Cooper Hour, although boasting some impressive guests – including Abba – across its run, did sometimes feel a bit padded out) this is a decent special.  Unusual to see Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke on scripting duties, as they were much better known for sitcoms than sketches.

dinnerladies – Christmas

dinner 01

Following directly on from the previous episode, Christmas finds the relationship between Bren (Victoria Wood) and Tony (Andrew Dunn) deepening – although the dramatic cliffhanger from last time (Tony and Bren enjoyed their first kiss, only to be interrupted by Bren’s estranged husband) has to be addressed first.

Although the first series of dinnerladies was traditional sitcom fare (in that each episode had a fairly linear plot) it’s clear that Victoria Wood had more ambitious plans for the second and final series.  Sitcoms with continuing storylines aren’t unique (Brass is a good example of a show with a strong serial theme) but they are unusual.

The growing attraction between Tony and Bren is one of the major plot-threads of series two, but all of the main characters have their own individual story arcs which peak at different times.  Drama mixes with comedy here, as Bren finds herself plagued by self doubt.  She can see a possible future with Tony, but her life to date (exemplified by her disastrous first marriage) makes her convinced that she’ll “bugger it all up” somehow.

Tony initially reassures her that nothing’s changed between them, but then later he becomes distant and distracted – which suggests that he’s lost interest.  He hasn’t of course (instead he’s rushing around attempting to organise an impressive Christmas and Birthday treat for her).  It has to be said that this is a slightly clumsy piece of plotting, since it demands that Bren has to jump to the wrong conclusion several times.

dinner 02.jpg

With Victoria Wood doing the heavy-lifting, drama-wise, the rest of the cast get all the best jokes.  Anita (Shobna Gulati) has her usual stream of bizarre conversational non sequiturs (today involving Disco Monks, thoughts of Michael Aspel, Sooty’s suitability as James Bond and bacon) whilst Jean (Anne Reid) and Dolly (Thelma Barlow) continue their gentle game of one-upmanship.  Jean’s latest attempt to roll back the years (she’s wearing an all-in-one bodyshaper but is having a spot of trouble with the studs) causes much merriment amongst those waiting for bacon – most notably Bob (Bernard Wrigley).

Bob later returns with Jane (Sue Devaney) for a spot of singing and dancing which draws a round of applause from the studio audience.  The unexpected arrival of Bren’s mother, Petula (Julie Walters), also – as always – entertains the audience.  With Janette Krankie in tow as her equally down-at-heel friend, Janice, Petula causes her usual amount of strife and discord, although there’s a nice sense of community as everybody else – in Bren’s absence – elects to send her packing.  If Bren has commitment issues then it’s in no small part due to her mother, who dumped her at an orphanage when she was a child (“I had her too early, there was too much going on. You can’t jive with one hand on a pram handle”).

There’s not a great deal of Stan (Duncan Preston) in this one, which is a shame, although he does have one lovely and typically bizarre monologue.  “Did I ever tell you about the day I had to go to casualty with a dart in me head? If you take my head as a dartboard it went in here (pointing to his chin) low score. Double top I’d have been dead”.  Although there’s method in his madness as he’s attempting to distract Bren, who’s on the verge of leaving Tony and the canteen forever.

But then it’s revealed that Tony hadn’t forgotten to get her a present – in fact he’s managed to smuggle the Black Dyke Band into the canteen ….

This is another of those moments where you have to suspend your disbelief somewhat – not only that Tony could persuade the Black Dyke Band to give up their Christmas Eve but also that they were able to get Bren out of the way just long enough to sneak them all in.  Well it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous.

Slightly iffy plot mechanics aside, it’s still a touching moment and had the series ended here then it would have seemed like a natural conclusion.  But there were four more episodes to come, meaning that everybody’s stories still had a little time to run.

dinner 03.jpg

Telly Addicts – 1989 Christmas Special

telly 89

Back in those far off, pre-internet days, Telly Addicts was required viewing since it offered brief, tantalising glimpses into a television past that was otherwise pretty much off limits (look! A clip of Arthur Haynes …).  Today, of course, the archive clippage is less compelling, but it’s still an entertaining quiz.

As was usual, the Christmas special is something of a celebrity fest.  The Crackers (Graeme Garden, George Layton, Liza Goddard, Frank Carson) find themselves locked in a bitter battle with the Clowns (Chris Tarrant, Barry Cryer, Jessica Martin, Jim Bowen).  For some reason (self indulgence maybe) Noel Edmonds dubs each of them with a fictitious soap opera name.  Cryer is gifted the moniker Hugh Jampton, and no doubt he – and the older members of the audience – would have immediately understood the reference.

Memorable rounds include Guess Who, which sees ordinary members of the public stopped in the street and asked to describe a television favourite.  This sounds fair enough, but pretty much everyone picked looks a little, well … odd.  You have to assume that the television crew let the ordinary looking people pass by – it was the nutters they wanted ….

Sing the Sig is also good fun, whilst a clip from the Golden Girls seems to demonstrate that nobody on the Clowns team ever watched it.  We also get to see just the mildest amount of needle between Chris Tarrant and Noel Edmonds whilst Frank Carson (for him) is fairly subdued – although his exasperation in the final round (“why ask me? What’s wrong with them?”) is a joy.

The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1985

paul 85-01.jpg

Right from the start, the 1985 Christmas Special suffers from something of a dance overload.  Paul introduces us to his two assistants (Kate Bellamy and Donald Waugh.  Yes, Hughsey from Grange Hill) who he proceeds to lock into two individual cabinets which have been made to look like chimneys.  So far, so predictable.  But then Paul ambles off the stage as the Brian Rogers dancers move onstage and proceed to leap about in a highly energetic manner.  They add a bit of glamour – albeit on the cheesy side.

As the orchestra grinds out a version of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, the dancers take over the illusion – some of  them start to slice the cabinets up whilst the more attractive lady dancers are content to preen themselves.  This is all very odd, although there is a reasonable payoff when we see Paul – clearly deciding that he should get a little more involved in proceedings – mildly berating them for mixing up the boxes.  This means that the assistant’s clothes are revealed to have been swopped once the boxes are reassembled (a neat extra trick to go with the puzzle of where they disappeared to in the first place).

If Paul largely sits this one out, then it’s fair to say that he doesn’t really contribute a great deal to the remainder of the show.  There’s a few close-up illusions – the three card trick (done with four cards!) and a trick with a fifty pound note – but otherwise he’s fairly inactive until the end of show spectacular.  More on that in a minute.

paul 85-02.jpg

The Jazzy Jumpers come from America and are a young, energetic skipping troupe.  Not the most exciting of speciality acts, but undeniably skilful.  Lance Burton (direct from Las Vegas) offers us a reasonably good performance of the substitution trunk (created by Maskelyne, popularised by Houdini) although it’s odd that we never actually see the person inside the trunk who Burton had swopped with. Zhou Shurong offers eye-watering feats of flexibility.

It’s always fun when two great magicians meet – and so it is here as Paul comes face to face with Sooty.  Yes it’s Sooty, making a rare return to the BBC (and mistaking Paul for Terry Wogan – easy to do) whilst causing havoc with a miniature fountain.  This is apparently a scaled down version of an illusion performed by Dante and although it’s only a bit of throwaway fun it’s still appealing.  It was nice to see Sweep as well (oh, and Matthew Corbett).

paul 85-03.jpg

We then have a cutesy overload as Paul proceeds to tell a young chap called David all about Snow White. David looks too neat and scrubbed up to have been pulled out of the audience, so presumably he was selected well in advance (not that this really matters, as David’s main function is to react with wonder as the story of Snow White comes to life).

This is the cue for the return of the Brian Rogers dancers and there’s more dancing to come as we meet Snow White – who just happens to be played by Debbie.  It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the whole closing sequence had been designed in order to show off her dancing talents (you may not be surprised to hear that Snow White gets the chance to do a spot of hoofing).  A few illusions are thrown in but they’re all rather secondary to the showbizzy razzle dazzle (the seven dwarfs are played by children, for that extra awww factor).  It’s nice to see Fenella Fielding as the wicked Queen though.

The showbiz feel is maintained right until the end as each performer returns to the stage in order to take their bows.  As a Christmassy extravaganza this is decent enough fare, but as a magic show it’s something of a disappointment.

paul 85-04.jpg

The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1984

paul 84-01.jpg

The 1984 Christmas Show comes front-loaded with celebrities as Clare Francis, Anneka Rice, Bonnie Langford, Val Doonican and Larry Grayson are brought on for a spot of banter and magic.  All receive a warm reception from the studio audience but it’s Grayson who generates the most whoops and cheers by far.

Both Bonnie and Anneka are very eye-catching (Bonnie sports a silver pair of trousers whilst Anneka has a sparkly top and a  very short skirt).  Paul was never slow in appreciating female beauty, so it’s no surprise that he seems a little smitten with Anneka (“lovely leg, shame about the other one”).  Although I’m not sure whether his mispronunciation of her first name was deliberate or not ….

paul 84-02

This is a nice, relaxed opening to the show – allowing the likes of Larry Grayson to camp it up a little (unsurprisingly).  He’s also selected to wear a bag on his head (in order to check that when Paul puts it on, he can’t see out of it).  Given that Paul’s still wearing the wig, I was slightly concerned they’d be an accident, but everything passes off without a hitch (although it’s noticeable that when Paul removes the bag, he does instinctively check that everything’s still in place).

There are two speciality acts on the show.  Both are perfect for Christmastime viewing (maybe one day somebody might decide that a variety show on Christmas day would be a good idea – stranger things have happened).  First up is Kris Kremo.  I love a juggler, and they really don’t come any better than Kremo – who not only juggles with his hands but also his feet to begin with.  His act climaxes with the juggling of three cigar boxes – a familiar sight, but Kremo’s dexterity is something special.

George Carl has to slowly work the audience – his style of silent clowning proves to be something of a slow burn – but by the end he seems to have won everybody over (at the start, laughter is more sporadic – meaning that it’s possible to pick out several very distinctive hearty laughing types).

Debbie is now a part of the show.  She doesn’t have a great deal to say, but it’s plain that she’s higher up in the pecking order than Paul’s previous assistants (she appears in one of the six picture boxes on the end credits).

When I wrote about the 1980 special, I mentioned that there were no big illusions.  That’s redressed here, as Paul contrives to vanish one million pounds under the watchful eyes of Owen Rout (the general manager of Barclays Bank) and Robert Maxwell.  Maxwell’s later misdeeds gives this whole illusion something of a bleak irony.  It certainly proves hard to take your eyes off him.

When Paul announces that the money is shortly to enter the studio, it’s impossible to miss the way that Maxwell’s eyes light up.  Maxwell also can’t prevent himself from getting involved every step of the way (instinctively reaching for the safe key, constantly wanting to touch the money, etc). And then there’s the moment when Paul refers to Rout and Maxwell as men of integrity ….

As an unashamed television geek, one of the reasons I love this part of the show is that the cameras are allowed to shoot off the edge of the set.  So we get to see the studio cables, monitors and doors as well as the orchestra (who rarely, if ever, appeared on screen).  The money arrives in the studio to the strains of The A Team (no, me neither) and then the long process begins – opening the safe, extracting another safe containing the money, checking that the money is genuine, moving the safe with the money into a clear Perspex container.

This is one of those illusions where you know right from the start what’s going to happen (and also that it’ll only take a few seconds) but in order to have any impact the whole thing has to build very slowly.  Therefore some twenty minutes (the climax of the show) is spent on this trick – a considerable amount of time, but it never feels drawn out.  Luckily, after all the preamble it turns out to be a baffling mystery – no doubt if I searched hard enough I could find the solution, but discovering how tricks work is much less enjoyable than wondering how it was achieved.

paul 84-03.jpg

The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1980

paul 80-01.jpg

Paul Daniels notched up fifteen consecutive Christmas Specials on the BBC between 1979 and 1993, a staggering feat which no other performer has come close to matching (unless I’ve missed someone blindingly obvious).   Daniels’ sometimes abrasive performing style (forged in the white heat of the Northern Working Mens Clubs) and his outspoken opinions on numerous subjects always ensured that he seemed to be as loathed as he was loved, but there’s no denying the influence he had on modern magic.

Following his death, most of the great and good of the magic world queued up to pay tribute – although it’s also fair to say that many were equally as fulsome when he was alive.  This clip from Penn and Teller: Fool Us never fails to bring a smile to my lips, not least for the obvious respect that both Penn and Teller – but especially the ebullient Penn – had for Paul.

Rewinding back to 1980, this was Daniels’ second BBC Christmas Special and the first to be transmitted on Christmas day itself (surprisingly he’d only manage this feat a further three times – in 1981, 1982 and 1985).  It’s the early days of the series, so the lovely Debbie McGee has yet to appear on the scene.  Daniels’ assistants here are equally as attractive – and sport some remarkable costumes – but are never allowed to speak.  Paul’s wig is still very much in evidence (as is, in the opening few minutes, a remarkable red velvet suit).

Another feature of these early series was “the jury” – a group of handpicked members of the studio audience who were allowed to get up close and personal (their job was to try and work out exactly how the tricks worked).  But it was also useful in another respect, as it meant that Paul didn’t have to trudge out to the wider studio audience in order to find his next hapless victim.

The first trick – involving Peter and his watch – is typical Daniels.  He borrows Peter’s watch in order to do a clever trick which inevitably goes wrong.  All appears lost and Peter seems resigned to losing his precious timepiece, until Paul miraculously pulls it out of the middle of a Christmas cracker (well this is a festive show).  Although Paul gives his victim a slightly hard time, you know that everything will work itself out in the end, so the joshing never seems particularly cruel or unkind.

I like the mentalism trick which he performs with a rather attractive young woman from the jury.  It’s another neat piece of close-up magic and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.  Paul’s next turn – in the Christmas Bunco Booth – is possibly the most memorable part of the show.  Not because it’s a decent trick (in fact, there’s no trick at all) but simply because it demonstrates how some things never seem to change …..

paul 80-02.jpg

Paul opens by bemoaning the fact that since the economy is going through something of a rough patch, plenty of people are feeling the pinch (which plays equally as well in 2017 as it did in 1980).  But then he tells us his solution – separate Scotland from England and give the Scots their own currency.  Eerily prescient stuff.  As I said, there’s no trick here – just a clever piece of number juggling which allows him at the end to turn to camera and tell Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe that’s how they should be running the country!

Guest-wise, Lilly Yokoi’s bicycle act is very impressive (a pity it wasn’t a little longer).  Whereas during Michael McGiveney’s quick change act I did wish it was a little shorter.  There’s no denying the ability of McGiveney (acting out a scene from Olivier Twist, playing all the characters) but after you’ve seen one quick change you’ve seen them all (and it’s fair to say that McGiveney’s a better quick change artist than he is an actor).  Compagnie Philippe Genty offer diverting, but not riveting, puppet fun.

paul 80-03.jpg

Paul never seemed threatened by other magicians, as the appearance here of Harry Blackstone suggests.  Blackstone performs the sawing a woman in half trick – although by using a circular saw it creates a heightened sense of anticipation.  It’s the one major illusion in the show, which makes it all the more surprising that Paul didn’t perform it – but he was obviously happy doing the smaller stuff.  Other illusionists might have been tempted to throw in blood and screams, but Blackstone – possibly mindful of the Christmas Day audience – keeps it clean.  The camera’s close enough to see the saw apparently slicing through flesh though, so it’s still slightly disquieting.

Paul ends the show by pulling out a bewilderingly large number of Christmas presents from a very small box.  It’s a cute ending (although I’m not sure that they’d get away with using live animals today) and although there’s no staggering illusions in this 1980 Special it’s still a very convivial way to spend fifty minutes.

paul 80-04.jpg

Christmas Top of the Pops 1981

xmas-81

Although BBC4 are continuing to plug away with their archive TOTP repeats (we’ll shortly be hitting 1983) sadly there will continue to be considerable gaps.  It’s understandable why any that feature Jimmy Savile get chopped, although DLT’s continuing blacklisting is a little harder to comprehend.

The recent news that the late Mike Smith elected not to authorise repeats of any shows in which he featured (a decision supported by his widow, Sarah Greene) is another blow.  The reason for this isn’t clear, although it’s possible that Smith felt tainted by association with the likes of Savile.

Still, at least many of these “banned” shows are in circulation, although complete editions tend to get pulled quite quickly from YouTube (other video sharing sites tend to retain them a little longer).  But one that has remained on YouTube for a number of years is the 1981 Christmas Special, which I’ve recently been revisiting.

It opens with the Teardrop Explodes and Reward.  It’s still fairly early in Michael Hurll’s reign, so there’s not an excessive party atmosphere – Julian and the boys share the stage with a few depressed-looking tinsel Christmas trees and some balloons – but hey, with a song as strong as this you don’t really need much in the way of set dressing.

Up next are Ultravox with Vienna, which was held off the top spot by Joe Dolce (surely one of those facts that just about everybody knows).  The rest of the band decided to dress quite normally, but Midge went for the full biker look.  It means nothing to me (sorry).  We do get a ballerina though, which is nice.

The lovely Kim Wilde sings Kids in America.  Sigh …..

I’ve always liked the Human League, which means that this edition of TOTP is on a bit of a roll at present.  The League perform Love Action (“this is Phil talking”) and it’s back in the day when Philip had plenty of hair whilst Susan and Joanne haven’t really gone down the glam route (but look most attractive, nonetheless).

The good stuff keeps coming, with Godley & Crème and Under Your Thumb.  It’s not exactly a cheery party song, but the audience jig about a bit from side to side – which shows they’re attempting to get into the spirt of things.  Perhaps wisely the camera tends to focus on Kevin and Lol, especially Kevin who’s in full emoting mode at the end.

There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears he’s Elvis saw Kirsty MacColl labelled as something of a novelty artist, but in the years to come she’d more than prove her quality as a singer/songwriter (and there’s nothing wrong with this song anyway).  Thanks to Fairytale of New York she’s always present at Christmas, but MacColl shouldn’t just be for Christmas, she’s good enough to be enjoyed all year round.  Make it your New Year’s resolution to check out her back catalogue, you won’t regret it.

Awkward interviews were a feature of TOTP during this era and Simon Bates draws the short straw when he encounters Adam Ant.  Colin Blunstone and Dave Stewart are up next with their cover of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.  If you don’t already have it, then a copy of Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies should be a last minute Christmas present to yourself.  The Zombies, with the core partnership of Blunstone and Rod Argent, are still going strong today – gigging and recording albums – and they’re well worth checking out.

Zoo dance to the Jacksons’ Can You Feel It.  Linx have got into the Christmas spirit (their keyboard player is dressed as Santa!).  Intuition is one of those songs that I haven’t heard for years, but it still sounds pretty good and fits perfectly into the Christmassy atmosphere.

Too Nice to Talk To is one of The Beat’s lesser-known hits, but it jigs along nicely.  Spandau Ballet are next, and the good news is that they haven’t yet turned into slick balladeers.  But the music (Chant No 1) wasn’t uppermost in my mind – where’s your shirt Martin Kemp?  You’ll catch your death of cold in that drafty studio ….

Nothing screams early eighties like Toyah does.  Why?  It’s a Mystery (sorry again).

Laurie Anderson’s O Superman defies description and it’s wonderful that a fairly short-lived (Peter Powell mentions that they never featured it on the regular TOTPs as it exited the charts shortly after entering) and decidedly left-field hit made the Christmas edition.

Clare Grogan’s covered in streamers as Altered Images perform Happy Birthday.  It’s another track that fits in perfectly with the happy, party vibe and it’s an undeniably slick slice of pop.

At this point in their career, Depeche Mode (with I Just Can’t Get Enough) look impossibly young and fresh-faced.  Sensible clothes (especially jumpers) are well to the fore.  Also well-turned out are OMD.  As they perform Souvenir some of the dancers do a bit of smoochy dancing (watch where you’re putting those hands!) whilst members of the audience, in time-honoured TOTP fashion, turn around to gawp at the camera.

We end with a big old singalong as the groups and the DJs join forces to warble through All You Need is Love.  Other familiar faces, like Justin Hayward, also pop up (was he just passing?) and it brings to an end an almost faultless edition of the show.  Pop perfection pretty much from beginning to end.

Sykes – Christmas Party

sykes.jpg

Running during the sixties and seventies, Sykes starred Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques as identical(!) twins Eric and Hattie.  This episode, Christmas Party, was broadcast in December 1975 and finds them enjoying a touch of Christmas hospitality at Corky’s house (the wonderful Deryck Guyler, on fine form as ever).

The way that Eric and Hattie behave to their host highlights how different they are.  Eric, once they’ve finished eating, is keen to make their excuses and leave but Hattie, knowing how this would hurt Corky’s feelings, insists they stay for a while.  It’s clear that Eric’s more than a little cheesed off and Corky’s relatives don’t help to lighten his mood.  There’s the distinctly odd Clara (Sheila Steafel), who never seems to speak, as well as an annoying child, Marlon (Nicholas Drake), who delights in taunting Eric.

Eric Sykes’ writing style has always intrigued me.  Although he had a long association with Spike Milligan (Sykes pitched in during the 1950’s with Goon Show scripts to help ease Milligan’s workload) his own shows were always quite conventional in their tone and outlook.

So Sykes, unlike Milligan, was never an experimental comedian, which means that his work can sometimes be predictable, although – as with Christmas Party – there’s often a twist or two.  One example of using a well-worn gag can be seen when Marlon offers Eric his telescope.  You know (and the studio audience seem clued in as well) that in a minute his eye is going to be covered in black bootpolish – and so it is.  Was it the sheer predictability which appealed to Sykes?  Although his double-take means that he makes the most of it.

With most of the “action” taking place in Corky’s sitting room, there’s a definite feeling of being trapped – certainly most of the audience would probably sympathise with Eric’s sense of despair (he’d much sooner be back at home with his feet up, rather than listening to Clara plonk away on the piano).

Later, there’s a nice reversal of our expectations after Corky demonstrates his favourite card trick.  Eric doesn’t want to play along (he complains that Corky does the same one every year) and explains to Hattie that it’s just so obvious – every card in the deck is the Ace of Spades, so it’s no surprise when Corky’s confederate displays the same card.  Although he, yet again, picks the Ace of Spades he mischievously tells Corky that it was the Ten of Hearts, only for Clara to show him the Ten of Hearts!  Possibly this was the reason why Sykes had crafted the earlier, obvious, gags like the telescope – that way it makes the unbelievable card reveal more of a surprise.

The quick arrival and departure of Jimmy (Jeremy Gagan), a personable pickpocket, seems to provide an explanation as to where all their personal belongings (watches, wallets, etc) have gone, but once again there’s a twist in the tale.

Christmas Party chugs along very nicely thanks to the talents of Sykes, Jacques, Guyler and the guest cast, especially Steafel.

That’s Christmas Sez Les!

sez.jpg

That’s Christmas Sez Les!, Les Dawson’s 1973 Christmas extravaganza, certainly doesn’t lack on the guest front.  Along with regular contributors Eli Woods, Roy Barraclough and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, Clive Dunn, Jack Douglas and Ronnie Caroll are on hand for comic duties whilst Slade, David Essex, the Kessler Twins and Lynsey de Paul provide the music.

If you watch all the surviving episodes of Sez Les in sequence then there’s a considerable progression from series three (broadcast in early 1972) to this special in late 1973.  The third series shows were very tightly formatted – each twenty-five minute edition contained an opening and closing monologue from Dawson, a spot from the Syd Lawence Orchestra, a couple of musical guests, one studio sketch and possibly a brief bit of location filming.

By 1973 there was clearly more money in the kitty, as the regular shows had been extended to forty minutes (this special runs for an addtional ten minutes). Another change is that there’s now a considerable number of very short sketches rather than a couple of longer ones, which means that in some ways it feels like The Fast Show twenty five years early. You certainly can’t complain that the sketches are too drawn out, since many only consist of an establishing line and a punchline.

One slightly longer sketch features Dawson as a barman and Barraclough as a customer who’s confused when Dawson keeps throwing the drinks into his face.  A basic rule of comedy – repetition – is in play here, every time Barraclough complains, it appears that Dawson has finally understood, only for him to repeat the drink throwing once again.  There’s a predictable pay-off, but it’s pleasant to see a young Gordon Kaye pop up.

Dunn, Douglas and Caroll, along with Dawson and Barraclough, are good value as a group of wise-cracking vicars.  This enables them to rescue gags from the old jokes home (“do you save fallen women?”) but they’re good enough to get away with it, just ….

With so many very brief sketches,  Dawson sometimes struggles to make an impression whilst the deluge of guests also helps to reduce his screen-time. Still, at least the musical performers are pretty top notch, although was Noddy Holder really upset at Dawson’s trademark mocking introduction?  Noddy’s rejoinder (“ta for that introduction, fatty. Don’t call us, we’ll call you”) could be taken as good-natured banter, or maybe he really didn’t see the joke.

No matter, as Slade’s performance – lipsyncing to Merry Christmas Everybody – is just about perfect.  The average age of the typical Sez Les audience tended to be a little outside of Slade’s usual demographic, which explains why director David Mallet elected to surround the group with an enthusiastic young crowd.  With Noddy’s trademark mirrored hat and platform boots, together with Dave Hill’s gleaming Super-Yob guitar, this is a classic Christmas moment.

David Essex elected to sing live, the pick of his two songs being Lamplight.  He doesn’t have the teen audience around him, instead he’s on a darkened stage (rather apt I suppose, considering the song title) but showman that he is, he soldiers on regardless.  Lyndsey de Paul is possibly one musical guest too many, but her dancing with Les is a nice comic moment.

Actually thinking about it, Clive Dunn’s musical spot is definitely one too many.  The good news is that it isn’t Grandad, the bad news is that it isn’t as good as Grandad.  As with his earlier smash hit, he’s surrounded by a group of cute children, which is either endearing or sickly, depending on your point of view.  But it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous ….

More Les Dawson would have been welcome, especially some decent monologues (always his comic strength) but That’s Christmas Sez Les! is a compelling selection box of entertainment from a diverse group of performers.

Robin’s Nest – Christmas at Robin’s Nest

nest-01

Airing on ITV between 1977 and 1981, Robin’s Nest (one of two sitcoms spun off from Man About The House) is centred around the restaurant of the title, run by Robin Tripp (Richard O’Sullivan) and his wife Victoria (Tessa Wyatt).  She provides him with moral support and able assistance whilst less able assistance comes from the enthusiastic but incompetent one-armed washer-upper, Albert Riddle (David Kelly).  Also on hand is Victoria’s father, James Nicholls (Tony Britton), a sleeping partner in the business who’s always keen to make the maximum amount of money from his investment.

Although the series was created by Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer, by this time they’d stepped away from scripting duties, so Robin’s Nest at Christmas was penned by George Layton, the second of his thirteen contributions to the show.  Enjoying an equally successful career as both an actor and writer (with his writer’s hat on he’d be reunited with Britton on the middle-of-the-road but nonetheless popular sitcom Don’t Wait Up a few years later) Layton seemed to easily pick up the rhythms of the series.

Although guest actors drop by occasionally, Robin’s Nest concentrates on the four regulars – with Robin and Victoria usually playing the straight-men to the more comic characters of Albert (inept at whatever he attempts) and James (a mean skinflint, content to work Robin into the ground to generate a healthy profit).

Easily the most memorable character of the four is Albert Riddle.  Kelly effortlessly steals every scene he’s in and is an endless delight to watch – without him it would be a much more routine show.  Albert’s complete ineptness is clearly on display in the opening few minutes as he attempts to help Robin to put up the Christmas decorations in the restaurant.  Of course he’s no help at all, and his endless off-key singing of Christmas songs (“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. We are doing up Robin’s Nest, just for Christmas day”) doesn’t help to reduce Robin’s stress levels.

Albert then pops by at one o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day to deliver a bombshell – after coming into a small windfall he’s been able to buy a business of his own so will be resigning from Robin’s Nest forthwith …..

There then follows a rather tense Christmas Day meal at James’ house, with a glum Robin and Victoria and a rather merry Albert, whilst Peggy Aitchison has a nice scene as James’ domestic servant, Gertrude.  Many sitcoms tended to have an extended running time for their Christmas Specials, but this Robin’s Nest remains at its normal twenty-five minute format.  This means that it all feels quite compact (with more time, the Christmas meal could have been extended and made to feel even more awkward) but the one interesting wrinkle is that the reset button with Albert isn’t hit at the end.  His arrival back at the restaurant in the last few minutes seems to indicate that he’s had a change of heart, but the reason for his reappearance is quite different and a good comic moment to end on.

Coasting by for 48 episodes thanks in no small part to the regulars, Robin’s Nest is undemanding but always watchable entertainment.  As for this one, I’ve always been a little puzzled why Robin is so upset at Albert’s decision to leave – since he spends all his time complaining about him you’d have thought he’d have welcomed it!

nest-02

 

All This and Christmas Too!

all this 01.jpg

Headed by Sidney James and Kenneth Connor and featuring cameos from the likes of Janet Webb and Joe Gladwin, All This and Christmas Too! doesn’t lack for on-screen talent.

Sidney James is probably best known for his appearances in a string of Carry On films, but his film career in general (particularly during the 1950’s) was extensive – The Lavender Hill Mob, The Belles of St Trinians, Quatermass 2 and Hell Drivers are just a few highlights.  He also served as an excellent comic foil to Tony Hancock, both on radio and television, as well as starring in a number of different television series – such as Citizen James, Taxi!, George and the Dragon and Bless This House.

Kenneth Connor was also a familiar Carry On name, although prior to his appearance in the first of the series, Carry on Sergeant in 1958, he’d already amassed a diverse list of credits – appearing alongside Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan during their early forays into television, for example.

So by the time All This and Christmas Too! was broadcast in 1971, both had built up a considerable reserve of affection from the British public, which was probably just as well.  All This and Christmas Too! is a variable fifty minutes of pretty broad comedy – but thanks to the star quality of Sid James and Kenneth Connor I can’t help but feel a little indulgent towards it.

James plays Sid Jones (they must have spent hours thinking that name up) whilst Connor is his rather dim next-door neighbour, Willie Beattie.  Like the not completely dissimilar Sid Abbot in Bless This House, this Sid is also a devoted family man – with a wife, Peggy (Beryl Mason) and two daughters, Linda (Juliette Kempson) and Sally (Katie Allen).

The best gag is reserved for the opening scene, where – to the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra – a spaceman (Sid) makes his entrance.  The incongruity of a spaceman walking down the streer is quickly explained though, as Sid’s been entertaining the kids at a local party (although why he didn’t remove his costume before returning home is anyone’s guess ….).

With Sally shortly due to give birth, the hapless Sid is put in charge of keeping an eye on her whilst Peggy heads out to do some last minute Christmas shopping.  But any thoughts of a quiet few hours are quickly dismissed when Willie pops around – he wants Sid’s advice on negligees (for Willie’s wife, naturally).

I have to confess to being somewhat smitten with Juliet Kempson, who plays Sid’s non-pregnant daughter Linda. She’s really rather lovely and her presence helps to make the programme a little more enjoyable. Sam Cree’s script mines familiar generational tropes as Sid finds himself frequently baffled by his youngest daughter – the music she likes, the make-up she wears, etc. Watch out for the moment when Sid tells Linda to turn her record off, it stops several seconds before she reaches the player. The grams operator must have been a tad quick off the mark!

When Sally tells her father that it might be a good idea to call for a taxi, Sid goes into panic mode. The baby! James and Connor are both excellent at playing flustered – Willie rushes off to call a taxi whilst Sid runs round and round in circles, attempting to get Sally’s suitcase ready. Clearly forward planning isn’t big in the Jones’ household ….

Next day, Sid is surprised to find a baby in the hall. Even though it’s black, he decides that it must be Sally’s (it’s not of course). Cue more frantic activity from James and Connor as they attempt to stop the baby crying (the production clearly didn’t record a real child’s cries – it’s painfully obvious that what we can hear is an adult doing a baby impression).

When news of Sally’s baby comes through, Sid and Willie decide to toast its health, several times in fact. James and Connor both indulge in a nice spot of drunk acting, although the speed at which they become virtually insensible (mere seconds after taking a drink) is bizarre.

Unfortunately they have to try and pull themselves together and entertain Sally’s husband’s parents, Mr and Mrs Hall (the ever lugubrious Gladwin and the stoney-faced Rose Power).  What’s interesting about Sid’s attempt to make casual conversation with the foreboding Mrs Hall is that the same exchange (“I tried it once, didn’t like it”) also turned up in the following year’s Carry on Abroad.

Janet Webb, like Gladwin, has a nice comic cameo – she plays the flighty Aunt Maud. Her interplay with Gladwin’s vitually catatonic Mr Hall is something of a treat, as is the transformed Mr Hall after Sid’s special drink has taken effect.

A mixed bag then, with some of the farce elements feeling rather forced, but Sid James and Kenneth Connor do their best with the material on offer.

all-this-02

Christmas Night with the Stars 1972

stars.jpg

This was the final regular edition of CNWTS, with the Two Ronnies on hand on introduce Cilla Black, the Young Generation, Lulu, Mike Yarwood & Adrienne Posta, The Liver Birds, The Goodies and Dad’s Army.

Unlike David Nixon and Jack Warner, the Ronnies took a much more active role in proceedings, which means that it feels somewhat like an extended Two Ronnies show (most notably at the start, which opens in the time honoured way – news items, followed by a Two Rons party sketch).  This explains why the cut-down DVD version (excising all the other participants apart from Lulu and Cilla Black) still works pretty well as a Two Ronnies show in its own right.

The Young Generation back Lulu, as well as enjoying their own spot.  There’s rather a lot of them, aren’t there?  After Lulu and the Young Generation have leapt about for a few minutes, the Goodies arrive – via a film sequence which promises a grubby urchin the Christmas of his life (thanks to the Goodies Travelling Instant Five Minute Christmas).  Dialogue-free, it’s packed with typical Goodies sight gags as well as a healthy dose of comic violence (would they be able to get away with hitting a boy over the head with an outsized mallet today? Probably not).

Up next is The Liver Birds, which sees Beryl (Polly James) and Sandra (Nerys Hughes) reflecting on various aspects of Christmas – overindulgence and family relationships being top of the agenda.  The kind-hearted Sandra regards the remains of the turkey with sadness, whilst Beryl – always more pragmatic – has a different point of view. “Well, it’s his destiny isn’t it? I mean we’ve all got to die sometimes, it’s just that some of us go in black cars surrounded by flowers and some of us go in roasting tins surrounded by spuds.”

The Two Ronnies return for a some chat about their respective Christmases, which is notable for the number of times that Ronnie B stumbles over his lines. It’s a little odd that they didn’t do a retake, so either time was tight or it was decided that on Christmas Day the audience would be in a mellow mood and therefore more forgiving.

I’ve written elsewhere, about Mike Yarwood’s later career when his star was somewhat waning.  Here, a decade earlier, he’s pretty much at the top of his game – although this is a sequence that’s very much of its time (and if I’m being honest, a few of the impressions are a little weak).  The setting is a party at Number 10, so you won’t be surprised to hear that Harold Wilson and Edward Heath are in attendance (as is Frankie Howerd, for some strange reason).  Adrienne Posta provides support, but the topical nature of the piece makes it less effective than the more universal nature of the rest of the programme.

As a child, I tended to find Ronnie C’s chair monologues rather dull.  Now they’re often the highlight of their shows (funny how times and tastes change) so I’m glad one was included here.  Ronnie C also joins Cilla Black for a little crosstalk and a song, although how much you get from this part of the show will probably depend on how high your tolerance to Cilla Black is.

For me, we’re on firmer ground with Dad’s Army.  The platoon are incredibly proud to have been selected by the BBC to broadcast live to the nation on Christmas Day, but things aren’t as straightforward as Mainwaring would have hoped.  The rehearsals are slightly chaotic – thanks to the script provided by the BBC.  They’d assumed that the sergeant would be a cockney and the officer a gentleman, so Wilson is somewhat bemused that his part is full of slang whilst Mainwaring is incensed to be told that he doesn’t sound like an officer!  When the BBC man suggests that maybe they swop roles, the expressions on the faces of both Le Mesurier and Lowe are a joy!  With the rest of the platoon pitching in, notably to produce sound effects (Pike is in his element when asked to provide bird sounds) this is a nicely-written sequence with a decent pay off.

Following another quick Two Ronnies sketch, Cilla Black is back (along with a children’s choir – always a good bet at Christmas) to round things off before the Two Rons say goodbye with a selection of news item.

“And now it’s a Merry Christmas from me. And it’s a Happy New Year from him. Goodnight.”