Running every year from 1958 to 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966) Christmas Night with the Stars brought together some of the BBC’s top light entertainment and sitcom performers for a specially recorded program of seasonal highjinks. Only three complete editions – 1958, 1964 and 1972 – now exist and whilst the complete shows are not commercially available (although a cut-down version of the 1972 show was included on the Two Ronnies Christmas DVD) thanks to YouTube they are viewable at present.
Magician David Nixon is your host for the 1958 Stars, with Charlie Chester, the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake, Perry Como, Ted Ray, Tony Hancock, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Edwards, Billy Cotton & his Band and Jack Warner providing the entertainment.
If Charlie Chester’s remembered today it’s probably due to his later radio career (he had a Sunday R2 programme which ran until 1996). Possibly it’s a little unfair that Chester was labelled a cut-price Max Miller, but there’s a certain similarity in style – although Miller was undoubtedly better. Chester’s spot is amiable enough though, even if he was already looking like a relic from another age back then.
After a rather jolly song (if you don’t listen to the lyrics) from the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake makes his appearance. Drake plays a tuneless carol singer who gets short-shrift from his potential customers. Hmm, Charlie Drake. The studio audience clearly love him, collapsing into hysterics at the drop of a hat, but I have to confess that his shtick has always left me cold and this sketch didn’t change my opinion. Thanks, but no thanks.
Perry Como warbles away for a few minutes before Ted Ray and Kenneth Connor enjoy a nice two-handed sketch – Ray is a patient, convinced he’s swallowed something nasty and Connor is the doctor. Connor had worked with Ray both on radio and television and they clearly had a good working relationship which shows in the way they interact with each other. The material is a little thin (a view which seems to be shared by the studio audience – listen how the laughs tail off towards the end) but anything’s an improvement after Charlie Drake!
Next, David Nixon plucks the fairy off the top of the Christmas tree, which then proceeds to dance in front of his eyes. Today, this may look a little crude but considering how limited the technology was at the time, you have to admit that it’s very nicely done (CSO/Chromakey from a decade or more later sometimes didn’t look as good as this).
Up next is a real Christmas treat, Tony Hancock. Rather than the East Cheam skit we might have expected, Tony’s contribution is very different – he’s a budgie in a cage, less than impressed with the treatment he’s receiving from his owner. Because it’s such an unlikely scenario, this is possibly why it works – or maybe it’s just that Hancock was so good he could deadpan his way through a scene no matter how ridiculous he looked. With his familiar mixture of weary resignation, Hancock is on fine form. “Not good enough, stuck here all day with nothing to eat. Haven’t had a decent piece of millet since last Thursday.” Hancock, with just a shrug and a glance (even when dressed as a budgie) can express so much and is a delight.
David Nixon shows Vera Lynn a quick magic trick before she pops off to sing a few songs. Then we have Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O! It’s a series that’s been in the news as three previously missing episodes have recently been found, meaning that there’s now seven in existence. The premise of the series is something of an eye-opener (Edwards plays a headmaster who delights in caning the boys in his charge). A Muir/Norden vehicle that’s historically interesting rather than amusing, if it succeeds at all then it’s thanks to Edwards’ performance.
Billy Cotton and his Band are on hand for a good old singalong and knees-up, he certainly seems to get the studio audience animated. C’mon Simply/Network, etc – let’s get the remaining Billy Cotton shows on DVD, you know it makes sense!
It might seem a little odd to end in Dock Green as George Dixon (Jack Warner) toasts his family and friends around the dinner table, but Warner’s background was very much in LE – so much so that Dixon of Dock Green was for many years made by the Light Entertainment Department rather than the Drama Department. Warner delivers a lovely monologue and given that so little of Dixon exists, every little scrap is precious. Maybe one day someone will scoop up all the existing B&W Dixon material to compliment the (mostly) complete colour stories released by Acorn. C’mon again Simply/Network, etc – this makes sense too!
Christmas Night with the Stars 1958 has peaks and troughs, but overall it’s not a bad way to spend seventy minutes.