What we watched on Christmas Day 40, 30 and 20 years ago. How does it compare to today? '“ Simon Carter

Stuffed full of turkey and with enough drink in the house to sink a warship, we'll all settle down at some point on Christmas Day in front of the magic rectangle, as acerbic TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith once described the small screen in the corner of our front rooms

Monday, 24th December 2018, 10:55 am
Updated Thursday, 10th January 2019, 10:50 am
Ooooh Betty! Classic Beeb comedy with Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

But just because it's a day of miracle and wonder '“ you DO believe in Father Christmas, don't you? '“ do not for one nano-second think the BBC will schedule a series of programmes that will live long in the memory.

People my age '“ I'm 50 next month '“ will often say that the '70s and '80s were the golden age of television.Yes, there were fewer channels '“ only three until 1982 '“ but in terms of sitcoms, family entertainment and chat shows the standard of programmes has rarely been bettered.

So let us go back in time, to three Christmas Days '“ 40, 30 and 20 years ago. Just what were we watching on the Beeb back then?

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Ubiquitous - Noel Edmonds.

Christmas Day 1978

Programmes on BBC1 did not start until 8.55am, with Christmas carols sung by a Cambridge choir.

That was followed by one for the children, The Flumps. Fifteen minutes later, though, saw the start of an hour-long Christmas Worship from Knutsford, Cheshire. Not much festive fun so far, then.

Things didn't really improve when The Spinners, an English folk band, hosted an half-hour programme before a UK premiere of Clambake, a film made 11 years earlier and starring Elvis Presley.

Larry Grayson on The Generation Game, 1978.

Holiday on Ice was followed by Noel Edmonds '“ yes, younger readers, the same one who was recently massaging Harry Redknapp's legs in the jungle '“ taking us through the big UK chart hits of 1978. There were some pretty big ones too, 1978 seeing an all-time peak in the number of singles sold in this country, such as You're The One That I Want, Summer Nights (both John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, or as we used to say in Devon John Revolting and Olivia Newton Abbot), Rivers of Babylon, Rasputin, Mary's Boy Child (all Boney M), Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush), Staying Alive, Night Fever (both Bee Gees)  and Abba (Take A Chance On Me). Oh, and The Smurf Song by Father Abraham and The Smurfs (don't laugh, it went to No 1 in 16 countries, and was only kept off the top spot in the UK by Revolting and Newton Abbot).

Lizzie's annual address to her nation was followed by Larry Grayson's Generation Game '“ no doubt a few 'shut that door!' comments were heard  '“ and virtually three hours of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music after that.

The curtain was brought up on the evening's main entertainment by Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em, one of the sitcoms fondly remembered by a certain generation and starring Michael Crawford as the slightly wimpish, horrendously accident-prone Frank Spencer. First shown in 1973, the 1978 Christmas Day special was the last Some Mothers ... programme made, if you don't count a 2016 Sport Relief special (and I'm not).

Frank Spencer's 'Ooh Betty' catchphrase was regularly used by impressionist Mike Yarwood, and his Christmas Special was up next. The previous year, 1977, Yarwood's festive show had attracted almost 22 million viewers making it the most watched single-episode light entertainment programme in UK history. He was truly a '70s family entertainment behemoth, though was to quickly slip out of the spotlight as the following decade hurried in a spate of 'alternative' comedians and satire.

Mike Yarwood's Christmas Show 1978. Here impersonating Harold Wilson.

True Grit: A Further Adventure, an American western made specifically for television, was the evening's main film, and that was followed by Michael Parkinson at the Pantomime with special guest Arthur Askey, and a Christmas Ghost Story before transmission ended at a quarter past midnight.

I wonder how long today's millennials would last in front of the TV if confronted with any of the programmes mentioned above? How long would it take, if strapped to a sofa to watch Mike Yarwood, Larry Grayson or The Sound of Music, before the 'mum, dad, can we PLEASE turn the wifi back on now' comment is uttered?

My kids would last less than five minutes if they had to watch some of the programmes that aired on BBC2 on Christmas Day, 1978, that's for sure.

It was the time-honoured favourite the Test Card until 11.05am, when Play School was followed by this corking bag of goodies: the Goldsmiths Choral Union at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of Princess Anne, Dersu Uzala (what do you mean you don't know it, a Russian film with English subtitles, silly!), Baker on Board (Richard Baker joins a Royal Navy Taskforce ship in the Atlantic), The Dairy of an 18th Century Farmer's Wife, by Anne Hughes, and The Count of Luxembourg, an Austrian production with Eberhard Wachter. No, I'd never heard of him either. There was also a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and to think that was one of only THREE channels we could watch on December 25, 1978. Today's kids, eh? They don't know they're born.

Ah, the Test Card. What better way to end transmission?


Christmas 1988

Ten years on, and it was easy to see how a nation's changing habits regarding TV had evolved.

Now, transmission started at 6.55am, with a smattering of children's programmes '“ The Racoons, Pink Panther, Playbus '“ all aired ahead of Christmas Worship from Paisley Abbey at 10am. An hour later, in no doubt an horrendous festive jumper, was Noel Edmonds' then annual December 25 morning programme before It's a Knockout Charity Special from Walt Disney World in Florida. A mixture of sports stars - David Gower, Lloyd Honeyghan, Joe Bugner, Annabel Croft '“ mixed with musical greats such as Meatloaf and, er, Toyah. Rolf Harris also took part and Stuart Hall was the presenter in an era where historical sex crimes were still some way off being investigated.

The Queen took her place among some televisual heavyweights in the afternoon and early evening '“ EastEnders, Top of the Pops, Back To The Future and Only Fools And Horses. Cliff Richard presented a Songs of Praise Special before the evening welcomed in special festive editions of Bread '“ a mildly humorous programme about cash-strapped scousers '“ and The Russ Abbot Show. Humour was very different in the late '80s, it has to be said ...

Main film of the evening was Silverado, starring Kevin Kline, while 1956 film Carousel provided late night viewing, after The Gospel of St Matthew.

As for BBC2, well ... the fact they repeated the five-hour long Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday concert, which had been held at Wembley the previous June, for the entirety of the afternoon tells you all you need to know. Unless you like Italian films with English subtitles, in which case you might have enjoyed The Family at 10.15pm.



The starts kept on getting earlier, a 6am one this time with the Teletubbies, then at the height of their fame, and a merry cocktail of Alvin and the Chipmunks, Scrooge Koala, Rotten Ralph, Noddy in Toyland and the Chuckle Brothers all appearing before Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La and Bob '“ no, he was the builder, wasn't he? '“ returned at 9.30am.

The UK premiere of 1994 film Miracle on 34th Street was followed by the (sadly missed, in my eyes) Top of the Pops before the Beeb pulled a fast one at 1.55pm with the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. Not a new one obviously '“ Eric had died 14 years earlier '“ but a repeat of the 1973 special featuring composer Andre Previn (Eric: 'I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.') An admission by the Beeb, one presumes, that some television in the '70s remains fresh in the memory of those that remember it because it hasn't been bettered since.

It wouldn't be Christmas Day on BBC1 if two characters weren't there, and sure enough Noel Edmonds and the Queen popped up in the afternoon '“ would have been a nice change if they had swapped roles, Noel addressing the nation and Her Maj springing surprises on people.

Animal Hospital '“ presented by Rolf Harris (we are still an era away from historic sex crimes investigations) '“ was followed by the first of TWO visits to EastEnders, both of which probably contained very little in the way of festive cheer, before Terry Wogan presented Auntie's Spanking New Christmas Bloomers and Carol Smillie smiled her way through a Changing Rooms Christmas special.

The film Babe, Before They Were Famous (with Angus Deayton, remember him?) and Men Behaving Badly '“ very funny, unlikely to go down well with today's snowflakes '“ completed a satisfactory family mix before Robbie Williams took us into the early hours of Boxing Day with a live concert in front of family and friends.

The Beeb, having gone back to the 70s in the afternoon with Morecambe and Wise, then repeated the trick at 12.35am with a Carry On film. Cue a merry number of double entendres and Sid James cackling. We certainly don't make them like that any more. And if we (miraculously) did, Twitter would explode.

For once, BBC2 contained two programmes I would happily have watched '“ Ashes cricket Test highlights and a profile of football legend Jimmy Hill '“ though they were rammed into an eclectic schedule which also featured Choir of the Year, a two-part documentary on former Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and a cluster of really old films '“ The Letter (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).

With all that in mind, hopefully the big man in red will deliver the Netflix subscription I've asked for ...