You'll undoubtedly be using our mammoth Christmas TV guide by now, so why not add to that some historical perspective? For that we hand over to author Ben Baker:
Christmas. What does it mean to you?
Don’t answer that, obviously. This is a book, not Google.
If you’re British, the festive season invariably means excess – be it through food, drink or, most importantly for this article, television. It never fails to confuse me when most American TV programmes run their big festive specials around December 9th whereas we in good old Blighty Britain are nowhere near ready to see so much as a televised paper hat until the very week of Jesus’s birth saving up the big specials for the proper occasion. And at the heart of those telly feasts is music. Whether it's Morecambe and Wise recreating Singin' In The Rain or confusedly pointing at the screen and bellowing “WHICH ONE'S IMPY?” throughout the latest “Top Of The Pops” on Christmas Day.
As featured in my new book Ben Baker's Festive Double Issue, here are ten less memorable musical moments that baffled, bewildered and buggered about generally on the schedules of Christmas past...
10. There’s Something Wrong in Paradise (December 22nd 1984, 10pm, ITV)
“A magical musical set on the mythical Caribbean island of Zyllha. Kid Creole and his Coconuts are shipwrecked on the island and anxious to get back home to New York, but Zyllha is ruled by President Nignat, who believes in racial purity. He is incensed by the Kid's mixed-race group winning his island's music festival. When Kid discovers his old girlfriend, Gina Gina, is running a pirate radio station and finds his true love Mimi, the scene is set for adventure.”
How amazing does this sound? A two-hour musical set around the music of Kid Creole And The Coconuts, one of the biggest chart acts of recent years tackling racial hatred with songs from their back catalogue including under-performing new album Doppelgänger. Unfortunately, even with the terrific Pauline Black from The Selecter as Mimi, The Three Degrees and founding EastEnders cast member Paul J Medford as the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin-named ‘Teenager’, the whole thing is a mess, while the 10pm timeslot will have excluded any younger fans. Kid and the band would appear on the channel again two days later in Joy to the World, described in that year's TV Times as a “magical tour of Christmas past and present” by “David Pickering, 12-year-old Chorister of the Year”. They really had it all that Christmas on ITV, eh?
9. Première for Elizabeth (December 29th 1979, 4.15pm, ITV)
“In September the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra opened its season at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon with the first public performance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Lane’s Sinfonietta for Strings.”
Another extraordinary thing that you just couldn’t imagine being broadcast now. Lane had appeared in a 1976 Magpie special called And I Write Music, after winning the Dr Barnado’s/Nationwide “Champion Children” Competition. Now a PHD, Lane still composes and lectures today but now known as just ‘Liz’.
8. Billy’s Christmas Angels (December 23rd 1988, 5pm, BBC One)
“Billy wants to play in a rock band with his brother Dave. ‘Dreams’ says Dad. So Billy’s Angels come down to earth to help find Dave – and reality – through Faith, Hope & ‘Charlie’...”
A single half-hour Liverpudlian pop fantasy with stunning music from the British six-piece acapella group The Mint Juleps who play the titular angels. Staged like a kitchen sink drama initially before veering off into more fantastical realms, Billy clashes with his harsh but sensible parents who don’t want him to run off like his older brother. Inevitably he does and bumps into the always welcome Daniel Peacock (as the Disney villain-esque Mr Big) and his henchman (played by Steve Johnson, soon to become part of ITV’s Motormouth memorably as host of the 'Mouse Trap' segment in which kids got to take part in a giant sized version of the popular board game.) Later Nabil Shaban appears as a philosophising junk shop owner and the story meanders to some sort of conclusion with the brothers reuniting and a lesson probably being learnt by somebody. It all lacks the charm of similar BBC shows of the era and exists now purely to torment people who can only half-remember what it was. Also the kid playing Billy is bloody awful. Nice music, though.
7. When Santa Rode the Prairie (December 23rd 1976, 5:40pm, BBC Two)
“A Festive Western by William Rushton. New Mexico, Christmas Eve 1876 and not a snowflake in sight. Tilly and Charlie Flagstaff have to spend Christmas at the Last Chance Hotel with their aunts, Santa Claus and an assortment of goodies and baddies while the Apaches are on the warpath.”
The joy of doing a book like mine is finding out about truly unusual sounding little one-off programmes like this, nestling cheerily in the pre-Christmas teatime telly schedules featuring people I really like. Rushton himself plays Santa in this 50-minute fantasy tale featuring songs by him and Roy Civil, with a supporting cast that includes future 'Tomorrow Person' Nigel Rhodes, Sue Nicholls and Victor Spinetti. Roy Civil is now a music teacher in the Northampton region.
6. Cucumber Castle (December 26th 1970, 1:30pm, BBC Two)
“A medieval musical starring The Bee Gees with Eleanor Bron, Pat Coombs and Julian Orchard and special guest stars Blind Faith, Frankie Howerd, Lulu, Spike Milligan, Vincent Price.”
The Bee Gees, now down to just Barry and Maurice, try their own Magical Mystery Tour with much less convincing results. It featured their recent number two hit “Don’t Forget to Remember” – which ironically most people have now forgotten – along with four other songs from their already flopped album which had been released in April 1970, but had stalled at number 57 in the UK charts. In fact Cucumber Castle marked their last charting LP in the UK until John Travolta’s swaying crotch propelled them back into the limelight in 1978. The film feels like wading through treacle at times when compared to The Beatles’ earlier extravaganza and whilst it’s nice to see the likes of Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Vincent Price and Pat Coombs doing their usual schtick as The Gibbs attempt to keep up, it does feel like something Peter Cook and Dudley Moore might have put together in a particularly lazy afternoon.
5. The Solid Gold Top 20 (December 28th 1979, 5:15pm, ITV)
“A complete run down of the 20 best selling records in Britain in the past two decades presented by pop’s Jimmy Pursey.”
POP’S JIMMY PURSEY?! A fine example to show The Kids who had been listening intently to the Truth from the middling punk band he fronted – Sham 69 – whose original line-up had their fifth and final top twenty hit earlier in 1979 with Hersham Boys which, as we all know, went: “Hersham boys/Hersham boys/Laced up boots and corduroys”. Solid gold toss.
4. A Cup O’ Tea an’ a Slice O’ Cake (December 27th 1980, 5:20pm, ITV)
“All-singing, all-dancing Worzel Gummidge special which examines the important role that scarecrows play in helping Santa Claus find his way back to the North Pole on Christmas morning...”
Nothing terrified me on TV as a child like Worzel Gummidge. My two-year-old self didn’t care that co-writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall were local lads from Leeds, or were behind projects like Whistle Down The Wind, Budgie or Billy Liar. Likewise Jon Pertwee wasn’t yet the singing, dancing Third Doctor to me. He was a scary, grubby bugger who spends the first two minutes of this particular special vindicating my terror by standing at a family’s window and gawping in. Can you imagine turning round and finding the scarecrow from up in the field stood looking at you with a dopey grin on its face? You’d feel certain he wanted to swallow your soul. Elsewhere, special guest stars Bill Maynard, Billy Connolly, and Barbara Windsor (as “Saucy Nancy”) turn up to sing a few numbers. Which means they’re all dead to me now.
3. Orion (December 26th 1977, 1:45pm, BBC Two)
“The world is coming to an end, and the last survivors board a space-ship ready to leave the doomed planet Earth in search of a new world. A rock musical by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley.”
A sci-fi “Noah’s Ark in Space” with a book by none other than the Sinex-snorting supremo himself Melvyn Bragg? Merry all our Christmases! A soundtrack was never released but it’s a fair bet that it’s an adaptation of 1969’s Ark 2, the only studio album by Flaming Youth, featuring songs written by the musical’s co-authors Howard and Blaikley better known for writing pop hits at the time. On drums on Ark 2 was a pre-Genesis teenager called Phil Collins who writes about the experience in his autobiography Not Dead Yet: “Ark 2 is unveiled with a publicity stunt launch at London’s Planetarium. The sixties scenesters come in two-by-two. By now I’m squirming at all this ultra-fab cod-psychedelia; it’s both pretentious and cartoonish.” Howard and Blaikley would go on to write several other musicals including an adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole for the West End.
2. Lulu’s Big Show (December 31st 1993, 6:30pm, BBC One)
“Since she burst on to the pop scene in the 60s, Lulu has had hits all around the world, most recently topping the charts in a single with Take That. For this show recorded at Glasgow’s Tramway, she can be heard singing some of her favourite songs and is joined by some surprise guests.”
Thanks for nothing, Barlow. Tosser.
1. Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas (December 24th 1977, 9:40pm, ITV)
“Bing’s last show, recorded just before his death, features his family, music, laughter, a touch of Dickens and of course White Christmas.”
Well, I’m glad they didn’t record it after his death as that would’ve been really tough to shoot. We finish with a famous show that is now only really known for giving the world that awkward but hugely enjoyable Bing and Bowie duet, which had been apparently concocted at the last minute when the latter didn’t fancy a performing a straight take of Little Drummer Boy. There’s also Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter playing the entire staff of Bing’s long-lost English relative Sir Percival Crosby, most of them bearing a passing resemblance to the characters of ITV’s drama Upstairs Downstairs (a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic) There’s also Ron Moody and Twiggy as various characters including Charles Dickens and Tiny Tim. (I’ll let you work out who played which) Despite the inherent naffness, the special is actually quite sweet and you’d never assume Crosby was five weeks away from the grave with that spectacular voice in great form throughout.
For over 200 more of these sort of capsules, get your copy of Ben Baker's Festive Double Issue today.