Saturday, 23 December 2017

December 23rd: A Magical Television Tour

And so here we are. December 23rd and another day closer to the big ’un and unless you’re one of those unbearable people with self-control, you should have demolished most of your advent calendar by now all the time constantly eyeing up that double size "Day 24" section every time the hunger pangs happen. You might even have received your very own Christmas hamper like the ones Gloria Hunniford is always trying trick old people into buying even though there’s a very real chance they might cark it before New Year.

In town, there’s a genuine sense of thrill (or mild panic for us still behind on our present purchasing) with brass bands and carol singers appearing on the high street whilst department stores run eye-wateringly priced Grottos where your child might be in store for a special present from Santa (although more realistically it’ll be a promotional Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer Frisbee that’s been in the stockroom since 2008.) For the grown ups, your pasty and coffee places of choice are fully into their extended period of chucking anything even vaguely associated with the season into their “limited edition” recipes, from gingerbread to elf hair.

Despite all the stress, people are nicer, families come together and, above all there’s something worth watching on the box at long last. Daytime telly has scrapped the soaps and replaced them with the cream of films you got out of the video shop in the 90s. No The Karate Kid for you my friend! Its The Karate Kid: Part II all the way! And also: my condolences on having to watch The Karate Kid: Part II.

So pull out your third best box of chocolates and lets see what TV magic appeared on the hallowed December 23rds of yore...

Sunday, 23rd December, 1973

1.40pm: Farming Diary (ITV)

“So You Think You Know About Farming? This annual event has the reputation of being the most difficult in the young farmer’s calendar.”

Every time the kids complain there’s nothing on, I’m often reminded by the grey Sundays of my youth with Brian Walden interviewing stuffy old men very slowly and endless refresher courses in whatever language was offering the cheapest package holidays at the time. And then there were the farming reports which I’m sure were very helpful if you were in the industry but the equivalent of watching slurry dry when you’re in single figures. As such this “Christmas quiz for young farmers in the East of England” must have been like an entertainment explosion in the otherwise staid world of cows and some more cows. Sadly the contents of this were not recorded and painstakingly converted to YouTube for me to check so I’ll have to defer to the TV Times for more information: “Ten contestants, one from each area Federation, battle with each other for Farming Diary’s coveted award the Silver Bull which will be presented by this year’s Miss Anglia.” 

I think my penis just exploded.

Thursday, 23rd December, 1976

5.40pm: When Santa Rode the Prairie (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.”

The joy of doing a book like this 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.

Sunday, 23rd December, 1979

9.40am: The Sunday Gang (BBC One)

“A look at Christmas. J.D. tells how it all began, with a report from Nazareth and Bethlehem. with Alison Christie-Murray, John Dryden, Jill Shakespeare & Glen Stuart. Special guest: Dana.”

Whilst most true Sunday Gang aficionados would agree that this was past the show’s prime (i.e Tina Heath had left for Blue Peter) but this light religious singin’ and a comedyin’ variety programme was a staple in the late 70s and often watched by kids just because there simply wasn’t anything else to do. The hosts were, as my friend author Tim Worthington put it, “a clean-cut do-good assortment of wannabe Youth Group Leaders, operating out of a clubhouse kitted out with a “computer” sporting a tape spool-hewn face with added piano keyboard, and a screeching puppet mouse called Mackintosh that called everyone ’sassenachs’.” Its this mouse that Dana spends most of her time “interacting” with during this special episode from the National Children’s Home in Frodsham, Cheshire. There’s room for some extremely boring film though however with “JD” making a trip to Tel Aviv because Christmas...and that. Plus lots and lots of unbearably over-enthusiastic singing and OVER EMOTING THE WORDS. Now bugger off kids, its time for Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan...

Tuesday, 23rd December, 1980

9.00pm: Elvis – He Touched Their Lives (ITV)

“350 members of the British Elvis Presley Fan Club go each August to Memphis and pay homage. David Frost is among them.”

He touched what? Dirty sod! This documentary saw David Frost follow various fans around the haunts of Elvis’ life including his old school, the Sun Studios, where he made his first acclaimed recordings, a hospital he stayed in and, of course, his grave. It comes across like a slightly more showbiz take on Louis Theroux’s documentaries, never mocking its subjects but occasionally allowing them to hang themselves with their own obsessional or self-important words. There’s also a wry look at the selling of Elvis’s death and the near-religious fervour already surrounding his celebrity – although perhaps most shocking of all is the sight of the always on-duty Frost in a casual short-sleeved polo shirt.

Friday, 23rd December, 1983

10.25pm: An Audience with Kenneth Williams (Channel 4)

“A celebrity audience enjoys a virtuoso performance from one of Britain’s favourite comic actors.”

Kenneth Williams was only the third person to be awarded one of LWT's entertainment specials under the title An Audience With title (after Dame Edna Everage in 1980 and Dudley Moore in 1981). There was so much more to Williams than the Carry On films; he was a renowned storyteller, and one early theatre revue show – 1960's One Over The Eight – featured material by Harold Pinter and a very young Peter Cook whose classic routines “Interesting Facts” and “One Leg Too Few” (“I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you.”) The late-evening showing of An Audience With didn’t bother Williams who wrote in his diary:“Heigh ho! I don’t care. The fewer viewers the better cos then I can use the material again!”

As well as many more on ITV, four more Audiences With would premiere specifically on Channel 4: Joan Rivers (17th March, 1984), a second one for Dame Edna Everage (31st December, 1984), Billy Connolly (26th October 1985) and Jackie Mason (27th December 1990). The reason for this, invariably, was because of worries over the strong material, particularly in the case of Connolly whose rude set also slipped in a few F words, toxic to television in those days.

Tuesday, 23rd December, 1986

9.00pm: Moonlighting (BBC Two)

“What does Christmas mean to the people at Blue Moon? For Maddie, it’s a time of warmth and giving – but not to Addison! For David, it’s an opportunity to initiate ’Santa’s Hotline’ and get that little extra in his stocking...” 

Its fair to say that quirky comic detective series Moonlighting was something of a revolution when it first hit America's ABC network in March 1985. It boasted witty scripts, a perfectionist creator – Glenn Gordon Caron – who aimed to make a mini-movie each week and an amazing cast headed by the fast-talking Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, rebooting and starting their careers respectively. Here in the UK, its feature-length pilot appeared in May 1986 on BBC One with the series itself continuing three days later on BBC Two. To catch up with America and the already huge demand, they ran the first and second seasons almost in full back-to-back by the time the third came around in the US.

Held back for obvious reasons though was 'Twas the Episode Before Christmas which finds Willis’s character David convinced he’s trapped in a festive allegory; Biblical tinged events like characters called Joseph and Mary looking for a baby and a visit from three (i.e. men with the same surname) Kings. The episode’s odd conclusion comes when the cast suddenly work out they’re in a Christmas episode: it begins to snow inside the office and carollers start to sing. On leaving the office they walk onto the set where to discover the musical accompaniment is from the crew of  Moonlighting before breaking the fourth wall to wish everyone at home Merry Christmas. Okay, it sounds awful but I promise its quite sweet. Now, Christmas Eve in Nakatomi Plaza on the other hand...

Wednesday, 23rd December, 1987

9.30pm: The Home-Made Xmas Video (BBC Two)

“A Video de Dad. It’s full of lots of things about Christmas. What we did, where we went, what we ate, how much we all drunk and everything. It’s a great stuff! (The turkey, I mean.) But seriously...” 

No Christmas period for me is properly started until I’ve seen this spin-off from a running sketch in Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones's Alas Smith and Jones which took an affectionate but honest look at British working class families via the new-fangled home camcorder. There’s well meaning but quick to temper Dad (Jones), happy but put upon Mum (Diane Langton), kids Shirley and Peter (Jenny Jay and Nigel Harman) and their fun, illiterate and frequently drunk friend Len (Smith) who almost anticipates the character of Homer Simpson. Sequences involving simple acts like putting a wreath on the door, badly stealing a tree and visiting sick relatives are made into painfully funny sequences that are never played cheaply for cringe laughs. Likewise the family are rough but never sneered at by Griff and Robin Driscoll’s script which makes them fully rounded likeable characters and could easily have been spun off into a full series.

Mel and Griff's BBC Two swansong Alas Sage And Onion misses this book due to airing on 21st December 1988 which also happened to be the same night as the crash of Pan Am flight 103 onto the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The news broke just before that special went to air and viewers may not have been ready to be greeted straight after by a Beverley Sisters parody and a shot of the pair supposedly hanging from tinsel nooses.

Friday, 23rd December, 1988 

9.30pm: Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (BBC One)

“Christmas Eve, 1850. Ebenezer Blackadder is a decent, kind, generous human being. As far as his loathsome ancestors are concerned, he is a wrong ’un. So, as soon as he is snuggled up in bed they decide to pay him a visit. A seasonal tale of almost unbearable cuteness.” 

Reworking the character of Blackadder, established as a vicious scheming bastard over three prior series, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is a superb reverse retreading of the Dickens tale as a sketch show for various incarnations of the Adder dynasty.  Viewers of more recent repeats, however, have been denied one of the funniest lines from the original broadcast. Blackadder and Baldrick are discussing the workhouse’s production of the Nativity being hindered the high infant mortality rate and so a dog named Spot is instead made the saviour of all humanity (“I’m not convinced that Christianity would have established its firm grip over the hearts and minds of all mankind if all Jesus had ever said was ’woof’...”) A despairing Blackadder asks if the children were upset but quite the contrary: “...They loved it. They want us to do another one at Easter. They want to see us nail up the dog.” A line that would be in incredibly bad taste were it not for the fact I always end up laughing so much. Indeed, some viewers complained, meaning the line was cut.

(“The Black Hole of Calcutta is currently appearing in Baldrick’s trousers.”)

If you want to see much much more than this, then order "Ben Baker's Festive Double Issue". Available from this link here from £12.99! And Merry Christmas!

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