Wednesday 20 September 2017

A child's Christmas in Ireland 60s style

Our reporter on the TV and toys we loved

Top rated: Tolka Row was one of the Irish TV hits at Christmas during the 1960s
Top rated: Tolka Row was one of the Irish TV hits at Christmas during the 1960s

Damian Corless

The first Christmas Day of the 1960s played out in most Irish homes much as it had through the 1950s, 40s and even 30s. After the opening of modest presents, followed by an obligatory trip to church, a parent would turn on the home entertainment centre of that pre-TV age, the wireless. On Christmas morning 1960, Raidió Éireann opened at 10.25am with the weather forecast, followed by High Mass, seasonal music, Church of Ireland morning prayer, Carols From the Continent and Music For Hospitals.

From opening time until midnight close-down, it was carols, ceilís, and song and dance almost all the way. Children barely got a look in. One of two annual kids' shows was School Around the Corner, with host Paddy Crosbie as the friendly headmaster, and the other was a Junior Red Cross party from a convent school.

But in what seemed like no time, the Irish Christmas was transformed by a mini-economic boom, an avalanche of new and improved toys and gifts, and the advent of our own TV service, Teilifís Éireann (TE). The real game-changer was the wildfire spread of TV, with a big-screen 19-inch set top of many families' Santa list.

The recurring TE ratings-toppers of every mid-60s Christmas included The Late Late Show, the dreary urban soap Tolka Row and the upbeat rural Riordans, which began life as the State's attempt to teach modern farming practices by stealth, disguised as drama. Other Christmas staples were The Virginian, The Fugitive and Quicksilver, a quiz show famous for its poor prizes (starting at one old penny) and poorer answering. Q: "What was Ghandi's first name?" A: "Goosey-Goosey!"

Along the east coast and the border, Christmas TV was a lot more fun. By the time TE had reached its first non-religious show, UTV had already served up the likes of Stingray, Robin Hood, The Beverly Hillbillies, Thunderbirds and whatever Bruce Forsyth was hosting that year. By the early 1960s, the turkey was edging out the traditional goose for pride of place on the dinner table and the go-to expert for festive cooking was Ireland's first TV celebrity chef, Monica Sheridan. Christmas gave Monica a welcome break from the meat and two veg recipes demanded by her unadventurous public, invariably accompanied by a dessert that explored the versatility of tinned fruit.

With TV came thrilling adverts for toys that earlier generations couldn't have dreamed of. One spin-off from America's baby boom of the 1950s and the decade of peace that followed the Korean War was a surge in the quantity and variety of toys. With wartime industries tapering off, production lines were converted from making guns to making toy guns, dolls and a bewildering range of plastic fantastic gizmos inspired by the Space Race. Many boys' Santa letters asked for 007's ejector seat Aston Martin from Goldfinger, the Johnny 7 One Man Army machine gun, or Action Man. The latter arrived here in the late 60s as a lightly disguised refugee from the Vietnam War. The GI Joe action figure had been a huge hit in the US until the Pentagon began its ground war in Vietnam in 1965, causing sales of GI Joe to slump as American parents registered their disapproval. So manufacturer Hasbro gave Joe a new identity and packed him off to Europe.

Girls loved pneumatic plastic Barbie, despite constant pleas that the mothers of Ireland should try to direct their young daughters to homely old-style rag dolls. Watching her daughter Barbie giving her dolls adult roles, American Ruth Handler saw a gap for a doll in adult form at a time when most represented infants. Her husband, founder of the toy-making giant Mattel, dismissed his wife's brainwave as folly. Ruth persevered and Barbie was a sensation. The more wholesome Sindy was launched in 1963, but the girl-next-door newcomer was no match in sales terms for the one based on a risqué German doll called Lilli, who'd originally - perhaps creepily - been pitched at adult men.

Christmas annuals based on the top British comics sold here in truckloads and the hugely popular Judy and Bunty were as different in their own way as Barbie and Sindy. The lone girl in a boy's school, Judy's weekly cover star, Roberta 'Bobby' Dazzler, was forever proving that girls are smarter than boys, but the relentless message coming from the rest of Judy was girls who knuckle down could one day aspire to become a nurse, a secretary or some other rank of underling to a dishy professional man. Bunty's cover stars, The Four Marys, were great favourites in an Ireland teeming with Marys. Central Statistics Office data shows Mary topped the list of names for baby girls during the 60s following a Vatican call in the mid-50s for greater Marian devotion.

Topping the gift wish list for teens were the portable Dansette record player and the transistor radio or tranny. Both were instrumental in spreading the Swinging Sixties pop revolution. Before them, the only source of music was locked into the living-room wireless or gramophone, where access was firmly in control of a parent who might want to listen to talk or some light classical, or nothing at all.

When records migrated to the bedroom via the Dansette, away from the parental hand on the dial, youngsters could play the music that spoke to them. But the bedroom was just the opening point of a musical generation gap between kids and parents that would become a yawning chasm. When the tranny arrived shortly after, the consumption of pop music moved to the park, the beach and the great outdoors. It really was far out, man.

Hopscotch & Queenie-I-O: A 1960s Irish Childhood by Damian Corless is published by Collins Press

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