Wednesday 18 September 2019

Golden age of TV? Here's what people were watching on Christmas Day 1975

Morning to lunchtime on RTE was a solid block of religious programming

With Diana Rigg in 1975 (BBC History/PA)
With Diana Rigg in 1975 (BBC History/PA)

Pat Stacey

“There’s nuttin’ on the telly at Christmas, absolutely NUTTIN’!”

Most of us will hear that statement at least once over the next couple of weeks, usually followed by something along the lines of: “I remember the old days when there used to be great stuff on the box at Christmas.”

You do? What box was that, then?  The selection box? It sure as hell wasn’t what we used to call “the box in the corner”.

When someone of my generation gets all misty-eyed about “the old days”, they’re usually talking about the 1970s, which are portrayed as a golden age of Christmas television, when the three big days of the festive season were supposedly a 72-hour feast of top-class entertainment.

They’ll reach for the usual touchstones: The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, The Two Ronnies, festive specials of Steptoe and Son, Porridge and Dad’s Army, and of course the big Christmas night film — invariably  the first ever television screening of a major Hollywood movie that had been packing out picture houses a mere five or six years earlier (although it took Gone with the Wind 37 years to reach TV, such was its popularity on multiple re-releases).

With Diana Rigg in 1975 (BBC History/PA)

Great as these were, and still are, the idea that Christmas television in those days, when there was only a handful of channels and no means of recording programmes, was superior to what it is now, when we have hundreds of channels and several alternatives to traditional TV, is largely a tinsel-bedecked myth.

Take Christmas Day, 1975. BBC1 undoubtedly featured an impressive (for its time) line-up. As well as Eric and Ernie’s extravaganza, there was The Generation Game, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and the TV premiere of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

But you had to plough through a lot of crud to get to these shiny baubles: Rod Hull and Emu, Holiday on Ice, Billy Smart’s Christmas Circus and The Good Old Days.

Rod Hull and Emu

It’s worth noting that away from the big day itself, BBC1’s Christmas schedule was padded out with dubious offerings like The Black & White Minstrel Show and Are You Being Served?

For those seeking something less traditional, BBC2 had Swan Lake with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Poems and Pints with Max Boyce, and a re-run of Jack Rosenthal’s play The Evacuees.

If anything, though, it was ITV’s Christmas Day schedule that was most typical of the tat that passed for primetime entertainment in that decade: Jack Parnell and the Big Band Show, Chipperfield’s Circus, The Bay City Rollers Show, Celebrity Squares, Crossroads and, worst of all, the abhorrent Love Thy Neighbour. Nothing like a little suburban racism to help you digest the turkey and sprouts.

REMEMBER: Rollers Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood, Alan Longmuir, Les McKeown, Derek Longmuir and Eric Faulkner in 1975. Photo: PA

Once you’d stopped laughing at Jack Smethurst calling Rupert Walker “nig-nog” and “chocolate drop”, you could relax and enjoy The Christmas night movie, The Taming of the Shrew, featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor munching on ham-and-scenery sandwiches.

But at least those of us in Dublin and elsewhere along the east coast had a choice. For the poor souls stuck with just RTE, Christmas Day 1975, must have been a grim one.

Morning to lunchtime was a solid block of religious programming, finally relieved by Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces (though it’s not one of their best films).
Nora O'Mahony, Judge the Dog and Eugene Lambert on Wanderly Wagon

If you could make it through an afternoon dominated by The Railway Children and a Wanderly Wagon special, treasures awaiting you in the evening included the RTE panto Aladdin, starring the likes of Jack Cruise, Tony Kenny and Sonny Knowles, the self-explanatory Sing a Christmas Song featuring Colm Wilkinson and others, and the film The Italian Job.

Modernity popped its head around the door at 10.45pm with The Gilbert O’Sullivan Show, but by then, I imagine many people would have already sloped off to bed, either drunk or defeated. Next time someone says there’s nothing on the telly, tell them to thank their Christmas stars it’s 2018 and not 1975.


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