Saturday, 20 December 2014

Christmas TV moments

I haven't been keeping up with this blog very well lately, but here is a piece I've just done for the Guardian about five key moments of Christmas TV. Merry Christmas.

On Christmas night 1937, the BBC television studios at Alexandra Palace on London’s northern heights were shrouded in freezing smog. When the Music Hall Cavalcade finished at 10pm, viewers were so concerned for the performers that they rang up the studios offering them lifts home. That Christmas, a year after television broadcasts had begun, showed that the few thousand people with TV sets were forging an intimate relationship with the new medium. Hundreds of them sent cards to the studios or rang up to wish the artistes a happy Christmas. The idea of a special festive schedule was taking shape, with an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a Christmas Cabaret and “Television’s First Grand Christmas Pantomime: Dick Whittington and His Cat”. But Lord Reith was still in charge, so there was no television on Boxing Day - a Sunday.

Our modern idea of Christmas owes as much to television as it does to the Victorians. Christmas and TV are made for each other: they both rely on the sense of a scattered, intangible national community, gathered in 20 million living rooms. Just as Christmas is ecumenical enough in its customs to be celebrated by people of all faiths and no faith, television requires us only to make the rudimentary commitment of turning on the set in order to join its fleeting and virtual society of viewers. Recalling the Christmas television of the past is an evocative but slightly eerie experience. It makes you realise just how much forced bonhomie and fake snow, a lot of it filmed under baking studio lights in August, has been deployed over the last seventy-odd years to convince us that at this time of year we have something in common.

The Queen’s first television broadcast, 1957

At 3pm on Christmas Day 1957, the screens of about 6 million televisions dissolved to reveal the Queen in the long library at Sandringham, with pictures of her children on her desk. A reluctant performer who did not even like the cameras settling on her face during Trooping the Colour, she had agreed to have her Christmas broadcast televised for the first time. Having refused the aid of the recently invented teleprompter, she delivered her lines from a clearly visible script. Many viewers at home stood to attention for the duration of her speech, as they had done since her grandfather delivered the first Christmas radio broadcast 25 years earlier.

“My own family often gather round to watch television as they are this moment, and that is how I imagine you now,” the Queen said to a microphone hidden in a sprig of holly. “I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct.” But she also expressed concern about “the speed at which things are changing all around us” and about “unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery”.

That August, John Grigg, then Lord Altrincham, had published an article in the National and English Review which criticised the Queen’s “tweedy” advisers who, for fear of destroying her mystique, had ensured her speeches were “prim little sermons” delivered in the manner of “a priggish schoolgirl”. Grigg argued that, in a modern democracy, the monarchy needed to adapt “to perform the seemingly impossible task of being at once ordinary and extraordinary”. The Queen’s television broadcast was both a rejoinder to Grigg and a concession that he may have had a point.

Members of the BBC’s audience research panel said that it was “a real thrill to see the Queen so clearly and so close” and that it had made them feel as if “she is really our friend and not a removed figure”. Other viewers had different priorities. The BBC’s telephone duty log recorded hundreds of complaints after the failure of outside broadcast equipment meant that the programme scheduled straight after the Queen, Billy Smart’s Family Party from Windsor, had to be abandoned and replaced by a Ronald Colman film, followed by light songs from Elton Hayes. A BBC spokesman said the Windsor area was “difficult to transmit from”.

Apollo 8 interrupts the festive schedules, 1968

Christmas television’s strangest quality is its juxtaposition of sacrality and banality, solemnity and froth. This contrast was unusually jarring over Christmas 1968, when the schedules were interrupted by the crew of Apollo 8 presenting 20-minute broadcasts daily at about 1.30pm British time. The first, on 22 December, showed the astronaut Neil Anders clowning around with a toothbrush, turning weightlessness into a party game for the first time in history, and the first-ever glimpse of the earth from interplanetary space, as James Lovell pointed his camera out of the cabin window. Sadly, the telephoto lens failed to work and the earth on TV looked like a tiny blob of light, resembling a distant bicycle headlight on a road at night.

The next day, however, the camera was working and viewers could clearly see the earth from 175,000 miles away. Britain was covered in cloud. The Cambridge cultural critic Raymond Williams declared it “a new way of seeing” and compared it to the revolving earth that BBC1 used as its channel ident. He saw “the north and west in ragged shadow; the bright Caribbean; the atlas shapes of the Americas … I glanced from its memory to the spinning globe of BBC-1 presentation: light, untextured, slightly oiled. It was necessary to remember that both were television.”

Apollo 8 reached the moon on Christmas Eve, and seasonal specials like Cilla and Sooty’s Christmas Party were interrupted by ticker-tape summaries, moving across the bottom of the screen, informing viewers where the spacecraft was. While Patrick Moore was commenting on the most perilous moment in the mission, the “critical burn” when the astronauts had to fire the lunar module’s rocket to lock them into a closed orbit round the moon, the BBC interrupted him to go to Christmas Jackanory.

As the astronauts orbited the moon, viewers heard them read out the opening verses of Genesis, before mission commander Frank Borman signed off with “good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth”. As with the best Christmas television, those modern-day Magi, the three lunar astronauts, had managed to land just the right side of schmaltz.

Morecambe and Wise unite the nation, 1977

At 8.55pm on Christmas night 1977, according to the BBC’s own figures, 28.5 million people sat down for an hour and ten minutes and watched the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Audience statistics at the time were much disputed, and ITV’s ratings system had Morecambe and Wise beaten that night by Mike Yarwood. But their 1977 show has still entered folk memory as the culmination of television’s potential to bring the nation together. The following year, updating his father J.A.R. Pimlott’s book The Englishman’s Christmas, Ben Pimlott wrote that “for those who digest their mid-day Christmas dinner in an armchair, the Christmas edition of the Morecambe and Wise show has established itself as an essential part of the Festival”.

This level of expectation came at a cost to the key participants. Eric Morecambe was so full of fear-induced adrenalin before the Christmas show that he came out in sties and got a nervous itch in his ear. The show took Eddie Braben five weeks to write, working 16-hour days, pushing himself close to nervous exhaustion. When he watched it on Christmas day, his whole body was clenched with tension, unplacated by the studio audience laughter.

Not everyone at the time considered the 1977 show a classic: Clive James in the Observer thought Morecambe had been funnier ad libbing with Dickie Davies on World of Sport on Christmas Eve. But then, as our last link with vaudeville, Morecambe and Wise’s act had always relied on comforting familiarity and repetition. “They do not so much deliver their lines, as resuscitate them,” said an admiring Dennis Potter in the Sunday Times.

It helped that, after the IMF crisis at the end of 1976, Christmas 1977 was a time of modest optimism: the pound was recovering, inflation was down and wages rising modestly. It was also the high watermark of three-channel terrestrial television. After spreading slowly across the country for 40 years, the transmitters now reached almost everywhere, with 99.5% of the population able to receive BBC1 and the majority of homes now having a colour TV – more, in fact, than had a telephone. The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, formerly a television refusenik, wrote in his Orcadian column of his relief at getting hold of the Radio Times Christmas issue after the Stromness paper shop had sold out and he faced “a bleak prospect of groping blindly about in a fog of programmes for a fortnight”. Now he could sit in front of the TV and let his mind be “fed full of shadows”.  

Men Behaving Badly at Christmas, 1998

At the end of 1998, Britain was entering the age of digital television. Sky had just launched a digital service of nearly 200 channels, and a BBC advert for its new digital channels had Stephen Fry sat at the dinner table asking his television to “pass the salt please, darling”. In place of a community of viewers, the digital age promised a profusion of personal choice. The outgoing BBC director-general, John Birt, predicted that “broadcasting will one day no longer be a shared cultural experience”.

The Christmas schedules reflected this sense of the ending of an era. BBC1’s Christmas night consisted of Changing Rooms at Christmas, an episode of Men Behaving Badly in which Gary attempted to cure his impotence by masturbating over his collection of porn magazines, and the comedy sports quiz They Think It's All Over. The evening’s TV seemed to reflect a nation in love with lifestyle fads and new-lad banter and suspicious of earnestness and tradition. In the Daily Mail, the novelist Malcolm Bradbury worried that in “an age of easy sensations, soft scandals, featureless celebrities … the hope that a family can gather around a TV set to share a common programme and the spirit of the season is probably dying. Maybe this disappointing TV Christmas is nothing less than the spirit of Christmases to come.”

At the end of 1998, Graham McCann had published an acclaimed biography of Morecambe and Wise, which began with a setpiece about the 1977 Christmas Show as a vanished moment of national unity. On Christmas day afternoon, BBC1 reran Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas 1973 show – the one with AndrĂ© Previn conducting Eric playing Grieg’s piano concerto, much fresher and funnier than 1977 - to remind viewers of what they had lost.

The survival of the TV Christmas, 2014

By 2014, though, it was clear that rumours about the death of the television Christmas had been exaggerated. The season began in mid-November with the Christmas TV adverts for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s being dissected by everyone in search of signs and portents. Then, in early December, there was the time-honoured tradition of the Christmas schedules being announced to the ritualistic lament from the tabloids and the Taxpayers’ Alliance about the BBC fobbing us off with repeats.

Communal viewing had turned out to be more resilient than people had feared at the start of the digital era. These people had overestimated the desire of viewers to become active consumers, forever searching catch-up services and the higher numbers of the remote control for “content”. Instead, and especially at Christmas, they were slothful and habit-loving. They wanted to flop passive-aggressively in front of the set, moaning about there being nothing on except Through the Christmas Keyhole or the Come Dine With Me Christmas Special – and then watching them anyway.

There was still plenty of family entertainment: Harry Hill as Professor Branestawm, Chummy and Trixie helping with the Sunday School Christmas Concert in Call The Midwife and Strictly Come Dancing welcoming back Bruce Forsyth, a man who had first appeared on television aged 11 in 1939. Although religious ceremony was now mostly banished from the TV, we still had the white magic and quasi-mysticism of Doctor Who, with the Doctor and Clara trapped on an Arctic base with Father Christmas.

Christmas television has long had this incantatory quality, this rhetorical conjuring up of a collective national life. Perhaps its imagined community of viewers has always been imaginary and TV only ever offers what Dennis Potter called “the flickering illusion of communality”. Or perhaps that fragile sense of togetherness becomes half-real simply by being invoked.

Those watching in 2014 would certainly still have recognised the Christmas night routine of the playwright Peter Nichols, who spent the evening in 1969 with his extended family crammed into the tiny living room of his in-laws’ semi-detached in Bristol. “Back in the roomful of furniture and family, we sit watching Petula Clark singing ‘Holy Night’,” he wrote in his diary. “Val Doonican crooning a lullaby to Wendy Craig, the Young Generation dancing the life of Jesus. The children are shouted at every time they block an adult’s view. They want to play with the toys they’ve been given, not grasping that the important part, the giving, is over for another year and they should sit like grateful mutes and let us watch our favourite stars.”