Christmas isn’t Christmas without… presents, according to the opening line of Little Women. But according to little me, the answer was the bumper Christmas edition of the Radio Times. So now this year’s has hit our shelves (shows I’ve worked on in there? Miranda Hart hosting the Royal Variety Performance, ITV, Tue 19th December… and Not Going Out, BBC1, Christmas Eve. As you were…), our seasonal historical tour now stops at the TV schedules.
The first Christmas Radio Times was published on 21 December 1923, three months into the magazine’s run, and had its first colour cover. It included an article by Lord Riddell entitled “Modern Witchcraft”, and a defence by BBC boss John Reith in defence of broadcasting, suggesting benefits such as the chance for all to “delight in ‘Hunt-the-Slipper’ or ‘Hunt-the-Thimble’ to musical accompaniment – and no one out of the fun at the piano! …The loud-speaker is such a convenient entertainer. He is so ready to oblige when wanted, so unassuming when other sport is forward. He doesn’t feel hurt if a cracker is pulled in the middle of a song, or offended if the fun grows riotous during his performance.”
Reith declared this “the first wireless Christmas” – after all, cities were being added gradually, so now Cardiff, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Bournemouth, and Sheffield joined the party. The BBC’s New Year broadcast that year was the first time that Big Ben’s chimes were heard outside of London.
The year before though was actually the first wireless Christmas. On Christmas Eve 1922, the BBC broadcast the first original British radio drama: ‘The Truth About Father Christmas’, starring ‘Uncle Arthur’ Burrows, who became Britain’s first newsreader that year. The 1922 Christmas schedule also featured the first religious broadcast in Reverend John Mayo’s Christmas message (probably preaching to more people than anyone else in history at the time):
“I have come from my church in Whitechapel situated amidst all the noise and the turmoil and the dust and the slums – all that Whitechapel connotes; and it is my privilege through the wizardry of Mr Marconi to speak, as I understand, to many thousands of people. Surely, no man has ever proclaimed the Gospel from such an extraordinary pulpit as I am now doing.”
On New Year’s Eve, a live bagpiper concluded with “Auld Lang Syne”, and at that exact moment the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the time it had 30,000 listeners but just four employees. The Illustrated London News reported that “the invention of broadcasting has immensely extended the power of music to diffuse the spirit of Christmas. The range of carol-singers’ voices, hitherto restricted to the limits of a building, a short distance in the open air, has been increased by hundreds of miles.”
Other early festive radio highlights included a play, ‘Bethlehem’, live from a Cornish field – the first British drama broadcast outside of a BBC studio. And of course Britain’s first royal Christmas message; John Reith spent a decade convincing George V to give one, and His Maj only relented after a free radio set to try out the new media outlet, a visit to the BBC studios, plus strong encouragement from Queen Mary and the Prime Minister. On his first nervous broadcast, he went to sit on his favourite chair in a makeshift studio at Santadringham House (as he foolishly didn’t rename it), and fell straight through the seat.
Fifty years later, TV reached peak viewing figures. Since Netflix, tablets and Snapchat, the viewing figures of the 1970s to 1990s have become unsurpassable. In Britain, the “highest evs” (just trying to speak yoof) were shows like comedian Mike Yarwood’s 1977 special (the highest viewing figures for any Christmas Day show at 21.4 million) and Morecambe & Wise (a still very respectable 21.3 million). For Britain’s largest single TV audience of all time, see Only Fools and Horses’ 1996 Christmas special – 24.35 million people watched Del Boy and Rodney finally become millionaires.
Elsewhere on the schedules, a modern-day British Christmas wouldn’t be complete without Raymond Briggs’ heart-warming The Snowman, a Top of the Pops recap of the year, and a timely reminder from EastEnders that our family Christmas isn’t as bad as it can get. Their 1986 special was the most-watched TV show of all time (over two viewings – so Only Fools trumps it for the at-the-time audience).
Then there’s the seasonal variety special, from stars like Bing Crosby and Val Doonican, Christmas jumper-clad, crooning, with special guests aplenty. The format was never better sent up than in Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge, broadcast live from a replica of Alan’s Norwich house.
For the format at its worst, see 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special. Never-repeated lowlights include: Dynasty’s Diahann Carroll performing an erotic fantasy song for Chewbacca’s dad Itchy, and Princess Leia’s musical finale adding Wookiee “Life Day” lyrics to the Star Wars theme. This, not The Empire Strikes Back, was technically the first Star Wars sequel, though George Lucas said of this hopeless Jedi menace, “if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Bad luck, George – even if you attacked all the clones, the Internet has awakened.
So when you’re enjoying the new Star Wars film in cinemas this Christmas, remember that forty years ago we had to make do with wonky Wookiees…
Hark! The Biography of Christmas – now an Amazon bestseller – is available now. The perfect accompaniment to the Christmas Radio Times on any coffee table.