Sunday, 16 December 2012

"Follow those stars..." - The story of Christmas Night with the Stars and its ITV rival, The All Star Conedy Carnival

Christmas brings many things, presents, food and television in abundance. As the schedules have been released for this year the usual soaps and also big hitting programmes dominate, but it wasn't always like this. At one time there was a one stop shop to see all your stars in, the BBC coming together if you will. The show which dominated the big day itself for more than fifteen years was Christmas Night with the Stars, a place where the stars shone so bright and you could get the likes of Cliff Richard rubbing shoulders with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Usually in ten minutes sections of the most popular sitcoms of the year, the best light entertainment shows and the biggest stars. This was a show of might by the BBC to show the viewers their selection box of personalities.

The first show in 1958 was hosted by magician David Nixon, performing tricks himself as well, the line-up was a stellar one with the cream of British comedy appearing in sketches such as Ted Ray, Charlie Chester, Charlie Drake combing with future stars Tony Hancock and Kenneth Connor, the nature of the show meant that Dixon of Dock Green appeared with Billy Cotton and also the Beverly Sisters performing, though the interest comes in the cast with future Benny Hill writer Dave Freeman performing with Charlie Drake and the writers of the show reads like a who's who of comedy writing. The partnerships of Galton and Simpson are there with Muir and Norden plus Charlie Chester as well. This was the cream of the talent the BBC had, meaning something was there for everyone. To say that the BBC wanted to get a march on the fledgling ITV franchises was an understatement, though this showed ITV on the biggest occasions that the Beeb were willing to fight for their audience. Plus with the Light Entertainment department getting new directing and producing talent into their ranks, this would set the BBC up for the 1960's.

With the BBC's intentions clear to fight for the audience which was out there, the sixties was to be a decade which would change light entertainment for ever. A decade of pushing the boundaries, where Britain would change in itself. At the start of the decade with the opening of the new Television Centre in 1960, one of the newest purpose built television studios in the world. The raising of the standard, made the programmes even better. The first show of the new decade featured Sid James from Citizen James, Harry Worth on film plus regulars David Nixon and Jimmy Edwards. It might seem the programme had hardly changed at all, but by 1962 Eamonn Andrews has taken on the role of presenting The Black and White Minstrels, Dixon of Dock Green and The White Heather Club. But backing these favourites up were two shows which were new and were to show the BBC had started to change in its comedy output. The Rag Trade starring Peter Jones, Reg Varney with support of Miriam Karlin and Esma Cannon, the show had been on the air since 1961 but 1962 was the first time when the honour of appearing on the biggest show of the year was bestowed on it.

By 1964, the programme had moved away from including shows with a dramatic narrative. So Jack Warner became the host as Eamonn Andrews had moved to ABC, but the focus was more about the light entertainment stars. The Black and White Mistrels were present with Billy Cotton, the traditional had there place in there but with pop starting to rule the roost, the show acknowledged this with appearances from Kathy Kirby and The Barron Knights. Two stars who were to become two of comedy's biggest stars performed sketches in the form of Benny Hill and Dick Emery, their comedy seemed the same by the end of the decade Hill had moved to Thames Television and Emery was still present on BBC1. Though with comedians there was a place for the all-round entertainers as well, Roy Castle being one of them. The future Record Breakers host had his own show, singing and dancing showing off his talents on a weekly basis, Castle was very much a British 'Sammy Davis Jnr.' , though his career though bubbling along didn't hit the heights as many people thought he would do at that time. Alongside Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, Freddie Frinton and Thora Hird performed a shortened version of their sitcom Meet the Wife, but 1964 also saw the launch of BBC2 and one their biggest comedies which had been repeated on BBC1, The Likely Lads was asked to film an insert for the programme with Rodney Bewes as Bob and James Bolam as Terry reflected on the Christmas season in their own inimitable way. It was a sign that a new wave was sweeping through light entertainment.

Come the end of the decade, with the new ITA franchises in place and the BBC looking towards newer talent, it gave the 1968 a new fresh look which would start the new era of light entertainment at the BBC. In this year, the show was a powerhouse, the host being the newly arrived from ATV, Morecambe and Wise hosted the programme. Just having Eric and Ernie on Christmas Day was a bonus, allowing them to perform at their best, though the supporting cast was one which the BBC could be proud of. The personality led variety show had come to define light entertainment by the end of the decade, ITV had led with the Tom Jones show but the Beeb could count on Cliff Richard to do pretty much the same job but in a more boy next door style, the might of pop was important to the very important teenage audience so both Lulu and Petula Clark were included too. Both performers would go on to have their own personality led variety show the same as Cliff Richard with in the next five years following the programme.

Though the biggest star the BBC could offer was Rolf Harris, this antipodean bundle of many talents had his own show on a Saturday night inviting the top singing stars of the day, performing dance routines with Duggie Squires' Young Generation containing a future Blue Peter presenter in Leslie Judd and future Light Entertainment executive who would put his own mark on the genre in the 1990's, Nigel Lythgoe. Add in the combination of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, comedy from Marty Feldman and with new to that year comedies Not in Front of the Children and more importantly Dad's Army filming sketches for the programme, it is little wonder what the new ITV companies did for 1969, they thought back. They launched the All Star Comedy Carnival, taking the best of what ITV had to offer from all the regional franchises and showcasing them in one place. That first year one of the main attraction was the Granada series 'The Dustbinmen' featuring a pre-Are You Being Served Trevor Bannister.

With the start of the 1970's, it saw the death of Tom Sloan in May 1970. The head of the Light Entertainment group had been influential in bringing so many shows which would define the BBC's output in the 1960's such as Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Dad's Army, the Val Doonican shows and even Dixon of Dock Green. His influence over the BBC's biggest department meant that he could persuade the performers to make appearances on Christmas Night with the Stars, but all backed up with his team behind him like Stewart Morris, Yvonne Littlewood, Roger Ordish, Terry Heneberry, Michael Hurll and most importantly Bill Cotton Jnr. Cotton Jnr. himself had been a producer for in house BBC productions since 1956 including his own father's Band Show, so he was the natural choice to take over the role. The 1970 cavalcade of stars had Cilla Black appearing with Dick Emery, Terry Scott, June Whitfield and Stanley Baxter. But the star power the show had meant, Clodagh Rogers could be seen alongside Nana Mouskori, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis contributing to give a transatlantic feel but none could top an appearance by Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra that's without noting the 'Galloping Gourmet' Graham Kerr as well. This provided a combination of laughs, music and even cooking as well, all the things for a perfect Christmas party.

So with this wealth of talent on the one programme, what could ITV do for their All Star Comedy Carnival of that year? Well, at 6.30pm, the programme started with the mixture of The Lovers with Paula Wilcox and Richard Beckinsdale, Hark at Barker meant that Lord Rustless would get a place in the Christmas schedules for Ronnie Barker, the Doctors in the House were there from London Weekend with the jokes coming thick and fast from Yorkshire Television's Jokers Wild with Barry Cryer presenting and his future Kenny Everett writing partner Ray Cameron on writing duties. To add in variety, Des O'Connor brought a snippet of his own show with Des singing, even down in Weatherfield there was a seasonal visit to Coronation Street with the regulars of the Rovers Return pondering about the festive season in a especially written mini-episode. This of course pre-cursing the days when the soaps and their story lines would become a integral of the Christmas Day schedules. All linked together by Max Bygraves and with musical accompaniment from Geoff Love and his orchestra as well, even popular BBC sitcom stars Warren Mitchell and Rodney Bewes turned up on the programme. Though it is surprising that the programme that followed the show On the Buses wasn't part of the comedy carnival itself with it being one of ITV's top rated shows at the time, but maybe keeping separate from all the other shows meant the rest of ITV's comedy and entertain could be showcased without them being overshadowed by a mini-episode of such a popular show. On reflection, ITV's effort may have seemed weaker in comparison for that year to the BBC's effort but it did offer an alternative to the BBC though.

1971 saw more change with the BBC's Light Entertainment department bringing new shows to their schedule with the Generation Game, Parkinson and the Two Ronnies, Messrs Barker and Corbett being reunited with each other. Bill Cotton's stamp was firmly on the department now, but come Christmas Day the stars were rolled out once again including mini episodes of Dad's Army, Till Death Do Part sharing the limelight with efforts from Lulu and her show, Mike Yarwood making an impression on the audience both in the studio and at home. It was a show of force once again from the Beeb, but ITV counteracted pretty much with the same shows of the previous years but with the inclusion of The Fenn Street Gang and Please Sir! Which they had left behind, Father Dear Father came from Thames and Lollipop loves Mr Mole from ATV. Plus Les Dawson made a mini-episode of Sez Les which was doing great business for himself and also Yorkshire Television as well. Mike and Bernie Winters hosted this year, they themselves had made a contribution of a music item with Opportunity Knocks' Hughie Green on trumpet/guitar, ITN newsreader Gordon Honeycombe on sax, illusionist David Nixon on double bass, Eamonn Andrews on trombone and the whole of the World of Sport team providing the rhythm section, plus Mike Winters playing the clarinet. This is one of those occasions where you wish the footage has not been lost, just to see this spectacle. Not only for the sight of Dickie Davies on drums or the fact what song they actually played, with the Christmas TV Times of that year handily saying it would be an old favourite.

But with this chance at the BBC came a new policy to do with Christmas television, all the stars who had roughly ten minutes to showcase themselves and their programmes during Christmas Night with the Stars seemed such a tight time to do so. So it was that 1972 was the last Christmas Night with the Stars for another twenty four years, introduced by The Two Ronnies after their success with the own show in the previous year. As in previous years Dad's Army and Mike Yarwood did mini-episodes of their own shows, with this year two additions to the line up of The Liver Birds and The Goodies, themselves fresh from their own success on BBC2. Plus Lulu appeared as well as The Young Generation with this year Nigel Lythgoe being credited as the choreographer of their dance routine, the credits for this show read like a who's who of the BBC Light Entertainment department, the Two Ronnies directed by Terry Hughes, Dad's Army by David Croft, Jim Franklin producing The Goodies as well as Michael Hurll and Sydney Lotterby. In addition to both musical directors Ronnie Hazelhurst and Alyn Ainsworth and a stellar list of writers including Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Barry Cryer and Neil Shand to name a few. This was the way to go out, as from 1973, the Christmas specials would out on their own and longer then before. The BBC worked out that each show could do even more by each production
being able to work on their own efforts, thus focussing the talents of the crew, the writers and the performers. That idea was to have massive success as the Christmas schedules of the BBC would continue to dominate for many years to come.

The swansong for the All Star Comedy Carnival would come for ITV in 1973, up against the BBC's new style Christmas Day schedules. They could offer Jimmy Tarbuck in a mock house with the going on with Man about the House, Les Dawson making another appearance with Sez Les, My Good Woman from ATV and Billy Liar from LWT plus Spring and Autumn from Love Thy Neighbour's Vince Powell. But not even the might of the Wandsworth School Choir and Fyfe Robertson could overthrow BBC1's offering. So it was not surprise that after this year's edition that ITV took the same approach as the BBC of pitching the best of their shows up against each other, for Christmas Night with the Stars, the style of that programme was used for the Funny Side of Christmas in 1982. Again the best of BBC comedy all in the same place and with revivals in 1994 on BBC2 featuring the likes of Steve Coogan performing and again ten years later in 2004 presented by Michael Parkinson, but this version seemed more like an extend version of his chat show. For the All Star Comedy Carnival, the idea has not been revived by ITV and looks likely not to be any time soon.

Some people may say that these programmes, maybe they were of their time. But however without them we would not have got to the Christmas Day schedules today, they were the first to introduce soaps on Christmas Day, they were the first to have the leading comedies of the day back to back, they were the first to have top variety in the same place and they were the first to introduce new comedies to a wider audience. Whatever way you want to look at it, Christmas would not have been brighter places without them. 

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