Today's very special and festive blog is courtesy of Jonathan Hayward, a friend of Curious British Telly and a man responsible for many of the VHS recoveries on the YouTube page.
The above date has been thought of by a number of writers and commentators as the day, or perhaps more accurately, the evening when populist but universally accessible broadcasting reached its most dominant apex. Starting with Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game, followed by The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and climaxing with The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, the latter reaching viewing figures quoted as 27 million or even slightly higher at 28.835 million.
Now, 40 years since it was broadcast, it seems an appropriate time to look back at a day which has gone down in television history. And this is a sentiment which is certainly not unique, Graham McCann, waxing lyrical in his 1998 biography of Morecambe and Wise, stated:
“It happened one night, at 8.55 pm, more than half the total population of the United Kingdom tuned their television sets to BBC 1 and spent the next hour and ten minutes in the company of a rather tall man called Eric and a rather short man called Ernie.
It was a rather extraordinary night for British television in general and the BBC in particular: 28,835,000 viewers for a single show. [it] appeared at a time when it was still considered desirable, as well as practicable, to make a television programme that might - just might - excite most of the people most of the time.
Not every programme-maker and performer from this time was particularly well equipped or strongly inclined to pursue such a possibility, but Morecambe and Wise, working in close collaboration with the BBC, most certainly were”
McCann’s observations, nearly two decades on, certainly have a point about British TV’s days as a communal experience having long since disappeared, dissolving now into a labyrinth of fragmented, desultory, deregulated and repetitive multi-channels; as if to confirm such nostalgic yearnings,the viewing figures for the most watched shows in Christmas 2016 on mainstream TV were the lowest since such records began, with the most popular programme - Call The Midwife - topping the ratings at 9.2 million, followed by sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys at 9 million and Strictly Come Dancing at 8.9 million.
Combining the total viewing figures for the top three shows last Christmas is still over a million viewers behind the highest estimate of Eric and Ernie’s programme of four decades earlier, when the UK population was smaller,with a choice of just three channels and not the hundreds of today, in the pre-digital, pre-internet and even pre-home video age,with VHS/Betamax recorders still several years away from wide availability.
When it was time for a prestigious,peak-time TV show with the nation’s most loved comedians, there were no options of recording it all to watch later if you were still busy enjoying Christmas festivities with family and friends.You merely had two choices; you watched it with said family and friends, or, rather surprisingly, considering the comic duo’s immense hold on the British public’s affections in the 70’s, you would deliberately miss it, perhaps because you were in the silent minority that did not find them funny.
However, in recent years there have been more revisionist and less hagiographic attitudes to this apparent epochal moment in British broadcasting history. The much-quoted viewing figures of 27-28 million are now disputed, with newer research claiming that the actual number that watched the show were around 6-7 million less at about 21 million. And there are further claims that the show broadcast immediately before it, starring impressionist Mike Yarwood, actually had a slightly larger figure,with 100,000 viewers either switching over to ITV, or just switching their set off all together when it was time for Eric and Ernie’s Christmas extravaganza.
Social historian Joe Moran,who wrote his own personal observations of the medium in his book Armchair Nation in 2013, is certainly more sober-minded in pointing out such revisions, along with observing that Morecambe and Wise were “not universally or uncritically loved” and “watched today, the show does not seem a classic” and, rather grudgingly, praises them as merely “fitfully funny”, although acknowledging that the 1977 show “has entered British folklore as the culmination of television’s potential to bring the extended national family together”.
Moran is not alone in his cautious, less reverent attitude to Eric and Ernie. Before it went defunct, Sam Brady, real name Steve Regan, the resident TV critic of the ITV teletext service ORACLE (and still an occasional online blogger on TV matters), once said that he didn’t find them that funny, accusing them of being "too clean and guileless”. TV critic A.A Gill, meanwhile, said that it reminded him of:
“How low our entertainment needs used to be, how simple Christmas was. There was a time when half the country watched [their] Christmas special, and you wonder what excuse the other half came up with. Morecambe and Wise was the best on offer, and we were grateful, but it was thin pickings”
From my own viewpoint, will my own memories and opinions be marred by uncritical adulation drenched in wistful nostalgia or the more dispassionate and cynical musings of Moran and other contemporary critics and commentators? Truthfully, it is a carefully balanced mixture of both. There is more joy looking back on that particular Christmas Day as perhaps the last truly happy family Christmas I experienced with my parents and grandparents, all sadly now passed away. The following year, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1980, with my grandmother following two years after that.
As a wide-eyed 11 year-old still at primary school, it was a very happy Christmas family gathering, taking little notice of TV in the morning and afternoon, except for an unusually long ITV advert which featured a brass band playing several tunes, a fact little quoted from that notable day in TV history. The advert itself went on around 10 minutes, making it the longest advert ever broadcast on commercial TV. When it came to my grandparents leaving for their home in the early evening (driven back by my father), after the familiar traditions of opening presents and Christmas dinner, it was now a matter of waiting for the main event of the day perhaps, Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas show, which was now as major a tradition as Christmas itself.
Yet the programmes that preceded it should not be ignored as mere afterthoughts; the Radio Times Christmas edition of 1977 had an entire page of its own devoted to images of Forsyth, Yarwood, Morecambeand Wise for that evening’s schedule. I have to confess I remember virtually nothing from Forsyth and Yarwood’s shows, perhaps because I wasn’t giving them my full attention as it was Eric and Ernie’s show I was truly waiting for - ready to be typically awe-struck at their comic genius,as people of all ages presumably were around the nation that Christmas night.
What I can very vaguely remember is that they were entertaining and amusing, building us all up for the big occasion, like a cinema programme of shorts, newsreels and second features, before the big budget 'A picture' with even bigger stars.
When it came to 8.55pm, there was an atypical opening; no conventional title sequence but Eric and Ernie’s parody of the title sequence of the US Cop show Starsky and Hutch, then followed by titles and their standard opening crosstalk. This was interspersed with Elton John being given messages by various guest stars such as the main cast of Dad’s Army, Angela Rippon dancing again as she had the previous year, this time as a Tiller girl type, a sketch where they up sticks and move from their flat and, amongst the rest, a version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” featuring Penelope Keith as Roxanne.
The end titles were followed by Elton John singing a song from his latest album, not to a full audience who had now gone home, but two middle aged female cleaners, played by Eric and Ernie, with a final pay-off from Angela Rippon. Staying up after 10pm was a bit much for an 11 year old, and I was soon whisked to bed, the last Christmas day as a young child in the latter days at primary school. I was amused and entertained as my parents had been, helped perhaps by the happy day we had all had as a family.
So, as a hardened, middle-aged man four decades on, did I feel that Joe Moran’s assessment that this show was far from a classic a statement that was fair rather than malicious? Well, it wasn’t as good as the 1971 Christmas Show - featuring Shirley Bassey in heavy work boots or Andre Previn vainly trying to conduct Grieg’s Piano Concerto, maybe the best sketch they ever did - or that of 1975 which featured their nemesis Des O’Connor or even the previous year, featuring among others John Thaw and Dennis Waterman from The Sweeney as guest stars and a memorable parody of Gene Kelly’s dance routine from Singin’ In The Rain.
It has been since documented that the pressure on the duo, their writer Eddie Braben and all others working on the programme had to make the new Christmas show better than the one before and it was now somewhat taking its toll. There had been no Morecambe and Wise series in 1977; Braben had a breakdown a year or two before and had to take time off writing to recuperate (he did not write the previous year’s Christmas show), with the strain also affecting Eric Morecambe in particular. He was not happy with the “Nothing Like a Dame” dance routine, only eventually coming round when he watched a preview with producer Ernest Maxin.
Perhaps this is why the show has an undercurrent of melancholy for some of its running time, particularly in the sketch when they are moving home,which gave an impression that times were changing and an era was coming to a close.This was oddly prescient, not just for Morecambe and Wise but maybe for British TV and comedy as a whole. The brief cameos featuring the Dad’s Army cast, such as Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and John Laurie, are poignant as it was the last time they would appear together on screen in character (curiously here featured in a sauna handing Elton John a message,which seems a mild piece of surrealism) as the sitcom had ended a few months earlier.
Just one month later, Morecambe and Wise left the BBC and signed a new contract with Thames TV, as it was with Bruce Forsyth when he also departed around the same time for Thames’ sister company London Weekend Television. Mike Yarwood stayed put for now, but joined ITV a few years later.
25th December 1977 perhaps truly indicated the end of an era in both British TV entertainment and comedy in particular. The first stirrings of Alternative Comedy were just around the corner with Not The Nine o’Clock News and its new approach to political correctness too. The Black and White Minstrel Show was taken off the air the following year and is now looked on as an embarrassing anachronism, but other traditional variety type formats such as Seaside Special were also beginning to fade at this point, alongside traditional mainstream comedians like Morecambe and Wise.
Eric suffered a second heart attack in 1979 (after his previous one in 1968), and it is generally agreed, went into steady decline with his partner Ernie. The shows at Thames weren’t particularly bad, but they relied more on reworkings of sketches from their best BBC days, and even occasionally from the ITC shows of the 60’s. It was inevitable also that Eric’s health began to affect proceedings, with the pacing not as quick as before and Eric’s comic timing not as sharp. The ‘Carry On’ film series limped to an unlamented end in 1978; contemparies such as Tommy Cooper and Dick Emery were also being afflicted by declining health and passed away in the early 80’s as Eric did.
Old-style sitcoms and comedians like Benny Hill with non-PC, racist and sexist connotations were now looking hopelessly outdated as brash, younger former public schoolboys and university graduates were providing a newer, fresher, if sometimes controversial outlook towards humour, more political, satirical and mordant, especially with Margaret Thatcher becoming the dominant political figure.
The old guard of variety and music hall performers like Morecambe, Wise, Hill, Cooper, Les Dawson and others were inevitably aging and declining whereas youthful comic performers like Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Griff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie provided, quite literally, an alternative comedy. Mike Yarwood himself could not keep up with the times as his range of impressions failed to keep pace with programmes such as Spitting Image. And with him being a gentle mickey-taker rather than a political satirist, Yarwood too went into a professional and personal decline in evolving times.
Christmas Day 1977 was perhaps a truly an important day for British Television, not especially for the now disputed viewing figures, but the last hurrah for traditional British humour and entertainment which, in the end, had inevitably to change with the prevailing culture and political climate. If one has to make a critical evaluation of Morecambe and Wise’s 1977 Christmas show, it is that perhaps it wasn’t quite a classic,but very nearly as it was consistently funny and occasionally hilarious. This year, though, there was a touch of pathos, reflection and poignancy as it was both a coda for times that were passing and a transition into what was about to come.
It perhaps features the most risqué gag Morecambe and Wise ever did, with a brief reference to a porn movie and even the sight of a young female’s bare behind, maybe a touchstone for the reduction in implicitness and innuendo that was to emerge with alternative comedy, but an amusing if not slightly touching rendition of a song featuring Eric, Ernie and Penelope Keith towards the end of the Cyrano de Bergerac sketch about love and the challenges it faces with the advancement of age.
So, yes, it was truly an important day in British television history and the end of an era on 25th December 1977 for all kinds of reasons. And not forgetting, Charlie Chaplin passed away that same day too.