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Although the television industry tends to treat Christmas as an excuse to cobble together not-particularly-festive-or special 'Christmas Specials' of the likes of Dead Ringers and You've Been Framed, there has also been a longstanding tradition of filling otherwise awkward gaps in the Yuletide schedules with strange one-off shows that range from the quirky to the downright baffling. Needless to say, they are seen by few and remembered by even fewer. So it is with no small amount of pride that TV Cream salutes a dozen classics of this metaphorical genre as, with the aid of special guests 'Sun' and 'Moon' from ITV's 1992 Christmas preview trailer, we prepare to pepper throughout the remainder of this Christmas TV Cream our presentation of The 12 Obscure Programmes Of Christmas.
ON THE FIRST DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
AN OSMOND FAMILY CHRISTMAS (ITV, 25/12/1991)
Back in 1991, the still-formidable Osmond publicity machine was in overdrive as Alan Osmond attempted to launch his four young sons, imaginatively known as The Osmond Boys, as a multi-million selling vocal troupe in their own right. Despite appearing on TV-am to sing 'Side By Side' to a clearly impressed Anne Diamond and somehow scoring an NME Single Of The Week with their deep-voiced funk workout 'Second Generation', the warbling siblings surprisingly failed to replicate their Stateside success on this side of the pond despite being a million times better than the wretched New Kids On The Block, and it was clear that a public reaffirmation of the Osmond 'brand' was required. Hence this special, presumably filmed either 12 months prior to broadcast or else at a 'fake' Christmas of some description, which followed the vast Mormon clan as they congregated on the family home in Utah for a spot of close harmony singing by the fireside. Predictable enough fare, but the lure of potentially spotting one of the supposed legions of mythological 'deaf-mute Osmonds' being hidden out of sight in the background was enough to keep the more childish and gullible of viewers watching.
An Osmond Family Christmas was transmitted as part of TV-am on Christmas Day morning, meaning that it was largely only seen by people who had got up early to eat all of their Neapolitans before they were forced to share them out amongst distant relatives. The Osmond Boys, incidentally, never quite took off but are still going, and have now taken a 'post-Radiohead' direction or somesuch.
ON THE SECOND DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, ONE CROONING CLIFF AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
THING WITH CLIFF RICHARD IN (ITV, 1982)
While others waste their time asking people if they remember "that programme with Cracker's son trying to jump a wall", TV Cream has long been troubled by a more obscure and frankly far more confusing televisual memory. Over the Christmas of 1982, for no readily obvious reason,ITV screened some sort of recreation of 'Christmas how it used to be', which may or may not have involved 'transporting' a modern day family into a 1930s-style yuletide setting. At one point during this, the son of the family picked up a kaleidoscope and peered into it. What he saw was not the title sequence to Jackanory, but rather Cliff Richard standing in front of a load of orange numbers and letters on a white backdrop and singing his hit 'right words, wrong tune' reworking of 'O! Little Town Of Bethlehem', with no obvious relevance to the narrative. If anyone can put a name to this, or even possibly explain what it was all about and what Cliff was doing there in the first place, TV Cream would be glad to hear from you.
UPDATE! We've since been informed that the Cliff-equipped weirdness was in fact A Christmas Lantern, broadcast 24th December 1982 on ITV. The TV Times described it as follows: "This magical Christmas tale shows how one family celebrates Christmas over eight years... and without a sign of ageing. Among its stars are Cliff Richard, Una Stubbs. Mike Reid, Robert Hardy, Daniel Kipling, Simon Nash, Christopher Timothy, Tom Yang, Sandy Strallen, Claud Paul Henry, The Ambrosian Singers and Desborough School Choir. Incorporated within the play is a hilarious Charlie Chaplin ballet, The Best Policy starring Wayne Sleep, Finola Hughes, Fred Evans, Peter Salmon, Karen Berry, Bryan Burdon, Ken Warwick, Peter Challis, Kim Gavin and Jeff Unkovich". Which isn't really much of a description to be honest. We quite like the sound of this 'Claud Paul Henry', though, whose name calls to mind Benny from Crossroads wearing a beret rather than a woolly hat.
JOHN WELLS AND THE THREE WISE MEN (CHANNEL 4, 25/12/1988)
In keeping with its much-trumpeted-but-now-rarely exercised 'distinctive remit', Channel 4 has always been keen to take the opportunity to question widely-accepted attitudes to Christmas. While nowadays this would probably just involve Avid Merrion putting on a rubber mask and saying "eh up, I'm James Brown off of the soul music", time was when some genuine thought went into their yearly quotient of irreverent comedy with a festive twist. In 1988 they called on the services of John Wells - a sadly undervalued mainstay of Private Eye and a satirist in the old sense of the word (so, not just laughing at Anne Widdecombe's hairstyle then) to produce a wry spin on the story of the traditional story of the nativity. Fairly respectful stuff, it must be said, but there are always those out there whose blank-faced lack of a sense of humour will lead them to describe anything, no matter how genuinely well-intentioned, as 'offensive'. Except no-one actually did, as it went out on Channel 4 on Christmas Day in the middle of the afternoon, and so was watched by approximately three people. Nonetheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of comedy that deserves to be repeated every year.
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (PARAMOUNT 1965)
Even trained experts are unable to determine precisely whether the wry social satire of long-running newspaper cartoon strip Peanuts is aimed at adults or children, and despite its usual place in the schedules, the same goes for the animated version (which was broadcast as The Charlie Brown And Snoopy Show, presumably to prevent Stateside viewers from mistaking it for an actual programme about peanuts and switching over to watch "My Three Trash Cans All In My Family Already"). As you might expect, the storyline of this yuletide edition involved Charlie Brown adopting a Scrooge/Grinch mentality towards the approach of the festive season, splitting his minimal amount of hairs over such issues as gift exchanging and the musical pantomime being staged by Linus, Pigpen, Schroeder and company. Eventually, it all gets too much for the boy with the single jagged stripe on his jumper, and when his loyal canine sidekick Snoopy appears to want to get in on the act, he bemoans his lot in life with the immortal line "my only dog, gone commercial". However, by the end he has rather predictably been shown the 'true' meaning of Christmas, probably by Peppermint Patty and that weird girl who called her 'sir'.
ON THE FIFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, FIVE MOTH-EATEN PUPPETS, ONE NEWSPAPER STRIP DOG, ONE VETERAN SATIRIST, ONE CROONING CLIFF, AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
PIPKINS, 'THE BALLOON TREE' (ATV, 25/12/1978)
In the days before 24 hour broadcasting it was rare for regular children's programmes to go out on Christmas Day, which makes it all the more remarkable that this edition of ITV's greatest ever children's programme found its way onscreen on a day that was normally reserved for choirs, Larry Grayson and James Bond films. Obviously, someone in a position of influence was a fan of the undiluted cynicism of Hartley Hare and his ramshackle assortment of associates. Pipkins may have been unfairly sidelined by retro-nostalgia idiots in recent times, but there are many of us out here who can actually remember watching this on Christmas Day and are proud of the fact. How many people with Bagpuss mobile phone covers can say anything even remotely similar? Sadly, some berk at ATV decided that it wasn't worth hanging on to the master tape of 'The Balloon Tree', denying us the chance to relive that moment with annual repeats. Grrr.
ON THE SIXTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, ONE CARICATURED BIGOT, FIVE MOTH-EATEN PUPPETS, ONE NEWSPAPER STRIP DOG, ONE VETERAN SATIRIST, ONE CROONING CLIFF, AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
THE THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN ALF AT CHRISTMAS (ATV, 26/12/1980)
Long before knee-jerk 'right on' clip show fools started dismissing Johnny Speight's much-misunderstood attempts to expose and ridicule bigotry through exaggerated parody as 'reprehensible 1970s poison', Alf Garnett was considered to be so strong a comic commodity that he could survive a move between BBC and ITV. Intended as the first in an occasional series, The Thoughts Of Chairman Alf At Christmas - which saw Garnett address a live studio audience with his views on topical concerns - was not in fact followed by any further offerings, although a new series of Till Death Us Do Part in which Alf came into conflict with his punk grandson did arrive the next year. In the end, Garnett's move to ITV was deemed to be as unsuccessful as, well, any other comedy character or performer's move to ITV, and within a couple of years Speight had taken him and his 'vile' comedy back to the BBC. Oddly, ITV chose to remake the show almost word for word in 1997 as part of their long-running 'An Audience With Series', making this a rare double whammy amongst the world of obscure Festive television.
BILLY'S CHRISTMAS ANGELS (BBC1, 24/12/1988)
In the mid-1980s, the BBC suddenly started to take a more serious approach to their drama productions aimed at children, and the stuffy tweeness of old was replaced by gripping crime thrillers, unsettling ventures into the supernatural and an obsession with exploring 'real' issues. Many shows from the era, such as Moondial, Dead Entry, Aliens In The Family and Running Scared are remembered with great fondness by those of a certain age. Not so the obscure Billy's Christmas Angels, which went out in a timeslot where it was seen by few. The rather confused plot involved a teenager called Billy who wanted a guitar like his elder brother but couldn't afford it, and the show wandered about without any real sense of direction for a full 50 minutes. During his poorly-defined quest, Billy was watched over by a group of guardian angels played by mid 1980s also-ran chart hopefuls The Mint Juleps (who, despite being produced by Trevor Horn and repeatedly pushed by TV pop shows, never quite managed to achieve the 'next big thing' status that the media had conferred on them), although despite singing quite a lot they didn't actually seem to interact with the storyline in any way. The general obscurity of the show, not to mention the fact that it features a whole host of familiar faces from 1980s BBC telefantasy series including John "Tripods" Shackley and Nabil "Marsh Minnows" Shaban, has lent Billy's Christmas Angels the status of a highly sought-after rarity even though it's not actually very interesting.
ON THE EIGHTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, TWO INCOMPREHENSIBLE PUPPETS, SIX ACAPELLA VOCALISTS, ONE CARICATURED BIGOT, FIVE MOTH-EATEN PUPPETS, ONE NEWSPAPER STRIP DOG, ONE VETERAN SATIRIST, ONE CROONING CLIFF, AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
ZIG AND ZAG - ENTERTAINMENT COPS (CHANNEL 4, 25/12/1994)
Once upon a time, the Christmas schedules would be packed with absurd madcap slapstick one-offs that were ostensibly aimed at a young audience but were downright crazy enough to find favour with fully grown adults. Sadly, as time wore on, the likes of Stainless Steel And The Star Spies found themselves shunted from the schedules in favour of 'specials' that involve Robbie Williams appearing in a concert that was filmed in Rio De Janeiro in August. Nonetheless, the occasional bit of anarchic lunatic mayhem does occasionally still find its way onto the yuletide screen, and in 1994 it fell to Zig and Zag, the strangely-voiced puppet hosts of The Big Breakfast, to follow in the grand tradition. Zig And Zag - Entertainment Cops saw them and their loyal sidekick Alex Langdon despatched on an emergency mission to prevent 'Eammon Holmes' Country Christmas Spectacular' from being broadcast, leading to a bizarre madcap chase through TV studios and the odd karaoke rendition of 'Dancing Queen', and a showdown with a gaggle of line-dancing b-list celebrities in a studio filled with fake snow. What's more, it also featured Richard Wilson as their vengeful boss, ITV head Marcus Plantpot. Unfortunately, few people saw it - no doubt it clashed with the eight thousandth repeat of mediocre Only Fools And Horses special 'The Jolly Boys' Outing' - and yet another rare televisual treat disappeared into undeserved obscurity.
ON THE NINTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, ONE PERTWEE THATIRITHING, SIX ACAPELLA VOCALISTS, ONE CARICATURED BIGOT, FIVE MOTH-EATEN PUPPETS, ONE NEWSPAPER STRIP DOG, ONE VETERAN SATIRIST, ONE CROONING CLIFF, AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
THE CURIOUS CASE OF SANTA CLAUS (BBC1, 24/12/1982)
Part of Channel 4's very first Christmas line-up, this little known oddity was written by former The Good Life mastermind Bob Larbey. And amazingly it was actually quite good. The peculiar show took a 'wry' look at how a modern day psychiatrist might regard the mental state of one Father Christmas. For once appearing in a role that wasn't Dr Who, Worzel Gummidge or a chat show guest bemoaning the fact that Dr Who was never as good after he left the show and toasting the fact that 'The Ghosts Of N-Space' was "number one in the hit parade!", Jon Pertwee filled the role of the psychiatrist, and for some reason elected to play him as a stereotyped New York 'shrink'. Thankfully, though, the audience was spared his previous habit of continually referring to other characters as 'mac' while playing Americans. Interestingly, Larbey apparently wanted to call the show "Is Santa Schizo?", but was overruled by C4 who felt it was in rather poor taste. Who'd have thought it?
ON THE TENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, SIX HAPPY MONDAYS, ONE PERTWEE THATIRITHING, SIX ACAPELLA VOCALISTS, ONE CARICATURED BIGOT, FIVE MOTH-EATEN PUPPETS, ONE NEWSPAPER STRIP DOG, ONE VETERAN SATIRIST, ONE CROONING CLIFF, AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
THE GHOSTS OF OXFORD STREET (CHANNEL 4, 25/12/1991)
Let's face it - only 'old skool' Channel 4 would have been prepared to indulge one of Malcolm McLaren's bizarre conceptual fantasies on the peak viewing day of the televisual year. The basic premise of this uneasy mix of documentary and elaborate fantasy sequences seemed sensible enough - a cultural history of Oxford Street through the ages, as told by a Dickensian procession of spectres from Christmasses past. However, this *was* Malcom McLaren at work, and true to form he roped in an utterly baffling cast of performers - John Altman, The Pogues, Sinead O'Connor, Tom Jones, and most bizarrely of all the Happy Mondays as a gang of Victorian thugs who suddenly broke into a rendition of the Bee Gees' 'Staying Alive'. McLaren certainly seemed to have high hopes for the project, going as far to release his self-composed theme tune 'Magic's Back' as a single. Those that braved the experience were left ultimately dazzled but baffled by the gaudy and barely coherent spectacle. Still, it beats dumb 'documentaries' about George Eliot with an actress playing her as a 'talking head' hands down for imagination, style and overall usefulness.
ON THE ELEVENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, ONE GEOFFREY PALMER, SIX HAPPY MONDAYS, ONE PERTWEE THATIRITHING, SIX ACAPELLA VOCALISTS, ONE CARICATURED BIGOT, FIVE MOTH-EATEN PUPPETS, ONE NEWSPAPER STRIP DOG, ONE VETERAN SATIRIST, ONE CROONING CLIFF, AND AN OUTDATED SINGING FAMILY...
SEASON'S GREETINGS (BBC1, 24/12/1986)
From the pen of Alan Ayckbourn, a
shockingly undervalued one-off comedy play about a dysfunctional family of crashing
bores reuniting with some reluctance for their traditional festive antics. A
very 1980s cast including both Michael Cashman and Lesley Dunlop throw themselves
into proceedings with evident enthusiasm and are clearly enjoying themselves,
but the show is unarguably stolen by those two masters of understated comic
performance, Peter Vaughan and Geoffrey Palmer. The highlight of the entire
spectacle was a scene that saw Palmer's character trying and failing to entertain
the assembled offspring of
various family members with a puppet show involving an extremely tedious policeman ("pom, pom ti pom"), while Vaughan heckles mercilessly from his armchair ("that pig's just lost all credibility by rising three feet in the air"). This should be repeated before and after both of this year's specials of The Office as a manner of proving for once and for all that Ricky Gervais is not the 'comic genuis' and 'master of subtlety' that he likes us all to believe he is.
THE RETURN OF THE MAGIC ROUNDABOUT (CHANNEL 4, 25/12/1991)
In 1991, Channel 4 acquired the rights to some episodes of The Magic Roundabout that had never been dubbed and shown in the UK. As original narrator and general lunacy provider Eric Thompson had sadly died some years previously, translation and narration duties fell to Nigel Planer. Later claiming to have suffered from 'Roundabout Blindness' during this period, Planer also scripted and appeared in an odd comic fantasy based very loosely (and the word 'very' is of particular importance there) on his experiences while working on the series. Lord alone knows what bizarre hallucinations had actually troubled him in the dubbing suite, but The Return Of The Magic Roundabout hinted at many clandestine conspiracy theories involving missing master tapes, meetings with French secret service agents, and a mysteriously knowledgeable hippy named Whizzbang. This is Christmas viewing as it should be - utterly devoid of concern for mainstream entertainment, and you needed to get up at some ridiculous unChristmassy hour of the morning to see it. Bear that in mind when we're all feeling walled in by endless repeats of Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
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