Friday, 27 December 2013

The Christmas that Nearly wasn't – The BBC Strike of December 1978 and Christmas Television of that year (2015 Update)

Since December 1977, where the BBC had posted some of the biggest ratings for Christmas Day programmes ever with Mike Yarwood, contrary to belief being most watched programme on that day but with Morecambe and Wise plus Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game posted remarkable figures for that one evening's viewing. It could be safe to say that when the viewing public arrived at the big day one year later, that the whole entertainment landscape had changed totally.

With three of the BBC's biggest entertainment stars leaving the corporation for pastures new, Bruce Forsyth moving to London Weekend Television to present his 'Big Night', also Morecambe and Wise moved to the other London ITV franchise Thames Television to make shows for them, just like that had moved from Lew Grade's ATV to the BBC in 1968.

That left Mike Yarwood as the jewel in the crown for the Beeb, where as ITV pinned their hopes on Forsyth, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise hoping to repeat the success they had done at the BBC. Forsyth being a performer for LWT, was given his own Christmas Eve special which was an other edition of his ill-fated Big Night with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday and Christmas Day on a Monday when Thames was broadcasting, meant that Eric and Ernie along with the première of the James Bond film – Diamonds Are Forever were ITV's main offerings on Christmas Day evening with the BBC offering a festive edition of 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em' and also the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show. But the BBC had scheduled Mike Yarwood's festive offering to finish fifteen minutes before Morecambe and Wise appeared with their Christmas show at 9pm.

However it is strange to think that ITV could have won the day through maybe unseen events of that time, a clear run if you will. Because seemingly not everything in the BBC camp was settled as it had been so smoothly in 1977.

The 1970's were a time of turbulent industrial relations right across the the board with not a week going by that a strike of one kind or another would take place, looking ahead what happened at the BBC in December 1978 would be but a small drop in the ocean as what occurred in the Independent Television network in the August of 1979. Where as ITV lost revenue and viewers through a technician’s strike, the BBC in 1978 could have lost their Christmas Schedule all together.

However you have to look back to earlier in that year for an indication of what was to come not only in December but in the year to come, Alan Sapper of the Association of Cinema Technicians and Television Technicians (ACTT) had written an article in the guide of that year's Edinburgh Television Festival guide which was seen as fanning the flames to the executives of that time, with Border Television going off the air for three days in November 1978.

But at Television Centre and Lime Grove, things were stirring with the ABS union, seen as the 'BBC' union the ABS decided to take on the BBC management to get themselves better pay and conditions for their members, however with the BBC already being pressured through limited revenue streams and also high inflation of this time, they could not afford to battle the ABS, but in principal they had to try and save their Christmas schedule.

The first union action occurred in November 1978, when the BBC wanted Radio 2 broadcast twenty-four hours a day, the action taken caused the schedule to be delay until 1979. But things were to be far from peaceful for the corporation during December, wildcat strikes were prevalent leading eventually to a two day stoppage on the 21st and 22nd of December, to make sure some sort of service either on Radio or Television was to happen on these days, a singular radio service was produced known as 'Radio 10' as it was combination of all the BBC's National Radio services, leading to classical music appearing on Radio 1, pop music on Radio 4, current affairs on Radio 2 etc. Against the backdrop of the television service broadcasting a caption explaining why there was no programmes on BBC 1 or BBC 2.

Though there was a price to pay, the BBC in not seeing their prized Christmas Day schedule being wiped out gave into the ABS union by granting a fifteen percent pay rise for its technicians. Unbeknown its was this decision by the BBC management which was to have a knock on effect to their counter-parts at ITV during the next year and for the BBC the unions picked and chose when they wanted to strike causing maximum disruption for some of the corporation's key programming through 1979 with A Song for Europe being blacked out and also that year's Miss World contest leading to Eric Morley moving the coverage to ITV in 1980 citing “That it was an embarrassment to me and the contest itself..”

After the strikes, came the schedules and naturally ITV was confident with their new signings and big movies, thinking that could this be their year after 1977's lean showing and the BBC's dominance. Even ITV's presentation had a classy look about it, making the previous year's effort of the commercial channel look almost cheap but cheerful with 'The Robin Song' being accompanied by an cartoonish Santa Claus having Christmas antics. Though the BBC management, with their many years behind them including Bill Cotton and his team of Light Entertainment Producers and Directors would deliver a schedule just as good as in 1977 or it would seem, at the strike stage the BBC had prepared an alternative schedule to be run by management if the strike had not been resolved by Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday led to strange mixture of usual Sunday programming and also major entertainment programmes on both the BBC and ITV, the likes of Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan rubbing shoulders with a performance of Sleeping Beauty from Covent Garden on BBC 1, Rugby Special with a mouth watering clash between The South and Edinburgh combined with a special edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test from Wembley Conference Centre introduced by Annie Nightingale and continuing the sporting theme ITV had their usual dose of Sunday afternoon football in the vast majority of the regions with Bruce Forsyth's Christmas Eve, a festive edition of his Big Night.

Both channels decided to put on movies filled with big stars whilst people were either wrapping last minute presents or cooking in preparation for the following day. BBC 1 went all Roman with the epic 'El Cid' at five past eight in the evening, starring like in most of these epics, Charlton Heston backed up by Sophia Loren. ITV on the other hand decided to go for the master of murder, mystery and suspense for their Christmas Eve film showing Alfred Hitchcock's Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at 9pm. However ITV decided to slice Charade into two with the ITN News sandwiched in the middle of it, a perfect crime perhaps to keep the viewers watching and extending the film so that take viewers away from Andre Previn's Music Night on BBC 1 at Ten past Eleven, with no Eric and Ernie to help him this time. Though both main channels had the traditional church services in and around midnight to welcome in the big day itself.

Because of the strikes, productions were affected as well such as the Top of the Pops Christmas special, with barely no time to record after the technicians started to work again. So effectively the Christmas Special was spilt into two, with a edition more akin to the usual Christmas Day special recorded and shown later in the festive holiday. On the main day itself, Noel Edmonds linked clips from a makeshift set, supposedly the Top of the Pops office.

With other productions taking priority such as the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show, the concentration being on getting these productions in the can ready to be able to be broadcast. Buf if Mike Yarwood was the jewel in the crown, then the early schedule on BBC 1 was hardly a classic beginning with a repeat of the previous night's Carols from Kings, Christmas Day Worship from Knutsford in Cheshire with an edition of The Flumps in between at 9.50am. Hardly rousing of the main channel, but ITV's approach was to make sure they caught the younger viewers attention whilst they were opening their presents. Over two hours, they showed The Christmas Story, The Wotsit from Whizz-Bang, a festive edition of Clapperboard and the usual visit to a Children's Home topped off with Christmas Morning Service from St George's Chapel in Windsor. Meanwhile BBC 2 opened up with an edition of Play School presented by Sarah Long and Don Spencer at five past eleven in the morning.

By lunchtime, BBC 1 had shown The Spinners from a Dickensian Street at York Museum and the late sixties Elvis Presley film Clambake based around the beaches and sunshine of America, whilst ITV went for warm sunshine as well in the form of the sequel to Born Free, Living Free starring Nigel Davenport and Susan Hampshire. Seemingly both movies were enough to keep the viewers attention through the frenzy of present opening, pleasingly they were entertaining enough to the day around to Christmas lunchtime when the schedules went up another gear, the day's viewing had been pedestrian up to that point but hear on in the BBC and ITV went their own ways with their choices of what their day's viewing should be.

At ten past one, ITV had an edition of Crossroads though it fell on Christmas Day, it was to be just part of an ordinary weekday schedule. Compared to modern standards, which have three or possible four soaps on Christmas Day concentrating on the darker aspects of story-lines, this edition was seemingly straightforward and harmless but with BBC with no soaps and going for a more entertainment based schedule decided to show Holiday on Ice, as popular as Billy Smart's Circus was at that time, this special show of glacial dexterity was the perfect start to the afternoon's schedule with radio presenter Brian Matthew on duty linking the programme together, it is important to remember that in 1978 through John Curry's success at the 1976 Winter Olympics that Britain had taken to its culture the sport and performance of ice dance, so seeing a lavish production wasn't surprising at all. BBC 2 on the other hand, went for an even more cultural approach with Sounds of Christmas from the Royal Albert Hall followed by a production of The Snow Queen. Their remit to do this was ideal to offer an alternative to BBC 1 and the ITV regions, even their main film of the day Derzu Uzala at 4.20pm was a Russian Film with English Subtitles.

For all this meanwhile in the Yorkshire Television region, they were on strike as well. Leading to the strange situation of none of the their productions being seen in their own region, but on the rest of the network with 3-2-1 being broadcast to the other companies. With the possibility of with the BBC strike not being resolved by Christmas of no television during the Christmas period in the Yorkshire area. But this was the least of ITV's troubles, with a printers strike ongoing, this meant not a full run of editions of the Christmas TV Times could not put out. So editions appeared sporadically in newsagents all over the country for their own regions, however an emergency edition was published and where a specific regional edition could be printed, that these emergency editions filled in for the usual editions over the Christmas period. With BBC and ITV seemingly settled in front of the camera, the behind the scenes activities were almost hidden secretly away.

Morecambe and Wise's move to Thames wasn't as straightforward as everyone thought, their main scriptwriter Eddie Braben was still contracted to the BBC until 1980 which mean when the duo moved to ITV that both Barry Cryer and John Junkin were charged with writing their first show for Christmas, competent writers both the actual Christmas special didn't feel that it was good as the last BBC show. But when put in a impossible position with the Christmas show of 1977, through the quality of the material and also the high ratings, anything less than Eric and Ernie had down before at the corporation would have been seen as a step down from where they had been.

Where as Mike Yarwood was the big star of the day with a festive edition of 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em' earlier in the schedule, Michael Crawford could be said with his broad comedy had appealed the most to the audience, matched with Michael Parkinson and his guests doing seasonal bit of business as characters from pantomimes it could have said that the BBC were pleased, but they couldn't even put as big a movie première as ITV had done with Diamonds Are Forever. BBC1 came up with a TV movie of True Grit : A Further Adventure as their main film of the day, it seemed like the corporation had to put a movie of any kind to match ITV, but knowing they could not beat the opposition, they used a movie which would appeal to their audience but to fill a slot.

However in the spread of Christmas, movies were put on to appeal almost weekday evenings with The Wizard of Oz making another appearance as well on the 27th of December as well Carry On Girls later on that day. Though Boxing Day, if Christmas Day had been targeted, then that day on the 26th was to be purely entertaining. The BBC's mixture of intelligent entertainment and also mass appeal, the usual Grandstand appearance, Disney Time, Its A Christmas Knockout and Jim'll Fix It were enough to keep the viewers in the afternoon and the early evening and later The final of Mastermind 1978 plus The French Connection with Gene Hackman showed the BBC were in for the long run over Christmas.

Meanwhile ITV decided to hit as hard as they could by engaging their viewers with programmes and films they wanted to see, Holiday on the Buses, Christmas Star Games and Sale of the Century were perfect ITV viewing with the ever popular Charlie's Angels and Benny Hill as well topped off with The Day of the Jackal providing the template for many ITV Boxing Days to come.

Looking back over this Christmas itself, the whole look for Christmas was to change for the next thirty five years, however taking out the soaps from the schedules it is interesting but not surprising that the 2013 rating battle was won by a broad comedy in the form of Mrs Brown's Boys where as in 1978 Frank Spencer was one of the winners of that Christmas and that the schedule have been straightforward in the past couple of years, ever day has had movies and entertainment instead of just giving up after Boxing Day, it might seem that the schedule wasn't the strongest but the spirit of Christmas past is still there. If it wasn't important to both channels in the past few years, the remarkable thing is that there is competition again. Where as ITV would have given up, the fight is back there and the BBC has thought they need to up their game.

It'll be interesting to see what Christmas 2014 will bring to all channels, but one thing is certain there will be a winner come Boxing Day, the Christmas Day crown is there for the taking.


One year on from this post, it is even more interesting with thinking that ITV had signed up so much talent in 1978 from the BBC directly that still the Corporation seemingly had a stranglehold over the festive schedule. But however with the all out assault put up by the commercial channel throughout this year, which had seen the BBC and ITV go into battle over rights to the Football League, meant that the Beeb had to strike back hard. 

Though seemingly its line-up especially on the early part of Christmas Day is almost like visual wallpaper with The Spinners at Christmas and Clambake, but The Spinners feels more like a Christmas Eve programme however with Christmas Eve being on a Sunday it follows a Sunday pattern with Songs of Praise and All Creatures Great and Small appearing in the schedule. In later years, Val Doonican's programme would appear on the eve of Christmas. So The Spinners would have been perfect viewing for that night, so slipping it on Christmas morning seems like a climbdown.

An Elvis film is a welcome edition to the big day's schedule, however one about about Powerboat racing in Florida is not very festive at all. Though this is a mild diversion for unwrapping presents or preparing the Christmas lunch, but part of having Christmas television is something which can be watched or on in the background. The major shows which are shown at time when the vast majority of people are sitting down to lunch or at teatime, however scheduling can have somewhat of a positive effect but also negative as well. 

However when Christmas is reflected now with their big shows, the feeling is now that some of the traditions have become a bit tired. With Top of the Pops limping along and with music which would have been recognisable to the vast majority even ten years ago, now the programme doesn't bear any relation to what it was even with Reggie Yates and Fearne Cotton, who are still hosting this year's edition. But with the repeats of past editions of the programme on BBC Four, even with their age they feel more fresh than what the current yearly shindig is.

This might be problem with the Christmas schedule especially on BBC One as we've had it for the past number of years, that it has not evolved at all. Like clockwork the programme which are on Christmas day can almost be timed by clockwork. Dr Who, Strictly and Call The Midwife with Eastenders having some sort of murder or disaster with in it, afraid is the word for schedulers now. Their fear in trying something new by being pillared by the press and on social media have brought a paranoid state in their minds with not trying anything different. If they do, then it is shoved to the other side of the late evening news. But how many specials can people take with 'national treasures'? 

It is yet to be seen if this is finally the Christmas where everything changes or will we be in the same position with the same programmes next year wondering where it all went wrong. 


  1. Just one correction: No Yorkshire TV programmes were transmitted to the other ITV regions that Christmas either (as there were no technicians working there to play them out, and ACTT members would have "blacked" them if arrangements were made for another ITV company to play those programmes out on YTV's behalf). The ITV regions had to summon up emergency replacement programming. Which is why YTV's Christmas specials showed up nationwide in January 1979, and ITV Christmas specials were shown in the YTV region the same month.

  2. Members of union staff would have been sacked for going on strike on Christmas Day as the BBC and the Government would have called the strike illegal.

  3. My recollection of this episode is as a Transmitter Engineer. Inflation was very high at the time so take-home pay was dropping dramatically in real terms. With the threat of no television at all in Yorkshire and no B.B.C. elsewhere, the Unions were demanding a 15% pay rise. Recourse was made to ACAS who then awarded 25% backdated and resolved the problem.