In such fast moving, exciting times with 360 content at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine a time before unlimited choice. Online streaming services and e-content have made a massive impact to the way people consume television and this Christmas season will be no exception. Yet as we prepare for another Christmas of multi-platform entertainment, I wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon a past Christmas institution. Christmas Night with the Stars was first broadcast on Christmas Day 1958 and ran for fourteen years with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966. The extravaganza was always hosted by one of the BBC’s biggest stars of the year and featured singers, comedians, actors and stars of the best loved sitcoms.
The first outing of Christmas Night With The Stars was aired at 6:20 on Christmas Day 1958 in the slot which would later be dominated by Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game for almost a decade throughout the 1970’s. Magician David Nixon was put forward to host the show and introduce a glittering lineup including The Beverley Sisters, Vera Lynn, Charlie Chester, Tony Hancock and Ted Ray. The show was a success and was promptly commissioned for the following year starring Jimmy Logan and Charlie Drake. Still in the age of full on theatrical Variety, this offered performers the opportunity to experiment with the relatively new medium of television and try new material on a television audience perhaps for the very first time.
Looking through the synopses of the many versions of Christmas Night With The Stars it’s not difficult to chart the coming of age of the TV sitcom. Bite size specials and sketches from our favourite sitcom characters have become the staple of Comic Relief over the past thirty years. Yet in 1962 it was totally unheard of for a sitcom to be anything other than a thirty minute time slot. So when Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney wrote a short special of The Rag Trade especially for the festive BBC extravaganza, they were actually unknowingly changing British television forever. Through the subsequent years, a whole host of sitcoms including; Marriage Lines, Steptoe and Son, Faces Of Jim, Till Death Us Do Part, The Liver Birds and even Dad’s Army created short segments exclusively for CNWTS. Such a concept was extremely ahead of its time and now would be comparable with webisodes which you now may find on YouTube or iPlayer.
Such a manic show required a steady hand to steer the ship in the right direction and this was normally reserved for one of the most popular stars of the year. In its history, Christmas Night With The Stars has been presented by some of the cream of entertainment including; Jack Warner, David Nixon, Corbett and Barker, Fry and Laurie and Michael Parkinson. Presenting such a feast of entertainment is a unique experience as some acts are live in the studio while others are pre-recorded so the presenter is always kept on their toes. It’s ironic to think just how many presenters are required for a night such as Comic Relief and yet these stars were required to maintain the pace of the show all on their own.
Music was another very important part of the show and just like comedy, the BBC always ensured that they had the cream of the crop to grace the festive stage at Television Centre. Everyone from Billy Cotton to Lulu joined in the fun, providing a musical interlude to proceedings. As the title suggests, singers were never short of a carol or too and the image of Val Doonican sat on a stool surrounded by school children harmonising as he croons away, still lives long in the memories of avid viewers. A surprise duet between entertainment royalty Ronnie Corbett and Cilla Black provided the musical treat for 1972 as the pair performed the relatively unknown Christmas song All I Really Wanted Was You which is one of the rare opportunity that we see these two television icons sharing a stage.
The 1972 incarnation is also significant in being the last Christmas Night With The Stars to be aired in its traditional form. Although titled as Christmas Night With The Two Ronnies, this was the last edition to feature the whole breadth of Variety. For fans of British Comedy, it’s very rare to find Ronnie Barker presenting anything as a direct result of his inability to let the camera see his real self. Yet if one was to analyse his performance, you may realise that he is still playing the part of the newsreader behind the News At Ten desk. Even when he’s introducing The Liver Birds or Lulu, he’s still playing a part and maybe that’s one of the most endearing aspects to him.
After a hiatus of twenty two years, Christmas Night With The Stars returned in 1994 with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s take on the legendary show. Unfortunately television producers and the BBC were quick to learn that Alternative Comedy and Variety find it difficult to mix and therefore was never recommissioned. Yet in 2003 the BBC welcomed the show back to the BBC1 schedule with the ever steady hands of Michael Parkinson at the helm. In a packed BBC One Christmas Day schedule, it was great to see such an iconic show return after so long away. Featuring a stellar cast including The Kumars, Will Young, Jo Brand, Ricky Tomlinson, Victoria Beckham, Jon Culshaw, a very young Michael Bublè and the great Ronnie Corbett, Christmas Night With The Stars returned for the 21st century. Scheduled for right at the start of the evening, the 90 minute show was the perfect appetizer for a big night for television.
Sadly this is currently the last sighting of Christmas Night With The Stars in the television listings and we can all surmise as to the reasons behind it. A combination of budgets, resources and the calibre of stars have all impacted heavily on the future of this iconic show. Yet with the gradual rise of online, independent content, maybe it won’t be long before those all round entertainers find a new outlet for their talent and formats like Christmas Night With The Stars can once again have their time under the entertainment mistletoe. Until then, YouTube is a great place to find classic episodes and relive the magic of those Christmas TV pasts. Although there is no doubt that Christmas Night With The Stars has had its day, it’s also a tidy reminder of a simpler time and truly defines the magic of a TV Christmas.