Reliving the joys of an 80s TV Christmas

Russ Abbot, Bullseye, Noel Edmonds and a film we all watched in the same room. Christmas TV was more exciting in the 80s...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Cast your mind back to when Christmas Day wasn’t about Doctor Who followed by sticking something on Netflix until it was time to go watch the annual fist fight outside the pub.

In the 80s, Christmas was about seeing which fantastic fare the TV had decided to bless us with. Of course, the more prepared among us knew this well in advance, having eagerly pored over the Radio Times/TV Times to check that Jimmy Cricket’s Family Laugh ‘n’ Waz would be shown. There it was – right after Reflections On The Eucharist With The Reverend Paul Leyland.

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The following is my attempt to capture the Christmas TV of my childhood by recreating as close to a typical day’s viewing as I can manage. Christmas Eve gets a look in, but not Boxing Day, because Boxing Day is rubbish since you don’t have any presents to open and you’ve eaten all the food.

A few notes before we begin:

– Huge thanks to UK Christmas TV, who have painstakingly transcribed every single Christmas TV and radio schedule since the 1930s, so people like me can write things like this. Their site is a fascinating read, definitely go check it out.

– A lot of times are approximate, but as close to reality as I can manage.

– Yes, that’s me with the mullet.

Now, without further ado…

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Christmas Eve

There weren’t really any hard and fast rules for Christmas Eve, because you might have been too busy to plop yourself down in front of the TV. If you were an adult, you might have been in the pub, or wrapping last minute presents, or trying to thaw the turkey out using your hairdryer. If you were a kid, you’d have been busy doing the following:

Weeing yourself with excitement

Attempting to burgle your parents’ bedroom

Convincing yourself that the police car you just heard was definitely Santa’s sleigh


However, there were a few TV highlights that would never fail to get you in the mood for the next day’s festivities.

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Carols From King’s

Featuring a load of kids that look a bit like Neville Longbottom.


Christmas Eve movies were very hit and miss, but they were always worth checking out for the occasional gems they contained. 1988 was a good year because BBC1 showed Santa Claus: The Movie. It was a less good year for ITV, who showed The Ugly Dachsund.

ITV redeemed itself the following year by showing the premiere of George C Scott’s A Christmas Carol. And their showing of Scrooge in 1981 gets bonus points because it had an evening news update in the middle. BBC1 were showing The Poseidon Adventure that year, which isn’t very festive.

But for every hit there were a few misses. Apart from classic fare such as Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood and Lassie : Flight Of The Cougar (what is it with Christmas and dogs?), both main channels seemed to really love their murder films. Hitchcock was a regular, as were films with names like ‘Angry Passion’ and ‘Bloody Hell’.

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On Christmas Eve 1989, ITV showed a film called Burning Rage at 3.20am, which is around the time Santa would have been arriving. That’s not on.

Celebrity specials

In the BBC corner: Little and Large and Kenny Everett. In the ITV corner, Cannon and Ball and the mighty Bobby Davro. Occasionally a take on A Christmas Carol, or maybe a panto.

Also look out for Strike It Lucky, 3-2-1, Give Us A Clue and Telly Addicts Christmas specials. I say ‘look out for’, I mean if you happen to be in the past.

Anecdote: My other half once went to a taping of Telly Addicts with his parents. His dad fell asleep during one question, woke up during the answer to another question, and became convinced that the poor contestant had answered the question wrong. Cue an argument with Noel Edmonds while they were still filming, and my father in law’s subsequent distrust of game shows.

Val Doonican 

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The word to describe Val Doonican’s Christmas Show is ‘lovely’. A warm and fuzzy mixture of easy listening, carols, cardigans and light-hearted chit chat.

Val’s 1986 show included newsreader Jan Leeming, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Dennis Taylor (dicking about doing trick shots with Val), and the Arts Education School Choir. Val wore a lemon coloured knitted tie, and everyone had a jolly nice time.

If you’re at home this Christmas Eve, I’d suggest watching some Val, accompanied by a pot of tea (or maybe a mulled wine) and a mince pie, while sitting on the settee, wrapped in a blanket and wearing all your pairs of bedsocks at once.

Midnight Mass

I’ve never actually watched a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, because I’ve either been in bed, or pissed and watching a Carry On film. But they are very Christmassy.

Christmas Day

He’s been! He’s been! And he’s brought me ten tons of stuff! Still have a mullet though.

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It used to take me about three minutes to unwrap my hundreds of presents; I got it down to a fine art. Teeth were sometimes involved. Afterwards, there were two things to do – break my presents and watch TV. I usually had control of the TV on Christmas morning, because my parents were busy peeling potatoes and muttering about how they “must remember to phone Geoff”.

This was just as well, because Christmas morning TV in the 80s was clearly aimed at small, overexcited children with terrible hair.

6am – mid morning: kids’ shite

The rule of Christmas morning cartoons was to put on the cheapest stuff possible, while also keeping the kids quiet so Mum and Dad could get over their hangover in peace. Think foreign imports, vintage animation under the umbrella title Cartoon Time, and shit no one cared about like Dennis.

Typical accompaniments to tearing wrapping paper into a million pieces included the following:

Christmas Comes To Pac-Land

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Puff The Magic Dragon

Ziggy’s Gift

The Racoons On Ice

The All New Pink Panther Show

Santa’s Pocket Watch

Bluetoes – the Christmas Elf

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A Merry Mirthworm Christmas

Mid-morning – 3pm: Family light entertainment bonanza

Something breezy and festive to relieve that growing sense of ennui that comes from having no more presents to open. Maybe a Nativity play, or a Top Of The Pops Christmas party. Lucky ITV viewers were treated to a Bullseye Christmas special at this time in 1988. Jim Bowen dicked around and everyone had a lovely time. Being 5 at the time, I would have been too busy covering my presents in snot to notice this. It’s good though – it features Bully flying round a Christmas pudding instead of a dartboard, plus Eric Bristow teams up with the mighty Bob Holness.

Of course, one of the stand-out TV events of an 80s Christmas Day fell in this slot. Christmas Morning With Noel doesn’t need any explanation, unless you’re 10.

For the 10 year olds among us, here’s a BBC synopsis:

“Join Noel for a morning of family reunions, Christmas jollity and festive fun. Telephone lines will be open for the on-screen dedication service. So call Noel on [number removed, so I’m going with 081 811 8181], during the programme with your dedications and Christmas messages.”

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If you’re interested, here’s the full broadcast of 1988 Noel; still a surprisingly entertaining watch. And if you don’t even find yourself sniffing over the family reunions, then your heart is made of old discarded pencils and I don’t want to be your friend. 

I thought I vaguely remembered Noel also going round hospitals poking his nose in and saying stuff like “Ooh, isn’t that a lovely present Lucy! So tell us Lucy, how long have you had no kidneys?” However, I think I’m getting it mixed up with Jeremy Kyle’s Emergency Room, which no one wants to see.

1985 also saw ITV put Jim Davidson’s Top Pop Videos of ’85 in the 1pm slot. I can’t quite figure out what kind of opinion to have on this.

3pm: The Queen

You’ve finished your dinner and dried your eyes (either from laughing at the hilarious cracker jokes or crying over Noel Edmonds). I hope you’ve also got all your farting and burping out of the way, because it’s time to pay attention.

Stop laughing. You’ll go to prison for laughing.

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3.10 – teatime: THE BIG MOVIE!

Movies on TV were a big deal in the 80s; we weren’t exactly able to stream any movie ever made while simultaneously slagging it off on Twatter. The Christmas Day movie was an event, and a reason for disparate family members to be in the same room without killing each other.

BBC1 and ITV were the ones to watch for the big movie. ITV often went with a Bond film, while BBC1 tended to go for premieres.

1988 was a stand-out year for the Christmas movie. BBC1 aired the premiere of Back To The Future in the post-Queen slot, while, in a break with tradition, ITV plumped for Christmas Blind ‘d’ Date. However, this was only to lull the BBC into a false sense of security, because at 3.55pm they came back fighting with the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back. God help you if you didn’t have a video recorder.

In 1989, BBC1 went with showing episodes of Bread and Only Fools And Horses after The Queen, while ITV showed The BFG. ITV had also aired On Her Majesty’s Secret Service earlier that day. However, BBC1 redeemed itself in the evening, with the premiere of Crocodile Dundee. I’ll call 1989 a draw.

Other highlights included BBC1’s 1987 premiere of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, their 1984 Mary Poppins premiere, and ITV’s 1983 showing of Superman. However, this wasn’t a premiere; ITV had beaten itself to it on January 4th of the same year.

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Right, time for some adverts. These are from the middle of ITV’s showing of Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1984’s evening slot, and feature what is quite probably the longest butter advert ever:

Teatime: The Snowman

In the 80s, The Snowman seemed to be Channel 4’s one concession to having any fun at Christmas. Otherwise they just showed documentaries about ballet.

Originally shown on Boxing Day 1982, from 1986 onwards The Snowman cemented its place as a Christmas Day staple. The 26 minute adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ book has reduced us all to quivering tears at some point; except for when we’re singing along to Walking In The Air, performed by Peter Auty (NOT Aled Jones, the song stealing Welshman).

Anyway, if you don’t love The Snowman, get out of this article, you’re barred.

Early evening: News

The news was usually that it was Christmas, which everyone already knew. Sometimes it would be about some men who’d gone for a swim in the buff.

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Evening: Odds and ends

Game shows, chat shows, movies, sitcoms, Denis Norden: If this slot were a household object, it would be that box labelled ‘If you can’t find it, it’s in here’. This was certainly true for ITV, who used this slot for such varied delights as Minder On The Orient Express, A Duty Free Christmas, Inspector Morse, and London’s Burning.

My personal favourite is 1983’s phenomenal sounding Jimmy Tarbuck’s Christmas All Stars, which featured Cannon and Ball, Bonnie Tyler, Henry and Matthew Kelly, Max Bygraves, Shakin’ Stevens, and David Hasselhoff. Yes.

The BBC were a bit more structured, and you could always rely on at least one comedy heavyweight to see you through the evening.

Morecambe and Wise’s last Christmas Day outing came in 1980 (although ITV did air a tribute to Eric Morecambe in their 1984 slot). It’s strange to see the Eric ‘n’ Ernie shaped hole in the listings; it’s easy to assume a Morecambe and Wise special aired every Christmas Day through the 80s, even if only via repeats, but this wasn’t the case. Which is a shame, because I was really looking forward to watching a load, for ‘research’. I will anyway.

The Christmas Day comedy slot in the 80s was all about The Two Ronnies and Russ Abbot, with a bit of Paul Daniels (not a lot).

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Re: that last line – has anyone got any duct tape for my sides?

I don’t need to say much about The Two Ronnies, because by now babies are born already knowing their sketches. Some of the more memorable skits to debut during the Christmas specials included ‘You can say that again’, ‘Quizshow Court’, and ‘Crossword’ (I’m a sucker for people getting crosswords wrong).

In 1982, fans of musical cockneys were spoilt for choice. Not only were ITV showing Chas ‘n’ Dave’s Christmas Knees Up, but also the BBC were showing The Two Ronnies’ Chas ‘n’ Dave piss take.

The Russ Abbot Christmas Show might have entered into ‘underappreciated gem’ territory now, but consider the following: Les Dennis as Robin, partnered with an obese Batman with a mask drawn on in felt tip, whose American accent keeps slipping into Yorkshire. Marvellous. Also, give me a better band name than Whispering Hubert and the Constipated Seven. Pro tip – you can’t.

A fun fact before we move on: In 2003, Abbot’s ‘Jimmy McJimmy’ character was voted the third most Scottish person ever by readers of the Glasgow Herald. He narrowly lost out to the Krankies, which is a cheat because the Krankies should clearly have been counted as one person.

If soaps are more your thing, then head over to 1986 for the Eastenders Christmas two parter, in which Den gives Angie divorce papers for Christmas (spoiler alert).

Other 80s soap specials had the nation gripped too. Brookside 1989, for example, went with the daring decision to have Ron Dixon struck down with a turkey allergy. And who could forget Coronation Street 1982, in which Ivy Tilsley couldn’t remember where she’d left her shoes.

Another ad break, this time from Channel 4 in 1985:

11.00pm: Really? You’re still watching? Fine, we’ll stick a film on.

“Barry, what films have we got lying around? Didn’t we show that last Tuesday? Ok fine, put that on, they’ll all be hammered now anyway.”

Christmas Day night is a bit depressing – you know it’s all over for another year, and that you’re one day closer to having to start the annual January 1st – January 3rd diet. The kids have been asleep since Russ Abbot finished, and the sensible thing to do is go to bed.

TV of the 80s tried to help you go to bed by airing films like Airplane II: The Sequel, The Squeeze, and The Christmas Night Thriller: Home For The Holidays. Sometimes this effort was misguided as the films were good ones, such as Educating Rita and Some Like It Hot. Occasionally, BBC1 used this slot for another movie premiere. But mostly the time was filled with whatever they had handy.

I have a false memory of the BBC showing Steptoe And Son Ride Again every Christmas night in the 80s, when in reality they never did. They should have done, because that’s a terrific film. I guess I just watched it a lot on video.

Rambling aside, this slot pretty much signalled the end of Christmas Day, unless you stayed up for Weather then Closedown, but who has the stamina for that?

And that brings us to the end of our 80s Christmas. All that’s left to do now is fall into a drunken stupor (unless you’re 5), laugh at the shit presents you got, and promise yourself that next year you definitely won’t eat all the stuffing before lunchtime.

Now, from all of us here, may I wish you a very happy Christmas, and a very good night.