Christmas is traditionally the time for traditions, and in Britain that includes the big film on the box after the Queen. For five decades British television has taken Christmas Day as the occasion for the small-screen premiere of a major feature film. This year it’s Disney’s Frozen on BBC1. But when did this tradition begin, and what are some of the other films that have featured down through the years? What follows is a year-by-year selection of them.

The first theatrical feature to be televised on a Christmas Day was actually a repeat: the fourth transmission on BBC Television of Mickey Rooney in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) in 1949. The initial festive premiere came two years later, a ‘B’ picture now long forgotten. Wallaby Jim of the Islands (1937) was well enough liked at the time to be revived on two successive Christmases (albeit not on the day itself) before being consigned to the TV dustbin forever. Better remembered now is Laurel and Hardy’s Swiss Miss (1938), premiered in 1952 – the one with the gorilla on the rope bridge. But after that, five years were to pass before any more feature films were broadcast on Christmas Day. So it is that we begin our seasonal chronicle in 1957, by which time the BBC had been joined on the airwaves by a commercial competitor.

 

1957: You Were Never Lovelier (1942) ITV, 8.45pm

At a time when cinema films on television were still extremely rare, ITV broadcast an extraordinary three features on Christmas Day 1957. The reason for this cornucopia (‘a break in the accepted pattern of day-to-day programmes’) was explained by Derek Meakin in ITV’s programme journal TV Times: ‘to enable the people who work in the TV studios to have more time off to spend at home with their families’ (20 December, p. 11).

The first of the trio followed immediately after the Queen’s 3.00pm Christmas message to the nation – the first time this had been broadcast on television. It was another American ‘B’ movie, The Lady from Boston (1951), starring Paul Henreid and Merle Oberon. This was followed in the early evening by The Big Top (1951), a Russian circus film with English presentation by Wolf Mankowitz. But the biggest treat was appropriately reserved for late evening: Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth co-starring in the romantic musical comedy You Were Never Lovelier.

Like the other films that day, it was fully networked (that is, shown by all operating ITV stations) but seen in only four regions – London, the Midlands, the North of England and Central Scotland – as the network did not yet have total national coverage. Nor, for that matter, did BBC Television, which had its own afternoon film: Dick Powell as a Mountie in Mrs. Mike (1949). But in the next few years to come, when ITV mainly showed films on a regional basis, it was the Beeb which maintained this new tradition of the Christmas Day feature-film showcase.

 

1958: Top Hat (1935) BBC, 8.25pm

The BBC’s first-ever Christmas Night feature film was one of the plums in a package of 100 titles produced by RKO Radio Pictures that the Television Service had begun showing in early 1958. Top Hat was chronologically the fourth in the famous series of nine musical comedies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together at RKO between 1933 and 1939 (plus a tenth at MGM in 1949), but the first to be broadcast.

The coincidence of Astaire starring in two successive Christmas Day premieres (albeit on different channels) was the first of many instances of certain stars becoming particularly associated with the festive season – at least in the minds of schedulers if not the general public. Another in the Astaire-Rogers series, Swing Time (1936), received its TV premiere on the BBC at Christmas 1959, and in several later years Astaire (with or without Rogers) was the subject of retrospective seasons.

Earlier on the big day in 1958 the BBC had scheduled a minor Western, Northwest Stampede (1948). ‘Oaters’ have also been a common choice at Christmastime, as the following year demonstrated.

 

1959: High Noon (1952) BBC, 8.20pm / The Macomber Affair (1947) ITV, 9.15pm

It was quite a coup for the BBC to acquire a relatively recent (only seven years old) box-office and critical hit such as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, starring Gary Cooper. This was among several early Stanley Kramer productions that the rights-owner, United Artists, had sold outright to an American television distributor, NTA (National Telefilm Associates). Thus it was beyond Kramer’s control when these films soon turned up on British TV also, to the consternation of cinema owners.

From the very inception of television in 1936, exhibitors had led a film-industry campaign against the showing of films on the domestic screen. This they could do only so long as producers and theatrical distributors retained control of their back catalogues and subscribed to the same agenda, as mostly they did; but if copyright-owners chose for any reason to sell up to third parties willing to deal with TV there was little that could be done about it.

The year’s rival attractions on ITV provided strong competition for viewers. Although no film was fully networked, the Cole Porter biopic Night and Day (1946), starring Cary Grant, was shown in six regions in the afternoon, while The Macomber Affair, an Ernest Hemingway adaptation with Gregory Peck, was transmitted by five stations in the evening. The latter won the ratings battle by a small margin in the areas where it was broadcast, with a TAM (Television Audience Measurement) rating of 33 compared to High Noon’s 31 (the figures representing a percentage of TV-equipped homes).

 

1960: The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) BBC, 7.15pm

Another controversial acquisition for the BBC was a package of films from the independent producer David O. Selznick. The first of these to be scheduled was his production of Anthony Hope’s classic swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda, starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll. The lease of Selznick’s back catalogue to the BBC led to a boycott of his films by British exhibitors lasting several years until a resolution was reached (for which see below).

In fact, another group of Selznick films had previously turned up on BBC Television in the early postwar period, including The Young in Heart (1938), whose TV premiere on Christmas Eve 1947 was the first feature film of any kind to be shown on British television during the festive holiday season, as well as the first from a major Hollywood producer ever to be televised. A further Selznick picture was the BBC’s top attraction in 1961.

 

1961: Rebecca (1940) BBC, 9.00pm / The Pickwick Papers (1952) ITV, 10.05pm

While networked films on ITV were few and far between in the 1960s, as each commercial company preferred to schedule independently, local stations did occasionally share transmissions of particular titles. There were several such instances over the Christmas holiday period of 1961, including the British adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, with James Hayter as Mr. Pickwick, broadcast in six ITV regions.  Oddly, a shorter television version of the same story had been shown on ITV the night before in an episode of the American anthology series Tales from Dickens.

Earlier on Christmas Day, the BBC premiered a cinema adaptation of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories with Just William’s Luck (1947) at teatime. Its companion piece, William Goes to Town (1948), was shown the very same day by ATV in the Midlands, having been premiered in most other ITV regions the Christmas before. But it was David O. Selznick’s Oscar-winning production of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which grabbed the ratings, drawing an audience reported as 12,700,000 viewers.

 

1962: The African Queen (1951) BBC, 8.50pm / Scrooge (1951) ITV, 11.10pm

The BBC’s film choice for this year was criticised for reasons that had nothing at all to do with the movie itself. John Huston’s classic The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, had originally been acquired by the London ITV weekday contractor Associated-Rediffusion when it bought out Independent Film Distributors (IFD). In a unique deal, A-R shared the main package of 52 titles with the BBC in order to defray the purchase cost. After premiering on one channel, each film would then become available to the other. Never before or since have the rival broadcasters co-operated in quite this way. For critics who perceived an over-dependence on repeats, however, the BBC’s scheduling of The African Queen – already seen in most ITV regions the previous year – in a prime slot on Christmas Night was a gift.

For the second year in succession, ITV’s evening film was a Dickens adaptation produced by Renown Pictures, whose library the network had also acquired. But Scrooge was seen in only three regions, including London, as most stations showed no films at all that day. Perhaps the most famous screen version of the story, Brian Desmond Hurst’s production starring Alastair Sim was also the first to reach television. It has since become a hardy perennial, surfacing again this year on independent channel Talking Pictures TV. http://talkingpicturestv.co.uk/video/scrooge-christmas-carol-tptv/

 

1963: The Gold Rush (1925/1942) BBC, 9.25pm

Although several silent Charlie Chaplin shorts had appeared on television from the late 1940s onwards, the great comedian had always declined requests to televise his feature films, whose rights he still owned. But according to Bill Gilbert, who worked in film acquisition at the BBC in the early 1960s, for The Gold Rush Chaplin had renewed copyright only in his 1942 re-edit (which included his own new score and added voice-over commentary) and not the original 1925 release. After they were offered the latter by a German distributor, the BBC’s film buyers decided to approach Chaplin directly for permission to screen his recut version instead; if he refused, they would show the earlier one anyway. With this subtle bit of blackmail, the BBC acquired the TV rights for £5,000 and premiered the authorised edition at peak time on Christmas Night (see Bill Gilbert, ‘Overcoming FIDO’, The Veteran 141, Winter 2013, p. 15).

The deal paid off: not only was The Gold Rush the most-watched programme on any channel of the holiday week – it was and remains the most-watched broadcast of any silent film ever shown on British television, with an audience estimated by the BBC as 22 million viewers (Radio Times, 16 April 1964, p. 44). A repeat was quickly scheduled for the opening week of BBC2 in April 1964 – it was the first film shown following the new channel’s official launch. In 1972 the BBC acquired the TV rights to Chaplin’s other features, usually premiering them at Christmastime over a period of several years, but never with the same ratings success as in 1963.

 

1964: The Pride and the Passion (1957) ITV, 8.00pm

In September 1964 the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association (CEA) agreed no longer to oppose the televising of cinema films so long as they were at least five years old (the origin of the so-called ‘five-year rule’). The decision allowed a vast array of features to become available for showing on British television. The Christmas period that year displayed the new conditions very clearly, as deals made with companies including United Artists, Warner Bros. and the Rank Organisation bore fruit with the TV premieres of several blockbusters.

The biggest – or at least longest, starriest and most expensive – was Stanley Kramer’s Napoleonic epic The Pride and the Passion, based on C.S. Forester’s novel The Gun, about a huge cannon being hauled across Spain to blast open the walls of a French-held fortress. Though it had not been a great success in cinemas, the fact that the picture co-starred box-office giants Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, was packed with spectacular production values (albeit rendered in black and white on home screens) and filled an evening slot for nearly three hours (including commercial breaks and an interval for the news) must have made it very attractive to ITV schedulers. So much so that, for the first time since 1957, all local stations shared in the transmission; and as all fourteen regional franchises had now been taken and their services opened, it was the first time that an ITV Christmas Day film had been seen across the entire country.

Meanwhile, for the first year since 1956, the BBC had no feature film on its main channel, now known as BBC1. But on the other Other Side, the new BBC2 presented Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary (1939), a classic haunted-house comedy. Hope was to reappear in the Beeb’s Christmas Day schedules for the next two years running.

 

1965: When Comedy Was King (1960) BBC2, 6.30pm / Road to Bali (1952) BBC1, 8.00pm

Comedy was king in 1965. Perhaps emboldened by the success of The Gold Rush in 1963, BBC2 scheduled an all-star silent-movie compilation, When Comedy Was King, for the early part of Christmas evening, though in fact this was the channel’s first broadcast of the day. Produced by Robert Youngson, an American specialist in the field, it was also the first of his films to reach British television. It was soon to be joined by other Youngson comedy compilations, all regularly presented on holiday occasions, and was emulated by two series produced directly for British television: Mad Movies, hosted by Bob Monkhouse for ITV, and The Golden Screen, with Michael Bentine on the BBC.

Switching to BBC1 straight afterwards you could have seen three comedy stars of a later generation: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in Road to Bali. This was the sixth in the seven-film Road series, most originally released by Paramount but in this instance now owned by Hope. Bali was also the only Road film made in Technicolor, but still broadcast by the BBC in monochrome – colour was not to come in until 1967. Nevertheless, and although it was far from the best entry in the series, Road to Bali came second in the national ratings for the week, viewed in an estimated 4,700,000 homes.

Over at ITV, the network had resumed its habit of local scheduling, including regional premieres of Ealing’s Nicholas Nickleby (1947) on ABC in the Midlands and North and of John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), starring Gregory Peck, on three stations including ATV London. This was a pattern that would prevail on the commercial network until 1968.

 

1966: Rio Bravo (1959) ITV, 3.07pm / The Comancheros (1961) BBC1, 8.45pm

Christmas Day 1966 was a film bonanza on ITV. On offer around the regions were such titles as Sabrina Fair (1954, ATV in London), Young at Heart (1955, ATV and Westward), The Big Knife (1955, Scottish), The Cruel Sea (1953, Southern), Vertigo (1958, Tyne Tees), Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (1951, Anglia) and Great Expectations (1946, Grampian), all receiving their local premieres. But the most widely seen ITV film of the day was Howard Hawks’ Western Rio Bravo, showing after the Queen’s Speech on three stations: ABC in the Midlands and North, Southern and Border.

This was the first appearance on Christmas Day of any film starring John Wayne, though a repeat of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) had been transmitted on Christmas Eve by the BBC as early as 1956. But 1966 was the Duke’s year, as he also dominated the evening schedule in The Comancheros: a lesser work to be sure but still suitably relaxing entertainment for a winter evening. Once again a BBC1 film came second in the ratings for the week, with an estimated 5,300,000 homes tuning in. (Topping the charts in both 1965 and 1966 was The Ken Dodd Show, also on BBC1.) Ending the evening on BBC2 was Monsieur Beaucaire (1946), a costume romp starring, once again, Bob Hope.

John Wayne was to take the lead in two out of the next three years’ BBC1 Christmas offerings and continued to be a festive TV fixture well into the 1970s. Stay tuned for more details – coming soon.

See here for Part 2 of this article.