As the major studios gradually opened up their vaults to British broadcasters, the feature films acquired for showing on television became ever more numerous. They grew to include some real blockbusters, which often became the centrepieces of holiday schedules when competition for viewers was particularly fierce. Many of the big films of the past which still revisit us on our TV screens today made their domestic debuts on Christmas Day in the 1960s and 1970s. Here we look at a selection of them.
See here for Part 1 of this article.
1967: Doctor in Love (1960) BBC2, 5.00pm / The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) BBC1, 9.40pm
Duke Wayne was back in 1967, and the BBC had got him. Although ITV’s Leslie Halliwell had bought most of Paramount’s film library for the commercial network, the Beeb’s Gordon Smith had somehow poached John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which premiered on BBC1 at Easter 1968. The Western, in now-traditional fashion, followed Ken Dodd’s show in the main channel’s Christmas Night line-up. Local offerings prevailed on ITV, many of them repeat runs, although six stations including ATV in the Midlands presented regional premieres of David Lean’s Dickens adaptation Great Expectations (1946).
Over on BBC2, a minor milestone occurred with the first showing on a Christmas Day of a feature film in colour. The higher-definition (625 lines of resolution) channel had officially launched its colour service at the beginning of the month. Doctor in Love, chronologically the fourth in the Doctor series released by the Rank Organisation (sans Dirk Bogarde this time), was the first to reach television. Later in the evening, BBC2 offered another colour film treat with Arne Sucksdorff’s semi-documentary The Flute and the Arrow (1957), originally shot in wide-screen Agascope.
1968: Westward the Women (1951) ITV, 8.00pm / Some Like It Hot (1959) BBC1, 9.45pm
For the first time since 1964, ITV had a Christmas Day film covering most of the country – indeed, it had two. After a children’s morning matinee of Lex Barker in Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952), grown-up viewers had Westward the Women in the evening, a relatively unsung but underrated feminist Western starring Robert Taylor. Only Ulster Television opted out of the network transmissions of both films. BBC1, meanwhile, had another gender-bending classic in Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot, once again following Doddy’s seasonal show in the schedule. BBC Audience Research estimated that the film was seen by more than 15,000,000 viewers.
These two were among the last Christmas Night films to be shown on either of the main channels in black and white only. The following year colour came to both BBC1 and ITV (at least the larger regional stations, as it spread gradually around the commercial network). On BBC2 it was already there, with three colour films for the big day in 1968: another nature documentary, Lords of the Forest (1958); a medieval epic, Lancelot and Guinevere (1963), which has scarcely been seen on British TV since; and an MGM musical, Anchors Aweigh (1945) – the other one with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors – taking late birds through until nearly 2.00am.
1969: McLintock! (1963) BBC1, 9.15pm / Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) ITV, 9.30pm
Lightweight romps were the order of Christmas Day 1969, with John Wayne and his clan in the Western comedy McLintock! and Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack relocating from Vegas to Chicago for the all-star gangster musical Robin and the 7 Hoods. Only nine of the fourteen ITV regions, including London, saw the latter, ATV having gazumped the network – as it often did – for a Midlands premiere earlier in the month. Both films were in the new-fangled colour, while the inaugural colour channel BBC2 reverted to black and white for a late-night screening of The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960), featuring an early starring role for Peter O’Toole.
Of note was the fact that this year saw the first festive double issues of both the BBC’s programme journal Radio Times and ITV’s TVTimes (though some of the latter’s regional rivals had published double issues before it became the national organ for the network in 1968). Each magazine had its own regular film columnist, in the respective shapes of Philip Jenkinson and David Quinlan.
1970: Charade (1963) BBC1, 9.15pm / Kiss Me Kate (1953) BBC2, 11.00pm
No ITV Christmas Day film in 1970 was played by more than two stations, and the local selections featured some decidedly unseasonal fare. Notable picks included Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) in London, The Misfits (1961) in the Midlands, Guns at Batasi (1964) in the North West, A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) in Yorkshire, The Victors (1963) in Central Scotland, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) in Wales, Lord Jim (1965) in the North East, The V.I.P.s (1963) in Anglia and Topkapi (1964) in Ulster. This was to be the last year that such a grab-bag resulted from independent programme planning; henceforth Christmas scheduling decisions would be more co-ordinated, even if films were still not always fully networked.
The BBC’s evening choices were Stanley Donen’s Hitchcockian thriller Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, on the majority channel, and another MGM musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, on the minority. Thoughtful timing meant that keen viewers could switch straight from one to the other without missing anything; such convenient ‘junctions’ were now a deliberate policy in the placing of feature films by the Beeb.
1971: Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) ITV, 8.30pm / Marnie (1964) BBC2, 11.20pm
ITV’s Christmas Day schedule for 1971 included no fewer than three feature films, all shown in most parts of the country. In the morning there was Captain Sindbad (1963) for the kiddies; in the afternoon, King Solomon’s Mines (1950) following the Queen; and in the evening, excepting only the Grampian region of Northern Scotland, the three-hour, all-star comedy blockbuster Around the World in Eighty Days, adapted from Jules Verne’s novel. TVTimes’ David Quinlan labelled the whole festive period an ‘Armchair Film Festival’, offering ‘the finest line-up of films ITV has ever shown at such a time’ (16 December 1971, p. 8).
The BBC had its own mini-festival, with an early-evening BBC2 ‘Double Feature’ of A Distant Trumpet (1964) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1956), Stanley Donen’s attempt to recapture his Charade magic with Arabesque (1966) following Morecambe and Wise on BBC1 and Hitchcock’s ‘sex thriller’ Marnie as a ‘Midnight Movie’ on BBC2. But the hit of the ratings that year was not on the big day itself. In the lull between Christmas and New Year, on 28 December (BBC1), The Great Escape (1963) made its small-screen debut, capturing an audience the BBC estimated as 21,500,000 viewers – if correct, a record figure for any film shown on British television to that date.
1972: Henry V (1944) BBC2, 3.05pm / The Love Goddesses (1965) ITV, 11.00pm
The main channels this year offered a Neil Simon comedy, Barefoot in the Park (1967), on BBC1, and a mediocre multi-star Western, The Way West (1967), in eleven out of the fourteen ITV regions. But the real cinematic gold lay in off-peak spots: the UK TV debut of Laurence Olivier’s Technicolor Shakespeare adaptation Henry V in the afternoon on BBC2 and a documentary about big-screen sex symbols, The Love Goddesses, networked by all ITV stations late at night. This was the adult equivalent of the Robert Youngson comedy compilations which still played in BBC holiday spots.
The Olivier film was to give a repeat performance in the same matinee slot two years later. Its chief rival in 1972, giving the ITV network its highest ratings of the day, was a Morecambe and Wise film vehicle, That Riviera Touch (1966). By the mid-1970s the duo’s regular annual appearance as the main evening attraction in their own show (on BBC1 from 1969 to 1977, then on ITV) had become a national institution that was to gain the biggest TV audience of the holiday week year after year.
1973: The Odd Couple (1968) BBC1, 8.35pm / Von Ryan’s Express (1965) ITV, 9.00pm
A Neil Simon comedy was again BBC1’s film choice, this time with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in defining roles as The Odd Couple. On ITV, Frank Sinatra was back in Von Ryan’s Express, an American World War II adventure but the kind of PoW-escape story beloved of British audiences. It provided the present author with his first clear recollection of watching a film on Christmas Day: as a nine-year-old I was allowed to stay up well beyond my regular bedtime to see the end, which still stays with me (a memory admittedly assisted by many repeat viewings).
The BBC2 alternatives are also worthy of mention: John Schlesinger’s underrated 1967 version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd in the afternoon; a 1968 filmed record of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake for mid-evening; and Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of the BBC’s own serial Quatermass and the Pit to finish the night. Alas, it clashed with Lost Hearts, the annual made-for-TV ‘Christmas Ghost Story’ on BBC1, which must have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in horror-fan households across the land.
1974: Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) ITV, 3.10pm / The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) BBC1, 8.45pm
In a year bulging with blockbusters, the broadcasters deployed some of their most powerful weapons yet in the seasonal ratings war. For the first time ever, virtually all of ITV’s feature films for the festive week were fully networked. This was to be the standard pattern from now on, as the commercial channel aimed to gain maximum publicity from coordinating its major film scheduling on a national basis. ITV gained its biggest audience on Christmas Day for the all-star extravaganza Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Also broadcast on ITV that week were two similar comedic epics: The Great Race (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969), the latter a direct sequel to Magnificent Men.
BBC1 brought up its biggest gun for Christmas Night: David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, now seventeen years old but among the major hits in UK box-office history and at the time still being revived in cinemas. To acquire it, the BBC had to pay the highest price yet for any film shown on British television: £125,000 for five showings. The audience was estimated as 18,000,000 viewers.
The main channels’ alternatives to both these films both starred John Wayne, both from 1969: True Grit on BBC1 in the afternoon and The Undefeated on ITV in the evening. Meanwhile, BBC2 had the shortest film of the year: Futtocks End (1970) with Ronnie Barker, running a mere 49 minutes.
1975: The Taming of the Shrew (1967) ITV, 8.30pm / Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) BBC1, 8.45pm
The commercial network’s regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), always encouraged it to offer more ‘serious’ programming, including cultural events, to counter-balance the usual mass-audience attractions. Perhaps it was this imperative that led ITV to schedule Franco Zeffirelli’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as its Christmas Night film of 1975. The planners can’t have expected high ratings, and if so they were not disappointed; once again an afternoon comedy, Doctor in Trouble (1970), gave the network its biggest audience on a day effortlessly dominated by the BBC.
The same price that had been paid for Kwai (albeit this time for only three screenings) secured for the Corporation the world television premiere of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Due to a clause in his contract, personal permission had to be given for the purchase by the film’s star Paul Newman. The first of Newman’s two on-screen pairings with Robert Redford (the second was to appear on Christmas Night four years later), it drew an audience claimed by the BBC as 24,700,000: a new record for a film on the channel. Earlier in the day, almost as many people – 20,400,000 according to Audience Research – had seen the television premiere of The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film which was to become another annual institution.
1976: Oliver! (1968) BBC1, 4.15pm / Waterloo (1970) ITV, 8.00pm / Airport (1970) BBC1, 8.45pm
The era of the Big Film on television was at hand. Also the Big Price Tag: another record fee was set by the BBC’s purchase of the Oscar-winning musical Oliver!, with £250,000 paid for five screenings. Its producer, John Woolf, claimed that he only approved the sale on condition that it would not compete for audiences with new films in cinemas; as British cinemas were always closed on Christmas Day he got his wish, at least for the first transmission. BBC Audience Research reported that 17,000,000 viewers tuned in, possibly fewer than had been hoped for. If so, compensation was available in the form of the 21,700,000 who watched Airport in the evening.
ITV’s schedulers plumped for another afternoon comedy: Please Sir! (1971), adapted from the TV series. Again it produced higher ratings than anything else the network showed that day, including a pair of blockbuster flops: a morning matinee of the musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle (1967) and the massive Napoleonic battle saga Waterloo in the evening. According to contemporary reports, the planners had wanted either Zulu (1964) or Patton (1970) for the top spot, but both had been ruled out by the IBA and ended up being shown on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day respectively.
(To be continued.)