Christmas With BBC Records And Tapes

The Box Of Delights by The Pro Arte Orchestra (BBC Records And Tapes RESL162, 1984).

Between 1970 and 1990, BBC Records And Tapes released almost three hundred singles, ranging from some of the best known and most loved theme tunes in television history to full-length versions of theme tunes that nobody had even asked for a short version of to begin with. Along the way they also put out one-off oddities by everyone from George Formby impersonators and up-and-coming folkies to a ‘computer orchestra’ and some posh blokes going on about how marvellous The Queen is. Oh and then there’s their Christmas Singles.

The eccentric, eclectic and more often than not downright bewildering output of BBC Records And Tapes inspired me to write a book about their bizarre singles catalogue – Top Of The Box, which is available in paperback here and from the Kindle Store here, and later followed by Top Of The Box Vol. 2, which does likewise for the albums and is available in paperback here or from the Kindle store here – and their half-hearted yet somehow also determined attempts to corner the festive market are more ridiculous than most. It’s difficult to fathom who even thought any of these records were capable of spreading even the most microscopic trace element of seasonal goodwill, let alone that they would somehow scale the top ten and unseat Band Aid and company, but they pressed ahead regardless with all the usual promotional fanfare. Which, let’s be honest about this, usually amounted to a minimally choreographed performance on Wogan and occasional plays on Radio 2 with a back announcement from a presenter who evidently could not even be bothered to read the title and artist credit correctly before moving on to something less interesting.

So, in the true spirit of regifting, here they are – the singles that didn’t exactly give Noddy Holder much cause to fret, and it’s debatable how many people if any were having any ‘fun’ on the back of them. Even the performers, probably. Incidentally, you can find all of these and many even more ludicrous records in Top Of The Box. Though you might not necessarily be grateful for being told ’bout them.

RESL124 Orville’s Song/I Didn’t – Keith Harris And Orville (December 1982)

Orville's Song by Keith Harris And Orville (BBC Records And Tapes RESL124, 1982).

Although he had been a television regular since the mid-sixties, ventriloquist Keith Harris’ career didn’t really take off – ironically – until he introduced bashful luminous green duck who couldn’t fly Orville into his act in the late seventies. By 1982 he – or rather they – had landed a prominent variety slot on BBC1 with The Keith Harris Show, although Harris remained a popular and enthusiastic stage performer, which gave rise to this single written by pianist and former talent show winner and old friend of the ‘duo’, Bobby Crush. Taking the form of a dialogue between Harris and his puppet charting the latter’s inability to take to the skies, Orville’s Song is certainly cloying, sentimental and delivered by a gratingly-voiced character that not all of the target audience found quite so loveable, but is in its own way an effective and endearing composition that in no way deserves the deluge of ‘Worst Record Ever’ accolades that have been heaped upon it since. Certainly record-buyers at the time didn’t seem to agree, sending the single to Number Four over Christmas 1982.

THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE WAS… Save Your Love by Renée And Renato, another novelty duet with lyrics about wanting to fly which isn’t as bad as people like to claim – there was clearly something in the air in December 1982 – and which Harris and Orville later gamely parodied.

RESL138 Come To My Party – Keith Harris, Orville And Dippy/Thank You For Telling Me ‘Bout Christmas – Keith Harris And Orville (December 1983)

Come To My Party by Keith Harris, Orville And Dippy (BBC Records And Tapes RESL138, 1983).

Another seasonal outing for Keith Harris and his many puppets – this time introducing hard-of-thinking gigantic yellow dinosaur Dippy – with the a-side again written by Bobby Crush. Although the single did enjoy some minor chart action, climbing to number forty four over the festive season, it surprisingly failed to corner the lucrative Christmas market and ultimately caused few concerns for Paul McCartney and David Essex.

THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE WAS… Only You by The Flying Pickets – yet another novelty number with an unduly harsh reputation – which inspired Harris and Orville to indulge in some Miner’s Strike-based topical satire about how “there’s two pop groups always in the news – The Police and The Flying Pickets!”.

RESL162 The Box Of Delights/The Carol Symphony – The Pro Arte Orchestra (December 1984) 

The Box Of Delights by The Pro Arte Orchestra (BBC Records And Tapes RESL162, 1984).

Marked out by top-drawer acting and pioneering video effects, BBC1’s 1984 adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 festive children’s novel The Box Of Delights – something of a favourite with the BBC, having been adapted seven times across several media – was rightly fanfared as a landmark production and remains held in high regard by audiences and critics alike to this day. For theme music, the production team elected to use an extract from the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 Carol Symphony, an extended piece based on orchestral arrangements of themes and motifs from numerous traditional Christmas Carols which had in fact originally been written as a contribution to an early BBC radio broadcast. The extract featured a variation on The First Nowell, and was taken from a 1966 recording of The Carol Symphony for EMI by The Pro Arte Orchestra; it was, however, subjected to minor manipulation by Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to make it more in keeping with the mood and style of the serial. Limb’s modifications were frustratingly absent from the direct edit featured on this single, which featured another excerpt from the movement, this time based on a segment of the Coventry Carol, on the b-side. Selling in small quantities at the time, and one of only a handful of pieces of official The Box Of Delights-related merchandise, this is now one of the most eagerly sought-after BBC Records And Tapes releases – as you can in fact read more about here. You can also find a chat about what it was like to watch The Box Of Delights on its original broadcast, long before anyone started to hail it as a ‘television classic’, here.

THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE WAS… Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid – the original multi-artist charity singalong, and to be honest Kay Harker would probably have been very much in favour of feeding the world so wouldn’t really have minded too much.

RESL179 The Ballad Of Sandra Claus/The Goulash Break – Bryan Joan Elliott and The Elf Service (December 1985) 

The Ballad Of Sandra Claus by Bryan Joan Elliott And The Elf Service (BBC Records And Tapes RESL179, 1985).

American comedian Bryan Joan Elliott was something of a minor star in the UK in the mid-eighties, largely thanks to her regular appearances on the ITV game show Punchlines. This unusual attempt at cornering the Christmas market for 1985 came about as a result of some recent well-received appearances on high profile BBC chat shows, notably BBC2’s The Bob Monkhouse Show.

THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE WAS… Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin’ Stevens – there’s barely even enough of an element of competition there to get a halfway decent joke out of.

RESL234 Christmas Is Here Again/Awake Zion Awake – Bryn Coch Primary School (December 1989)

Christmas Is Here Again by The Bryn Coch Primary School Of Wales (BBC Records And Tapes RESL234, 1989).

The first new single release after a gap of almost a year – suggesting that all was not well at BBC Records And Tapes – was a Yuletide-themed offering from the pupils of a Welsh primary school accompanied by harpist Glenys Lightfoot, recruited by the label following popularity with local radio listeners in an attempt to create yet another school-sourced singing phenomenon and indeed to secure a hit in the lucrative Christmas market. Sadly, this single fell short of expectations on both counts.

THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE WAS… Do They Know It’s Christmas by Band Aid II – you may well performatively think that you hate that for somehow desecrating the legacy of the original classic pop classic or something, but be honest, you’d choose it over this effort.

RESL236 Christmas Past And Christmas Present/Christmas Past And Christmas Present (Festive Fun Mix) – Euphoria (December 1989)

Christmas Past & Christmas Present by Euphoria (BBC Records And Tapes RESL236, 1989).

Seemingly determined to corner the Christmas market for 1989, BBC Records And Tapes put out a further Yuletide-themed single in the form of this choral effort based on Kings College Cambridge’s traditional Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols service. Unsurprisingly, this one didn’t sell very many copies either and the ‘Festive Fun Mix’ resolutely fails to live up to its title. RESL237 meanwhile was set aside for yet another Festive-friendly single – Glory Be To God On High, a re-recording of the EastEnders theme with yet more new lyrics by Simon May, performed with a choir of children and premiered on BBC1’s Songs Of Praise. Contractual difficulties saw to it that this was instead released by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful label; perhaps mercifully it still failed to make the charts. This all took place, however, late in 1988, suggesting that some or all of the preceding singles may have been in the works since the previous Festive Season – a sure sign that the writing was on the wall for BBC Records And Tapes…

Glory Be (EastEnders Hymn) by The SImon May Orchestra & Choir (1989).

Buy A Book!

You can read about all of these singles and hundreds more – some of them even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing – in Top Of The Box, the story behind every single released by BBC Records And Tapes. Top Of The Box is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Top Of The Box Vol, 2, which takes a similar look at the label’s albums, is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Glory be to COFFEE on high, if you ask me.

Further Reading

You Shall Have It Under Your Hand Today is a feature looking at the long story of the elusive soundtrack from The Box Of Delights, and how difficult it was to get hold of for a very long time; you can find it here.

Further Listening

Stephen O’Brien joined us on Looks Unfamiliar for a chat about what it was like to watch The Box Of Delights on its original broadcast here. Tim chatted about EastEnders spinoff single Something Outa Nothing by Letitia Dean and Paul J. Medford here, while Shanine Salmon discussed the many baffling iterations of the EastEnders theme – not least the frankly uncalled for amount of vocal versions – here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.