It’s something of a default setting to complain about the supposed long lead-in time to Christmas nowadays – as though seeing a smattering of wrapping paper in Rymans in late October is somehow forcing you into unwanted seasonal jollity against your will with a spell in the stocks as a penalty if you fail to comply – but any erstwhile schoolchild with a bit of honesty and Christmas Spirit left in their heart will tell you that, once upon a time, it began way back in September at the start of the new school year.
Unlike the bloated, overlong, too-much-of-a-good-thing Summer Holidays and their proliferation of television programmes nobody wanted to watch (as you can read more about here), the Christmas Holidays were a short but concentrated and intense blast of No School with a complete absence of all sense of temporal awareness in the middle and a full-on sensory assault of decorations, Christmas Singles, a bizarre mishmash of films on television and, most importantly of all, Coffee Matchmakers. It’s hardly surprising that youngsters would start counting down the days the second that the end of term was even vaguely visible on the horizon, and one of the surest signs that the Christmas Holidays were on their way was the spooky sci-fi/fantasy children’s serials that the BBC (and occasionally ITV) would run in the run-up to Christmas. Everyone remembers The Box Of Delights (and you can read much more about that here), which famously had its concluding episode go out on Christmas Eve, but it was a long tradition that went on before and after that, and from Green Noah, Demon Tree (Evil Fingers Can’t Catch Me!) to The Ugly Wuglies, it’s surprising just how many of them seem to be remembered by so many people. Even if they can’t always remember what the series was actually called.
I can’t actually recall what this show by show guide was originally done for, other than that it was a long time ago and some bits appear to have been ‘repurposed’ for festive missives from TV Cream. It did, however, lead to me writing a serious and detailed history of the timeslot and the serials, originally for This Way Up magazine but now in a longer form in my collection Well At Least It’s Free (available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here). As for this shorter and sillier list, it looks a little creaky and outdated now so I’ve given it a bit of a slight reworking here and there. After all, that’s what they always did with the books these serials were based on…
One of the big pre-Christmas TV treats of years gone by were the vaguely seasonal children’s drama serials that the BBC would put out during those Advent Calendar-accompanied weeks, with the last episode usually going out as close to Christmas Eve as was schedually possible. Heavy on the child actors, usually adapted from a novel that quickly acquired a cash-in friendly BBC books makeover, invariably CSO-saturated and generally enhanced by the distinctive musical stylings of Roger Limb, they were very much of their time but are fondly remembered by those who watched them through a haze of waiting for school to break up and throwing dislodged Christmas tree decorations at your siblings. Here’s a look at what you would have been watching instead of Netflix in days gone by…
1976: “Some Indian Things…”
The first example came along in the form of an adaptation of E. Nesbit’s tale of Edwardian youngsters having spiffing bird-and-rug-instigated adventures in time and space (well, bits of the British Empire) The Phoenix And The Carpet, famously starring future Rateometer-toter Gary Russell alongside a jerkily Yafflesque Clash Of The Titans-predicting puppet Phoenix with a very obvious join in its neck. There’s not much in it to do with Christmas per se, but in the genteel setting, mundane cliffhangers, disjointed pseudo-classical theme tune ending on disconcerting ‘melting’ tones and the heaps of shakily realised CSO sequences, you can see the template for the next decade and beyond arrive entirely fully formed. Also on this year, and adhering very much to much the same production style and indeed production values, was a feature-length one-off rendition of Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach, noted for its decidedly unsubtle blend of human-sized insect costumes, CSO-derived ‘peach interior’ sets, balloon-derived ‘peach exterior’ sets, and soundtrack of hammy panto-esque song and dance numbers.
1977: “Leave It!”
Definitely the odd one out on this list, King Cinder dispensed with the tendency towards polite Edwardiana in favour of a speedway-riding Peter Duncan taking on local protection racketeers in a hail of car chases and ‘villain’s drinkers’. Stunts abounded and shouting reverberated in a serial that seemed closer to Quadrophenia than the usual Blytonesque twitterings, and those in search of more festive fare, not to mention less sub-Sweeney soundtracks, were effectively left with the televisual equivalent of a sack of ashes – or, if you will, cinders – this year. Doubtless inspired a wave of dubious bicycle antics come Christmas Day, though.
1978 : “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
As if to make up for the previous year’s paucity, this time there were two textbook serials running pretty much concurrently. The Moon Stallion starred a pre-Nyssa Sarah Sutton in a beautifully rendered but virtually impenetrable tale of something to do with a blind girl, the XTC-friendly chalk horse of Uffington, and a real horse locked in a battle of wits with some bloke who blames it for his family’s misfortune. Erm, somehow. Added to this there’s something about an ancient Pagan deity issuing a warning about Skylab being a tool of the forces of evil. Meanwhile, also knocking about the schedules was a word that even today still causes a shudder – Pinocchio. There’s little to say about this darkly-hued nightmarish art deco formally-theme-tuned puppet-meets-real-actors reimagining with added overlong shrieky bits par excellence other than that scientists have yet to identify anyone who carried on watching it past the still-terrifying Land Of Toys sequence.
You can hear more about The Moon Stallion in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Richard Littler here.
1979: “It Must Be… Magic!”
An unfortunate incidence of Five Children And It-jumping that was even less impressively rendered than Pinocchio’s dalliance with a cardboard whale the previous year (itself repeated in omnibus form this year, presumably to a viewing figure of zero), with the Children’s BBC bigwigs deciding that as people had liked The Phoenix And The Carpet, they’d probably like The Enchanted Castle too. A slight miscalculation. The same basic lineup of posh children from Them Days are put through similar paces, only without a gimmicky puppet to guide them and with the added turnoff of an obvious moral at the end of each wish-fulfilment adventure. The only bits that anyone remembers are some statues coming rather cumbersomely to life, and the celebrated ‘Ugly-Wuglies’, little more than scary cardboard faces attached to the end of brooms and no more sinister than the average Halloween-themed Blue Peter make.
L.T. Meade’s A Little Silver Trumpet would probably have done nothing bar gather cloth-bound dust on the shelves of second hand bookshops were it not for a viewer who, having enjoyed (and presumably understood) The Moon Stallion, wrote in to suggest that this forgotten children’s novel was ideal source material for a run-up-to-Christmas adaptation. No trace in this straightforward Social-Status-Swap melodrama of the huge splurges of olde-worlde-psychedelic fantasy that had dominated other recent offerings, and the discovery of a fifty pound note somewhat implausibly stitched inside a dress was about as dramatic as it got, but they still won tons of awards and got a ‘lost’ book spruced up and reissued into the bargain, so they must have been doing something right. Also on offer over this Christmas was The Bells Of Astercote, a plague-haunting superstition-debunking yarn that was the first entry in the Children’s Department’s sadly short-lived attempt at emulating A Ghost Story For Christmas, and which you can read more about here.
1981: “You Are A Dirty, Messy, Stupid, Lying Clown!”
Dispensing with the traditional vague sense of olde worlde Winter in favour of an altogether different form of chilliness, Adric-riffing Cold War thriller Codename: Icarus concerned itself with a shadowy British military installation covertly recruiting child genii to assist in the development of futuristic weapons for the purposes of Commie-obliteration. With its Nazi allegories, impressive military action sequences and ambitious wrestling with the concept of scientific progress versus the nature of good and evil, this was high-reaching stuff, but writer Richard Cooper was really only warming up for the infinitely more bonkers Knights Of God a couple of years later. If all this Red Menace stuff wasn’t quite your ‘bag’, there was always the first and best Grange Hill Christmas Special, in which Tucker and Doyle united to fight a bigger foe (and stop him from stealing the school’s, erm, ‘disco equipment’), penned by Professor Phil via some suggestions made by a Blue Peter competition entrant.
You can hear more about Codename: Icarus in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Rae Earl here.
1982: “I’m Just As Good As You, ‘Beetle’!”
Back to reality for the sport-centric culture clash of Break Point, effectively Billy Elliot two decades ahead of its time, only with fairly realistic tennis taking the place of fairly unrealistic ballet dancing (and indeed real eighties fashions taking the place of ‘ha ha, that’s how people used to dress back then!’ eighties fashions). Famously, the cast were selected on the basis of playing a few sets against the producer rather than reading out any of the script, and in a real case of life mirroring art, Jane ‘Beetle’ Pearson went on to become a real life tennis champ. All very well and good for its undoubted feelgood factor, but those in search of the more usual fare had to content themselves with feature length Radiophonic Workshop-submerged spectral possession chiller Ghost In The Water (which you can read more about here).
1983: “Walk On The Drugget, Children!”
For some reason there was no new festive fare this year, and instead viewers had to content themselves with a repeat of the decade-old evacuees’n’cursed skellington serialisation of Nina Bawden’s much-favoured by older sisters novel Carrie’s War, which to be fair was pretty much in line with what had been occupying the same slot in more recent times. Unusually, but thankfully, ITV chose this exact moment to step into the breach with the far more satisfying The Witches And The Grinnygog, light-heartedly charting the attempts of a pair of Rod And Todd Flanders-esque brothers to retrieve a mislaid stone gargoyle thing off their local church wall from a landscape gardening-fixated parishioner. And which, thanks to the rights-buying documentation-trashing hijinks of Disney, is now contractually unavailable to anyone anywhere. Yeah, thanks for that, ‘Walt’.
1984: “Have You Got Any Cheese For Me?”
What is there to say about The Box Of Delights that hasn’t been said a million times already? From the first glimpse of that creepy title sequence (especially the flash of lightning across Abner Brown’s face) to the very last Roger Limb-boosted orchestral swell, and through every last second of Patrick Troughton’s performance, the effects may have aged slightly yet it remains as spellbindingly Christmassy as television is ever likely to get. Plus you can laugh at Nick Berry playing a rat. Pretty much the centrepiece of the BBC’s then much-trumpeted ‘Autumn Season’, something that approximately fourteen million million Radio Times covers and Blue Peter features were there to provide handy reminders of, but it would be churlish not to mention the supporting feature par excellence – the thirteen weeks’ worth of shakily-acted flight through non-alien occupied wastelands that was The Tripods.
You can find much more about the soundtrack from The Box Of Delights here.
Hang on a minute… Parky? What’s he doing here?! Don’t start adjusting your set just yet – unfortunately, despite extensive research, it’s proved impossible to locate an image for 1985 for reasons that will soon become obvious, so Mr. Parkinson has generously agreed to appear as an illustration in its place. Anyway, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him.
This was the year of big BBC cutbacks to fund the imminent launch of daytime television, which spelt bad news for fans of Pop Quiz, Crackerjack, Juliet Bravo, and of the children’s schedules containing anything other than Fame!, The Flintstones and ‘Friday Film Special’ (which itself scarcely ever seemed to contain anything other than endless showings of Ricky Simmonds’ third finest hour, Pop Pirates). Oh, and apparently they cancelled some programme or other this year too. Needless to say there was precious little money to hand to mount any kind of ambitious Christmas-leaning serial, especially one maintaining the high standard of the previous year, and the nearest that the audience got was that decidedly odd Grange Hill For Christmas based around some kind of slapstick shenanigans involving Imelda Davies and a donkey. Yet all was not lost, and the new year would herald the return of Children’s BBC drama with a vengeance, in the form of Kate Bush-themed search for errant ‘bins’ Running Scared.
1986: “It’s Alexander’s Flute!”
Quite unlike what was regrettably unfolding in Doctor Who world at the same time, the eighteen month ‘hiatus’ had clearly done the world of good for the Yuletide yarns, as this year brought arguably the very finest of the lot – The Children Of Green Knowe. On face value the ageing novel-derived tale of a fifties public schoolboy spending Christmas with an elderly relative in the family’s ancestral home, and meeting some of his Charles II-era ancestors along the way, wouldn’t appear to have much going for it, but rarely has such a gentle story been so beautifully and atmospherically realised (well, apart from the ‘walking statue’ right at the end, but we’ll overlook that for now), and with a misleadingly eerie title sequence and theme tune thrown in for good measure. And pity any of your classmates who had the misfortune to closely resemble Alex ‘Tolly’ Christie. This might be seen as heresy by some, but we’re seriously suggesting that this might even be better than The Box Of Delights (itself given a welcome repeat in fifty-minute chunks over this Christmas). Meanwhile, ITV threw in some welcome Sunday-before-Christmas distraction in the form of an hour-long special of James Galway-heralded Liliputian comedy-drama, Return Of The Antelope. Which nobody remembers now.
1987: “Solita?” – “Nah Mate, It’s Kim Wilde!”
We could so easily have gone for “…and Young Ladies shouldn’t daub themselves with Gro-Bust!”. Yes, it’s saltily-dialogued superior sci-fi thriller Aliens In The Family, in which an alien-in-training bumped into a trio of squabbling step-children (who of course were ‘aliens’ too, obviously) whilst trying to avoid the marauding ‘Wirdegens’, a Flying Pickets-in-cowls-resembling bunch headed by Mr. Fowl from Hardwicke House. Unlike most of the above, this was set squarely in the here and now, and how – practically every five seconds there’s a reference to Phillip Schofield, Morten Harket or that Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot character. No Phil Cool drinking Citrus Spring though.
1988: “Oh Aslan, You’re Not Dead!”
Blimey, where to start!?? The main draw was obviously The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the first instalment of the over-acclaimed The Chronicles Of Narnia, which even made the front page of the Radio Times. All very well made and that, but were its ‘Five Go Mad On Turkish Delight’ stylings and endless wittering about fauns really suitable for audiences that had become more used to the thrills of Kaye Harker, Bond & Solita and ‘Green Noah, demon tree, evil fingers, can’t catch me!’? Well they’d been catered for too, in the form of oft-forgotten adolescent-angst-meets-ghosts-of-old-seadogs lighthouse-based spookfest The Watch House, and the inevitable repeats of The Children Of Green Knowe, not to mention the seriously unhinged one-off Billy’s Christmas Angels, which had something nonsensical to do with Nabil Shaban, Will from The Tripods, a pawn shop-bound guitar, and mid-eighties variety show mainstays The Mint Juleps doing acapella versions of Bruce Springsteen songs. On top of all this, ITV scored a rare pre-Christmas victory with an impressive Saturday afternoon double bill; visually arresting but impenetrably storylined frost-festooned Welsh folk tale The Snow Spider, and the totally off-the-sensibility-scale How To Be Cool, an explicability-defying Philip Pullman-penned The Prisoner/A Clockwork Orange-inspired effort about the attempts of ‘The Mighty Gobbo’ and his Beastie Boys-attired pals to overthrow sinister fashion-controlling ‘Cool Board’ mastermind Mr Cashman, starring Roger Daltrey, Tricia Penrose, Freddie Jones and a very young Perry Fenwick as a football-obsessed sub-Droog henchman. And, unfortunately, Gary Glitter, which means it’ll never be repeated now.
1989: “Howay Mon Winston Mon Yeen Canna Do That!”
Odd that 1988 should have been such a bumper year, but also quite fitting, as within twelve months the distinct odour of Caspar Berry was drifting across the horizon. Yes, Byker Grove was here to block-book those vital few weeks in November and December into perpetuity, and things were never quite the same again…
Buy A Book!
Winter’s Tales, a detailed history of this timeslot and the various serials it featured (including the ITV ones), can be found in my book Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You Shall Have It Under Your Hand Today is a feature on the soundtrack from The Box Of Delights, and how difficult it was to find for such a long time; you can find it here.
A Ghost Story For Christmas (For Children) is a more in-depth look at The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water, and you can find it here.
Codename: Icarus was one of Rae Earl’s choices on Looks Unfamiliar – alongside school holiday mornings mainstay Battle Of The Planets – which you can listen to here.
The Moon Stallion – and creepy Children’s ITV drama Come Back Lucy – was one of Richard Littler’s choices on Looks Unfamiliar, which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.