A brief history of the BBC Christmas Tapes

❉  The BBC Christmas tapes make interesting, infuriating, amusing and depressing viewing… But are they any good?

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Legs & Co being asked to lip-sync Nice Legs Shame About The Chromophase, for fuck’s sake.

Once upon a time, you knew where you were with television. If Frank Bough told you it was time for ‘Olympic Grandstand’, it bloody well was, and there was no arguing with the fucker. No surprises, then, that the comedy shows which excited viewers most in the 1970s were those which destroyed the rules, dimensions, speed and predictability of television itself – whether it was the Monty Python team coming back after the credits, the Goodies or Benny Hill running around a field at time lapse speed, or Kenny Everett bursting through a huge paper Thames logo like he owned the place (which, in many ways, he did), the suggestion that people who worked for the BBC had the power to play with the logic of television itself was always an arresting one.

The appeal the of so-called ‘Christmas tapes’, compiled by VT engineers from the late 1970s onwards, has its roots in this thinking.

A brief history. At the end of the 1970s, videotape entered an era of experimentation. Machines were now capable of fantastically clever things, albeit in a reliably clunky, bearded, hands-on, BBC kind of a way. Loads of software packages were on the market, and editing had become a creative artform rather than a chore born of necessity. In the past, cutting tape had been a fiddly, painstaking enterprise, but now it was show-off time – pictures could be turned upside down, flipped sideways, chucked about the screen, turned pink, scrambled, and bounced off the channel controller’s toast. And that was just Panorama. TV was there to be toyed with, and – with domestic video recorders costing about the same price as a family car – VT engineers knew that most of the public saw this novelty as a professionals’ reserve.

Consequently, VT departments got a bit above themselves. And why not? They all had the best jobs in the world, after all, and they were entitled to let everyone know about it. So they decided to make promos. Not dull training films that they assumed nobody wanted to see, but amusing compilations featuring the two things they assumed everybody wanted to see – namely, unbleeped out-takes from familiar TV shows, and spoof ‘rude’ versions of otherwise anodyne TV staples featuring the real presenters in end-of-term mode. Producers amiably let the engineers loose on their rushes, allowing them to plunder them for amusing goofs, while wilfully allowing (or, more likely, coercing) their star performers into recording little sketches and announcements tailored exclusively for the tape. Needless to say, these tapes (traditionally played at the Christmas party, with duplicated cassettes being handed out to staff in take-home bags with a slice of cake) had an irresistible currency inside the BBC, and it wasn’t long before they leaked out. Over the years, many of the clearable out-takes have turned up on ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’ and ‘Auntie’s Bloomers’ compilations, and Victor Lewis Smith’s C4 series ‘TV Offal’.

The contents of Christmas tapes make interesting, infuriating, amusing and depressing viewing. Usually in that order. They also prove (or rather confirm) that, in the late ’70s, Noel Edmonds was a really funny and likeable bloke. So adjust your mindset…

Above: The ending to the ‘Key to Time’ that you DIDN’T see.

The first BBC tape, 1978’s naughtily-titled ‘White Powder Christmas’ appeared to kick off the trend, achieving mild tabloid notoriety over a feeble piece of tape-splicing involving Princess Anne. The full exchange, taken from an interview about sexism in equestrian events, merely ran thus…

DAVID COLEMAN: Have you yourself ever experienced any sex?

PRINCESS ANNE: Not… that it, no… I don’t think so. I mean, it is possible on one or two things.

DAVID COLEMAN: What about Mark Phillips?

PRINCESS ANNE: Well, he says there’s nobody he’d rather be beaten by than me.

…but was enough to send ripples through the industry. The following year saw tapes made by Thames television, linked by Kenny Everett, who – obviously delighted by the concept behind the tapes – also contributed to the BBC’s effort. As the 1980s wore on, the tapes became more popular (different companies trying to outdo each other by compiling the most outrageous selection) but also more sporadic – news teams started putting together their own compilations, while separate ITV regions, working on budgets even more minuscule than the BBC’s, started contributing inserts for longer tapes, sometimes of extraordinary bleakness. Southern TV’s effort from 1979 saw a man dressed as Bill Oddie (ie, he had a beard) sitting in an armchair while a stripper, dancing to Oddie’s Saturday Banana theme tune, performed lewd acts on said fruit.

Above: ‘Good King Memorex’, 1979.

So are they any good, these tapes? Worth tracking down?

Well, yes and no. For a start, there is something enjoyably creepy about the look of the tapes. Can’t deny that. The opportunity to consult unchecked and uncensored out-takes without the familiarity of a Denis Norden or Terry Wogan to fast-forward through lends the contents a certain something. Up to a point. Seeing old clips from late-70s television is usually eerie in itself, whether one can remember the period or not, and seeing the off-cuts is even more unsettling. But out-takes selected by VT engineers dance to an altogether different beat.

This can be enjoyable (unbleeped swearing from actors who you assume would refuse to play ball if someone tried to clear the stuff for transmission – always great to see), but there’s something workaday and cynical about the way the clips are selected – particularly the way they are interspersed with out-of-context double-entendres culled from transmitted programmes. VT engineers’ humour (they cack themselves laughing at clips of Play School presenters describing something as “very long…with prickles on the end”) has inevitably fuelled the I-only-watched-Saturday Superstore-when-Matt-Bianco-were-being-called-wankers mentality, so what you lose in patronising, Nordenesque, the-plebs-won’t-get-this concessions, you gain in beery whimsy of the most moustachioed kind.

This lack of context troubles and frustrates. In one terrifying clip, we see Miriam Margolyes (then voice of the Cadbury’s Caramel rabbit) lose her rag completely during a costume drama, clearly after an inept director has informed her that they will have to do an umpteenth take: ‘Well fuck YOU, you fucking bastards – you’re not getting it again, that’s it!’ she screams.

In another clip, we see an unpleasant side to Michael Parkinson, who rejects his floor manager’s plea that he be more professional – “Don’t talk to me about being fucking professional or you can piss off”, he growls. It’s exciting and unsettling to watch, but your impression is that you want to know more – what prompted Margolyes and Parkinson to behave in that way? We’ll never know because, as far as the VT guys are concerned, the only funny thing is that – yuk, yuk – they SWORE. Sometimes the ambiguity is what irritates – in the BBC’s 1984 tape ‘Kevin’s New Job’, there is a sketch involving a black employee’s briefcase containing, among other things, a Sooty annual and a can of Lilt. Quite funny for its idiotic obviousness, and certainly not malicious… but the thought of some boneheaded, irony-free office scum cackling at it over their sausage rolls puts you off slightly.

Later tapes are just as annoying in this respect. A BBC News tape from 1997 sees Peter Mandelson walking out of a pre-recorded Newsnight interview, complaining about the interviewer’s “Sunday Telegraph attitude”; typically, however, we do not see the build-up, so are not allowed to ponder on whether Mandelson’s objections were justified. On the same tape, we see Kenneth Clarke and his wife being hassled on their way to a memorial service: “We’re going to a memorial service”, Mrs Clarke bellows to a persistent reporter. “Please let us do so with some dignity”. As usual, there is no context. We do not know whose death they were mourning, and we are denied the opportunity to judge the morality of such press intrusion. As far as they’re concerned, they have a great shot of a stupid old bint in a hat telling them off. More crisps, Dave?

You see, it all comes back to these people’s motives for selecting the clips. Because, as far as we’re concerned, the best way to learn about television is to watch a complete rushes session. Not just the fucks and the door handles, but the whole thing. Every single re-take, every single aside to the floor manager, every single big thick BBC wire trailing across the filthy studio floor. This, argued a young Chris Tarrant, is what they want.

There is, for example, a tape in our possession of a ‘Noel’s House Party’ dress rehearsal from 1998 – recorded at a time when the show’s future was famously hanging in the balance. In it, Edmonds mopes around the set in his reading glasses, muttering under his breath and snapping at his floor manager, while his depressed crew prepare mirth-free stunts for imminent transmission. It’s fascinatingly bleak viewing, but – like the Natrel advert – it will never end up on a Christmas tape. Partly because Edmonds only swears once, partly because it leaked out from the BBC accidentally and without the permission of the star’s production company, but mainly because the ‘Secret Television’ element is so nebulously slow-burning: there are no obvious ‘moments’ to isolate, just a general air of joylessness and desperation which speaks volumes about the show’s problems. But that, unfortunately, does not compute in the heads of TV producers, and there is a belief that viewers will only lap something up if it is neatly washed, chopped up and labelled like a Marks and Spencer’s lettuce. Even Victor Lewis Smith on TV Offal felt the need to joke about spoof items being ‘pilots’ rather than explaining what the clips actually were.

The compilers behind the Christmas tapes presumably had access to all kinds of stuff in the Edmonds and Natrel vein, but chose not to ‘bore’ us with it. This is a shame, because the thought of entire rushes sessions from many of the programmes featured (‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’, ‘The Young Ones’) is just too exciting to contemplate. The reason is not necessarily because they considered it trainspottery to be interested in such things (this is a modern attitude, and entirely the fault of Mark Lamarr), but mainly because the tapes were a vanity exercise – they were designed to show they were nimble-fingered with the edit-buttons, and had a job which was important and worth preserving. It would not be in their interests to show why Miriam Margolyes and Michael Parkinson were so angry because it would reflect badly on them – so they just show the sweary bit out of context, giving the impression that all presenters are egomaniacs without a cause.

The sketches and songs performed by the VT staff themselves are another matter, however. Aside from the industry-standard naked women which pop up every five minutes (always a puzzle – presumably VT engineers had perfectly good wives at home, not to mention access to proper pornography?), the homegrown humour usually amounts to little more than a frustrated engineer singing about obscure editing procedures to the tune of Da Do Ron Ron. Sometimes they try hard, and it looks amiable enough (one bloke at Central did a sub-Neil Innes effort called ‘I’m Just A VTR Dropout’ which was really smashing), while others mine new depths in desperation – on one occasion, Legs & Co being asked to lip-sync an effort called Nice Legs Shame About The Chromophase, for fuck’s sake. But for dearth of imagination, you can’t beat this effort from London News Network’s Vince Rogers, sang to the tune of Glory Glory Man United:

We work for London News Network
We work for London News Network
We work for London News Neeeeeeeeeeeeet-work
We work for LNN

– ‘The London News Network Rulebook’, LNN, 1997

To be fair to Vince, he did storyboard his moment perfectly, and even roped in the English Chamber Choir to sing the finale. He also did an Elton John parody about an inept soundman entitled Pissing In The Wind. As always, it’s nice when they make the effort.

The spoof sketches recorded by TV stars are usually just as bad, but – again – there is something forgivably admirable about these people’s willingness to pillory themselves. Victor Lewis Smith picked the best of the bunch in the Rainbow item (“Have you seen Bungle’s twanger?” etc), which is fantastic largely because – as he proved on Lee & Herring’s ‘Fist of Fun’ – Geoffrey Hayes knows how to act comedy. Suzi Quatro appeared in one tape singing alternate lyrics to one of her hits, all pertaining to the shortcomings of ‘Grandstand’s production assistant. Ever the professional, she did it in one take.

Also fantastic is this exchange from a BBC tape featuring Tom Baker and John Cleese (on the set of the Dr Who adventure which guest-starred Cleese and Eleanor Bron as two art-lovers):

Inevitably, the spoof items and the out-takes merged after a while, as the presenters became wise to the tape’s contents – the cry of “Merry Christmas VT!” became a familiar cliché whenever something went wrong in a studio, with Simon Groom, Noel Edmonds and Rik Mayall mugging the most. (Simon Groom also became wise to the engineers’ penchant for double entendres, and began inserting deliberate, and brilliantly straight-faced, innuendoes into his Blue Peter script – “What a beautiful pair of knockers” being the famous example.) Later efforts were less enjoyable, however – the only shocking thing about the 1987 rude version of ‘The Price Is Right’ is its similarity to most run-of-the-mill ‘alternative’, late-night Channel 4 fare.

Although their candle burned out long ago, the legend of Christmas tapes never really died out. They are still being made today, although their contents are not nearly so inviting – there are stories that a BBC bigwig limited the time and freedom given over to the tapes’ production when he found that footage of his secretary doing a strip was being sold out of a suitcase on Camden High Street, leading to the tapes becoming more restrained affairs. This is certainly plausible, and it seems that today’s TV stars are nowadays less willing to send themselves up – an attitude which stems from a general desire among presenters not to get their hands too dirty.  There are also less out-takes these days, presumably a result of new-fangled administration hassles between the archive idiots and the engineers. Rather oddly, the VT engineers’ sketches remain, and they’re as bad as ever – 1996’s live-action Scooby Doo parody reaching new depths.

❉  Here is the We Are Cult playlist of Christmas tapes:


❉ A earlier version of this article appeared on SOTCAA in December 2000.

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