❉ Si Hart on Ben Baker’s look back on the good, bad and weird of the Christmas TV schedules of yesteryear.
“Christmas TV is the gift that keeps on giving and Baker has dug deep again to take us on a trip through the festive schedules to find more gems, more oddities and a whole load of weird programming we’ve all forgotten about.”
It must be Christmas because there’s a new book from Ben Baker about Christmas TV. After promising that he’d explored everything there was to explore about Christmas telly, Ben returns for his fourth book on the subject Ben Baker’s Christmas Box.
As Baker himself explains, he didn’t intend to write another book on this subject. Having written a general introduction to some of the downright oddities of the Christmas schedules in Ben Baker’s Festive Double followed by more in depth looks at 80s and 90s festive fare, it seemed unlikely that had more to say on the matter. I’m very pleased to say, however, that Christmas TV is the gift that keeps on giving and Baker has dug deep again to take us on a trip through the festive schedules to find more gems, more oddities and a whole load of weird programming we’ve all forgotten about.
Having written so much on the subject, it’s fair to say there are some repeats here. Baker is very open about this explaining that a fourth book started out as a ‘best of’ from his previous books for people who’d not read them. Working on it, he found more connections between programmes he’d previously written about. As more old programming becomes available, there was a chance to expand on some of the things he’d written in the past and so the best of became a chance to revisit his other books as well as present some new material too. So, pretty much like every Christmas TV schedule from the last 60 years then!
The major new section of the book looks at the big Christmas day films across all the channels from the 60s onwards through the subsequent decades to the end of the ‘90s. This is really fascinating as it reveals that often your memory plays tricks with you. You might remember Bond films being on every Christmas day, but they’re very infrequently actually shown on Christmas day itself, especially once ITV realised that they’d have much bigger audiences if they premiered them at other times of the year. Likewise, Disney films, which feel like they were staples of the Christmas day schedules don’t really arrive on UK TV until the 1980s. As Baker points out, we tend to forget that film companies would lucratively give big films a re-release at the cinema rather than go for TV rights, so often, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s the big Christmas films would be classic vintage films rather than more recent blockbusters. Christmas staples like The Sound of Music or The Great Escape arrived on the telly relatively late.
I thoroughly enjoyed the look at New Year’s TV too. It’s really interesting to see our broadcasters thought we’d like to see in the New Year down the years before Jools Holland got on the boogie-woogie piano with his plethora of guests every year for his annual Hootenanny. Year by year audiences were subjected to a whole lot of Scottish link ups, Scottish music and far too much Lulu. Pop music was often a way in, certainly in the 80s when The Old Grey Whistle Test would take over the schedules of BBC 2 and, of course, as the 80s became the 90s we’d often get the much-missed Clive James taking a wry look back over the last year. It’s fascinating to see how tastes change and develop and amusing to read Baker’s comments for the years where some of the broadcasters made no effort at all!
Music plays a big part in one of the early chapters too. Baker explores how pop music and Christmas mix, drawing firstly on The Beatles and The Monkees at Christmas, followed by a look at the programmes commissioned over the years that weren’t Christmas Day Top of the Pops. Drawing on material from across his books, Baker writes wonderfully here about how ITV, BBC 2 and relative newcomer Channel 4 would often present unexpected pop gems in their schedules, as well as half-arsed compilations of music videos presented by the likes of Jim Davidson. This is where the new format for this book really comes up well, as he’s able to connect bits and pieces from across them into something new and wonderful.
If you’ve never dipped into one of Ben Baker’s Christmas books before, then Ben Baker’s Christmas Box is a great first step into that world. If, like me, you’ve read and enjoyed them all so far, you’ll still find so much to enjoy among the new material he writes. Ben Baker’s Christmas books are becoming as essential to my Christmases as the Festive double issue of the Radio Times. I hope I won’t be alone in hoping for a fourth one next Christmas!
❉ ‘Ben Baker’s Christmas Box: 40 Years of the Best, Worst & Weirdest Christmas TV Ever’ is available to buy from Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3mi6ZWd and Lulu here: https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/ben-baker/ben-bakers-christmas-box/paperback/product-68zene.html?page=1&pageSize=4
❉ Simon Hart has been a regular contributor to We Are Cult since its inception in September 2016 and he co-hosts Maximum Power: A Blake’s 7 Podcast: Follow @MaximumPowerPod.