❉ It’s the return of Ben Baker with another fantastic look back at the Christmas telly of yesteryear.
“I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a great reminder that Christmas TV of the past has never really lived up to the expectations we have of it. We live in a time where the best bits have been filleted and repackaged and shown year in, year out and we don’t often remember the quirky, interesting or boring shows that were always a big part of the schedule.”
As we prepare to take out our highlighter pens and work our way through the Christmas Radio Times, Ben Baker is back with another book looking back at Christmas TV from years gone by. The age-old cry of Christmas TV not being as good as it used to be is thoroughly debunked by Baker’s latest book, I Was Bored on Christmas Day which this time takes back to the Nineties and looks at some of the greats of Christmas telly from that decade, as well as many of the frankly bizarre programmes our terrestrial TV schedulers put on at Christmas through the decade.
Like his book from last year, Christmas Was Better in the 80s, Baker again takes a chronological look back at Nineties Christmas TV beginning with a structured look at the nuts and bolts of each year. There’s a section on the highest rated programmes of the festive period, the big films of Christmas across the channels and the theme of the Queen’s Speech that year.
Of more interest to us TV nerds, there’s sections on what the holiday programming was for kids, what was on Top of the Pops and other music programming and, of course, a comparison between the Radio and TV Times covers and contents (both of which get brasher as the decade and deregulation means they have to fight big to keep their sales). There’s a little section here that looks ahead to New Year’s Eve programmes and the big new series for the forthcoming New Year. Also, as it’s the nineties we get a little section that looks at any theme nights over Christmas. We did love a theme night back then!
Even more interesting is Baker’s more in depth look back at the “highlights” of each year’s programming, with some more detailed write-ups of individual shows. What’s wonderful about these aside from Baker’s typically wry reviews is that they’re a mix of some of the shows we know inside out, but more often, they’re the forgotten ones. Programmes such as the special episodes of gameshows like 1990’s special edition of Cluedo or 1991’s final Tomorrow’s World Christmas Quiz have great little retrospectives. These were such staples of the time that it would feel incomplete not to look back at some of them.
It’s these that make the book very special. The dissection of 1991’s episode of The Des O’Connor Tonight show acts both as a look back to the show and a tribute to the man himself, who recently passed away, looking over his career as a chat show. Baker’s writing is really warm here and doesn’t take the easy route of mocking him which so many would do.
Baker clearly knows his stuff and his audience, taking, for instance, a multi-page look back at Auntie’s Bloomers which takes in the history of bloopers clip-shows and the BBC Christmas Tapes of the 70s and 80s. It’s this level of detail that makes the book a really interesting read.
While every year to this day we get a selection of the “best” Christmas comedy repeats (you know, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol) I very much liked that Baker gave lots of coverage to the lesser-known or remembered ones. He covers in detail the Christmas Specials of 2.4 Children for example, which was huge at the time but is now largely ignored and the cult Christmas special from Channel 4 for all discerning fans of old TV, the very self-aware Nightingales special and big nineties favourite, The Brittas Empire. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the schedulers to take a risk one year and show some of these again, so they can find their audience again, just as they did back then (though in the case of Nightingales, that might still remain small!) I was absolutely delighted to see a personal favourite, Harry Hill’s Christmas Sleigh Ride from 1998 getting such a warm review. I absolutely adored The Harry Hill Show, as clearly Baker did too. Respect due, Ben!
Anyone who’s read Baker’s other books will know he’s a huge music fan and so some of the most interesting pieces in the book look at the musical specials from the decade. I especially enjoyed his appreciation of the 1995 Pulp special No Sleep Till Sheffield : Pulp Go Public which I vividly remember watching, trying to spot if anyone I knew was on there as I was at Sheffield University at the time. Also from 1995, there’s a look at Christian Rave which looks at the odd world of Christian dance music, which unexpectedly sounds just like the dance music of 1995 only with Christian lyrics. I loved the look back at much loved BBC music version of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, in 1997’s A Perfect Day for Christmas which I remember being delighted at, as I finally managed to record a full version after months of trying. I couldn’t help but laugh at Baker’s write-up of the 1999 show B*Witched Christmas Special which sounds like an absolute joy as the girls look back at the horrible time they had making their videos. None of their experiences sound fun. Poor girls.
Finishing, just like 1999 did with 2000 Today, the 14-hour epic broadcast that took viewers around the world as the various countries entered the year 2000. It some ways that’s just like ’90s TV; big, bold, crass at times but its heart was in the right place.
I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a great reminder that Christmas TV of the past has never really lived up to the expectations we have of it. We live in a time where the best bits have been filleted and repackaged and shown year in, year out and we don’t often remember the quirky, interesting or boring shows that were always a big part of the schedule. It’s a witty and affectionate book that brought back many memories for me and it was a really enjoyable read. I’m off to find Baker’s handy YouTube playlist of the many Christmas treats from this book now and relive the highs and lows from this decade’s Festive TV. Fantastic!
❉ Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.