Christmas Night with the Stars 1972

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This was the final regular edition of CNWTS, with the Two Ronnies on hand on introduce Cilla Black, the Young Generation, Lulu, Mike Yarwood & Adrienne Posta, The Liver Birds, The Goodies and Dad’s Army.

Unlike David Nixon and Jack Warner, the Ronnies took a much more active role in proceedings, which means that it feels somewhat like an extended Two Ronnies show (most notably at the start, which opens in the time honoured way – news items, followed by a Two Rons party sketch).  This explains why the cut-down DVD version (excising all the other participants apart from Lula and Cilla Black) still works pretty well as a Two Ronnies show in its own right.

The Young Generation back Lulu, as well as enjoying their own spot.  There’s rather a lot of them, aren’t there?  After Lulu and the Young Generation have leapt about for a few minutes, the Goodies arrive – via a film sequence which promises a grubby urchin the Christmas of his life (thanks to the Goodies Travelling Instant Five Minute Christmas).  Dialogue-free, it’s packed with typical Goodies sight gags as well as a healthy dose of comic violence (would they be able to get away with hitting a boy over the head with an outsized mallet today? Probably not).

Up next are the Liver Birds, which sees Beryl (Polly James) and Sandra (Nerys Hughes) reflecting on various aspects of Christmas – overindulgence and family relationships being top of the agenda.  The kind-hearted Sandra regards the remains of the turkey with sadness, whilst Beryl – always more pragmatic – has a different point of view. “Well, it’s his destiny isn’t it? I mean we’ve all got to die sometimes, it’s just that some of us go in black cars surrounded by flowers and some of us go in roasting tins surrounded by spuds.”

The Two Ronnies return for a some chat about their respective Christmases, which is notable for the number of times that Ronnie B stumbles over his lines. It’s a little odd that they didn’t do a retake, so either time was tight or it was decided that on Christmas Day the audience would be in a mellow mood and therefore more forgiving.

I’ve written elsewhere, about Mike Yarwood’s later career when his star was somewhat waning.  Here, a decade earlier, he’s pretty much at the top of his game – although this is a sequence that’s very much of its time (and if I’m being honest, a few of the impressions are a little weak).  The setting is a party at Number 10, so you won’t be surprised to hear that Harold Wilson and Edward Heath are in attendance (as is Frankie Howerd, for some strange reason).  Adrienne Posta provides support, but the topical nature of the piece makes it less effective than the more universal nature of the rest of the programme.

As a child, I tended to find Ronnie C’s chair monologues rather dull.  Now they’re often the highlight of their shows (funny how times and tastes change) so I’m glad one was included here.  Ronnie C also joins Cilla Black for a little crosstalk and a song, although how much you get from this part of the show will probably depend on how high your tolerance to Cilla Black is.

For me, we’re on firmer ground with Dad’s Army.  The platoon are incredibly proud to have been selected by the BBC to broadcast live to the nation on Christmas Day, but things aren’t as straightforward as Mainwaring would have hoped.  The rehearsals are slightly chaotic – thanks to the script provided by the BBC.  They’d assumed that the sergeant would be a cockney and the officer a gentleman, so Wilson is somewhat bemused that his part is full of slang whilst Mainwaring is incensed to be told that he doesn’t sound like an officer!  When the BBC man suggests that maybe they swop roles, the expressions on the faces of both Le Mesurier and Lowe are a joy!  With the rest of the platoon pitching in, notably to produce sound effects (Pike is in his element when asked to provide bird sounds) this is a nicely-written sequence with a decent pay off.

Following another quick Two Ronnies sketch, Cilla Black is back (along with a children’s choir – always a good bet at Christmas) to round things off before the Two Rons say goodbye with a selection of news item.

“And now it’s a Merry Christmas from me. And it’s a Happy New Year from him. Goodnight.”

Christmas Night with the Stars 1964

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Jack Warner is in the chair for the 1964 Stars, introducing Billy Cotton, Dick Emery, Top of the Pops, Andy Stewart, Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd, The Likely Lads, Richard Briers & Prunella Scales, Benny Hill and Kathy Kirby.

The first observation is that they’ve not exactly splashed out with the set dressings for poor old Jack, who has to present his links in the middle of a cold and deserted studio – with only an armchair, a table, some candles, a Christmas tree and a few other assorted decorations for company.  Still, pro that he is, he soldiers on regardless.

After Billy Cotton and his band gets the show off to a rousing start (“wakey, wakey!”) we move onto film as Dick Emery, in various guises, is stopped in the street and asked how he/she plans to spend Christmas.  It’s interesting to compare and contrast Emery with Benny Hill (who later in the show also plays a variety of characters).  I’d definitely have to give Hill the edge, although Emery has his moments, especially with the man-eating Mandy. “You are awful, but I like you”.

Top of the Pops are represented by …. the Barron Knights.  Well, if you can’t afford the real groups I guess they were the next best thing.  They’d had their first taste of chart success in 1964 with Call up the Groups and their Stars appearance isn’t too dissimilar – parodying popular groups and hits of the day by changing the lyrics, here with a Christmas theme.

Andy Stewart heads up to the North of Scotland for a bit of a toe-tapper, which is followed by Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd in a seasonal Hugh and I skit.  As with the series, Patricia Hayes, Jack Haigh, Molly Sugden and the luvverly Jill Curzon provide strong support.  There’s more than a touch of Tony Hancock in Scott’s performance, meaning that it’s easy to imagine the curmudgeon of East Cheam in a similar situation – a house full of guests at Christmas that he’d sooner weren’t there (and the presence of Pat Hayes and Hugh Lloyd are obvious links to the Lad Himself).  Scott dominates proceedings as he attempts to persuade the others to take part in a parlour game.  A nice segment which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

As Jack Warner says, most of the shows and performers on CNWTS were household favourites, but The Likely Lads had only started a fortnight before – meaning that someone must have quickly spotted this was a series with potential.  And it’s definitely a highlight of the programme, as even this early on both Clement/La Frenais and Bolam/Bewes seemed perfectly comfortable with the characters.

Terry’s keen to head out for an evening’s liquid refreshment, pouring scorn on those who stay in.  “Catch me staying in. Bowl of nuts, box of dates and Christmas Night with the Stars. No thank you!”  But Bob and Terry’s evening out never gets started, thanks to an escalating argument about the name of the elephant in the Rupert annuals.  Bob maintains it was Edward Trunk whilst Terry is convinced it was Edward the Elephant.  So Terry fetches his annuals from the loft to settle the argument once and for all.

The desire of Bob and Terry to hark back to their childhood was a theme of the series that would only grow stronger when it returned in the seventies as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  This small segment demonstrates that right from the start Clement and La Frenais recognised this aspect of their characters could produce comedy gold.  A pity that it’s not available on the DVD (like many of the other Stars segments sadly) but then 2E did leave a whole episode off the original release …..

Billy Cotton introduces Ralph Reader’s Gang Show, which is followed by Benny Hill.  It’s not surprising that the picture we have today of Benny Hill is from his years at Thames.  Not only because those shows were incredibly successful worldwide, but they’re also the ones that are readily available on DVD.  His 1960’s BBC shows are less accessible (although there is a R1 compilation).  Maybe one day all that remains will be released on DVD, I hope so – since they contain some strong material which gives the lie to the oft repeated claim that Hill was a fairly low-brow performer.

His Stars segment, The Lonely One, is a good case in point.  Shot on film, Hill not only plays the central character in the short mockumentary – a juvenile delinquent called Willy Treader – but all of the other parts as well.  It’s very nicely done and Hill’s creations (possibly because he wrote the script too) feel more like real people than Dick Emery’s more broad characters did.

Richard Briers and Prunella Scales are up next in Marriage Lines.  It’s cosy and twee, but Briers and Scales make it just about worthwhile.  George and Kate Starling are expecting their first child which is reflected in their presents to each other – Kate gives him a sleeping bag (in case the baby gets too noisy, he can move to another room) whilst George gives her a maternity smock (seemingly not realising that she’s due to give birth in a month).

Although billed second, Kathy Kirby appears last to sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Chirstmas.  It’s a fairly short and low-key ending, but overall the 1964 Stars is a consistently strong show with very little filler.

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958

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Running every year from 1958 to 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966) Christmas Night with the Stars brought together some of the BBC’s top light entertainment and sitcom performers for a specially recorded program of seasonal highjinks.  Only three complete editions – 1958, 1964 and 1972 – now exist and whilst the complete shows are not commercially available (although a cut-down version of the 1972 show was included on the Two Ronnies Christmas DVD) thanks to YouTube they are viewable at present.

Magician David Nixon is your host for the 1958 Stars, with Charlie Chester, the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake, Perry Como, Ted Ray, Tony Hancock, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Edwards, Billy Cotton & his Band and Jack Warner providing the entertainment.

If Charlie Chester’s remembered today it’s probably due to his later radio career (he had a Sunday R2 programme which ran until 1996).  Possibly it’s a little unfair that Chester was labelled a cut-price Max Miller, but there’s a certain similarity in style – although Miller was undoubtedly better.  Chester’s spot is amiable enough though, even if he was already looking like a relic from another age back then.

After a rather jolly song (if you don’t listen to the lyrics) from the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake makes his appearance.  Drake plays a tuneless carol singer who gets short-shrift from his potential customers.  Hmm, Charlie Drake.  The studio audience clearly love him, collapsing into hysterics at the drop of a hat, but I have to confess that his shtick has always left me cold and this sketch didn’t change my opinion.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Perry Como warbles away for a few minutes before Ted Ray and Kenneth Connor enjoy a nice two-handed sketch – Ray is a patient, convinced he’s swallowed something nasty and Connor is the doctor.  Connor had worked with Ray both on radio and television and they clearly had a good working relationship which shows in the way they interact with each other.  The material is a little thin (a view which seems to be shared by the studio audience – listen how the laughs tail off towards the end) but anything’s an improvement after Charlie Drake!

Next, David Nixon plucks the fairy off the top of the Christmas tree, which then proceeds to dance in front of his eyes.  Today, this may look a little crude but considering how limited the technology was at the time, you have to admit that it’s very nicely done (CSO/Chromakey from a decade or more later sometimes didn’t look as good as this).

Up next is a real Christmas treat, Tony Hancock.  Rather than the East Cheam skit we might have expected, Tony’s contribution is very different – he’s a budgie in a cage, less than impressed with the treatment he’s receiving from his owner.  Because it’s such an unlikely scenario, this is possibly why it works – or maybe it’s just that Hancock was so good he could deadpan his way through a scene no matter how ridiculous he looked.  With his familiar mixture of weary resignation, Hancock is on fine form.  “Not good enough, stuck here all day with nothing to eat. Haven’t had a decent piece of millet since last Thursday.”  Hancock, with just a shrug and a glance (even when dressed as a budgie) can express so much and is a delight.

David Nixon shows Vera Lynn a quick magic trick before she pops off to sing a few songs.  Then we have Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!  It’s a series that’s been in the news as three previously missing episodes have recently been found, meaning that there’s now seven in existence.  The premise of the series is something of an eye-opener (Edwards plays a headmaster who delights in caning the boys in his charge).  A Muir/Norden vehicle that’s historically interesting rather than amusing, if it succeeds at all then it’s thanks to Edwards’ performance.

Billy Cotton and his Band are on hand for a good old singalong and knees-up, he certainly seems to get the studio audience animated.  C’mon Simply/Network, etc – let’s get the remaining Billy Cotton shows on DVD, you know it makes sense!

It might seem a little odd to end in Dock Green as George Dixon (Jack Warner) toasts his family and friends around the dinner table, but Warner’s background was very much in LE – so much so that Dixon of  Dock Green was for many years made by the Light Entertainment Department rather than the Drama Department.  Warner delivers a lovely monologue and given that so little of Dixon exists, every little scrap is precious.  Maybe one day someone will scoop up all the existing B&W Dixon material to compliment the (mostly) complete colour stories released by Acorn.  C’mon again Simply/Network, etc – this makes sense too!

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958 has peaks and troughs, but overall it’s not a bad way to spend seventy minutes.

Christmas Night with the Stars

Christmas Night with the Stars was a BBC staple, running between 1958 and 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966).  The format remained the same – a familiar face would introduce specially made Christmas editions of popular BBC shows (each running for about ten minutes).

There’s several examples on YouTube.  The 1958 edition, features Tony Hancock amongst others and is introduced by David Nixon.

The 1964 edition features the likes of James Bolam & Rodney Bewes in The Likely Lads and Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and is introduced by Jack Warner.