Enchanting Christmas television of the 1930s

BBC TV Panto, Dick Whittington, December 1937. Credit: Alexandra Palace Television Society Archive

BBC TV Panto, Dick Whittington, December 1937. Credit: Alexandra Palace Television Society Archive

26 December 2023

Jamie Medhurst, Professor of Film and Media in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies looks back at the long tradition of special festive television:

Like countless families across the UK, the arrival of the Christmas and New Year double issue of the Radio Times causes great excitement in the Medhurst household. Whilst the television landscape has changed beyond recognition in recent years, the practice of broadcasting special television programmes during the festive season is over 90 years old.

One of the first Christmas television programmes was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1931. The BBC had entered into an agreement with the Baird Television Company in September 1929 to broadcast experimental television broadcasts, produced by John Logie Baird’s company but using the BBC’s transmitters. The programme featured entertainer Nat Lewis as Joey the Clown, Rupert Harvey who drew pantomime cartoons, and Eve Fulton and Varna Glenstrom as Columbine and Harlequin. The programme would have been on low definition 30-line television and would have been seen by only a handful of television enthusiasts on very small screens. Nevertheless, it was the start of something that subsequently grew and developed.

By the end of 1932, the BBC had been running its own 30-line television service for four months and December that year saw more Christmas programming. On 9 December, Harry Hemsley, an English music hall and radio comedian, appeared on television as Father Christmas, and showed a display of Christmas toys from leading London stores to Winnie, Johnnie and Elsie (his on-screen children). An early example of product placement and free publicity to the London stores, maybe? Then on 27 December, the BBC broadcast a puppet show pantomime, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ which was performed by Alexis Philpott’s Pantopuck Puppets.

The world’s first regular high-definition public television service opened in November 1936 at the BBC studios in Alexandra Palace in north London. The service reached people fortunate to have television sets within a 30-mile radius of the Alexandra Palace transmitter.  That Christmas, the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture was televised for the first time. The Radio Times billing read: ‘The Royal Institution lectures are a feature of the children’s Christmas holidays.  This year they are about ships.  G.I. Taylor, M.A., F.R.S., M.R.I., Yarrow Research Professor of the Royal Society, will give a talk and demonstration with actual experiments and models, on the stabilisation of ships and why they roll in a rough sea.’ And they continue to this day, of course.

Christmas Eve 1936 saw the BBC broadcast an Old Time Music Hall Christmas Party (which went out live in the afternoon and was then repeated at 9.30pm – there were not recording facilities at that time so repeated programmes meant that the actors and the production team had to come into the studio again to perform it all over again). The afternoon of Christmas Eve also saw Harry Hemsley reprise his Father Christmas role, giving presents to children by a Christmas tree.

Christmas Day television in 1936 began at 3pm, not with the King’s Speech, but with a demonstration of how to carve your Christmas turkey by chef B. J. Hulbert. Public Service Broadcasting at its best! This was followed by a seasonal edition of the popular magazine programme Picture Page when the explorer Edward Shackleton gave a talk on ‘A lonely Christmas in the Arctic’ - I’m not sure how uplifting this talk would have been, mind you, but … The evening’s entertainment began at 9pm with Christmas carols sung by ‘The Singing Boys from St. Mary-of-the-Angels Song School’. This was followed by A Seasonal Tour through the Empire (which the Radio Times described as‘A film showing various parts of the Empire at this season’). At 9.25pm, a programme on Some Unusual Christmases was broadcast. Presented by Commander A. B. Campbell. The programme looked at Christmas in the frozen North, Melbourne and, bizarrely, a minesweeper. The evening ended with Television Party where ‘Distinguished artists from the stage and screen will be the guests of the BBC’, including Flanagan and Allen and the Buddy Bradley Girls dancers. This was, I think, the prototype of those programmes hosted by Val Doonican and the like that I remember as a child in the 1970s.

The Christmases that followed that first year saw a similar pattern of programmes. The first televised pantomime, ‘Dick Whittington and his Cat’ was broadcast on 27 December 1937. It starred George Benson as Alderman Fitzwarren, Cyril Fletcher (later of That’s Life fame) as the Emperor of Morocco and Queenie Leonard in the title role. The whole production was repeated on New Year’s Day 1938. Other highlights from Christmas Day 1937 included Polite Wine Drinking where chef Marcel Boulestin discussed with Nesta Sawyer ‘some of the characteristics of good wines and the ways in which they should be served’. One can tell the type of audience at which the programme was targeted – those who could afford a television set! The King’s Speech was also broadcast on Christmas Day but in sound only, taken live from the BBC’s National Programme on the wireless.

BBC TV Panto, Dick Whittington, December 1937. Credit: Alexandra Palace Television Society Archive

By 1938, the programming was a little more adventurous with ‘Babes in Wood’ being broadcast live from the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on 21 December and, on Christmas Day, a children’s party live from the Children’s Ward of St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner.

There was no Christmas television in 1939. The television service had shut down at the outbreak of war in September 1939, but when it returned in 1946, it ensured that a children’s Christmas party was broadcast live from Alexandra Palace on Boxing Day.

By the end of the 1930s there were estimated to be 20,000 television sets in Britain.  Now 27.3 million households in the UK have at least one television. So, as you pass around the tub of chocolates and settle down to enjoy this year’s televisual festive feast, just bear in mind that the tradition goes back quite a way.