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Christmas Bonus: All Star Comedy Carnival on DVD

  ITV noted well the success of its rival channel BBC1 and their festive celebration Christmas Night with the Stars which had begun in 1958, so in 1969 the independent television channel decided to start up their own version with an emphasis on humour which they titled All Star Comedy Carnival, to be broadcast on Christmas Day. The first three of these specials were lost after the tapes they were kept on were wiped; both stations were guilty of such a practice, leaving a search decades later for lost programmes, but aside from a segment from the first instalment that offered an episode of sitcom The Dustbinmen, the remaining two - it lasted till 1973 - were preserved and are available to view as part of Network's DVD compilation.

That was the format, a host linking mini episodes of ITV's most popular sitcoms, with various guests dropping by to accompany him in sketches or sing a seasonal song. The host in this case being stand-up comedian and variety star Jimmy Tarbuck, who provided the safe pair of hands to guide the celebrity-studded show to port. In 1972 he began with a few jokes, just to ease the audience in, with references to various famous folks as a basis for the familiar tone: he used the "Christmas cards sent by the stars" gag, with the cards as props, and the studio audience laughed along indulgently as they got the jokes about Raquel Welch and Mick Jagger. But then it was time to kick off the sitcoms, and what better to get you in the mood than racism?

Well, it was the early seventies and Love Thy Neighbour was one of the most popular programmes on television, a tale of a white bigot (Jack Smethurst) living next door to a black co-worker (Rudolph Walker) who despises him as much as he is despised back. They would trade low grade prejudiced insults for easy chuckles for the watching public, and the sociological meaning behind its success has troubled media commentators ever since, not that there were many placing its values under the microscope at the time of broadcast. For his part, Walker excused himself by pointing out he was one of the only black actors to star in his own show back then, important for Brits of his race, and this effort told you all you needed to know: basic turkey mix-ups and a "black Christmas" punchline.

Once that was out of the way, we were back with Tarby who was interrupted in time honoured fashion by somebody at the door of his "house" (actually a set), and that somebody was Rod Hull, with his anarchic puppet Emu whose act was to attack those Hull was speaking to in a burst of slapstick violence. Talk show host Michael Parkinson is still known to this day for his encounter with Emu, but Jimmy’s wrestling with the bird was less celebrated (and yes, Emu does aim his beak straight between his legs); actually, Hull's silent pantomime with the puppet was pretty funny, consisting of nods, shakes and sneers of the bird's face in response to Tarby's lines, and was ample demonstration of why Hull was a draw for so long, though he did end up in a ghetto of kids' TV.

Nearest and Dearest was next, the sitcom that starred Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel who in spite of enjoying a huge hit with their OAP antics, rumour had it, actually hated each other. Certainly their screen personae did not look especially affectionate - not just to themselves but to anyone else in the vicinity either. The gimmick here was that they were reminiscing about Christmases past (Hylda is "filled with neuralgia") which involved the four main cast dressing up as child versions of themselves, a sight that was nothing less than grotesque, especially when Baker and Jewel committed to their roles with such dedication, complete with costumes that were both appropriate and somehow inappropriate simultaneously. Still, there were a few obvious laughs.

After Moira Anderson served up a pretty rendition of Silver Bells, we were straight into Father Dear Father, which starred Patrick Cargill, that eccentric man of stage farce who found lasting fame as the head of a family in this sitcom. Really it was him and his two grown daughters who were the centre of the premise, as he would often get into ridiculous scrapes in his attempts to preserve their virtue or otherwise make it through the day without falling over which he singularly failed to do in this section. His dog H.G. had gone missing, which somehow led Patrick to tumble into a pond, it sounds more than a bit wearisome yet Cargill had such a talent for finding the comedy in such material that it was one of the highlights of the show.

Christmas with Wogan was not a sitcom, however, it was a specially filmed instalment of the much-missed broadcaster's lunchtime show which featured the most stars of the entire evening. They were posing as members of the public, so when Tel picked out a couple from the audience (of notably aged members of the public) they were Peggy Mount and Leslie Crowther who were teamed with Hugh Lloyd and Sylvia Sims as their supposed spouses and had to guess the identity of the mystery guest from his catchphrases. Those included "Shut that door!" which should give you a clue as to who the masked man was. Throw in actresses from cheapo soap Crossroads and Lionel Blair denying all knowledge of himself, and you had a very typical showbiz indulgence.

Harry Worth was a curious chap whose fame seemed to rest on his main joke that saw him stand next to a shop window so he was half-reflected in it, then raise one arm and leg to make it look as if he had made a star shape with both feet off the ground. Alas, he didn't offer that gag here, as it was a sketch instead where he played a butler who grew increasingly sozzled as he helped himself to brandy and port as the Lord and Lady of the manor coldly enjoyed their Christmas dinner, walking up and down the banqueting table with unsteady gait until he totally collapsed. This was okay as far as it went, and doubtless the sort of comedy Worth would be presenting every week on his show, but it was redolent of material from twenty years before.

On the Buses was probably the most famous of the sitcoms recreated in miniature here, and in this segment specially written by stars Bob Grant and Blakey the inspector himself, Stephen Lewis, they went on location to a bus depot with fellow cast Reg Varney, Doris Hare and Anna Karen to be chased around by a Christmas goose. Not a man in a costume, an actual bird, providing an unlikely link to the Emu shenanigans of half an hour previously, and ending up not with Stan and Jack going out with attractive "dolly birds" who would surely be out of their league had they not been the lead performers, but instead with everyone covered in flour for some reason. It at least preserved much of the spirit of the humour.

After Tarby was joined in a tune from The Sound of Music by a choir of schoolboys and magician David Nixon performed a few tricks, Les Dawson appeared for a basic stand-up routine of the sort he would deliver in his Sez Les sketch show. What we really needed from him was an out of tune carol on the piano, but it was not to be, and half of his section was taken up by dancers without him. Lastly, The Fenn Street Gang, the spin-off from school sitcom Please Sir! when the cast were too old to convince as teenagers, did their thing at their Christmas get-together, all very broadly written and delivered, and to top it all off golfer Tony Jacklin was there to exchange quips with the golf-obsessed Tarby and even sing a song, improbable as that sounded. All that was left was to wish us a merry Christmas.

Until next year, by which time the BBC had ended their Christmas Night with the Stars, which might have given ITV the hint that the format was tired. Certainly in 1973 this was more like a chat show for Tarbuck, who returned as host, as if he was appearing in a dry run for his successful eighties incarnation as a talk show host, in particular the sequence where who should turn up at his door but everyone’s favourite boxer Henry Cooper? This led to Cooper relating a couple of anecdotes after a mention of his after dinner speaking role, very much in the template of chat; elsewhere Tarby got to converse with curiously aggressive ventriloquist Neville King and his granddad puppet, where the theme of drinking too much alcohol raised its head once again (hello, comedy butler Bob Todd).

The Wandsworth School boys' choir were back, here delivering a modern carol which was a brave move, though the host didn't interact with them this time, and the cast of his current show, including Kenny Lynch, Lynda Bellingham and Hugh Paddick, were present to race through a two minute panto of Cinderella - with Lynch playing Cinders (cue racial humour). Bizarrely, Fyfe Robertson, a news reporter of distinctive Scottishness, also rang Tarby's doorbell and took part in a sketch with him, again with a predictably drink-based theme, a bit like the newsreaders who would appear in the Morecambe and Wise shows on the other side the same decade, only not as innovatively employed.

The main coup was getting Val Doonican, the popular Irish crooner, who did a solo (his new single) and a duet with Tarby, the latter more humorous, and by the way the presenter treated him with such respect it was clear Val was the biggest name of the night, though he would soon be headed over to the BBC to star in his own rocking chair-based programmes for around two decades - Jimmy was far more identified with ITV, and would stay loyal to them for the most part. Les Dawson was back in essentially a pared down sketch fest from his own TV efforts, and his monologue (of which he was a comic master) was the highlight of that, even if the punchline was absurdly obvious - or perhaps because of it.

That bit included music too, and dancing from the regulation variety hoofers, throwing themselves about to the sound of a big band and muted trumpet, a surprisingly durable noise when it came to this material. But all that was not to say the sitcoms were neglected, for as before a number of the most popular programmes of the time were recreated in pocket-sized festive episodes, starting with the recent behemoth Man About the House. The main five cast were present and correct, with the flatmates forced to spend time with their landlord and landlady on the big day, the humour drawn from longsuffering sexual innuendo that proved a huge hit with audiences and remains funny to this day. They had evidently opened with their sure thing, in the hope that the viewers would stick around.

Billy Liar had been a major movie of the British New Wave, and its writer Keith Waterhouse was moved to pen a sitcom a few years later, with Jeff Rawle in the title role as the feckless dreamer who will see visions of his imaginings to comedy effect. This was an obvious choice for the Carnival, and assembled the regular cast as the funeral director (Colin Jeavons) Billy works for holds a Christmas party for morticians and gravediggers, only to discover too late that his employee forgot to send out the invitations. This was yet another entry to rely on drunkenness for its jokes as Billy's grandmother wound up the worse for wear; the audience seemed to enjoy it, but it was a rather morose premise, though not one alien to the sitcoms of this decade.

My Good Woman is a forgotten vehicle for Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Syms, your basic British sitcom set up with husband and wife conflicts and wacky neighbours; here they were seen preparing for a fancy dress party with a nursery rhyme theme, which gave them the opportunity to dress up (and tell off-colour versions of the rhymes). They were pleasant performers, but you cannot imagine this being anyone's appointment viewing, though it did last five series. Lasting four was Jimmy Jewel's Spring and Autumn, about an elderly gent's friendship with a young tearaway: its church-based instalment here was notable for featuring one solitary laugh in the whole five minutes, as if the parent programme had been a drama.

The Doctor series had been massive hits in UK cinemas for some time, so were a natural for transferring to the small screen with seemingly a billion episodes written by a wide variety of comedy talent produced in the seventies. Doctor in Charge had been 1973's series, and here we had Robin Nedwell leading the cast in a somewhat downbeat tale of his doctor character having nowhere to go for Christmas and nobody offering him a place at a party, never mind a dinner table, though they managed a happy ending after a fashion. All that was left was the cast to join together in a chorus to wish us the compliments of the season, accompanied by footballers Bobby Moore and Alan Ball (the latter perched on Lynch's knee). As a capsule of what the Light Channel was getting up to that year, their Carnival was hard to beat, and television nostalgists would be in festive heaven. One thing, though: in the animated titles to 1972's edition, there's a stocking hanging up on the mantelpiece with a severed foot in it. What?

[Network's DVD of the All Star Comedy Carnival is out to buy now.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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