Sunday, 23 December 2018

A Christmas Day In The Life: Part Three

In my book, “Festive Double Issue: Forty Years of Christmas TV” (available for Kindle here), I cover the two week festive and New Year period with everything from the obvious to the baffling and all the hapless holidaymakers in between. But what would make up my own perfect Christmas Day line-up? Well, its comedy. Lots and lots of comedy.

7:25pm: The Kenny Everett Television Show (1981)

“This is Kenny Everett’s first show for the BBC and in it he will be doing several things we’re not allowed to talk about and meeting several people we’re not at liberty to divulge. Suffice it to say, everything will be completely original in as much as it’s never been done before... on the BBC. Join Kenny and the cast of thousands for the experience of a lifetime. Or, on the other hand, watch this show.”

To say that Kenny Everett joining the BBC was something akin to placing a stick of dynamite in a nice vase of petunias wouldn’t be far off the truth. Leaving previous employers Thames after they scheduled him against “Top of the Pops” despite them sharing the exact same audience, Everett’s appearances on Auntie Beeb were perhaps slicker but no less exciting and fully of genuine naughty bits. This first half-hour for the BBC is a perfect calling card beginning with spinning newspapers revealing his defection (“Biggest betrayal since Pearl Harbour!” – Daily Mail, “Who Cares?” – Gay News) followed by some black and white faux-horror movie footage of Ev being bundled out of a car marked “ITV1” and buried in a shallow grave before being dug up again by two BBC chaps in a clapped out Austin. With this, Everett. fired warning shots at both sides AND mocked his own place in the showbusiness world – and all in the first 40 seconds!

Much like his previous Thames shows there are cut-out animations, familiar characters, a set full of television screens and no studio audience yet but bags of confidence from the get go. Plus it’s very, very funny. A memorable running sketch finds Ken wandering the corridors of the much-missed BBC TV Centre explaining what all the initials on the doors mean (“DG: Director General”, “OB OPS: Outside Broadcast Operators”). He then assumes “BUM” must naturally stand for “Broadcasting Under Manager” but is instead, terrifically, a giant bottom which later blasts Terry Wogan through a nearby wall.

There’s also a look at the cobwebbed BBC Boardroom as decrepit old executives try to work out the appeal of Everett, an episode of crass American-style game show called “Shoot The Dog” and guest stars The Police, Billy Connolly and David Frost who crops up to point out a sketch has been ripped off from his own 1960s show “The Frost Report”. Plus the first appearance of the never ashamed US actress Cupid Stunt. And of course it’s all done...

7:55pm: The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (1977)

"A star-studded holiday special starring Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise written by Eddie Braben with special guests Penelope Keith, Elton John, Angharad Rees and a host of guest celebrities". 

Yes, its a bit of an obvious one as the original broadcast recieved one of the biggest TV audiences ever (just behind the slightly earlier Mike Yarwood, this was originally slotted in at 8:55pm) but it was the first full Morecambe and Wise show I'd seen thanks to a repeat late on Christmas Day 1993. I doubt I knew who any of the newsreaders performing "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" was or what "Starkers and Hutch" was parodying but it didnt matter as it was all in the performances. The end bit where Elton John finds an empty studio and performs his song anyway was weird and a little haunting but really unique and a suitably maudlin exit for the double act who were off to Thames at the end.

9.00pm: Victoria Wood’s All Day Breakfast (1992)

“The latest daytime show to be hosted by a popular husband-and-wife team.  There are tips on female problems like seriously split ends…”

There were a lot of jokes made at the expensive of ITV’s weekday magazine show “This Morning” fronted by married couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan since it launched to huge acclaim in 1988, thanks to its rollercoaster mix of light and heavy topics for discussion, but few were as affectionate yet devastating as Victoria Wood’s assassination of the daytime magazine format. Fronted by partners Martin Cumbernauld (Duncan Preston) and Sally Crossthwaite (Wood herself), we find Sally in charge and Martin “with no embarrassment at all” discussing “female problems” like “wonky wombs and faulty fallopian tubes”.  Between the links are several unconnected sketches including regular visits to “The Mall” which did for the BBCs new soap flop “Eldorado” what Wood’s earlier “Acorn Antiques” had for Crossroads with its light inconsequential plots and wooden acting.

There’s also a predictable but fun connection to Wood's earlier work in the final part. The special ends with some new stand-up and new song “Real Life” (“Life is a fan club and I’m not a fan / Life is a bran tub / no prizes / just bran”), later to become the title track of her only studio album in 1997. It’s tempting, watching Wood interview – slash - insult old friend and special guest Alan “'Dickman'” Rickman, to and not feel a bit melancholy at the fact both are no longer with us but when the comedy is this good we’ll always be laughing too much to allow that.

9.50pm: The Home-Made Xmas Video (1986)

“A Video de Dad. It’s full of lots of things about Christmas. What we did, where we went, what we ate, how much we all drunk and everything. It’s a great stuff! (The turkey, I mean.) But seriously...” 

No Christmas period for me is properly started until I’ve seen this spin-off from the later series of “Alas Smith and Jones” which took an affectionate but honest look at British working class families via the new-fangled home camcorder. There’s well-meaning but quick to temper Dad (Jones), happy but put upon Mum (Diane Langton), kids Shirley and Peter (Jenny Jay and Nigel Harman) and their fun, illiterate and frequently drunk lodger Len (Smith) who almost anticipates the character of Homer Simpson. Sequences involving simple acts like putting a wreath on the door, badly stealing a tree and visiting sick relatives are made into painfully funny sequences that are never played cheaply for cringe laughs. Likewise the family are rough but never sneered at by Griff and Robin Driscoll’s script which makes them fully rounded likeable characters and could easily have been spun off into a full series.

10:25pm: French and Saunders's Celebrity Christmas Puddings (2002)

"Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders find themselves house-sitting for a rock star over Christmas, during which time they sample some television favourites and offer a new angle on Monarch of the Glen and Tipping the Velvet."

More sketchiness, this time from Christmas Day 2002 and despite featuring several of the parodies as they'd become well known for, this felt like a bit more of the double act returning to their live audience roots as they supposedly house-sit for Richard and Judy for the festive period. The pair are at their most mischievous and wonderful. There's jokes that have been lost to time a little, like Dawn impersonating Carrie Grant from "Fame Academy" and a discussion of Madonna's short-lived stage acting career in "Up For Grabs" but its never really mattered with F&S whether you recognise what is being spoofed as they go at it with such enthusiasm and ridiculousness its hard not to smile. They even mock the fact there's no-one watching as "Celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" is on the other side. Good morning.

11:05pm: FILM - A Hard Day's Night (1964)

"Starring The Beatles with Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington , John Junkin. The Beatles' first and best feature film is a way-out journey from Liverpool to London..."

Because you need a good old British film to nod off to at the end of the day and there’s always been something oddly festive about The Beatles to me. It could be their four Christmas number ones or “Magical Mystery Tour” making its TV d├ębut on Boxing Day 1967. It might even be their terrific festive fan club discs they made, later being produced by Kenny Everett"A Hard Day's Night" originally made it to TV on December 28th 1970 and got a few more showings throughout the decade, usually around Crimble before seemingly vanishing from telly for the next two decades. Fifty years on the songs remain great and the Beatles remain irreverent, funny and a genuine surprise as they potter through not much of a plot which is kept moving by the brilliant Richard Lester whose later film "The Bed Sitting Room" was another quirky British cinema favourite I had on the shortlist for this. Fab, Beat and Swingorilliant all round! Also: gears.  

And that's it. Thank you all for reading my words or hearing my noises this year and I hope I can do more of it in 2019. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Beatles!

For much more like this, pick up a copy of "Festive Double Issue: Forty Years Of Christmas TV" available in print here: 

 And digital for yer Kindles and that here:

Friday, 21 December 2018

A Christmas Day In The Life: Part Two

In my book, “Festive Double Issue: Forty Years of Christmas TV” (available for Kindle right now here!), I cover the two week festive and New Year period with everything from the obvious to the baffling and all the hapless holidaymakers in between. But what would make up my own perfect Christmas Day line-up? Lets slide into the pre and post-dinner miasma together (With apologies to my pal Paul Gannon for the following)....

11.55am: The Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show (1985) 

“From the top of London's British Telecom Tower, Noel Edmonds presents a live outside broadcast uniting families and friends throughout the world.” 

Noel Edmonds appearing live on Christmas Morning was an event that only happened five times yet still feels like it was always part of the Christmas Days in my youth. With his experience on “Swap Shop” and the “Late Late Breakfast Show” on Saturday nights Noel was already an old hand at helming a technically intricate live broadcast which was fully put to the test with the first show in 1984 featuring lots of outside broadcasts including the much missed Mike Smith out in the “hollycopter”. The team would raise the stakes for 1985’s show which stretched to a behemoth 125 minutes and featured the “world’s first computer draw” and, as seen on blooper shows for decades, “the world’s first in-flight pop performance” with the unfortunate Feargal Sharkey unable to hear anything at 2500ft throughout a mimed performance of “You Little Thief” watched by a helpless and bemused Gary Davies and The Krankies. There was also time for link ups to Africa and the launch of new charity called Comic Relief.


1986 brought a change of title to “Christmas Morning with Noel” to distance it from the “Late, Late Breakfast Show” after its instant cancellation due to the unfortunate death of a member of the public during rehearsals for a stunt five weeks earlier. In retrospect, it’s amazing the special happened at all, no doubt down to the sheer amount of work that would have gone into setting up satellite links around the world including Australia where it was airing live. These efforts resulted in a duet between Cliff Richard and Elton John both on different continents that is as memorable as it sounds. Plus Mike Smith was looking for Santa in Lapland, how can you miss that? The final show from the top of the Tower would happen in 1987 at the slightly earlier time of 9am due to the show going out live in more countries with New Zealand, Singapore and Gibraltar now joining Australia for across the sea family link ups.

With each special previous feeling more and more elaborate the final edition in 1988 was something of a let-down as the show was cut back to just over an hour and even worse came from Studio 3 of BBC TV Centre, a location I’d normally be cock-a-hoop for, but isn’t quite the same as being 625 feet above London. The following year saw Edmonds switch to the pre-recorded “Noel’s Christmas Presents”, a safe but much less fun format that nevertheless became a staple of the Christmas Day schedule for the whole of the nineties with a lengthy revival for Sky later on. Regardless of what we’ve since learned of him being a bit of an oddball who can cure cancer with his mind, Noel was always a cheery, personable frontman of these shows who seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself and it was great to feel the BBC was this exciting alive 'being' watching over the world, offering company, and setting out its stall as the channel to stick with all day. And Noel? He hadn’t quite finished with live television yet as the doors to his Crinkley Bottom prepared to swing open...

2:00pm: Top of the Pops (1995) 

“Bjork and Jack Dee introduce the biggest selling songs of 1995, plus the Christmas Day Number One. Live in the studio are N-Trance, Annie Lennox , Take That, Boyzone, The Outhere Brothers, Simply Red, Robson and Jerome, Pulp and Blur.” 

Sticking with the Beeb for another staple, we all have our year zero for pop and, despite a casual interest and collecting the NOW tapes since the turn of the decade, 1995 was the five alarm ring the bell that pushed me fully into a person forever-skint after Monday morning in Our Price. Looking back at that year, people only really focus into Britpop and that was unquestionably a huge moment for me but as this line-up shows it was only a small part of the pop pudding:

N-Trance – Set You Free
Annie Lennox – No More I Love You’s
Take That – Back For Good
Boyzone – Key To My Life
Robson & Jerome – Unchained Melody
Pulp – Common People
The Outhere Brothers – Boom Boom Boom
Blur – Country House
Simply Red – Fairground
Robson & Jerome – I Believe
Michael Jackson – Earth Song


Only two songs you could call alternative and they were sandwiching the bloody awful Outhere Brothers - and not even the filthy lyric version we all sniggered about in the playground ("Slip my peter inside your folder") And yet, the older I get, the more I start to get nostalgic for all the stuff I thought was crap when I was a dyed in the wool indie kid. Despite my fantasy scheduling, this edition was pushed back to 12:55pm for a "Only Fools and Horses" repeat but it'll always be hugely important to me as a record of the year I found my voice. Although Robson and Jerome can still piss right off.

3.00pm: The Queen (Every bleedin’ year)

Because we all need a piss at some point.

3:10pm: FILM - Mary Poppins (1964) 

"Disney musical comedy starring Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke. George Banks' search for a no-nonsense nanny to take care of his two naughty children comes unstuck when the practically perfect Mary Poppins glides into their lives"

Practically perfect in every way, I could've gone for a lot of great Christmas Day premieres (I so very nearly went with "Back to the Future Part II" because I love it and I dont care) almost all of which was placed post-Maj but for me "Mary Poppins" is just joyful, full of brilliant songs and best of all, I've seen it so many times that if I do nod off after a big old gob-full of bird meat and potatoes, I can just ease back into the plot when I suddenly awake shouting "WHAT? I DONT KNOW NO SPIDERMAN". As was the case with films from the house of ear-shaped snacks, Mary had cropped up in a lot of "Disney Time" compilations on the Beeb but they wouldn't get the full TV premiere until Christmas Day 1984. Sequel? What sequel?

5:30pm: Christmas Telly Addicts (1988)

“Join Noel for a Christmas clash of the TV titans.” 

Bit of a cheat this one as Noel Edmonds' telly quiz never appeared on the big day but by now I'll need a bit of waking up and a good quiz is perfect for that (I was this close to picking Only Connect...). And so Lil Noely continues his jackbooted and garishly jumpered domination of our late Decembers with the still much-missed TV quiz. Competing in this 1988 edition were “The Cotton Club”, a team comprising of the BBC Managing Director Bill Cotton with Terry Wogan, Tim Rice and TV critic Margaret Forwood and opponents “The Gradey Bunch” aka new Channel 4 chief Michael Grade with Ernie Wise, Susan Reynish from 1986’s winning “Telly Addicts” family plus a seemingly unannounced Leslie Grantham (Grantham’s EastEnders character Dirty Den was at the time in jail before being “killed off” in 1989.) whose appearance seems to throw the usually unflappable Noel for the first few minutes. The regular quiz then continues as normal (The Gradey Bunch win 27-24) until near the end of the show as when some comedy police officers appear on set – again apparently without Noel’s prior knowledge  – to arrest ‘Dirty Den’  Of course everyone – ho ho! - naturally points at Noel who is cuffed and carted off by the fuzz never to be seen again. It's basically Rodney King in bad knitwear.

6:00pm: Only Fools and Horses - The Jolly Boys Outing (1989)

"Del organises a trip to Margate where he encounters a lost love. But should Rodney be leaving Cassandra?"

Looking back, I realise how much my dial was clearly always set to the Beeb on the big day but I was never really into ITV's mainstream comedies and whilst its been shown more than the testcard and my Dad's operation scar now, "Only Fools and Horses" remains a truly magnificent piece of work. This 1989 special is perhaps my favourite as its the first I can really remember sitting with my family and all laughing at, which was a rare thing in itself. Originally scheduled after the always-rotten "Bread", 20 million British people watched this go out the first time and it makes me a bit sad there's no equivalent in 2018. That said, the following year's Christmas day special “Rodney Come Home” might be one of the most bleak programmes ever broadcast on Jesus' birthday with a 75 minute exploration of Rodney’s failing marriage. LAUGHS!

For much more like this, pick up a copy of "Festive Double Issue: Forty Years Of Christmas TV" available in print here:

And digital for yer Kindles and that here:

Next time: we finish up with comedy. Lots and lots of comedy. Tune in!

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

A Christmas Day In The Life: Part One

In my book, “Festive Double Issue: Forty Years of Christmas TV”, I cover the two week festive and New Year period with everything from the obvious to the baffling and all the stuffed puppet rodents in between. But what would make up my own perfect Christmas Day line-up? Here’s how part one of it might shape up…

10.00am: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

“The wistful little comic-strip character with the spiral curl and the quizzical frown on a search for the real meaning of Yuletide.”

Right well for starters, you can bugger getting up before ten so we’ll start here but if you want anything earlier let’s assume it was just “Christmas Comes To Pacland” on a loop from 11pm the following evening. We’ll definitely need a gentle tip into the day so let’s go with this still-joyful CBS TV special that brought to life the characters from Charles Shultz’s Peanuts comic strip. What could be a schmaltzy mess is instead a funny, truthful take on how different people (or, in this case, surprisingly erudite eight-year-olds) feel about the holidays. Of course, there’s some good old fashioned slices of American cheese in there – the kids all singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” around Charlie’s awful Christmas tree for example – and even a bit of Jesus (courtesy of Linus quoting the Gospel of Luke) but it never feels preachy or forced.

Best of all is the largely instrumental jazz soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio which remains one of those rare records that just radiates festive feeling in every note and gets around 5,000 plays every December in my house. It was even added to the US Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically or aesthetically important American sound recordings” in 2012. Good grief!

10:30am Olive The Other Reindeer (1999)

“When Santa cancels his annual flight because of a hurt reindeer, a young Christmas loving dog named Olive is convinced she has what it takes to get Santa's flight off the ground and save Christmas. “

Plenty of people have Christmas traditions that they have to stick to - year in year out - lest the season not be as holly and indeed jolly as previous a Yule. For some it’s a specific date to put up the tinsel and tree, for others it involves listening to “Fairytale Of New York” enough times to medically induce rectal bleeding. For yours truly, the festive period just isn’t even vaguely considerable unless I’ve sat down for forty five minutes in the company of a cheery seasonal dog with the voice of Drew Barrymore on a mission to save Christmas.

Originally produced in 1999 for the Fox and executive produced by Matt Groening, “Olive, the Other Reindeer” is everything a modern Christmas special shouldn’t be – packed with needless celebrity cameos, flashy CGI animation and based on a beloved children’s book by Vivian Walsh with gorgeous illustration from J. Otto Seibold. But it’s gorgeous, full of heart and very funny to boot. The tale is simple enough – Olive, a happy if untraditional dog, mishears an urgent radio report calling for “all of the other reindeer” to replace an injured Blitzen as “Olive The Other Reindeer” and so she sets off to the North Pole against all odds to try and save the day. Along the way, she pals up with a corrupt penguin called Martini (voiced superbly in cod-Pesci tones by Joe Pantoliano, one of those traditional “ooh it’s that bloke from that thing” actors) and tries to escape the dastardly plans of the angry Postman (Homer himself, Dan Castellaneta) who is delighted Christmas is cancelled due to the extra stress and back-breaking work it makes for him.

Featuring new music from Californian swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Michael Stipe as Schnitzel, the embittered flightless cousin of Blitzen, “Olive” bounces along merrily with a score by the terrific Christopher Tyng whilst the animation was carried out by DNA Productions, a company soon to hit big with Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius for Nickelodeon and the film The Ant Bully. Although both of those are mostly a load of old wank so probably best just ignoring that.

11:15am Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

“Jim Henson, creator of the world-famous Muppets, presents a one-hour Christmas special with Emmet Otter and his friends...”

More unbearable cuteness, this time based on Russell Hoban’s 1971 children’s tale of the same name and introduced (unless you have the annoying region 2 DVD where the hacked him out) by Kermit the Frog, Emmet Otter is beautiful, touching, funny, ridiculous and full of terrific new Paul Williams songs perfect for giving you the warm fuzzies...which is apt for when you’re watching a bunch of warm fuzzies, I suppose. Emmet and his mother Alice live a poor life in an old shack barely getting by doing odd jobs until each of them notices that a big prize talent contest is happening and decides to surprise the other by entering. Originally shown by HBO long before it was the boobs and Larry David's face channel back in December 1977, its quaint (at least one of my friends has begged me to turn it off before) but there’s a more anarchic side too when their town is over-run by teenage menaces who later form – with a hat-tip to Alice Cooper The Riverbottom Nightmare Band. Muppet and music fans celebrated equally in 2018 when Varese Sarabande announced a long overdue 41st anniversary release of the soundtrack on vinyl and CD, including one never used song “Born In A Trunk”."A person's got to take some chances or life will never come to nothin'..."

Next time: My pick of the Pops, Tidybeard's peak and one of those feature films.

For much more like this, pick up a copy of "Festive Double Issue: Forty Years Of Christmas TV" available in print here:

And digital for yer Kindles and that here:

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The Ben Baker Quiz Explosion 2: Alt Quizney

Hey kids! It's time for the second all new Ben Baker Quiz Explosion and this time I'm looking at the life, work and trousers of Walt Disney who was born on today in 1901 (or just after Emmerdale starts.)  Don’t worry though if you’re not one of those people who falls asleep on their Oliver and Company bedsheets clutching their novelization of The Black Hole and screaming the lyrics to “Let It Go” as part of their ritual night terrors as there’s something for everybody in this show including:

- Stupid Movie Rumours!

- VHS memories and identifying the film company idents of old and new!

- Walter Matthau presents "Walt Disney or Walter White?"

- Eighties popstar Morrissey turns up to do a few of his favourite hits from the House of Mouse!

- Garreth Hirons attempts to top the leaderboard in an animation-themed round of "Ludicrously Niche Mastermind"!

And some actual questions about Disney stuff. But not many. Plus sketches, archive clips, stupid jokes, music and much more - all crammed into thirty minutes of awkwardly ill-defined podcast excellence from the Ben Baker unstable stable.

And if you want to play along at home like a real pub quiz, download the answer sheet here.

If you liked this pilot and want more, please do let me know on Twitter @BenBakerBooks or on the Facebook group of the same name. Use those too if you’d like to send me your ideas for a very narrowly-themed subject on the next Ludicrously Niche Mastermind. If I like it, you could be the next guest. Thanks to Garreth Hirons for being this weeks guest and you can find him on the hugely recommended Retrospecticus Podcast. Thanks also to the Punk Rock Pub Quiz band - Josh Tildesley, Sam Drury, Oscar Manthorp and Patch Kelly - for being on the "Morrissey" clip and Michael Watmough at the Exchange, Keighley for allowing me to put these quizzes in front of an audience each month and helping me make it a reality. My next live show – “A Wombling Merry Christmas (No Wombles)” takes place on December 19th so if you’re in the area, come along for an evening of beer, prizes and prizes of beer will be had.

Friday, 23 November 2018

The Ben Baker Quiz Explosion Takes Off

Today marks the fifty fifth anniversary of the BBC's occasionally popular adult space programme "Doctor Who" first appearing on British television. What? You knew that already? Its been in your Letts Space Bookies Diary for months? Well fine, did you know that to celebrate this momentous occasion I've recorded an exciting new podcast pilot? What? You dont care? Well, it is anyway...

"To celebrate fifty five years of Doctor Who being on the telly, Ben Baker was tasked with creating a simple pub quiz to be recorded in podcast form. He failed. So instead here's thirty minutes of trivia questions, sketches, pisspoor Yoda impressions, archive clips, Phil Catterall becoming the very first contestant on Ludicrously Niche Mastermind and very stupid jokes about going to the toilet in space. So grab your sonic screwdriver and order a pan-galactic gargle blaster cos where we're going we dont need roads. Because its a podcast. Obvs." 

It's currently being approved by the various podcast platforms but for now you can listen here. Or use the following RSS feed address:  

And if you want to play along at home like a real pub quiz, download the answer sheet here.

If you liked this pilot and want more, please do let me know on Twitter @BenBakerBooks or on the Facebook group of the same name. Use those too if you’d like to send me your ideas for a very narrowly-themed subject on the next Ludicrously Niche Mastermind. If I like it, you could be the next guest. Thanks to Phil Catterall for being the dummy run guest for this first episode and thanks to Sam Drury and Michael Watmough at the Exchange, Keighley for allowing me to put these quizzes in front of an audience each month and helping me make it a reality. My next live show – “A Wombling Merry Christmas (No Wombles)” – takes place on December 19th so if you’re in the area, come along for a night of nonsense, prizes and quiz.