Yes, it’s the most Christmassy video ever – a hefty extract from the BBC’s Christmas Eve With Val Doonican from 1987, featuring the parrot-favouring cardigan-clad crooner performing On The Way To Bethlehem with the aid of St Philip’s Choir and internationally renowned recorder-ist Michala Petri.
There are many, many reasons why this is so fantastic. It’s a YouTubey era-straddling door into the twin lost worlds of quasi-surreal big budget Light Entertainment and the Golden Age Of Television that was the studio-bound mid-eighties BBC; it showcases one of the most likeable personalities in showbiz; it features a young lady who, to viewers of a certain age, is mentally filed alongside Sophie Aldred, Letitia Dean, Caron Keating, and Vanessa Amberleigh Off Of The Patch Stop From Playbus in the great pantheon of unwitting inspirers of unwholesome adolescent thoughts; and best of all it’s built around an uber-Festive rendition of one of the most joyfully soaring Christmas songs of them all.
And, as a bit of a special Christmas Bonus, here are a handful of Andrew Pixley-styled ‘Did You Know…?’ background facts…!:
- Christmas Eve With Val Doonican was broadcast between 22:39pm and 23:27pm precisely on 24th December 1987, between a News bulletin read by Moira Stuart, and The First Communion Of Christmas, broadcast live from Moreton Methodist Church, Wirral.
- The show’s designer John Asbridge was something of a cornerstone of studio-bound mid-eighties Golden Age-Era BBC Television, his other credits including work on such fondly remembered shows as Galloping Galaxies!, Hokey Cokey, Eureka and – yes! – Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who.
- Michala Petri first performed on the BBC as a soloist on a Radio 3 concert recital at the tender age of eighteen. Her ludicrously extensive discography includes something called Piece En Forme De Hanbabera, which is probably not a classical arrangement of that boing-laden hoedown from the end credits of Captain Caveman; Los Angeles Street Concerto, which includes a section entitled Nele’s Dances (IDEANTSF!!); the album Scandanavian Moods which boasts such demented titles as A Crow Was Perched High Up A Tree, Theme From ‘Midsommarvaka’, and Paul Let His Hen Flutter In The Garden. She also later recorded a Christmas album in cahoots with Westminster Abbey Choir, and in 1989 showed up on Jim’ll Fix It, alongside the unlikely pairing of Geoff Capes and Kylie Minogue.
- Fellow Doonican-duetter and erstwhile Dallas star Howard Keel appears to have flown out especially for the taping of this show, although he did take the opportunity of this BBC stopover to guest on an edition of daytime ‘viewer feedback’ show Open Air, where the main topic of conversation appeared to be darts coverage.
- On The Way To Bethlehem, more officially known as Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, was written by composer John Rutter in 1967 when he was still at school. It is better than all homework anyone else has done ever.
- With the regular Music Show having ground to a halt in 1986, this was effectively Val Doonican’s last major appearance on the BBC. His next project was straight up travelogue Val Doonican’s Homeward Bound in 1989, after which he quietly retired from the small screen. More interestingly, he appeared on several editions of Play School in 1972, reading stories to the accompaniment of the famed ‘black background’-reliant Playboard Puppets.
- Other notable programmes seen on BBC Television on 24th December 1987 included the last ever Festive Edition of Play School, presented by Elizabeth Watts; the climactic episode of a repeat run of Benji Zax & The Alien Prince; the Going For Gold semi-finals that finally saw smug glasses-wearing smartarse Stefan Dias deservedly eliminated from the contest; The Lenny Henry Christmas Special, which saw Robbie Coltrane and Terence Trent D’Arby help out with a parody of The Rock’n’Roll Years; and the Jimbo And The Jet Set Christmas Special, Jinglebells Jimbo. Over on Radio 1, Jonathan Ross was rifling through his My Top Ten whilst Tom ‘Lofty’ Watt showcased his ‘Aternative Christmas’. Meanwhile, Radio 4 was deep in the throes of the season of Christmas Hancock repeats that so enraged Victor Lewis-Smith on that year’s Loose Ends Christmas Special.
- ITV on the other hand offered A Child’s Christmas In Wales, sadly based on Dylan Thomas’ literary masterwork rather than the John Cale song; episodes of Santa Barbara and The Sullivans; Christmas Specials of Sporting Triangles and Blockbusters; enough Disney films to constitute a contravention of the Health & Safety Act; and, opposite Christmas Eve With Val Doonican, A Duty Free Christmas. I’ll take the one with the singing, thanks. Conspicuous by its absence from the listings, however, was Hardwicke House. Channel 4, on the other hand, seemed to self-parodically devote most of its schedules to award-winning Czechoslovakian animations, though there was still room for repeats of The Comic Strip Presents… Consuela, and Jon Pertwee-headed drama-documentary-satire oddity The Curious Case Of Santa Claus.
- According to the Radio Times, ‘Sky’ also appeared on this show; whether this was the prog-classical supergroup headed by John Williams or the mid-seventies HTV sci-fi serial starring some kid in an ill-fitting wig that everyone had started bizarrely raving about in 1987 for no readily obvious reason is sadly not clear.
- St Philip’s Choir’s 1988 album Sing For Ever! now fetches ridiculous amounts on eBay, despite being largely devoid of moogs, funks, and indeed breaks. Curiously less in demand, however, is their contemporaneous single combining covers of Orinoco Flow and Always There (Theme From Howard’s Way). The choir’s star performer, Jaymi Bantok, is inexplicably absent from this performance. Though the reasons for this are not known to us, his possible whereabouts on the recording date are furiously debated in the ‘comments’ underneath this YouTube video.
- “What kind of flute play the woman????”, asks ‘carlosaeiou’ on YouTube… we’re pleased to be able to confirm it is a Piccolo Recorder!