thu 26/04/2018

The Christmas No 1 Story, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Christmas No 1 Story, BBC Two

The Christmas No 1 Story, BBC Two

Documentary looks back over 60 years of festive chart-toppers

The Military Wives' Choir topped the Christmas charts last year

Of all the festive institutions, the Christmas No 1 holds a special place in my heart. I was one of those kids who, over the month of December, would carefully plot which CD single I’d be pledging my allegiance to (usually not the ultimate winner, apart from that one year Gary Jules’s cover of “Mad World”, from the Donnie Darko soundtrack, fluked it). I’d then make sure I was in front of the television in time for Top of the Pops, while my Grandad would complain that these new songs were all just noise and at least the Beatles had tunes.

He might have had a point: as The Christmas No. 1 Story showed, the lovable Liverpudlian lads scored three of the chart’s most coveted titles in a row in the 1960s - a feat repeated by the Spice Girls in the late 1990s. The documentary charted, if you’ll pardon the pun, the role that the festive bestseller has played in reflecting the tastes - or lack of - of a nation over 60 years of chart history, through glam rock novelty songs and charitable chartbusters to the reality TV-dominated doldrums of latter years. With the X Factor winner’s single losing out on the no 1 spot twice since 2009, thanks to a coordinated social media campaign that year and the tearjerking Military Wives in 2011, it also pondered whether that very British institution was back.

A nation enthralled by new wave cool still chose Renee and Renato over the alternatives

Jason Donovan, who together with Kylie Minogue lost out on the coveted chart position to Cliff Richard’s festive epic “Mistletoe and Wine” in 1988, certainly thinks so. “These novelty songs don’t happen in the US or Australia,” he said. People “forget who they are” at Christmastime, he explained, without a trace of bitterness despite the words, even if they wouldn’t listen to Sir Cliff at any other time of year.

Still from Mud's "Lonely This Christmas" videoThe last 10 years excepted, there has always been a dash of the unpredictable about the Christmas pop charts. Take That were the biggest boy band in the world when a guy in a big pink foam suit famous from Saturday night television beat them to the top of the charts, while a UK enthralled by new wave cool still chose Renee and Renato’s cheesy “Save Your Love” over the alternatives in 1982. As the King of Christmas himself, Sir Cliff, pointed out, more records are (or were, I suppose) bought between October and December than at any other time of the year.

With the growth of television in the home, and families sitting down together to watch Top of the Pops after the Queen’s Speech, the 1970s came across as the heyday of the Christmas No 1. It was the decade that brought the first chart "battle", between Slade and Wizzard, and the lead singer of Mud (pictured above right) - dubbed “Surrey’s answer to Slade” by the programme - serenading a ventriloquist’s dummy in a shower of fake indoor snow on primetime television. Of course, that wasn’t the creepiest thing on the national chart show in those days, but amongst the tastefully edited archive footage it probably took the prize for this particular hour of television.

As well as the usual array of talking heads (Tony Blackburn, Edith Bowman, telly vicar Reverend Richard Coles and that one out of Stock Aiken and Waterman that was on Pop Idol) the programme took to the street to ask festive shoppers for their views on the songs of the day. The director was sadly unable to find anybody who would admit to purchasing the Mr Blobby song, but plenty got misty-eyed over Johnny Mathis and East 17. Stars including Alexandra Burke, Midge Ure and Rolf Harris also provided some background to their hits and shared how it felt to score the year’s most prestigious chart position.

Many of these songs have been overplayed to the point of musical wallpaper over the years, but there were still a few interesting snippets to take from the programme. Maizie Williams of disco giants Boney M spoke of keeping warm with big fur coats and vodka when the band were invited to film a video in communist Russia, while Shakin’ Stevens admitted to delaying the release of his 1985 hit “Merry Christmas Everyone” because he knew he couldn’t compete with Band Aid.

This year sees the Justice Collective’s Hillsborough charity single “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” favourite to take the title. Take a listen below.


So where is the info on the BBC special? I just checked the iPlayer and it's not listed.

It's there. I've added a link in the right-hand column.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters