The Ghosts Of TV Past: The Cultural Importance Of The Radio Times Christmas Issue

The complete cover collection for a century of festive entertainment guides reflects the changing tastes and concerns of the nation.

Tradition is a funny thing – it can pop up out of nowhere and become established within a relatively short period of time, by which point you mess with it at your peril. One such Christmas tradition has been the festive issue of your favourite TV guide, a format established back in the 1920s – before TV was even a thing – with the Radio Times. The arrival of the Christmas (and New Year) issue is now as much a part of Christmas as Mince Pies, disappointing Winter Wonderlands and The Wizard of Oz. Even if you don’t usually buy a TV guide, the Christmas edition of the Radio Times still seems an essential purchase.

Of course, the look and feel of the magazine have changed beyond recognition in the near century that it has been published. Like the posters promoting the London Underground over the years, the covers of the Christmas Radio Times provide a fascinating insight into changing times and with them, changing art styles.

What we have here is every single cover from 99 years of the festive number, equalling 102 covers because in 1954 there was one edition that covered 19-25 December and another that went from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day (the 14-day edition didn’t come along until 1969), and the 2009 and 2011 editions had two different covers, or a split run as we call it in the business.

So, going right back to the start in 1923, the first issue and its two successors are all about family and friends and conviviality; suddenly we lurch into modernism from 1926 to 1929 (and 1933 is a zinger). It’s possibly the Great Depression that robs the 1930 edition of its colour, but it’s back the following year. The 1930s are a curious mix of modernism, cosiness, a dash of religion (more on that later) and, then, at the end of the decade, a more austere look that tells us that war has come – 1939’s cover is especially stark. The war and the hard times that followed drain the covers of most of their joy and colour for several years – it’s not until 1957 that a Robin Redbreast gives us another dash of colour, which from then on is ever-present (but it’s just a spot colour until 1963 when, quite appropriately, it goes full colour).

In what seems an anarchic move – at least to the modern sub-editor’s eyes – some but not all of the first 13 years have a ‘The’ in front of ‘Radio Times’. Until 1936 the mag was just the times of radio shows – they had no television listings because there was no television (and then none during WW2). I rather admire them for stubbornly retaining the original name. I wonder if there was an editorial meeting sometime in the 1950s where they held a vote and it narrowly came out to not alter the name; by the time TV Times came along in 1955 they’d missed their chance.

Religion comes and goes on covers throughout the 20th century – 1934, 1941, 1942, 1950, 1958, 1960 (surely the most devout), 1961, 1962 and 1963 all do God’s work, and by the year in which sexual intercourse began there’s also abstract art, which over the Swinging decade becomes ever more psychedelic. Check out 1967 and 1968 – far out, man.

By the 1970s we’re into the era of photos of the biggest stars of the day. Sex criminal watchers may like to know Jimmy Savile makes it onto 1969’s cover, while Rolf Harris makes both 1969 and 1970. Light entertainment supremos The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise pop up a few times before being joyously paired on 1973’s cover. In contrast to the trippy images of the 1960s, these photos – printed on cheap paper and awash with 1970s browns – seem oddly muted and are arguably more dated than any of the other covers, so tied are they to the celebrities of the day.

The remaining years of the 1970s cannily reflect the waywardness of the era with a heady mix of religion and celebrity alongside quite clever compositions that reward studying; 1977 and 1979 are particularly skilfully conceived.

The 1980s are quite schizophrenic in that we get Only Fools And Horses (mildly criticised at the time for its images of drinking and smoking) and EastEnders photos next to the dutifully old fashioned artwork of 1987 and 1988 (an issue that sold more than 11 million copies). 1989 has the last photo to appear on the cover to date. I wonder where this young fella is now, and if he has this framed?

By 1990, better print technology had arrived – tech greatly influences the look of the covers down the years – and that year’s jolly painting positively shines. For a few years, cover choices get a little less ambitious, in that Santa, snowmen and Santa in the snow become increasingly common. Some people hated 1993’s toothless kid but I don’t mind it, it’s a bit different. 1994’s cover is an update of 1924’s – for the 2023 edition can we expect an updated version of 1923’s? Around the turn of the century, there were some bold choices – the cover for the millennium is pleasingly odd, 2000’s Harry Potter cover is audacious because it’s for a radio show, and 2001 to 2005 are quite offbeat, with 2005’s celebrating the triumphant return to the screens of Doctor Who and David Tennant’s debut tale The Christmas Invasion.

Doctor Who’s Daleks also pop up on one of the alternate covers of 2009 (the one I bought, naturally!), while Wallace and Gromit covers sit either side of it. Oddly (lazily?) both 2012 and 2013 feature exactly the same programme, The Snowman And The Snowdog – then it’s back again in 2018. The 2000s have seen a definite shift towards programme-specific covers rather than generic Christmas imagery though the magazine can still surprise.

When I thought about writing this piece I imagined I’d bemoan that the covers in recent years have been similar and vanilla and boring, but I now see that that’s not quite the case. The great Judith Kerr’s 2014 painting is characterful, Aardman Animations provide a lively 2015 cover, 2016’s We’re Going A Bear Hunt exclusive is sweet, and 2019’s reindeer cover is a million miles away from what you’d get on the other, highly commercialised, TV guides in the newsagent. I guess there’s a reason I own every Christmas Radio Times since 1982.

Although I was disappointed when I picked up the new issue last week because it was just another picture of Santa, I’m guessing in 50 years’ time someone might look at it and reckon it says something about our era. God knows what, because our era is bloody awful, but it will say something – it’s difficult to judge your era when you’re bang in the middle of it. £5.25 though, they’re taking the mick – the price is something that has most definitely changed over the years. 1923 to 1938’s were all 6d!

The cover lines, which tend to be limited, are also revealing. From 1991 to 2004 the word ‘film’ or ‘movie’ is on every cover, with the number of flicks climbing year by year in dizzying fashion – 500 in 1992, then 700, 800, 800+, 1,000, 1,750 and finally ‘over 2,000’ by 2004; hadn’t we all got DVD players by then? There’s a pause before 2014’s edition boasts of 4,500 films. Phew.

The magazine’s web address first appears on the cover in… can you guess? It’s 1999, and it stays there until 2013. It’s the little things like this that will matter to future historians, trust me.

From 2004 onwards the words “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” are on every cover, sometimes with an exclamation mark, sometimes not, possibly depending on how excited the editor was that year. “And a Happy New Year” will usually accompany it, except in those slightly irksome years when the listings don’t stretch to New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, like this year’s, something that definitely interferes with holiday-week viewing planning. (Calendar craziness can go the other way and in some years we get to very unfestive dates – in 1982 it goes up to January 7!) You do wish they could be a little more imaginative with the greeting; 2000’s “Harry Christmas” was a nice one – let’s have more of that.

“It’s the legendary double issue!” has also appeared virtually every year since 2014. Again, why not try something different? And if it’s you saying you’re ‘legendary’, does that count? Every edition since 2005 has advertised a free gift on the cover, another sign of the times.

1991, which quirkily showed Santa reading a copy of the magazine with the same image of him on it, was the first to feature not just the BBC’s listings, but ITV, Channel 4 and satellite, following the deregulation of TV and TV listings. Most of the remainder of 1990s covers proudly proclaimed the range of channels. In the late 1990s I actually worked at one of the Radio Times’ rivals, TV & Satellite Week, including on two Christmas issues, though I freely admit they weren’t as good as the Radio Times’.

One thing about the Radio Times Christmas editions of yore is that they showcase how unified Britain was back then, a near mono-cultural country with programmes that many millions experienced together. There’s no better illustration of this than the 1974 edition with Michael Crawford on it, which has text that reads: “All the holiday programme details inside with special stars like Petula Clark, Harry Secombe, Shirley Bassey, Elton John, Cilla Black, Mike Yarwood, Dick Emery, Bruce Forsyth, John Conteh, The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son, Corbett and Barker, and, of course, Michael Crawford.” Ooh, a nice bit of diversity there, 2021 types, and also a list of genuine household names known and – largely – loved up and down the land.

My favourite covers? I like the second 1954 one with Father Christmas and Father Time shaking hands; I find the 1943 one with the WW2 soldier moving; I love that they could publish a cover like 1928’s wildly modernist one; I have a strange affection for 1980’s Ladybird book-like picture of children looking out the window perhaps for Santa on Christmas Eve, maybe because that’s what I was likely doing that very night; but maybe I’d plump for the very first one, which is the definition of both nostalgia and a cosy Christmas. Tomorrow I’ll have a different one, though.

In a way, they all have value, even the latest one. But let’s hope for a bit more imagination in years to come. Let’s have some innovative thinking. I wouldn’t think that religion would come back, but who knows? We live in crazy, shifting times. Whatever, the Christmas Radio Times feels like a reassuring totem of tradition, and that’s worth something.


Help support The Reprobate:


One comment

Comments are closed.