If you watch television then you probably love an outtake. The same is true if you are involved in television production. 40 years after the first BBC Christmas tape, BBC Four uncovers the story of the clips never meant for broadcast. For lucky viewers it provides half an hour of laugh out loud moments.

Firstly, some context. Programmes made in BBC Television Centre in London saw all the recorded material sent down to the VT Department, situated beneath the circular courtyard. Here they would edit together shows from drama and light entertainment to comedy and sports coverage. Carefully, a programme was pieced together to deliver a polished product ready for broadcast. However this meant that not only did the VT editors see the final takes to be used, they also got all the slip-ups. All of those times an actor forgot a line. Animals in studio not behaving as the presenter might’ve hoped. On camera slips, trips and falls.


These clips would be held back by a young VT engineer called Grant Watkins who had the idea of saving all the funniest outtakes and cutting them together to amuse fellow staff. Then at the BBC staff Christmas party in 1978 the Christmas tape was shown for those in attendance. So popular was the BBC Christmas Tape that another was made for the following year. A tradition had been born. Play School presenter Carol Chell’s performance as a table dripping with sticky goo from the 1979 BBC Christmas Tape is a bizarre experience to watch in 2018. As the popularity grew, special sketches and appearances were arranged just for the tape.

Unfortunately, word of the first tape reached the press. The re-edited interview with Princess Anne made the front page of The Sunday People newspaper. At various other times the practice of constructing these tapes was clamped down upon by senior BBC staff. Objections were made over how much time a BBC employee was spending to non-broadcast material. Similarly, the rise of the home video recorder and video piracy saw this material released into the public domain. However, the BBC Christmas Tapes would inspire shows like Not The Nine O’Clock News and Auntie’s Bloomers. Noel Edmonds, host of the Saturday night TV series The Late Late Breakfast Show, awarded Golden Eggs in exchange for showing bloopers to delighted audiences.

BBC Christmas Tapes – Chris Wadsworth (c) BBC

Actors and Doctors

From David Jason and the Two Ronnies to movie stars Judie Dench, Bob Hoskins and the War Doctor himself John Hurt, many high profile names make appearances. Of course, Doctor Who is also well represented. Some may have seen the footage of Tom Baker being less than kind to K9 before. Somehow however it seems even funnier to watch it broadcast as a part of an official broadcast from the BBC. I don’t think I had seen the clip of Mary Tamm from ‘The Androids of Tara‘ before so that was amusing. There is also a clip of a Dalek saying “b*llocks” which also tickled me.

There is also a rather surprising use of the Davros prop in a sketch aimed at BBC Director General John Birt. This reflects the move towards a critique of BBC management that was seen by the tapes during the 1990’s. The last tape was made in 1998, with the VT department finally shut down in 2013 when BBC Television Centre was sold off and redeveloped.


In addition to the hilarious archive clips, the programme includes interviews with original BBC Christmas Tape editors Dave Rixon and Chris Wadsworth who explain how it all happened. Stars who featured in the tapes such as Angela Rippon, Bill Oddie, Sarah Greene and Phillip Schofield also discuss the impact of the Christmas Tapes. Original master copies have been sourced to present the archive clips in high quality, with many clips being broadcast uncensored for the first time.

The popularity of outtakes remains intact. It is impossible not to laugh at presenters and well respected actors messing up. Refreshingly the coarse language is not beeped but presented uncensored. Although half an hour doesn’t seem long enough to fully explore the impact of the BBC Christmas Tapes, all bases are covered. Being of a certain age will probably help as younger viewers may not recognise actors such as Leonard Rossiter or even Michael Crawford. As Doctor Who fans seeing Tom Baker behind the scenes is particularly glorious. For fans of late 70’s and 80’s BBC television this programme is essential watching over the festive period.

The Secret Story of the BBC Christmas Tapes is available to watch now on the BBC iPlayer. Discretion is advised however as the programme contains very strong language.


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