New Year’s Eve: a broadcast history

Celebrate new years past with our whistle-stop tour of the annual knees-up on TV down the years

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The television archives reveal a lot about our national celebrations. Over the decades, New Year’s Eve has grown in scale from a modest glass of sherry at midnight to the chimes of Big Ben, into a countrywide boozathon with Jools Holland leading the annual knees-up on BBC2.

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So turning back the clock, what was happening on the box on New Year’s Eves past?

New Year’s Eve 1923
The original and most constant broadcast “voice” of new year has to be Big Ben. On 31 December 1923, enterprising BBC engineer AG Dryland clambered onto a rooftop opposite the Houses of Parliament and recorded the clock’s famous chimes for the radio. Since then, technology – and, thankfully, BBC access – has improved and the bongs get their moment in the new year schedules via a microphone installed in the tower and connected to Broadcasting House.

New Year’s Eve 1945

Television had been off air since the start of the Second World War in September 1939, not to return until June 1946. So peacetime revellers had two options; either tune the wireless to Big Ben followed by Auld Lang Syne and a toast to the King on the Home Service, or eavesdrop on the fun at Hammersmith’s Palais de Danse, where Lou Preager and his chart-topping orchestra, The Skyrockets, were giving it up for The Light Programme.

New Year’s Eve 1960
Three years earlier, in 1957, the BBC had invited viewers to join its celebrations from the restaurant overlooking the runway at London airport. Too exciting perhaps? But from 1960 until 1968, celebrations moved north of the border. 

The venue is The White Heather Club, Glasgow, where Andy Stewart shows the Sassenachs how it’s done, while men in kilts and lasses in below-the-knee skirts sing Auld Lang Syne with the correct harmonies. It may be the Swinging Sixties but the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band are keeping Hogmanay strictly traditional.

New Year’s Eve 1971

Camping it up on BBC1, Frankie Howerd gets star billing for the channel’s Top of the Year show, although he doesn’t sashay onto the screen until well after midnight. Instead, the Variety Club Awards hosted by Michael Aspel occupies the last hours of 1970, with delighted celebrities queuing up for prizes. BBC2, as ever the sober sibling, offers a classic film, The Manchurian Candidate. Not too many laughs there, then.

New Year’s Eve 1981
It’s a night of compilation shows, with Barry Took covering the year’s highlights in Pick of 81, followed by 81 Take 2, in which Robbie Coltrane, Celia Imrie and Rik Mayall cover the same territory but with jokes. The cameras stray briefly to Trafalgar Square for ten minutes of boisterous crowds plus Big Ben at midnight.

Finally, driving home the night’s numerical theme, Hi There 82 promises a party atmosphere, featuring Danny La Rue and the Hi-De-Hi! team. Yet more highlights on BBC2 with the Old Grey Whistle Test’s Pick of the Year, featuring the Skids, Teardrop Explodes, Adam and the Ants and The Smiths.

New Year’s Eve 1991

High-kicking women in feather headgear and men in white waiter’s outfits dance their way un-ironically through Clive James’s otherwise satirical look back over the year on BBC1. The ratings were obviously good, with James returning for New Year ’92, ’93 and ’94 in what, for a moment, looked like being the start of a tradition.

Defeated by the prospect of such sparkling competition, BBC2 and ITV schedule some movies, while Channel 4 goes off-road with a live broadcast from Moscow.

New Year’s Eve 1995
Clive James has been replaced by suave, scandal-free Have I Got News for You host, Angus Deayton, on BBC1. It’s The End of the Year Show and Angus delivers the gags from within a studio re-creation of Big Ben. Meanwhile, on BBC2, Jools Holland seems to have finally cracked the nut of a regular new year appointment to view with his Hootenanny, then in its third year and featuring Eric Clapton, Supergrass and Alanis Morissette. Not to be outdone, Channel 4 offers its own music show, The White Room, with Oasis, David Bowie and PM Dawn taking on Jools for the home-from-the-pub crowd.

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New Year’s Eve 2001
Angus Deayton’s still there but avoids the late-evening marathon by opting for a seasonal edition of Have I Got News for You at 10:30pm. Jonathan Ross is assigned the task of hosting The New Year’s Eve Party, which is a now-familiar format of clips and quips about the year gone by. A modest hour in length, the up-to-the-minute fun is followed, curiously, by Are You Being Served?, the movie, from 1997. Jools is looking every bit the heavyweight on BBC2 with his Hootenanny running to an hour and a half and bursting with top-class acts, while Channel 4 says a cheery goodbye to 2001 with a screening of The Wicker Man.