Eavesdropping on Christmas Eve, 1968

By Esther Gill, Hub Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Let’s go back 52 years to 1968 and to preparations for Christmas in Brighton. It is Christmas Eve and local radio station BBC Radio Brighton is out on the streets talking to traders and last-minute shoppers, chefs, police officers and taxi drivers about Christmas.  

The station’s reporters record the life and energy of the town as it moves towards the Christmas shutdown, and talk to those who are closing up and others who are getting ready to work over the festive period. Mr Worthington, the general manager of Plummer Roddis1 department store on Western Road, has closed the doors and now stands in an eerily empty shop reflecting on how business has gone. There has been a large volume of sales in December 1968, but with a focus on practical items: more people in the shop, but spending less. The top sellers for ‘the ladies’ are: jersey knitwear, housecoats, calf length boots and ‘wigs, wigs and more wigs’ (cue a dated joke about not knowing whether you are kissing a blonde or brunette!).

In Sydney Street at the poultry centre stallholders are calling out the prices for their final turkeys and chickens. Prices have tumbled since they opened at 6.30am; the market has sold thousands of birds, but pork seems to be proving popular in 1968.  

[UTK006/14-15 Extract from Newsdesk, 24.12.68]

A dairy farmer from Lewes talks about his Christmas day appointment with the milk lorry and how his work goes on as usual, starting at 4.30am. Meanwhile, at the Metropole Hotel, plans are in place for entertainment and food across the Christmas period, for the 300 booked guests. Events include a dinner dance, carol recital, cocktails with the general manager, a children’s party, Yuletide buffet and ball, bingo on Boxing Day, a disco, a screening of Can-can staring Frank Sinatra, a car treasure hunt and the casino. Chef Camille Frison recounts the huge amount of food that will be prepared for the ‘special Christmas lunch and the special buffet’, including: melon, fried Dover sole, traditional turkey with chestnut stuffing, cranberry sauce, pomme chateau and sprouts, and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, mince pies, buche de Noelle and Charlotte glace opera. 

Mrs Collier illustrates the turn against turkey this year,confirming that she and husband are going to have pork instead. She remembers Christmases from her childhood in a family of eight children, but feels that younger people have ‘lost the true spirit of Christmas, with too much fun and jollity without a focus on the real meaning of Christmas’.  

At the police station, Chief Superintendent William Rostrum and two officers reassure us that anybody arrested on Christmas Day will still get a festive meal and reflect that Christmas Day is ‘just another working day’. And outside a noisy railway station, the taxi drivers are getting ready for one of the busiest evenings of the year, as shoppers finish off and people fall out parties heading for home.  

Queens Road, Brighton, 1968. c. Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust

Radio Brighton’s reporting of Christmas Eve in 1968 marks the station’s first Christmas as it only came on air in February 1968 with a commitment to truly local broadcasting. With six reporters on the streets of the town and out on the farm, the report captures the bustle and the race to finish off preparations as the deadline of Christmas Day comes towards us. We hear a range of voices and sounds from busy streets, the shops, the Metropole kitchen and outside the station. Many of the themes of the reporting seem familiar: nostalgia for Christmas past, the centrality of the Christmas meal, a sense of people having less money to spend. But the passage of 52 years slips in when you realise that not one working woman was interviewed (despite both police officers commenting that their wives worked at the station); the Plummer Roddis department store was closing for three full days, opening again on the 28th December; and the existence of an active poultry market on Sydney Street, Brighton, now seems very unlikely among the coffee shops, bonsai shop, vintage clothes stalls and vegan food sellers. 

Happy Christmas from 1968 and 2020.  

The Radio Brighton recordings (UTK006) are a Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust collection. The recordings are being digitised as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at The Keep and will be preserved at the British Library. Information on the recordings can be found on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue under the reference UTK006.

  1. Plummer Roddis was taken over by Debenhams in the early 1970s. As I write, Debenhams itself is closing down, ending a long history on the high street.

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