100 years of Radio Times: Celebrating a century of Christmas covers

By Lindsay Crook

There aren’t many magazine publications that can claim they are 100 years old, but the Radio Times achieved this incredible milestone in 2023.  The Keep holds an extensive collection of the periodical – the world’s first ever broadcast listing guide – donated by the wife of Christopher Griffin-Beale in 2006, spanning 36 years from 1953 to 1989. This compliments our holdings dating from 1990 which can be found in the journals section of the North Basement in the main Library.

A Christmas Radio Times cover from December 1991. A large picture of Santa Claus' face is visible along with details about the magazine contents in text overlay.
Christmas Radio Times 21 December 1991 Issue

The Christmas issue of the Radio Times has become somewhat of a British institution over the past century and the contents reveal a fascinating insight into our changing popular culture. I began my own collection at the age of 13 when there were only four TV channels to choose from, unless of course you were lucky enough to have satellite television. Internet wasn’t freely available to the public, streaming of films and programmes was unheard of and VHS was still a luxury; so it wasn’t unusual for terrestrial TV audience figures to reach several million in one sitting (the 1986 Christmas Day episode of EastEnders drew a record 30 million viewers).  December was the only time of year my parents bought a TV guide, so it became a traditional purchase in the annual Christmas supermarket shop alongside the shortbread biscuits and chocolate coins, signalling the start of the festive season.

What do I love about collecting the Christmas Radio Times? Well there’s something very special about the covers and I look forward each year to seeing what design the editorial team have opted for.

A Christmas Radio Times cover from December 1923. An image of a well-dressed English family on the cover.
The Radio Times issue 13, when it sold 6 pence, in 1923

If we reverse back to December 1923, issue number 13 of the Radio Times (available to read on the BBC Programme Index) was a bit different to the previous ones that had been on sale since the first edition was launched in September of that year.  Rather than the usual black and white newspaper-style cover, there is instead a glorious colour illustration of a smartly dressed family sitting by the fire listening to Love’s Old Sweet Song/Just a Song at Twilight on the wireless.  This type of cover was a first for the Radio Times – in fact colour illustrations were kept only for special occasions, such as Christmas, right up until 1967 when television itself started to move away from the black and white TV era.

100 years ago the Christmas issue cost six pence, 2½p in today’s money. There is an advert for Women’s Hour on the inside cover – a radio programme still going strong to this day – whilst the contents include a mixture of wireless listings for the week ahead, articles on yuletide customs and traditions, short stories, fun activities for children, features on broadcasters of the day, letters from listeners, amusing illustrations and advertisements for products such as the Hornby trainset, Wright’s coal bar soap, Swan “fountpens” and of course the latest in radio gadgets. Britain’s first national radio broadcasting service had only been launched by the BBC a year earlier, so radio was very much in its infancy – although one cartoon on page 9 of the Christmas issue predicts: As soon as we get those combined “looking” and “listening” sets, it will be a distinct advantage

A Christmas Radio Times during the second world war. A large black and white picture of a soldier on the cover.
A wartime issue of Radio Times reverting back to black and white with much reduced content.

With the introduction of regular television broadcasts in 1936, the listings were expanded accordingly. This was short-lived, however, because by 1939 television was taken off air again due to the on-set of World War II and remained so until 1946 when the war ended. Remarkably, the Radio Times stayed in production during the war, but the black and white Christmas illustrations and reduced content very much reflected the mood of the time.

Colour was reintroduced to the festive covers in 1957, three years after rationing ended. In the decades that follow, we have seen a mixture of traditional and contemporary festive illustrations, religious images and celebrities of the day adorn the cover of the magazine that for many years has been dubbed “the legendary double issue”. We’ve also seen the price rise to a whopping £5.50! 

My own collection of Christmas issues depict as many as 12 different versions of Father Christmas, five styles of snowmen, various Raymond Briggs characters, Doctor Who, Harry Potter and more traditional illustrations such as angels, robins and holly wreaths. This year I was convinced the editorial team would take the opportunity to recreate the 1923 issue, but instead it is Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat – another favourite character from my childhood – who claims the top spot, to celebrate an animated Christmas special on Channel 4.

Festive illustration of 1959 Radio Times.
Left to right: Festive illustration of 1959.
A Radio Times issue with the Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise were the cover stars of 1973.
The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise were the cover stars of 1973.
Two issues of the Radio Times which were released in 2009 to celebrate Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing.
Two issues were released in 2009 to celebrate Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing.
The Radio Times 1994 is a re-design of the 1924 issue. It features a white family smiling on the cover.
Left: My favourite cover is from 1994 and is a re-design of the 1924 issue.

These days, with a wealth of different channels to choose from and on-demand streaming available from a multitude of devices, the magic of opening the Christmas issue of Radio Times doesn’t quite have the same sparkle as it used to, but that doesn’t dissuade from those heart-warming festive covers that peer out at me from the shelf at the newsagents each December. My ultimate dream would be to design the cover myself one year – now that would be a Christmas to remember!

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