Page last updated at 07:35 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

1978 - Christmas in Crossfire


Boys in a Belfast shop admiing an action man toy - 1978
Toy shops were swamped in the run up to Christmas

It was the year the first Superman film was released and John Travolta popped on his platforms in Grease.

Across the UK and Ireland pop culture played itself out from vinyl LPs and people watched Father Abraham and the Smurfs on the Top of the Pops Christmas Special, hosted by Noel Edmonds.

Thirty years on and Travolta and Edmonds are still high-flying entertainment figures, and just like in 1978 there is a Labour government trying to deal with economic doldrums.

Back in the day in Jamaica the One Love Peace Concert saw Bob Marley unite two opposing political leaders, bringing peace to the civil war-ridden streets of Kingston.

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In Belfast, the Troubles were in full flow but there was the hope of progress.

On 15 February, the SDLP's John Hume proposed a third option for the Irish question - an "agreed Ireland" with the British government bringing the main traditions together in reconciliation and agreement.

Two days later 12 Protestants, attending the annual dinner dance of the Irish Collie Club, were killed when the IRA blew up the La Mon House Hotel.

Belfast's Black Santa in 1978

Later that year David Cooke of the Alliance Party became the first non-unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast - this year Sinn Fein's Tom Hartley was the city's first citizen.

Away from the politics people lived their lives, as always.

Crossfire was not just a Troubles term, but the name of a popular game - nightmarishly noisy it sent ball bearings rattling down plastic gun launchers to clatter into plastic backboards in a table-top version of air hockey.

There were hints of things to come, with the Atari video game which saw blocky graphics as a gripping substitute for tennis.

Belfast search control 1978
Shoppers had to open their bags in a bid to stop the bombers

The ZX Spectrum, never mind the Wii, was a long way away, but a world where consoles would displace more traditional games was beckoning.

However, judging by the 1978 newspaper toy ads, most children were hankering after Action Man, Star Wars figures Sindy dolls and Raleigh pushbikes.

On television the Good Life, Sweeny and Opportunity Knocks were high in the listings, and Scene Around Six was providing local BBC News.

There was shock in the papers though, when in November anchor Barry Cowan threatened to defect to the rival UTV programme Good Evening Ulster, hosted by Gloria Hunniford, unless his contract was improved.

But children were more interested in cartoon Battle of the Planets and Rentaghost, and with the arrival of Grange Hill would also have a bit of realistic drama of their own.

A living present was much more popular back then. There are fewer puppies left under the tree nowadays, with the Dogs Trust noting that fewer than 1.8% of dog owners receiving their dog as a gift instead of 20% back in 1978.

Inflation was just under 10%, milk cost 11p a pint, the average house price was 13,820 and 58p would buy a pack of 20 cigarettes.

1978 Stewarts newspaper advert
Stewarts was later taken over by Tesco

The local supermarket business was dominated by the mighty Stewarts chain, where a can of Smithwicks would cost 22p and turkey was 49p per lb - French wines started at 1.29.

The Crossfire game cost 7.50 and a Bionic Woman doll had been knocked down to 5.95 from 6.99.

Most shops were still on high streets, but the opening of the Abbeycentre in Newtownabbey saw the trend for out of town shopping malls continue to grow.

To buy their presents in Belfast, and many provincial town centres, shoppers had to go through security gates and be searched before heading to department stores.

Those gates have gone now, but so have many of the shops as well, the Aladin's cave of Leisureworld closed in 1998 the same decade that saw the city centre Anderson and McAuley department store close its doors.

Stewarts/Crazy Prices was taken over by Tesco in 1997. Just before the Tesco takeover, it was the sixth biggest employer in Northern Ireland.

Some 1970s traditions remain, however, with the Black Santa's annual sit out for charity at St Anne's Cathedral remaining.

It began with Dean Samuel Crooks in 1976. In an interview with the BBC in 1978 he said that he was hoping to top 3,500. In 2008 his successor, Dean Houston McKelvey, was heading towards a total in excess of 150,000.

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