“Contains violence, swearing and sex scenes.”
1998 saw ITV make similar mistakes to before, but the early evening was the best for absolutely ages.
From 6am, GMTV offered up the usual kid’s stuff, then from 8am a special show with Jane Asher cooking, some carols and an update on the Get Up And Give appeal. At 9.25am it was time for another attempt at making interesting religious television, as Judi Dench narrated a Christmas story performed by disabled and able-bodied children in the familiarly-titled On Christmas Day in the Morning. Children’s ITV made its debut on Christmas Day afterwards, the service had been relaunched earlier in the year with new presenters Stephen Mulhern and Danielle Nicholls, and they made an appearance to introduce a special edition of Sooty & Co, adding some much-needed entertainment to the day. Then, unfortunately, the heart went out of the schedule with a triple bill of repeats - Percy the Park Keeper, first shown on this day two years ago, then a further animation, then The Willows in Winter, the sequel to 1995’s The Wind in the Willows animation, again two years old. This meant three of the past five ITV Christmas Days included animations featuring Mole, Toad et al – another great Christmas for the Kenneth Grahame estate, then. After a surprisingly long news bulletin (15 minutes), it was another Spice Girls concert, only this year with one less member and a little closer to home, at Wembley. Rotten scheduling, though, meant that they were also appearing on Top of the Popsat the same time on BBC1.
Over at the Beeb they kicked off again at 6am with the usual burst of cartoons, at least one of which (PJ’s Unfunnybunny Christmas) had gone out on most of the Christmas Days that decade. At 10am Deborah McAndrew invited us to Celebrate Christmas, the usual religion-based entertainment, although this year seemingly coming from a studio – perhaps they couldn’t book anywhere. A decent guest list including Lesley Garrett, Charlotte Church and Ladysmith Black Mambazo made up for the lack of locations. At 11am it was time for the family movie, and the premiere of Miracle on 34th Street, the Christmas fantasy starring Richard Attenbrough made for appropriate, if a little sugary, programming. Top of the Popsfollowed at 12.50pm, Jayne Middlemiss was joined by Jamie Theakston and Kate Thornton to run down the hits of the year. At 1.55pm the BBC were able to combine the lunchtime classic comedy and Morecambe and Wise, by screening Eric ‘n’ Ern’s 1973 special in time for Christmas lunch.
Then ITV entered the traditionally ropey early afternoon, with Suggs introducing Disney Time at 3.10pm – the programme was normally a BBC fixture, which always seemed a bit odd as ITV had the rights to most other Disney material. Now ITV had it at last, but considering it was quite an old-fashioned concept (it had stopped being a part of BBC1’s Christmas Day some 25 years before), it seemed bizarre for ITV to place it in such a strong slot – but no, an hour of clips from the likes of Dumbo and The Jungle Book was part of TV’s biggest day. This was followed at 4.10pm by Jack and the Beanstalk, a pantomime with an all-star cast, written by sitcom writer Simon Nye (whose Men Behaving Badly had topped the ratings the previous year), and recorded in a theatre in front of an audience. The cast was very strong, with stars such as Neil Morrisey, Denise Van Outen and Paul Merton appealing to all ages, but it didn’t really work – possibly because it was on too early, again at a time when people can’t concentrate on TV. Indeed, the following year, another pantomime from the same team (this time, Cinderella) was broadcast at 6pm on a Sunday, and was much more well-received. The panto now seems to be an ITV festive fixture.
From 6pm, ITV cranked it up and delivered an impressive looking schedule. Both Emmerdaleand Coronation Street received hour-long episodes, but while they could both guarantee figures of over 10 million, it did mean that non-soap fans (fathers, children) had to look elsewhere, andEmmerdale was still not in the same league as Corrie or EastEnders. You’ve Been Framedwas at 8pm, surprisingly on Christmas Day for the first time ever, despite it being a hit series for most of the decade. This was followed by Who Wants to be a Millionaire – its first seasonal special after the first series that September. Oddly, though, it didn’t make it into the Top 10, possibly as it was a one-off, so there was no outstanding contestant from a previous episode to pull people in, nor the chance of any roll-overs into another episode creating tension. Or maybe it just didn’t get a loyal following until people started winning really big money in the second series.
All this good work, though, was ruined by ITV totally misjudging the late audience withChristmasses from Hell at 9.30pm – a grammatically-suspect hour of disastrous festive seasons captured on video. It didn’t take a genius to figure that the last thing you want to watch on Christmas Day is people having a really crap time. This was followed by a bizarre film choice - The Godfather Part II was a classic, but very old, and hardly a mainstream choice. It was also so long that viewers would have to stay up to 2.20am to see the end.
BBC1, therefore, had little to fear in the late evening, but it was closer than usual early on. Edmonds was still thought worthy of the 3.10pm slot, then we had Animal Hospital on perhaps rather too early, or perhaps the programme was running out of steam, as it failed to make the top 10. This was followed at 4.45pm by another animation, The First Snow of Winter. The adventures of a young duck, this was no doubt charming, but one suspects that most kids would rather have seen Wallace and Gromit.
A new idea tried this year was a double header of EastEnders topping and tailing the pre-watershed schedule, so as well as the 8.30pm episode, by now a Christmas Day fixture, a further episode was scheduled at 5.25pm, no doubt trying to hook in viewers early and keep them there for the rest of the evening. This was probably a better bet than relying on an oddly weak looking schedule at that time on BBC1 - Auntie’s Bloomers there as always, followed by, of all things, Changing Rooms. This seems very unusual for Christmas Day, as although it’s a popular series, was the audience really there for DIY tips on that day? The festive edition didn’t go out on until the 27 December the following year, so that could answer the question. At least there was a decent film premiere, Babe, at 7pm, which was probably where all the kids and fathers who didn’t want to see soaps turned to.
After the watershed, Before They Were Famous was moved to the prime Christmas slot – not surprising, as the previous two editions (on Easter Monday and Boxing Day in 1997) had received enormous ratings. Indeed, this got 11 million viewers (although this was the lowest figure of its three programmes) and then the BBC had a free run on the rest of the evening. However, one could suspect that we were not in a golden age of sitcoms, as only Men Behaving Badly received a Christmas Day slot (indeed, the only other BBC1 sitcom to receive a Christmas special that year was John Sullivan’s Heartburn Hotel, and this went out at 10.35pm on Sunday 27). This was the final trilogy of Men, taking a leaf out of Only Fools and Horses‘ book, and probably hoping for similar figures. Of course, the figures didn’t exactly match, but it was still the most popular programme on Christmas Day, and the other two episodes got well in excess of 10 million watching.
They Think It’s All Over followed again at 10.35pm, then at 11.10pm was the pilot for Alan Davies’ sitcom, A Many Splintered Thing – not sold as a pilot, but as a one-off comedy. It did reasonably well with six million viewers, though it only received about half that when it made it to a series. The late evening also saw a special TV concert with one of the stars of the year,Robbie Williams – For One Night Only. The most unusual aspect of this programme was probably the late slot of 11.45pm, as it could realistically have been shown 12 hours earlier. To round off the evening was another Carry On movie, but again a weak one, Carry On Girls, and they may have been better off swapping it with Christmas Eve’s Carry On Again Doctor. There was a surprisingly early handover to News 24 as well, BBC1 calling it a night at 2am.
Both BBC2 and Channel 4 seemed unfocused throughout the day. BBC2 started, as ever, with two black and white movies, but then, oddly, went into children’s entertainment, with a Peter Rabbit animation. It was back to the old movies after that, though, with a celebration of 75 years of Warner Bros taken off American TV, then Errol Flynn in Dodge City. Then back to kids, and a documentary about the success of the Teletubbies, followed, oddly, by a brand new episode of The Simpsons slotted directly opposite the Queen. Then back to old movies, and the mid-afternoon classic this year was Casablanca. In the evening, the usual dull programming included a jazz variation on the Nutcracker Suite, the premiere of Trevor Nunn’s film of Tweflth Night, then two long arts documentaries – one on Ted Hughes, then the first half of a three hour film on Brian Epstein. The second film premiere of the day saw Gary Oldman inImmortal Beloved. But blimey, for the first time in ages – no opera.
Channel 4 did have an opera, and most of the other aspects of their Christmas Day schedule were in place - The Big Breakfast, the old movies (Swallows and Amazons, Tom Thumb) and the animations (no Snowman again, that was on Christmas Eve, but we did get the great Father Christmas) during the day, and in the evening we had “the animated story of Gibert and Sullivan”, a documentary on Leonard Bernstein, and an unspectacular film premiere,Remember Me?, a C4-financed comedy with Robert Lindsay. This was followed at 10.35pm by the fantastically apt choice of late movie – er, The Omen. There was, at least, the grand final ofCountdown adding 45 minutes of fun, by virtue of the fact it was a Friday, but C4 obviously presumed most of the regular audience would be elsewhere, and repeated it the following day.
Overall, it was a rather weak Christmas Day, with ITV packing up half way through the evening and the BBC1 schedule featuring rather too many men sitting behind desks linking clips. There were also complaints about the episode of Men Behaving Badly, concerned as it was with matters sexual, and this led to a decision not to show the episode at Christmas again and Simon Nye concluding that it shouldn’t have gone out when it did. Worse still, it was followed by the normally taste-free They Think It’s All Over, and if viewers were offended they could turn over to The Godfather on ITV or The Omen on Channel 4 – just right for Christmas Day. Still, at least we got a whopping three incarnations of Bond on ITV, with Roger Moore appearing in A View to a Kill in the unlikely slot of 7.45pm on Boxing Day, extremely high-profile scheduling for such an old film. That said, Casualty and Men Behaving Badly were on the other side. BBC1’s screening of Apollo 13 was probably why You Only Live Twice got an outing at 8.30pm on New Year’s Day, while poor old George Lazenby had to make do with a mid-afternoon slot on Monday 28, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But despite the 007-fest, 1998 saw the worst Christmas line-up for some time.