“Home for Christmas”
Lorraine Heggessey became BBC1 controller in early 2001 and before she’d even adjusted her swivel chair to the correct height she held an inquest on 2000’s Christmas Day schedules. They just hadn’t worked out - Titanic had performed less well than anticipated, Walking with Dinosaurs wasn’t much of a draw, and the papers were referring to the line-up as one of the weakest Christmas schedules of all time. Heggessey therefore asked the staff to pull crackers while reviewing the programmes that went out, so they could see what was missing. This elusive ingredient was, apparently, “big events”.
Fortunately, by the time 25 December 2001 came around, BBC1 were feeling rather more confident. Throughout the autumn they’d been performing equally as well as ITV as the commercial channel’s very public failures had coincided with BBC1’s surge thanks to smart scheduling and extra money diverted to programming by request of Director General Greg Dyke. Over the previous few months they’d found some long-awaited mainstream hit shows and thus went into Christmas Day with renewed vigour.
The Beeb were also helped by the return of Only Fools and Horses. The series had apparently ended in 1996, with the sort of conclusion that should have stopped anyone questioning whether it would ever return – the long-term ambition of the characters finally achieved. Since that final instalment, Buster Merryfield had died, surely putting paid to that definitely-the-last-ever reunion. Still, some critics (Garry Bushell) continued to lobby for another edition, arguing that Christmas couldn’t be Christmas without it. Every so often, there was a rumour that a new episode was in the pipeline, only for this to be scuppered by the cast’s availability or, according to the press, the BBC’s alleged stupidity and bureaucracy. But then in 2001 everyone seemed to be available, and that long-awaited reunion was ready to go.
Pencilled in for Christmas Day, there were still a few problems to iron out. Firstly, the cast and crew’s schedules meant that the script wasn’t complete until the beginning of December, and filming then went on until just before Christmas. Apparently the editing suite had been booked right up until Christmas Eve. Secondly, John Sullivan’s script included a sequence where Del would appear on Who Wants to be a Millionaire – a scene that would have featured Chris Tarrant on the set of the actual series. Understandably, ITV were concerned about a BBC series using one of their hot properties as an integral part of the plot, and therefore asked for the rights to repeat the edition – with the bill for repeat fees footed by the Beeb. The BBC didn’t think this was a very good idea – cue various newspaper headlines announcing that the special had been “ruined” thanks to the broadcasters’ inability to co-operate (couldn’t imagine the Sun and Mirror working together, though). In these reports, John Sullivan said that he thought “the channels could put ratings to one side for the day” – hardly a realistic situation on Christmas Day.
A fictional game show having been created instead, John Sullivan and David Jason then found themselves possibly facing opposition from themselves. This began when Sullivan started writing the BBC’s adaptation of David Copperfield, broadcast on Christmas Day 1999. Various disagreements led to Sullivan quitting the project, to be replaced by Adrian Hodges, and instead approaching Yorkshire Television with the idea of writing a drama based on Mr Micawber from the book. This then went into production with David Jason in the title role, and it automatically became a big event – the nation’s favourite actor in a series written by the nation’s favourite author based on one of the nation’s favourite novels. ITV thought that this would make ideal Christmas Day programming, perhaps at 9pm opposite Only Fools and Horses. Thankfully, common sense prevailed (Jason apparently had it written into his contract that they couldn’t be shown simultaneously) and Micawber appeared on Boxing Day.
Only Fools and Horses was such a big occasion that the Robin Reliant even made its way onto the BBC1 Christmas ident this year. But there were other programmes on BBC1 this Christmas. Good ones, too. Deciding that last year’s line-up wasn’t a success, 2001’s schedule most closely resembled 1999’s popular combination, and found the Corporation pulling out all the stops.
The morning kicked off with the mediocre animated film We’re Back! at 5.45am, then all the usual festive fixtures were present and correct - CBBC at 6.50am, followed by the service at 10am. No Eric’n’Ern this year, though, they appeared on 23 December – and with a normal non-festive episode too – but The Two Ronnies got an outing at 11am. Lazily, though, this was simply a rerun of the compilation shown on Christmas Day 1997. Casper was the family film at 11.45am. Into the afternoon we got Top of the Pops at 1.30pm, with Jamie Theakston and Sara Cox presenting, then at 2.30pm, remembering the success of Robbie the Reindeer two years ago, BBC1 showed a new animation, Hamilton Mattress, an adventure about an aardvark. This took us up to 3pm when Liz did her stuff.
Then it was time for the new programming. The first show wasn’t that new, though - Rolf’s Merry Christmas saw Harris joined by Gaby Roslin to arrange surprises for people who deserved them. Sounds familiar? Imagine the presenter several inches shorter and with a tidier beard and you’ve got the BBC’s former festive staple. Another familiar face showed up straight after, Terry Wogan returning to Christmas Day to present another selection of Auntie’s Bloomers. The news followed, then at 4.40pm it was time for this year’s big movie premiere. Toy Story was the first fruit of the BBC’s deal with Disney which would see many of their most popular films appear on terrestrial TV for the first time. The film was a better choice for Christmas Day than last year’s Titanic – unashamed family fun, and all wrapped up within 75 minutes.
Into the evening the first of the traditional two episodes of EastEnders was shown at 5.55pm, then it was the first part of The Lost World – a two-part dramatisation of the novel, adapted by Adrian Hodges who’d seen success with his take on Dickens two years ago. The usual all-star cast was in place (Bob Hoskins, Peter Falk, Robert Hardy) and the team behind Walking with Dinosaurs put together some impressive special effects. The second part followed on Boxing Day. 7.40pm saw some mainstream comedy arrive for the first time in many years, with Alistair McGowan making the most of his billing as “the new Mike Yarwood” by filling an almost identical slot that Harold Wilson’s fave did 25 years previously.
The news was got out of the way at 8.20pm before the night’s second visit to Albert Square, and then Only Fools and Horses, making it onto our screens by the skin of its teeth at 9.05pm. Unsurprisingly, this was the most popular programme of the day, attracting more then 20 million viewers – some five million more than the number two programme (fortunately for the Beeb, that was EastEnders). Angus Deayton was back at 10.15pm for a new episode of Before They Were Famous, then the day’s second movie premiere was Sliding Doors at 10.55pm. It’s noticeable that the Christmas Day films, at least on BBC1, seemed to have moved back to the “family entertainment” vibe instead of the non-festive fare such as Coming to America and Baby Boom that had filled this slot a decade or so ago. Sending the viewers off to bed were the movie version of Steptoe and Son Ride Again at 12.35am, then a very odd choice indeed – a second outing of Louis Theroux’s encounter with the Hamiltons, first shown two weeks ago. This time, though, it was shown with sign language, simply as Tuesday was the night that signed programmes were shown. BBC1 then handed over to News 24 just after half past three.
How did ITV fare against these big guns? The morning was as amiable as the BBC equivalent – GMTV providing cartoons and Steve Chalke, followed by more animation from Children’s ITVwhen the network opened up. At 11am religious matters were dealt with by Russell Watson, singing festive songs while turning on the Christmas lights in Regent Street. Then at 12 noon Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland was unspooled again. It was the afternoon when things started going a bit wrong.
At 1.30pm there was a repeat screening for Britain’s Brainiest Kid, a general knowledge contest first shown in August and lasting a grim 90 minutes. It did however mean that Carol Vorderman had appeared in this slot two years running. After the Queen, three hours was devoted to showing … The Great Escape. Comedy writers in the past used to get a lot of mileage out of the joke that this was screened every Christmas, but research by OTT has shown that it had never been screened on the big day, nor indeed anywhere near the festive period for about two decades. Probably the oldest thing ever screened in this slot, ITV seemed to be conceding defeat almost immediately this Christmas.
A news bulletin was followed, as expected, by hour-long editions of Emmerdale and Coronation Street. If ITV were going to beat the Beeb at all this Christmas it was most likely to be in these two hours. While guaranteed a sizeable audience, two hours of soaps was a fairly unoriginal and repetitive block of programming. Then from 8.30pm, two of ITV’s light entertainment warhorses - You’ve Been Framed and Stars in Their Eyes – were enlisted to provide token opposition to the dynamic duo on BBC1. So convinced were the commercial channel that the viewing figures here would be tiny, Stars in Their Eyes was repeated just five days later. A news bulletin – pointlessly heralded as News at Ten, as if it was a normal weekday – was followed by Who Wants to be a Millionaire, with celebrity contestants playing for charity. A mediocre film choice, While You Were Sleeping, rounded off the unspectacular evening. This year ITV seemed to be harking back to the unappealing LE-fests of the 1980s instead of trying to create an appealing alternative to the Beeb’s opposition. There wasn’t even a Bond film over the holidays.
A better attempt to recreate the family Christmas of the past came from BBC2, who put aside their usual festive fare of endless opera and dull foreign films to schedule an evening of nostalgia. White Christmas was shown again at 5.50pm, then, after the Queen, over three hours were devoted to Arena’s “Night of Entertainers” – three brand new profiles of Eric Sykes, Charlie Drake and Max Bygraves. This was followed at 11.15pm by a repeat of a classicPorridge, then I Love 1973 at midnight – part of a rerun of all the I Love the Seventies series over the holiday fortnight. Still, if you wanted ballet, there was plenty to be found, BBC2 devoting almost the whole of the daylight hours to it. Kicking off at 10.45am with another screening of The Red Shoes, there were also two performances from the Royal Ballet, lasting from 12.55pm until 5.05pm with just a 20 minute break for The Simpsons in between. Of course, BBC2 couldn’t do without their ratings winner for the day, and so The Weakest Linkadded some sourness to the day in the afternoon.
A fairly rotten day on Channel 5 was enlivened only by the premiere of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, rather thrown away opposite the Trotters. Channel 4’s 20th Christmas Day wasn’t much different to the preceding 19 – repeated children’s programmes (includingBagpuss), The Big Breakfast (thankfully it’s last ever outing on Christmas Day) and Father Christmas were all there in the morning, followed by a fairly charmless 1990s remake ofPinocchio. Annie and Oliver! got airings during the afternoon, sandwiching the Alternative Christmas Message, this year delivered by a survivor of the World Trade Centre attacks. Oddly, the “official” Christmas message didn’t get an airing on C4 today. In the evening we had theCountdown final, followed by dancer Matthew Bourne taking a personal look at the art’s history, labouring under the punning title of Bourne to Dance. Portrait of a Lady was the channel’s movie choice, then at 11pm there was a fairly abrupt switch in the intended audience – last week’s So Graham Norton was repeated, followed by a double bill of horror films.
2001, then, saw BBC1 rally again to victory while BBC2 was interesting, ITV was charmless, Channel 4 was dreary and Channel 5 was an irrelevance. Little, then, that deviated from the established pattern of festive viewing that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.