“Elliot has a new friend.”
“There are some terrific films on over Christmas … But wouldn’t it be great if the films were of the same standard all year round … On BSB, six nights a week, you’ll be able to see films never before shown on British television.”
This advertisement, from the 1989 Christmas Radio Times, is comic now, but at the time, it seemed to herald the start of a new age of Christmas television. The new channels provided by BSB and Sky offered brand new films and many more channels, and it was thought that the usual Christmas fare of films and specials offered up by the BBC and ITV would become a thing of the past – the family audience fragmenting to such an extent that 20 million viewers wouldn’t sit down in front of a heavily edited film or overcooked entertainment special recorded in mid-August.
So as we entered the new decade it seemed obvious that Christmas television would soon be devoted to the same old soaps, sitcoms and movies we’d seen all year round. These portents of gloom seemed not to concern the networks in 1990, and both managed to produce much more lively and varied schedules than they had for many years. In retrospect, they don’t look very good, but without the gift of hindsight, there’s much more family-friendly new programming. That said, many aspects of the ’80s continued, so this is the final year when you had to buy both the Radio Times and TV Times – and the magazines ran true to form, with the Radio Times featuring a festive illustration on the cover and features on all the family programming, while TV Times featured pregnant Coronation Street characters Sally Webster and Gail Platt on the cover showing off their ‘bumps’, and inside they were interviewed in character.
And most of the BBC1 daytime schedule varied little from the previous years, with just a difference in timings. Children’s BBC started the day off at 7am, this year presented from “Santa’s Grotto” with the A-team of Simon Parkin, Andi Peters, Phillippa Forrester and Edd the Duck. That said, it was slightly repeat-heavy this year, with the same episode of Playdays as the year before (“The Christmas Tree Stop”) and an old festive-themed Wizbit kicking the day off. This was followed by The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie – also a repeat, but great fun nonetheless. This took us up to 9.30am, then it was time to be reminded why we were celebrating, as we were whisked off to St Francis’ Church in Birmingham to Shout For Joy!
Noel Edmonds found himself giving out his Christmas Presents earlier than usual, at 10.30am – this time accompanied by Frank Bruno and David Essex. Then it was time for the Christmas Comedy Cracker – another two hours of enjoyable classic comedy. ‘Allo ‘Allo! started off the fun at 11.30am, then The Two Ronnies at 12.05pm and Dad’s Army at 12.55pm. All good fun, but once more, had they nothing newer to put on? Well, they did have Top of the Pops, this year presented by Mark Goodier and Anthea Turner. A difference this time was interspersing the clips with archive footage of past Christmas hits, predating the mid-’90s nostalgia boom by some time. It’s hard to think of a time when seeing old clips of Slade or Wizzard perform had some sort of fascination, but at this point they did. The BBC seemed to be walking backwards this Christmas.
The festive Pops found itself at 1.30pm this year, and the reason for all the programmes being shunted forward was to allow the festive EastEnders to go out at 2.30pm, way out of prime time. Even though the series attracted bumper ratings in 1986, it was not seen as the main point of the day for some time. It was as if they had lots more programmes to fill the slot, and still at this time, if Christmas Day fell on a day where the soap wasn’t usually on, it wasn’t on. So despite the Radio Times highlighting previous Christmas cliffhangers, it’s not hard to imagine most of the regular fans missing it.
Over on ITV we started the day, as ever, in the company of TV-am and their own curious selection of entertainment. As the endless diet of Batman and Flipper during the long strike in the late ’80s proved, there seemed to be little quality control exercised over the channel’s bought-in programming, so at 6am, Cartoon Carnival featured such old favourites as The Herbsand Portland Bill getting further outings. At 7am Mike Brosnan hosted the kids’ game show Top Banana, but never let it be said that TV-am shirked their public service commitments, as they found a whole three minutes at 7.57am for a Thought for Christmas Day. They did, however, manage to entice the day’s number one, Cliff Richard, into Eggcup Towers for an hour of entertainment from 8am, where he’d “sing, tell the Christmas story, show clips from his latest tour and introduce the Choirboy of the Year”. One suspects any kids who had tuned in for Top Banana would switch to Bugs Bunny instantly, so who knows who was still around at 9am when they abruptly switched back to cartoons, with Alvin and the Chipmunks.
The ITV network started their Christmas at 9.25am with some Cartoons at Christmas – basically, three Tweetie Pie shorts. Then whilst the public may have been pleased that there wasn’t another edition of The Other Side of Christmas, ITV still pointed out how socially aware they were, with updates on the outcome of the year’s two appeals, the Telethon and Find a Family. The regular “host of stars” appeared on both occasions, but the two programmes between them lasted over an hour, surely non-plussing the viewers. Then at 11am it was time to head for the All Saints Church in Fulham for the Family Communion.
With all the public service obligations out of the way, the rest of the day offered up rather more fun. At noon The Disney Club team headed off to Aspen in Colorado where they were joined by Dannii Minogue and the band Breathe to introduce some cartoons and festive features. Then at 1pm we stayed in America with Ronn Lucas. The ventriloquist was at that point a popular face on British TV (despite being almost totally forgotten now), introducing a series of variety shows, both under his own name and in The Hippodrome Show, for Thames, with his puppets Scorch the Dragon and Buffalo Billy. Alas, here he was back in the USA and in cabaret for a special first shown on American television, so no doubt full of cultural references that the kids at home couldn’t be expected to get. More home-grown entertainment was offered up at 2pm when Torvill and Dean hosted a “spectacular ice gala” from Nottingham Ice Rink, but at the end of the day, this was hardly Albert Square.
After five minutes with the Queen, BBC1 proved there was life in the old dog yet by managing to scoop the world television premiere of ET – it seems amazing now that it took eight years for the film to move from the cinema to the TV, but this was the case, and provided the BBC with a big hitter to kick off the main part of Christmas Day. Opposite this, ITV’s screening ofMoonraker seems an effort in damage limitation, rather than an attempt to keep up a tradition. Then it was family fare all night – BBC1 offered up a 75-minute Only Fools and Horses from 5.10pm to go with the turkey sandwiches, while on ITV Michael Barrymore was joined by a group of kids for a special junior edition of Strike It Lucky, no doubt hoping to give families a warm glow inside.
After this, Thames went into overdrive with Ken Dodd Live at the London Palladium. Fresh from his recent sell-out season, TV Times boasted, he returned with a special festive show. Doddy went right opposite Bruce Forsyth’s Christmas Generation Game, as the BBC provided some proper festive entertainment to fill up the gap left by Russ Abbot’s demotion to Boxing Day. The BBC seemed to be pinning their hopes on this series, as it had only returned to BBC1 in September after a long absence, but Brucie provided all the family fun you could possibly need on 25 December.
While now they’re the epitome of bad television, new, extended episodes of Bread and Birds of a Feather were eagerly awaited by a lot of people, and they were the big comedy specials on BBC1 – Bread this year moving to a much more user-friendly slot of 7.30pm. Birds of a Featherstarted a long stint on Christmas Day, and those who could stomach an hour and a quarter of bad accents and tasteless jokes would have had a great night, especially as Bread had offered up a very similar blend. However, after the news, a slightly weak film, Baby Boom starring Diane Keaton, at 9.45pm rather spoiled the evening. Better comedy could probably be found in the repeat episode of Yes Minister at 11.30pm – the “Party Games” episode was fast becoming a festive staple, as the previous year it had gone out on BBC2 on Boxing Day. As familiar was the late movie, The Quiller Memorandum, dragging out Christmas Day until 2.20am.
On the other side, Coronation Street was at the usual time of 7.30pm, then Beverly Hills Cop IIwas a half decent movie, if one that was hardly very appropriate for Christmas Day. Thankfully the film buyers had taken the opportunity to cut as much out as possible. It was only an extended episode of the abysmal French Fields in the unlikely slot of 10pm that drags down their schedule, and it’s hard to decide what the most unnerving fact is – that it was considered good enough for Christmas Day, or that another series went out in 1991 (the last, thankfully, although at the same time as the final series of Never the Twain). Even more boringly, the late film at 11pm was the ancient What’s Up Doc with Barbara Striesand.
The minority channels stuck to their usual patterns – BBC2 started the day with the moviesSummer Holiday (with Mickey Rooney) and Watership Down at 9.30am, although whether they’d want to scare a nation of toddlers switching over from Bugs Bunny is debatable. Then there was an odd mix of obscurities, ranging from an episode of long-forgotten US “dramady”The Famous Teddy Z, to the nature film Drift the Mute Swan, to Henry Moore and Landscape, billed as “a study of the relationship between sculpture and nature”. BBC2 headed towards the more mature end of the audience later in the day, paying tribute to Joyce Grenfell, broadcasting the opera The Cunning Little Vixen, and premiering the French film Jean De Florette. Seemingly out of place at 10.20pm was an Amnesty International Benefit Concert, with acts such as Peter Gabriel, Sinead O’Connor and, er, New Kids on the Block. Hitchcock’s Notorious was the late movie at 11.30pm.
Channel 4 offered an almost identical line-up, though at different times – for movie classics they started a WC Fields season and, of course, scheduled The Snowman at 6pm. From the US we saw a special edition of A Different World, the Cosby spin-off. They paid tribute to Max Wall, with an unusal film in which the comedian met a group of art students and they produced artwork based on what they had learnt about his life. There was the predictable “what’s the point?” programme, Talking Turkey, where Barry Took was in the chair while Warren Mitchell and Nina Myskow “laid into the festive season, with contributions from John Noakes and Frank Sidebottom”, amongst others. In the evening the second part of a series profiling “charismatic clergymen”, Carmen on Ice, and music from Nigel Kennedy, plus, at 11.15pm, a terribly tedious-sounding hour where “pastor and television producer Ian Mackenzie connects the Christmas story with moments in his own life”. The channel did broadcast, though, the two most appealing programmes from a 2000 perspective – The Coronation Street Birthday Lecture, in which Roy Hattersley (yeah, alright) talked about what made the series so great, and showed some archive clips, and best of all, at 5.55pm, The Further Adventures of Billy the Fish.
Only Fools and Horses gained the highest audience of the day, and despite the BBC bagging the most viewers, there was enough in the ITV schedule to please the family audience. Alright, looking back, there’s much to scoff at – the weak sitcoms (on both channels), the social action. But ITV’s performance here was stronger than in most of the other years of the decade, as we shall see.