“Continued after the Queen.”
If a viewer had been out of the country for a whole year, a look at the Christmas Day schedules would usually illustrate what had been happening in TV over the past 12 months – the hits of the year receive special editions and the big stars of the moment make appearances. In 1991 there was another pointer to the year’s events – some ITV companies had lost their franchise in October, and the parts of the ITV schedule that relied on these companies looked pretty hopeless. The three and a half hours that made up TV-am that Christmas morning were possibly the worst ever to go out under the banner, an entirely bought-in schedule of cartoon repeats, from the tolerable – The Chipmunks, Mr Men – to the tedious – Greatest Adventure Stories from the Bible – to the absolutely dire – of all things, The Osmonds filling up nearly an hour from 8.30am.
From such a dreadful start, ITV brightened up a little, starting with the Morning Service live from Bristol Cathedral, followed by a Bugs Bunny short. Then there was cartoon fun, with another outing for The BFG, first shown on this day in 1989, and the first Thames production of the day. This was to be their last full Christmas Day – the following year 25 December fell on a Friday and thus LWT took over in mid-afternoon. The children’s entertainment continued with a Christmas episode of the drama Children’s Ward at 12.15pm, which seems a rather late slot for a series with a young audience, and it had not broken through into the mainstream like Grange Hill or Byker Grove. Then at 12.45pm, a new animation, Brown Bear’s Wedding led into a Disney classic, Pinocchio – a film that had amazingly only premiered the year before.
Meanwhile the BBC maintained a model of consistency – Children’s BBC kicked off the day at 6.55am, with Playdays (a different episode, thankfully), Pingu and the film Yogi’s First Christmas. Then at 10am we headed up to St Philip’s Church in Edinburgh for the service, this year called A Christmas Gift, and then Noel was in charge at 10.45am with the usualChristmas Presents show. This year he even managed to rope the Prime Minister in to oversee a reunion. Christmas Day TV is unique, perhaps, in the way that such prestigious programming is happily flung out in mid-morning, a slot, certainly at this point, given over the rest of the year to repeats of Going for Gold and the like.
The Christmas Comedy Cracker was opened again at 11.45am, this time offering up festive installments of Hi-De-Hi!, The Two Ronnies and Dad’s Army. Then at 2pm it was time for Top of the Pops, this year bearing the rather pointless sub-title “Christmas 1991″, just in case the viewer thought it might refer to another year. The usual format was in place, but we’d now entered some dark days for Pops – Mark Franklin, Tony Dortie and Claudia Simon were presenting, and we could spend our Christmas Day cringing at Dannii Minogue failing to hit the high notes while singing live.
One thing missing from the BBC1 schedule was EastEnders. As it was a Wednesday, the soap went out on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, but not Christmas Day – a world away from its dominance in the latter half of the decade (much like most soaps, as Emmerdale hardly got a look-in over Christmas at this point, not even allowed on Boxing Day). However, Coronation Street did go out on 25 December in 1991, and it was this that was the major talking point of an otherwise uninspiring afternoon and early evening schedule. Two episodes were scheduled, one in the usual 7.30pm slot, and the other at 2.50pm. According to press reports at the time, ITV wanted to get a large audience for the Queen’s Speech, so 10 minutes into the episode, Alf Roberts sat down, turned on the television, and watched Her Majesty with us, returning to the episode at 3.05pm. An interesting publicity stunt, maybe, but it’s questionable how many stuck around for For Your Eyes Only at 3.35pm.
Meanwhile, the BBC fought back with two episodes of Only Fools and Horses, following the Trotters on holiday to Miami. The scene-setting was carried out in a normal 50 minute episode the previous evening, and the 90 minute edition following their exploits went out at 3.10pm on Christmas afternoon. Oddly, though, some three million fewer people tuned in than had done for the Christmas Eve showing, perhaps because of the effect of Coronation Street on the other side, maybe because the episode was a bit below par, or possibly, 3.10pm is not a time on Christmas Day when people are ready to sit down and concentrate on a programme such asOnly Fools. It’s instructive that this was the last year when big entertainment specials went out in mid-afternoon, and the BBC then concentrated on films and programmes like Auntie’s Bloomers and Noel’s Christmas Presents that viewers could dip in and out of. The Generation Game also had an early start, at 4.40pm, though it did perhaps let the very young see it.
This was followed by the film Batman at 6pm – exciting enough, perhaps, but maybe not worth the peak slot of the year where you may expect to see home grown entertainment. Sadly, these were pretty dog days for comedy, with only Birds of a Feather (an episode set in Majorca) and Keeping Up Appearances being deemed worthy of a special on Christmas Day. Then we had another film, and Eddie Murphy seemed to be on his way to becoming as much a part of Christmas as Santa, as he starred in Coming to America at 9.30pm. There was the usual dose of old comedy round midnight, but this time “old” meant just under a year, as we had a repeat of the previous Christmas’ In Sickness and in Health. In 1989, this series had gone out on Christmas Day, but the whole concept was running out of steam as the 1990 special – the one we were seeing – was relegated to 10pm on Sunday 30 December. The Likely Lads followed at 11.55pm, but this was the slightly below-par feature film version.
Meanwhile ITV had a demoralised Thames supplying the programming. This Is Your Lifereceived a Christmas Day placing, at 5.55pm, and then at 6.30pm, the mediocre sitcomWatching was the rather unusual choice to fill the primest of prime slots. Early reports suggested that The Darling Buds of May, ITV’s big success of the year, would get pride of place on Christmas Day, but in the event, it was moved forward to Sunday 22 December. This was perhaps less to do with the quality of the programme, or any fears that ITV had about it’s prospects, but more to do with the fact that on 22 December, there were still two shopping days to go until the Big Day, and so advertisements could still have an effect. On Christmas Day, the viewer would have already bought their Christmas presents, so there was less need for the advertiser to get a large audience. It was also this reasoning that saw ITV show Big, one of the biggest film premieres of the year, early in December rather than at Christmas.
After the second episode of Corrie, though, everything went rather odd. Granada offered up the premiere of Crocodile Dundee 2 at 8pm, and after a brief news bulletin, a festive Minder went out at 10.15pm. However, in London, Thames broadcast Minder at 8pm, and then wrapped around the news was a second showing of Top Gun. Other regions followed one of the two patterns, so while viewers in Birmingham got to see Paul Hogan, viewers in Leeds had to wait. It’s hard to understand why this happened, unless Thames were upset at Minder’s late scheduling. Even so, this doesn’t explain the non-appearance of a film premiere. Sadly, no regions opted out of Police Academy 4 premiering at 11.15pm, nor Police Academy 5premiering just three days later.
BBC2 offered up a mish-mash of a schedule throughout the day, as if to offer something for everyone. So White Christmas was screened at 8am, then we had the premiere of an Asterixfilm before an Ingrid Bergman film in French. Then Small Objects of Desire, looking at false teeth, was followed by a 90 minute piano recital. This took us up to 3.10pm where BBC2 made an occasion of it and screened The Wizard of Oz. This was immediately followed by The Staggering Stories of Ferdinand de Bargos. Things evened out after 5pm though, with a series of programmes that were lengthy, upmarket and mostly in a foreign language. We went to Broadway first for an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, then after the Queen at 8pm we hardly heard any English, apart from the continuity, until Weatherview at 12.30am. A Mozart opera in Italian was followed by two French films from the 1930s.
Channel 4 offered up a slightly more populist, but just as badly organised, schedule. In the morning Linda Rondstadt and Los Lobos spent 90 minutes retelling the traditional Mexican Christmas story. We got a bit more familiar with episodes of The Wonder Years and The Cosby Show, before an afternoon of idiosyncratic amusements including Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, a “plasticine-animated musical set in post-perestroika Russia”. In the evening we got The Snowman at 5.25pm before Jonathan Ross presented some highlights from his ill-advised Wogan-wannabe chat show, Tonight. Then it was Brookside, rather earlier than usual at 6.30pm, followed by a documentary tracing Status Quo’s attempt to play four gigs in 12 hours. From one extreme to the other, this was followed at 8pm by highlights of Pavarotti in Hyde Park, then at 10pm an “extraordinary musical” directed by Malcolm McLaren, The Ghosts of Oxford Street, which featured The Happy Mondays and the Rebel MC. Exactly who would watch all three of those music programmes? After that; Archaos performing their “innovative circus without animals”, though it’s hard to tell how innovative they were when Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil also performed a “circus without animals” earlier that afternoon.
This was the first we’ll see of ITV almost “opting out” of the festive period – while there’d been bad programmes on the year before, at least they were making the effort. Only Fools and Horses remained the most popular programme of Christmas ‘91, with 14.9 million, but this was down on the previous year’s total. Would pre-Christmas now become the battleground?