“Don is consumed by despair.”
After all their good attempts, ITV seemed to crumble again in 1996, with another pretty comprehensive BBC victory. ITV’s big idea this year was Christmas with the Royal Navy, where in short, 10 – 20 minute inserts throughout the day from 10.30am, Anthea Turner would broadcast live from HMS Belfast and talk via satellite to servicemen throughout the world. All very worthy, yes, but it seemed a flashback to the children’s hospital visits so beloved by Christmas Day TV some two decades before. It is, however, perhaps the only programme made by Westcountry TV to ever be broadcast in peak time.
This old fashioned air seemed to permeate the whole day on the third channel. GMTV kicked the day off with a 90 minute review of the year, then just one hour of kid’s stuff until the Rev Steve Chalke and – surprise! – Anthea Turner wished us A Merry Christmas. Then the network offered up the regular carol service (this year, from Leiston in Suffolk) before Ms Turner made her second appearance of the day, and her first on HMS Belfast.
After that, there was animation with Percy the Park Keeper, then a film out of the top drawer –Alice in Wonderland. After the news and Anthea, there was a film out of the bottom drawer – a mediocre TV movie called The Man Upstairs starring Katherine Hepburn and Ryan O’Neal. Then at 3.10pm, seemingly not learning from the previous year, was a two hour adaptation of E Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers – the usual all-star cast in place, although perhaps few meant a great deal to the family audience, such as Peter Capaldi and Ian Richardson. After more Anthea, ITV served up the mediocre film Dennis, than just half an hour of Coronation Street at 7pm.
This was another of ITV’s big mistakes, as the main plot in this instalment was the attempted suicide of Don Brennan. A significant storyline, maybe, but they’d seriously misjudged what the family audience wanted to see on Christmas Day, and this was overtly grim. It didn’t help that the Street had just moved to a four-day-a-week pattern to a pretty frosty response, many people wondering if the series was running out of steam. Basically, 1996 was a bad year for Corrie, and it ended with 9.5 million – enough to get it to seventh place in the Christmas Day chart, but its lowest figure for many years.
Following this was another old-fashioned concept as Des O’Connor introduced his Christmas with the Stars. This wasn’t a revival of the legendary BBC Christmas offering, but basically an everyday episode of Des O’Connor Tonight, just extended a bit and with Christmas trees on the set. The guest list, including Julio Iglesias and Diana Ross, emphasised the old-school flavour, and while Des’ programme worked as a way to pass an idle hour on a Wednesday night, it was hardly what you’d look forward to on Christmas Day. Anthea made her last appearance straight after, then following a quick news was Heartbeat at 9pm – again, a programme unstoppable on its day, but not quite good enough for Christmas night. It was, however, unfortunate that it had to face the most popular programme of the day on BBC1. Rounding off a poorly chosen schedule was the film The Remains of the Day – a good movie, but it didn’t finish until 12.30am, long after most viewers had gone to bed, and perhaps not quite action-packed enough to inspire a large mainstream audience to watch.
The BBC therefore managed to broadcast eight of the top 10 programmes that day (Des and Corrie sparing ITV’s blushes, with Heartbeat failing to chart), although one of those was the Queen’s Speech. The rest make up a pretty impressive schedule, one which looks surprisingly strong even four years later. CBBC started the day off at 6am, then at 10.20am it was time for carols, this time presented by Diane-Louise Jordan from the Wintershall estate in Surrey and with guests including Enya and Christopher Timothy. At 11.20am, smartly scheduled opposite ITV’s classic family movie, was an even better classic family movie, The Wizard of Oz. At 1.05pm it was Top of the Pops, with the Spice Girls on hand to not just present but perform all three of their hits to date, along the way adding a welcome touch of anarchy to the show. The biggest low of the day followed, as the “classic comedy” this year was Keeping Up Appearances from 1994.
Noel Edmonds stayed at 3.10pm, then a new Brambly Hedge animation was an agreeable 25 minutes. Animal Hospital and Auntie’s Bloomers, from 4.50pm, both managed to top 10 million, amazing figures for that time of day. 6.30pm saw Jurassic Park, disproving the theory that film premieres could no longer get massive audiences, although happily for the BBC, two home grown programmes topped the dinosaurs’ figures – EastEnders at 8.30pm was followed by the jewel in the crown, the beginning of the Only Fools and Horses final trilogy. With 21 million viewers, it was a triumph, though a real once-only occasion (or thrice-only, if you want). The following year, Garry Bushell harangued the BBC, saying that “a Christmas without Del Boy is like a day without sun”, seemingly forgetting that there hadn’t been any episodes for three years previously, and it was made clear that there wouldn’t be anymore. The Vicar of Dibley followed and kept most of the audience, though at the surprisingly late time of 10pm. Then the Beeb were in the holiday mood, and pumped out classics till late into the night – the 1970Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show at 10.55pm, after the previous year’s excursion to Christmas Eve, followed by the film Revenge of the Pink Panther, then at 1.40am, rather than closing down, we had another movie – the feature length version of Please Sir!, 25 years after it had been part of ITV’s Christmas Day schedule. The channel finally called it a day at 3.25am, one of the latest ever.
BBC2 might have been going for a younger audience this year, if the repeat of The Simpsonsand a special edition of The Sunday Show (on a Wednesday) in mid-morning were any indication. But the rest was as old-fashioned as ever, with two Fred Astaire movies at dawn andCasablanca in mid-afternoon and between the two, a round up of the year in aviation plus a three-hour long documentary going behind the scenes at the American Ballet. In the evening we got the first heat of the Choir of the Year competition, yet another boring edition of Today’s the Day (though at least Bill Oddie and Tim Brook-Taylor guested), then the usual “culture” in the evening. Simon Callow continued his series re-enacting the public readings of Dickens, then there was the predictable triple bill of opera (Handel’s Ariodante), the dramatisation of an author’s life (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) and the prestigious film premiere (Glengarry Glen Ross). On the whole, then, a typical BBC2 schedule.
Channel 4’s schedule was again the worst of the day, though they did have the good sense to cut The Big Breakfast (during its “it’s going to be axed tomorrow” stage, with the abysmal duo of Sharron Davies and Rick Adams presenting) down to just one hour at 9am. Then there was a morning of reruns, including The Snowman at 12.55pm, the earliest it had ever been, and an oldHome to Roost special at 1.25pm, after the success of C4’s reruns of the ITV sitcom that year. At 3.15pm it was another opera, Faust, which lasted a whopping three and a half hours, but smartly finished exactly at the time BBC2’s opera began, allowing buffs nearly seven consecutive hours of entertainment. After that the evening was seemingly modelled on ITV’s 1993 schedule, containing almost back-to-back movies – the mediocre Peter Sellers vehicleBattle of the Sexes (kicking off a season), Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and the premiere of the sci-fi thriller Roswell. Between them all was Brookside, which Channel 4 excellently scheduled – right opposite EastEnders. Smart thinking, guys.
Only Fools and Horses was so powerful that the by now traditional Christmas Day fare of One Foot in the Grave was shunted to Boxing Day, although this was hardly a relegation – it could either have gone on late on Christmas Day or in a peak 9pm slot on Boxing Day, and David Renwick could have very few complaints with the compromise, the programme getting even larger figures than it had achieved the previous year. Admittedly, though, it did find itself opposite a terrible TV movie on ITV, who were seemingly giving up hope – the BBC had two more episodes of Only Fools and Horses to go. The second part of the trilogy, on Friday 27, had 20 million, and the final part, on the Sunday, achieved an all-time record of over 24 million. It was opposite this that ITV showed the Bank Holiday Bond – The Living Daylights, probably the least successful programme at 8pm on Sunday ITV in decades.