“The family gathers to celebrate Christmas.”
1999 saw a revival on both channels – perhaps they were disappointed at the distinctly average viewing figures the previous year (the most popular show getting 14 million, the lowest figure for decades), or perhaps because it was felt the millennium would mean lots more families staying at home and in the mood for some entertainment.
ITV realised now that a good Christmas Day offered up some excellent publicity, and they repeated a trick they’d used in November, where the schedule was packed with extra episodes of Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Millionaire at exactly the time of year advertisers wanted to attract big audiences. Things started quietly with the ITV tradition of a mediocre afternoon schedule – Ace Ventura Pet Detective was the old film at 3.10pm, then at 5.05pm wasGladiators. This series had been axed the previous year, but was revived for a final run of four programmes, of which this was the third. Exactly why it was scheduled for Christmas Day is uncertain, as the previous two programmes had done poor business, but at least it filled an awkward gap.
6pm was when the fun really started, with a schedule that was rather cynically weighted towards established big hits, instead of trying to produce anything special for the festive season, but was undoubtedly an impressive line-up. An episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire started the whole thing off, followed by hour long installments of Emmerdale andCoronation Street, then another edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire at 8.30pm. 9pm saw a brand new episode of A Touch of Frost, ITV seemingly remembering the art of the Christmas Special, followed at 10.30pm by a third episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Millionairewas a brilliant piece of scheduling, bringing viewers back to the channel all night.
Even the morning was quite good this year – GMTV at 6am as usual, with cartoons and, of course, the Rev Steve Chalke at 8am, before one of the best programmes of the day – SM:TV Live at 9.25am. A special Christmas Day edition of the kids TV hit of the year ran all the way ’til noon, and with stars like Steps, Five and Westlife among the guests, this was fun viewing for children and adults alike, and much better than the dreary religion or animations that had filled this slot in the past. This was followed by quite a good family film, Disney’s Pinnochio. Religion did still play a part, though, as Dame Thora Hird was invited to pick her favourite hymns, which were performed by a salvation army band. Oddly, this went out at 2pm, for an hour, but offered an amusing contrast with Top of the Pops on the other side.
BBC1 could have struggled, as most of the comedy series they’d been relying on for the last few years had come to an end, and not much new was coming through. But, as it turned out, they managed to produce a schedule that was the most adventurous and wide-ranging for many years. CBBC had the usual cartoons at 6am, but even here there’d been some freshening up, with the Blue Peter Review of the Year going out at 7.35am, followed by a special Live & Kicking (Christmas falling on a Saturday this year). Funnily enough, Westlife appeared on this as well, but the series was performing poorly at this stage, with the unpopular Emma Ledden and Steve Wilson in charge, and by finishing at 10am it left most of the morning open forSM:TV. The Beeb then opted for religion, this time seemingly more traditional than other years – called Joy to the World, and presented from “a church” (they didn’t elaborate on this) by Diane Louise Jordan with unspecified “gospel choirs and musicians” the only guests confirmed.
Then TV Centre woke up and scheduled the premiere of the film version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach to grab the family audience. This led to Morecambe and Wise at 12.20pm, although by this point they’d seemingly run out of Christmas shows in the archives and showed one that had been transmitted a few years previously. But at least it was the legendary 1977 special, home for many of the duo’s most memorable moments. This led to Top of the Pops, this year at 1.30pm, the latest for some time – Jayne Middlemiss and Jamie Theakston were here again, with Gail Porter helping out. There was new animation at 2.30pm, but not, this time, an adaptation of a “magical” old story, but Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire, an anarchic new animation stuffed with stars like Robbie Williams and Steve Coogan on voice-over duties.
Alright, Noel’s Christmas Presents was still there at 3.10pm, and its appearance seemed ever more unusual as by now it was Edmonds’ only BBC programme – House Party having ended earlier in the year, and Noel left the Corporation on rather unfriendly terms. Still, it did reasonable business for the BBC and Noel still seemed happy to do it. The big film premiere was not very big, Jumanji going out at 4pm to a lukewarm reception. EastEnders was shown twice again, with the first episode at 5.50pm, then Auntie’s Bloomers was still hanging on in there.
Then, things got better with a programme of the type not seen on Christmas night for many years – David Copperfield was 90 minutes long, and the first of a two part dramatisation with a very heavyweight cast. It had originally been planned as a production by the entertainment department, to be written by John Sullivan, but he left the project before transmission and production was switched to the drama department. However, those fearing a dull, worthy English Literature-style programme in the middle of family viewing time needn’t have worried – enough established comedy names, like Nicholas Lyndhurst, Dawn French and Paul Whitehouse, appeared in the cast and the whole thing was very well received. Of course, it didn’t stand a chance opposite the soaps, and failed to make it into the top 10 – perhaps it was broadcast too early, and the Boxing Day conclusion was thrown away at 6.30pm. But it was still a critical, popular success.
The second episode of EastEnders was at 8.30pm, then there was some family comedy to be found – The Vicar of Dibley returning for a four-part special shown over the Christmas period, and this managed to get the highest audience of the day. Before They Were Famous followed at 9.40pm, then after the news was surprise number two of the day – The Royle Family at 10.30pm. A year before, the first series had gone out on BBC2, now a special was on BBC1 on the biggest day of the year. This was perhaps a risky move, and indeed it lost out to Millionaire, but the ratings were still very healthy. They Think It’s All Over followed at 11.10pm, later than ever, but this time ratings were comparatively unexceptional. There was a real movie classic at 11.50pm, The Italian Job, as part of BBC1’s seemingly annual Michael Caine season, and here the BBC clearly had the edge over ITV who went for Martyn Lewis continuing his series telling the news of Holy Week as if it were happening today – the type of programme the BBC had done to death a decade before – and a very un-ITV choice of late movie, Cary Grant’s 1963 filmCharade.
The strong schedules on both channels made this the tightest Christmas Day for many years, but in the end ITV just scraped through as the victor on the day, for the first time since 1984. Yet the BBC had acquitted itself well, given the risky nature of some of the programming, and David Liddiment probably got it right when he said that both channels, in their own ways, had excellent evenings. Even The Sun, a well-known BBC critic, published a leader congratulating the BBC on their Christmas Day schedule, and the Corporation got their own back within a week when 2000 Today thrashed all comers on New Year’s Eve.
BBC2 produced a textbook line-up as well, with its blend of obscurities and highbrow alternatives. Once more there were two old movies at dawn, then, oddly, a brand new episode of The Simpsons at 10am – perhaps hoping to entice kids over after Live & Kicking. Few probably hung around for A Christmas Oratorio afterwards. A repeat of the previous week’s conclusion to the period drama Wives and Daughters seemed somewhat inappropriate on this day, as did the by now traditional new Simpsons (the second of the day) opposite the Queen. And then it was more of everything – not just one classic movie in the afternoon, but two – White Christmas and Singin’ in the Rain. Not just one opera star, but two – Bryn Terfel and Cecilia Bartoli performing popular opera classics at Glyndebourne. And not just one landmark film in the evening, but two – Il Postino premiering and Citizen Kane. To accompany the screening of the latter, BBC2 could use the luxury of Christmas Day scheduling to screen a new film dramatising the making of Kane, RKO 281. And there was even more Orson Welles with their late (ie 1.40am) movie, The Trial.
Obviously C4 couldn’t compete and came up with another poor schedule. There was no Big Breakfast, as it was a Saturday, but two awful kids movies instead, Tom & Jerry: The Movie(where they spoke!) and Andre, a film about a seal. At least we had Father Christmas, although again no Snowman, that was relegated to Boxing Day. In the afternoon we did get quite a good movie, Jason and the Argonauts, followed by a profile of Ray Harryhausen, and C4 may have hoped for some viewers to mishear the name of this programme and tune in – it was calledWorking with Dinosaurs.
Ali G delivered the Alternative Christmas Message, C4 again not knowing whether they wanted to do comedy or comment in that slot. Then at 3.15pm was, of all things, a Christmas special of a regular series. Alright, it was Fifteen to One, but William G Stewart made an occasion of it by inviting back 15 of the best contestants and subjecting them to a whopping 100 minutes of questions. If that wasn’t enough brain fodder, it was followed by the final of Countdown. In the evening we saw some programmes guaranteed to make the mainstream audience turn off pretty damn quick – a tedious C4-financed dramatisation of a Thomas Hardy book, The Woodlands; the terminally unfunny National Theatre of Brent “satirizing” the last millennium; “contemporary dance”; opera; and a Terry Gilliam movie, Time Bandits.
Ah well, what would Christmas Day be without a boring Channel 4 schedule? The schedules for 1999 on the other channels were the strongest seen for many years, and it was good to see that for the last Christmas of the century, the TV companies tried hard to schedule a good selection of programming for the whole family. And who’d have thought that at BSB?