“Del Boy and family face eviction.”
It’s always very easy to hark back nostalgically to Christmases past and suggest that television on 25 December isn’t what it used to be. Yet OTT’s survey of the past three decades illustrates that this has always been the case. Look back at 1991, for example, when Birds of a Feather and Keeping Up Appearances – probably two of the least-loved sitcoms of the ’90s – were the only new British programmes on peak-time BBC1. Or1988, when light entertainment was represented by Bread and Russ Abbot. It seems as if the actual standard of festive television is still remarkably high.
However, Christmas Day 2003’s schedules inspired the Daily Mail, a few weeks beforehand, to splash on their front page the “news” that there were more repeats on the big day than ever before. Yet of course, this really isn’t surprising. Compared to a decade ago, we’ve now got five terrestrial channels, four of which are broadcasting 24 hours a day and as such the expansion in broadcasting hours is always going to be inexorably linked to the expansion in repeats. Indeed, one obvious reason for the increase is that in the early hours ITV1 showed a number of short cartoon repeats for 90 minutes, rather than one old film – hardly an incredible story.
As it happened, there were few surprises among 2003’s festive schedules. It certainly wasn’t the repeat bonanza that the press may have led you to believe – only two programmes in peak time had been shown before, one each on BBC2 and five. But undoubtedly the channels wheeled out the obvious big guns, all hoping to play to their strengths on Christmas Days past. The most obvious example, of course, was BBC1, where the schedule has become almost as traditional as the glory years of the 1970s.
If we’re talking statistics, though, one notable aspect of 2003 is that BBC1 perhaps featured more live programming on the day than for many years. Most of this was thanks to Breakfast, the daily news programme, swapping slots with the children’s programmes and going out on BBC1 on Christmas Day – something not even Frank and Selina did in their heyday. This ran from 6am to 9am, and then after an hour of cartoons, there was more live television with the traditional service, The Joys of Christmas, broadcast from Milton Keynes.
After all this excitement, though, it seemed as if the Beeb decided to put their feet up for the rest of the daytime. 11am saw a repeat of Hooves of Fire, the cartoon starring Robbie the Reindeer first shown on this day in 1999. Perhaps the BBC are trying to find a festive staple along the lines of The Snowman, wheeled out every year without fail and a part of the festive season for families nationwide? Something that definitely seems to have taken up this role is Morecambe and Wise, and as expected, they were back on our screens with more classic sketches – albeit this year in a compilation of their festive shows from 1975 and 1976. The premiere of The Tigger Movie at 12.40pm was an obvious choice for the family film slot, and at the very least meant The Santa Clause wasn’t on again.
The recently relaunched All New Top of the Pops, with Tim Kash now the sole presenter, filled the 2pm slot that more or less all the previous incarnations had in the past. Another slight variation on a familiar theme followed the Queen’s speech – Dear Father Christmas saw Dale Winton making dreams come true for deserving children. Obviously, Dale was doing almost exactly the same job Rolf Harris had done here two years ago, and more famously Noel Edmonds throughout the ’80s and ’90s. If this was all a bit predictable, it did at least make for an agreeable diversion to take us through the post-turkey period. Outtake TV followed, in more or less the same slot as in 2002, only with a different host, Anne Robinson, and a special show made up entirely of clips from The Weakest Link. Taking us into primetime at 4.25pm was this year’s big film premiere, and for the third consecutive year, it was an animated film – Stuart Little, ironically 24 hours after the sequel had been premiered on Sky Movies.
At 6pm we inevitably got the first of two 40-minutes episodes of EastEnders, before another Christmas Day outing for My Family. Finally at 7.10pm it was something a bit different, though still reliably familiar – Christmas Night With the Stars. A programme with this name had, until1972, been perhaps the centrepiece of the Beeb’s festive schedules, bringing together almost all the BBC’s light entertainment output in specially-recorded mini-episodes of familiar series. However this 80-minute special was more akin to Des O’Connor’s show on ITV back on Christmas Day 1996.
Here, Michael Parkinson hosted a show that was billed as “a cross between Comic Relief and the Royal Variety Performance”. What this actually meant was comedy routines with the likes of Jon Culshaw, Ricky Tomlinson and The Kumars, and music from Emma Bunton, Will Young and Busted – as well as the day’s second appearance of Victoria Beckham, having already appeared on Top of the Pops earlier, let alone a fly-on-the-wall documentary on the Beckhams on ITV1 the previous evening. Parky’s show perhaps wasn’t the most imaginative programme the BBC had broadcast, but the miscellany format meant it was ideal for dipping in and out of between the turkey sandwiches, and allowed BBC1 to combat Coronation Street without throwing away one of its stronger offerings.
The news at 8.30pm was followed by the second EastEnders, then at 9.20pm Only Fools and Horses, the third of John Sullivan’s new episodes of the ratings juggernaut. This year Sullivan was wary about describing it as “the last ever”, given that he’d said this in both 1993 and 1996 and been proven wrong. Inevitably this was the most watched programme on the 25th, with 15.5 million viewers – lower than the two previous installments, but way ahead of anything else broadcast on the day. This is despite the fact that more or less everyone had admitted that theprevious two installments had been disappointing – perhaps appropriately for this day, the public seemed willing to indulge Del and Rodney based on affection for the pair that went back a long way.
The evening was rounded off by the third annual appearance of Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona, with a special Posh and Becks-themed edition of The Big Impression at 10.35pm – perhaps one of the few programmes on this day without an appearance from the real Victoria Beckham, and in fact higher-rating than all of those. Then as usual BBC1 bunged out two movies before packing up – Pierce Brosnan’s remake of The Thomas Crown Affair then, after a brief epilogue, Airplane II: The Sequel, handing over to News 24 at 2.35am.
What did ITV1 come up with this year to combat the BBC’s big guns? As is seemingly traditional, the channel seemed to take several hours to awaken from its slumber, with a particularly dull morning. GMTV pumped out cartoons until 9.25am, before over two hours of religion – twice as much as BBC1 was offering. This involved a repeat of the animated Christmas story, A Small Miracle, followed by Tony Henry going in search of the Nativity story, and then at 11am, a repeat of the episode of My Favourite Hymns shown on Christmas Day 1999, with (the by now late) Dame Thora Hird selecting her favourite carols. Some unashamed entertainment followed, though, with the first showing of the animated Doug’s First Movie at 11.30am, then after some cartoons and the news, at 1.20pm came the ancient buddy-doggy movie Turner and Hooch.
The third channel finally got into gear after the Queen’s speech with, as in previous years, a Bond film – a newer one this time, though, Tomorrow Never Dies. The first of two celebrity editions of Who Wants to be a Millionaire followed at 5.15pm, and then after the news came a festive installment of the animation Creature Comforts – at only 15 minutes long, this was probably the best thing ITV had shown on the 25 December for years. Inevitably, the main part of the early evening was devoted to hour-long episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street – as usual smartly scheduled to avoid the offerings from Albert Square on the other side.
ITV1’s big idea this Christmas followed at 8.40pm; World Idol, a mass sing-off between 11 Pop Idol winners from around the globe. Heavily promoted and hugely expensive, ITV1 had high hopes for this show – but inevitably, opposite Alfie Moon and the Trotters it had no chance, and only managed to pick up some 4.5 million viewers. Then, less than four hours after its first screening, it was a swift repeat for Creature Comforts. After the news came the second of the night’s Millionaires, before a mediocre film to round the evening off, Fierce Creatures at 11.35pm. Overall it was a fairly anonymous day on the commercial channel, once more illustrating that, Corrie, Emmerdale and Chris Tarrant aside, they have little in the way of a festive staple that can pull in the viewers year after year.
Even BBC2 have more festive regulars than ITV1 – the prestige operas, the classic movies, the foreign films. All were present and correct this year, with My Fair Lady during the afternoon followed by Die Fledermaus from Glyndebourne, and the premiere of the acclaimed French movie Belleville Rendez-vous at 7pm. In the evening, the only repeated programme in peaktime was the Natural World documentary on the nature of Highgrove, followed by the third part of a series on predators, Wild Battlefields. Unusually, there was new entertainment on Christmas Day as well, with a festive edition of the moanathon Grumpy Old Men at 10.20pm. As last year, the late evening was devoted to repeats shown daily throughout the festive period – Room 101,The Fast Show, Red Dwarf, TOTP2 and Later with Jools Holland running until 2.20am.
All the regulars were present and correct on Channel 4 too – kids programmes all morning (RI:SE having been axed the previous week), and Muppets From Space at 1.25pm was a much better choice of family film than ITV1 were offering at the same time. The Alternative Christmas Message, delivered by two of the “stars” of Wife Swap, was shown as usual at 3pm, before two films from Christmas Days past in Oliver! and Some Like It Hot. Like BBC2, there was a foreign film – the premiere of Amelie at 9.15pm – and if the Beeb had the opera, then C4 had the dance – The Firebird at 8.15, performed by The Canadian National Ballet. Even five seemed to have found a consistent pattern for Christmas Day viewing – military documentaries all afternoon and the umpteenth screening for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
It seems bizarre that, after nearly 50 years of trying, ITV have yet to find a memorable and successful format for Christmas Day viewing. It’s especially strange given that, on an average evening, their long-running soaps, dramas and entertainment shows normally manage to defeat all-comers. Yet this is perhaps one of the best things about Christmas Day telly – viewers forget the rest of the year and look forward to something really special and out of the ordinary, something it seems only the BBC can provide. Long may it continue.