“Life really doesn’t get much better”
One of the reasons why Christmas Day television remains so important and unique in the telly year is that it remains more or less the one day when the traditions of the past continue to be observed. The TV is normally switched on around lunchtime and stays on all day; the family tends to watch as one instead of everyone going off to different channels on different TVs; and BBC2 and Channel 4 return to the self-consciously “alternative” remits that they took up some 20 or 30 years ago.
Time was it was also one of the few days of the year when BBC1 would lord it over ITV1, who would baulk at the idea of wasting big shows when all the shops were shut and there were hardly any adverts, and so simply make a token gesture to compete. Throughout 2006, however, the commercial channel had suffered poor ratings and dreadful publicity, and so a BBC1 victory on the big day was no longer that unique.
Christmas Day 2006 saw ITV1 put out most of the same type of fare as they had in previous years – a grab-bag of films, repeats and the odd original show, along with the big soaps, to give the impression of competing while having already shown the really good stuff in the more profitable period earlier in the autumn.
The channel started the day with the usual burst of cartoons from GMTV, followed by religion ,with the next part of their continuing documentary looking behind the scenes of Canterbury Cathedral which had been running on Sunday mornings. Something new followed at 10.30am, however, with Christmas Cooks, part of a spin-off from Antony Worrall Thompson’s Saturday morning culinary feast that was running every day over the holiday period. After the excitement of brand new programmes in the morning, however, lunchtime was filled with Alice in Wonderland and The Grinch – both of which were being screened for the second consecutiveChristmas Day on ITV1.
After The Queen came yet more repeats, as Phillip Schofield counted down the Best Ever Christmas Films, as he had done on Christmas Eve in 2005. Then, to see the channel through until the evening, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone – just two years after it had been the big Christmas Day film on BBC1. This mass of repeats – which, excepting the news andThe Queen, totalled seven hours – was a rather half-hearted offering from ITV1, but at least it was all festive enough and allowed them to fill up the daytime without wasting any of its top drawer offerings.
Indeed, it’s likely that the first time most people watched the channel on this day came at 7pm, where as expected Emmerdale and Coronation Street both got their usual hour-long outings. After they’d finished, most people probably switched back over again, and ITV1 probably didn’t mind. At 9pm there was a special episode of Doc Martin, which like The Booze Cruise andMidsomer Murders in previous years was a hugely popular series but hardly the most sparkling attempt to pull in a massive audience against the Beeb’s crackers. After the news at 11pm came a repeat of last year’s Creature Comforts – surely not a time when the target audience would be about – and then a load of old films to the small hours.
For the first time in a long while, there was no episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire on Christmas Day. With the series not quite the draw it once was, Chris Tarrant asked the questions on Boxing Day instead. So as ever, ITV1’s festive line-up revolved entirely around the big soaps, with the channel seemingly happy to concede the other 22 hours to BBC1 – which they certainly did.
BBC1 began in the by now familiar way with Breakfast, kids’ shows (including an hour-long episode of regular Saturday morning show TMi) and religion. To take us up to lunchtime, a previous Christmas Day big film, Babe, was dragged out again at 11.20am. Then at 1pm came a special edition of Doctor Who Confidential, which covered the recent concert at the Cardiff Millennium Centre featuring the music from the series – a useful way to promote one of the Beeb’s big guns coming up later.
Earlier this year, Top of the Pops had come to an end as a regular weekly series after 42 years. However viewers were assured that the show would live on through its Christmas episode which, thanks to having the entire year’s records to choose from, meant it was able to guarantee a stellar guest list. Hence the festive institution continued to appear at 2pm, entering its fifth decade as a fixture on the big day – followed, of course, by a word from the boss at three.
Reviewing the line-up on Christmas Day 2005, OTT remarked that it wouldn’t be until 2006 that we could see how The Green Green Grass would fare when the Only Fools connection became more of a distant memory and it had to stand on its own two feet as a series in its own right. Sure enough, from last year’s 8pm slot, Boycie and Marlene now found themselves in the middle of the afternoon – not something Del and Rodney had to put up with very often. Still, it made for amiable post-turkey viewing, as did the day’s film premiere, Monsters Inc – continuing the trend for an animated film to take pride of place on the 25th. A solid if unspectacular afternoon was rounded off by another festive outing for My Family at 5.20pm.
Still, there were plenty of top shows to wheel out when the really big audiences turned on. At 6.30pm, the Christmas Day EastEnders moved back to being screened in two parts, topping and tailing the evening and – of course – staying away from its rivals on ITV1. Then at 7pm cameanother Christmas Day Doctor Who. It’s perhaps remarkable to remember that just two years ago nobody had a clue as to whether the revival of the series would be a success or not, but now it had truly established itself as a festive staple – and this instalment with special guest Catherine Tate had enough stardust and spectacle to make it worthy of the prime slot for a second year.
Then at 8pm was the hugely welcome arrival of Bruce Forsyth, making his first appearance on Christmas Day since The Generation Game in 1992. Here he hosted a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Party where the stars from previous series came back together for a final dance-off. It had been a long time since a shameless variety show such as this had been a major part of the festive viewing, but the series was a huge hit – as well as a fairly inexpensive way to combatCoronation Street, which was obviously going to be ITV1’s biggest draw (as it did indeed turn out).
At 9pm came the second visit to Albert Square, and at 9.30pm was The Vicar of Dibley. As with another festive favourite, Only Fools and Horses, Dawn French’s vehicle had only existed as one-off specials for many years. This was the first of two programmes over the holidays, with the second on New Year’s Day, which would apparently be our last ever visit to Dibley … until the next one. Shades of Only Fools again, and that show had proven that even announcements like this wouldn’t guarantee the end, – but enough people had enough affection for the perennially “nice” series to ensure that, with 11.5 million viewers, it was the most watched programme of the day.
The new shows came to an end at 10.30pm with a special episode of Little Britain – again, the first of two shows over the festive season – which completed the show’s remarkable transformation from BBC3 experiment in 2003 to cultural phenomenon. Old films took us to a closedown at half past two and a solid, successful BBC1 Christmas Day.
Of the other channels, Channel 4 made perhaps the most surprising decision by screening – gasp! – light entertainment in prime time. Deal or No Deal? appeared at 7pm, battling it out against Emmerdale and Doctor Who, while at 10pm they screened Ricky Gervais’ interview with Christopher Guest. Other than this C4 churned out most of the regular Christmas Day staples again, including The Snowman at 2.30pm, umpteen episodes of The Simpsons, The Alternative Christmas Message from a veiled Muslim woman and a lengthy religious documentary at 8pm, in this case The Secret Family of Jesus.
BBC2 concentrated on the usual opera, ballet and culture, with the recent film adaptation ofNicholas Nickleby the centrepiece of the evening at 8pm. Elsewhere, five perhaps sensibly decided that it would be just another Monday, flinging out old films, The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and at 9pm, about the 20th screening of Greatest Embarrassing TV Moments. Well, nobody was going to be watching anyway.
As ever, BBC1 dominated the Christmas Day ratings, filling up four of the top five places withThe Vicar of Dibley, both episodes of EastEnders and Doctor Who. Once more, Television Centre had delivered the goods and produced one of the most appealing and enjoyable Christmas Day schedules of recent times. It’s good to know that some Christmas traditions remain sacred…