“Christmas is all around”
On Christmas Eve 2007, BBC2 screened The Comedy Christmas – the latest in what appears to be a never-ending series of documentaries paying tribute to the vintage Yuletide telly of the past. It seems no TV schedule is more scrutinised and criticised than that for 25 December – and, specifically, the BBC1 schedule.
Of course, with the likes of Morecambe and Wise and The Generation Game, Christmas Day on BBC1 has a glorious history – but it could also be said this is something of a millstone for the channel, with every successive December compared to the magical line-ups of the past.
However, in recent years it seems the channel has stumbled upon a fairly sturdy template for festive viewing, with the Christmas Day schedules throughout the decade proving to be perhaps more consistent than at any time since the golden age of the 1970s. Indeed, 25 December 2007 turned out to be a hugely successful day for the channel, thrashing ITV1 in the ratings.
This decade’s post-Queen line-up is perhaps now as familiar as it was when Billy Smart was calling the shots. Since 2001 there’s only been one year (2004) when an animated film wasn’t the big movie. This time we had a double bill of Finding Nemo and Shrek 2 – both great fun for the whole family, these films undoubtedly helped take the channel from mid-afternoon to early evening with a sizeable audience. Plus, they were still short enough to ensure there was plenty of time for home-grown programming.
At 6.20pm, as ever, came the first of two episodes of EastEnders, followed half-an-hour later by the now familiar Doctor Who special. It seems Russell T Davies has perfected the art of the Christmas episode – while clearly never the most cerebral or satisfying episodes of the series, with their big set-pieces and stunt casting they seem perfect turkey sandwich accompaniment. Hence the much-hyped guest appearance of Kylie Minogue in this bumper 70-minute edition was enough to earn the show 12.2 million viewers; its highest audience since 1979.
In recent years, such a rating would have guaranteed Who the day’s highest figure, but the second episode of EastEnders at 8pm performed even better, netting 13.8 million. Indeed, with the earlier episode also being seen by more than 11 million, these few hours on BBC1 were among their most successful of the decade – as well as disproving the school of thought people would be foregoing Christmas TV this year for the delights of DVDs and the web.
At 8.30pm came another Strictly Come Dancing special where recent contestants returned for a champion dance-off. Of course, with the whole show being recorded a few weeks beforehand, the viewers couldn’t vote for a winner, thus confirming the programme as simply an hour of inherently pointless but certainly entertaining niceness. Aside from Enders and Strictly being swapped around, this schedule was a straight repeat of last year’s line-up.
As in 2006, post-watershed revolved around a double-bill of comedy shows, one mainstream and one more alternative. However with The Vicar of Dibley following other festive staples likeOnly Fools and Horses and One Foot in the Grave into the archives, it was time to find another family success for Christmas Night. My Family, while popular enough throughout the year, had never quite managed to convince as a big draw – with this year’s festive special going out on Boxing Day – while the honeymoon period for The Green Green Grass had certainly ended, Boycie making a rather humiliatingly late appearance back on 30 December.
Instead the Beeb opted for something very different – a new episode of To the Manor Born. Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles had appeared on Christmas Day before, but that was in1979, and the series had ended for good back in 1981. However the enormous viewing figures it achieved at the time – over 24 million on one notable occasion – cemented it as one of the most successful comedy series of all time, and so a reunion was big news. Inevitably the new show failed to scale the heights it hit first time around (indeed, it surely meant nothing to most people under the age of 30), nor did it achieve much in the way of critical acclaim, but the novelty value alone ensured it did enough to keep BBC1’s ratings buoyant.
The final new programme of the day at 10.30pm was a Christmas outing for Catherine Tate – and rather surprisingly her first appearance on BBC1. Nevertheless her BBC2 series had been a huge success for the channel, as well as a top seller on DVD, and so most people were well aware of the antics of Lauren, Bernie and Nan. Christmas night was then rounded off, as ever, with a couple of old films, Speed and Romancing the Stone, before a 3am closedown for a solid BBC1 Christmas Day line-up – one of the most successful in recent years.
Earlier, the daytime schedules had been equally familiar – Breakfast, kids’ shows, the service (from Worcester Cathedral, which had also been home to the previous evening’s Midnight Mass) and the familiar mediocre film, in this case The Santa Clause 2. Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out enjoyed its umpteenth outing on BBC1 at 1pm, but was none the worse for that, and then at 1.30pm Top of the Pops made what was now its one and only fling of the year. There was more animation at 2.30pm with a new adventure for Robbie the Reindeer, making a third showing on Christmas Day after his previous appearances in 1999 and 2002.
So what of ITV1? It managed to match BBC1 pretty well during the morning with kids’ shows on both GMTV and ITV1 itself, then another repeat for 2005’s Creature Comforts special (at 10am, a rather more appropriate time than last year’s near-midnight transmission) and, as in 2006, Antony Worrall Thompson and his band of Christmas Cooks. Their film for the late morning,Casper, was probably more appealing than the Beeb’s offering at the same time. Things began to slide, though, at 1.40pm when the commercial channel led up to the Queen with the abysmal Inspector Gadget film.
Much like the General Election or the World Cup Final, although it’s broadcast on both channels, you’d always watch the Queen’s speech (if you were going to watch it at all, of course) on BBC1 – apart, perhaps, in 1991 when it came on in the middle of Coronation Street. However it was ITV1 who celebrated the 50th anniversary of the monarch’s Christmas message as it followed the speech with a special documentary, Lights! Camera! The Queen!, looking at how the Royal Family, and the UK as a whole, had changed since 1957. This was actually the first time Buckingham Palace had allowed clips of previous messages to be used on TV, but the programme seemed rather too worthy for Christmas Day viewing.
The channe then went into the evening poorly with a bog-standard unfestive episode of All Star Family Fortunes, and then at 5pm, they too screened an animated film – cartoons having seemingly replaced musicals as the genre of choice for Christmas Day – in this case, The Polar Express. However as an out-and-out children’s film, it offered little in the way of fun for grown-ups, certainly compared to the all-ages appeal of Shrek on the other side, while its “performance capture” animation technique seemed rather more creepy than charming.
In previous years ITV1 deployed the soaps against the weak spots in BBC1’s line-up, but this year Emmerdale was up against Doctor Who and hence endured one of its lowest audiences of the year. Coronation Street enjoyed slightly more fortune at 8.30pm opposite Strictly, and was in fact the only ITV1 show to beat its BBC opposition on the day … but only just, and with less than nine million viewers it was completely overshadowed by its London rivals. At least it stopped BBC1 getting a clean sweep of the top 10 ratings.
In between the soaps at 8pm was a welcome surprise, however, in the form of a Christmas episode of Harry Hill’s TV Burp. The show had come a long way since its early days at 11pm and was now a family favourite. It was certainly a refreshing change to see some pre-watershed comedy (or indeed, comedy of any kind) on ITV1, but inevitably it was soundly beaten byEastEnders. Fortunately it enjoyed a swift repeat a few days later. ITV1 then rounded off another in a long line of dull Christmas Days with the film Love Actually at 9.30pm, which was not a premiere, but at least had the decency to actually be set at Christmas.
The other three channels also churned out their familiar “difficult” fare on Christmas Day. BBC2’s main offerings were a profile of Andrea Bocelli and a bumper Christmas compilation ofDragon’s Den, amid a stack of repeats, while Channel 4, as usual, scheduled a religious documentary in the middle of primetime. Intriguingly, while the Alternative Christmas Messageappeared again – this time delivered by a soldier injured in Afghanistan – it wasn’t actually shown as an alternative to the Christmas Message, instead going out at 8pm. Meanwhile five, being five, devoted three hours from 9pm to perhaps the archetypal five show, Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of the Nineties. OTT are sure you can work out whether or not that will be looked back on fondly in years to come.
With BBC1 enjoying almost complete supremacy this Christmas, you can be sure the champagne corks were popping at TV Centre, especially as the success came in a year the channel lost its Controller in controversial circumstances. Three decades on from what’s generally considered to be the best ever festive line-up, it’s clear Christmas still means BBC1 for a huge number of people.