“What more do you need?”
One aspect of Christmas Day television seems to be rather rarer throughout the rest of the year – family viewing. It’s perhaps unsurprising as December 25th is the day when a wider audience is watching TV than at any other time, with clans getting together and the output aiming to cater for all ages. This was never better illustrated than in 2008 when pride of place in the BBC1 schedule went to an animated show.
The return of Wallace and Gromit in a made-for-TV special for the first time in 13 years was a big occasion, with the plasticine pair turning up in BBC1’s festive idents and on the cover of Radio Times. Their last adventure, A Close Shave, back in 1995 had pulled in 10 million viewers on BBC2, so A Matter of Loaf and Death was given a prime time outing at 8.30pm on BBC1. This may have seemed a little late to screen the show, with the youngest viewers already long in bed, but this failed to make much of an impact on the ratings, as 14.4 million tuned in – the highest rating of the year, and the biggest audience on Christmas Day for five years.
This was part of a double bill of Wallace and Gromit – at 4.30pm you could see their feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, on terrestrial TV for the first time. This made up the second half of the, by now, traditional double-helping of animated films on Christmas afternoon, with the post-Queen slot taken up with the premiere of Shark Tale.
In between the dynamic duo on BBC1 were the familiar Christmas night staples, and Doctor Who appeared for its fourth consecutive year. As usual Russell T Davies had managed to contrive the usual talking points around the Yuletide special, with David Morrissey appearing as “The Next Doctor”. David Tennant having recently announced his departure from the series, this was always likely to intrigue the viewer and helped it become the second most popular show of the day with 11.7 million.
At 7pm came Strictly Come Dancing, as usual facing BBC1’s toughest competition in Coronation Street. Before the festive season newspapers were reporting the Strictly brand was undergoing some tough times, with a much-publicised phone voting cock-up and The X Factor regularly pulling in around a million more viewers (albeit that the two shows were never scheduled at the same time). However the press coverage seemed to have little effect, with the final the Saturday before Christmas garnering its highest rating ever, and this Christmas Special managing to beat Corrie for the first time – by over a million viewers.
Sandwiching Wallace and Gromit were two episodes of EastEnders, which made it again the highest rated soap of the day. The second episode’s 11.5 million viewers could only take it to number three in the day’s ratings, although throughout 2008, it seemed apparent the soaps were no longer the juggernauts they once were – where previously they were guaranteed to be the top shows of the week, throughout the year various shows took a turn at number one in the ratings, including the likes of New Tricks and The Apprentice. That’s not to say they weren’t still hugely popular, though, and the antics from Albert Square continued BBC1’s dominance.
The rest of the evening followed the pattern we’ve become used to in recent years with another double helping of comedy. At 9.30pm The Royle Family made their first appearance on Christmas Day since 2000. That episode was the last in the original run, but Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash assembled the cast again for a special episode in October 2006 which proved a hit with critics and viewers alike, and the next visit to the family was a no-brainer for the prime Christmas Day slot, where it pulled in 10 million.
Then at 10.30pm came an appearance from Blackadder. A revival of this series would probably be bigger news than the return of Only Fools and Horses, but as the late slot may suggest, this wasn’t it, asBlackadder Rides Again was instead a documentary on the history of the series. Putting it above the average clip show was the fact Rowan Atkinson – a notoriously private actor – was speaking about the show alongside the rest of the cast for the first time. BBC1 then flung out some more old films – Bend It Like Beckham and Carry On Follow That Camel – before calling it a night at 3.15am.
Earlier in the day came a show that almost never happened. In November the BBC announced it had decided not to commission a Top of the Pops Christmas episode this year, feeling music would be better covered on a series of TOTP2 specials on BBC2 instead (one of which went out on the day – but at 1am!). This led to something of an outcry, including the obligatory Facebook petitions, and eventually the BBC reversed their decision, and Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates showed up at 2pm with the stars of the year and the Christmas number one.
Unsurprisingly, BBC1 again thrashed the opposition, being the most-watched channel throughout the entire day, from 6am onwards – despite a fairly anaemic morning including Breakfast, some kids’ shows, the service, the hopeless movie The Santa Clause 2 and a Two Ronnies repeat. After 2pm, though, BBC1 was on top form and once more produced a commanding schedule.
ITV1, as ever, simply waved the white flag and produced a line-up that, while vaguely Christmassy, included little that was truly special. The morning included the familiar contractually-obliged religion – here, Coleen Rooney visiting Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, not quite as adept at this kind of thing as Leslie Crowther used to be – plus Antony Worrall Thompson’s regular appearance as host of Christmas Cooks. And, of course, there were some mediocre films to take us up to The Queen – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, previously shown as part of their notorious 1993 Christmas Day schedule, and Bean.
After The Queen, ITV1 repeated their trick of two years ago and scheduled a Harry Potter film, in this caseThe Prisoner of Askaban. As before, this wasn’t a premiere, and had in fact already been screened just a few months previously when there was advertising revenue to be had. Still, it filled an awkward gap until 6pm when Emmerdale and Coronation Street received their usual hour-long episodes. However both were beaten by their BBC1 rivals – Emmerdale plunging to under five million viewers – and it’s perhaps questionable now as to what value the former, at least, has for the commercial channel on this day.
One of ITV1’s major successes this year had been Dancing on Ice, which despite being an unashamed rip-off of Strictly Come Dancing had pulled in enormous audiences. So surely a Christmas Day outing, likeStrictly, would prove to be similarly successful? Well, maybe not – while the Strictly bandwagon was still rolling, just five days after the final, ITV’s celebs hadn’t taken to the floor for nine months, making their return seem rather less thrilling. The 90-minute special did reasonable business – especially given it was up against Wallace and Gromit – but failed to attract anything like its peak audience.
Of course, ITV1 are well aware Christmas Day is one of their weakest nights of the year, and so rounded off the evening with two cost-effective specials. At 9.30pm, It’ll be Alright on The Night made its first appearance on Christmas Day for 20 years. This was the second show under the auspices of new host Griff Rhys Jones, after Denis Norden’s retirement, but where once a new episode was a major event, now it was but one of several out-take programmes and hence rather less exciting. Then at 10.30pm came a tribute to Stanley Baxter, with the veteran comic interviewed and showing some of his best work. This was a fitting salute, though hardly a massive ratings draw – as well as illustrating that ITV1 would never make a show like his these days.
The other channels also turned out their familiar Christmas schedules. BBC2 offered the traditional blend of classic comedy – including Dad’s Army in the same slot as last year – and high art, with opera in the afternoon, and their big movie being Heath Ledger’s turn as Casanova. As ever Channel 4 devoted two hours of primetime to a religious documentary, this year The Nativity Decoded, but Five offered something a little different, and at 6.45pm screened the acclaimed period drama Memoirs of a Geisha for the first time, a genuine alternative to the brash entertainment elsewhere. However, being Five, this was followed by Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of the 21st Century.
Yet as ever Christmas was all about BBC1, who are now surely enjoying their greatest period of dominance over the opposition, thrashing all comers with an impressive schedule of entertainment. And what’s more, it really was fun for all the family – whether you were more like the Royles or the Blackadders.