“Jim favours buying an HD satellite box”
Another decade of festive television comes to an end. Anyone predicting the future of Christmas TV at the end of the1990s would no doubt have suggested a tale of continually declining ratings, with the rise and rise of digital television, but in fact viewing figures on BBC1 – the established choice on Christmas Day – stayed largely consistent in the noughties.
Soothsayers at the start of the decade would probably also feel fairly confident in predicting an end to the mainstream comedy that usually took its place on Christmas Day BBC1. Certainly in 2000, you couldn’t move for continued thinkpieces in the papers lamenting the death of the sitcom, and the BBC seemed to be relying on endless “last ever episodes” of Only Fools and Horses and The Vicar of Dibley to generate festive cheer. Yet on Christmas Day 2009, BBC1’s schedule was dominated by three comedy specials, all of which pulled in impressive audiences.
Pride of place at 9pm went to The Royle Family, for the second successive Christmas Day. There hadn’t actually been a whole series with the Royles since 2000, as, like Only Fools and Horses and Morecambe and Wise of Christmases past, the show now only existed in the form of one-off specials. Yet this ensured a new episode continued to be much anticipated, and with over 10 million people tuning in, the show which had started as a BBC2 experiment at the end of the’90s was certainly established as one of the most popular comedies of its generation.
Following the Royles at 10pm came another slice of family life with Gavin and Stacey. Again, this is a series that started in modest surroundings – in this case, on BBC3 – but through word-of-mouth had established itself as a national talking point. Unusually, though, this wasn’t an episode specially made for Christmas Day, or even Christmas at all, but instead one from the third series that just happened to be running at the moment, featuring the Shipmans and Wests having fun on the beach in the height of summer – surely the most unfestive thing screened on the 25th since the bog-standard everyday instalment of Dallas in 1981. The show was hugely popular, though, and this festive placing helped prime audiences for its conclusion on New Year’s Day.
Finally at 10.30pm came a new show for Catherine Tate, making her second appearance on BBC1 that day, having previously turned up in Doctor Who. Indeed BBC1’s Christmas Day schedule would later come under fire by the press for its over-reliance on a handful of bankable stars, with Tate joined in this special by Gavin and Stacey’s Mathew Horne, appearing in two successive shows, and the Doctor himself, David Tennant. Yet this isn’t a new complaint and every generation has had a fair number of stars TV producers can’t get enough of – look at Michael Crawford’s domination of the festive line-up way back in 1974.
This triple bill of comedy may not have stopped the nation as Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronniesonce did, but it was a major player in ensuring BBC1 continued their now familiar domination of the schedule.
Just as familiar was the schedule early in the day, with Breakfast, the kids’ shows and the church service all present and correct. At 11.15am came another screening for the recent episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, the Doctor Who spin-off for CBBC, which featured a guest appearance by, him again, David Tennant. But for all Tennant’s exposure this Christmas – he was also popping up between the programmes on the BBC1 ident – his departure from the role of the Doctor this year means, cumulatively he’s unlikely to appear on Christmas Day quite as much as Tim Allen, star of The Santa Clause. This undistinguished movie was unspooled at noon for the fourth time this decade – and that’s not counting the two screenings of the sequel on Christmas Days past as well, plus Allen’s voice work in the Toy Story films. In fact it could be said Allen has appeared on Christmas Day this decade more than anybody else, but would you be able to recognise him?
With none of the indecision of recent years, Top of the Pops was always scheduled for 2pm, although the BBC press office was quick to point out that both this, and the second part on New Year’s Eve, were one-off specials and definitely not part of a regular weekly series. Equally as familiar was The Queen playing her regular role as warm-up to an animated film, The Incredibles. The diet of animation led us into teatime, firstly with a screening for Shrek The Halls, the made-for-TV half-hour first screened on the Beeb a few Christmases ago but only now making an appearance on the day itself, holding a family audience during an awkward slot, and then a new adaption of the much-loved children’s book The Gruffalo.
In between all his other TV appearances, David Tennant had found time to appear in a series called Doctor Who, which made its fifth consecutive Christmas Day outing at 6pm. This was Tennant’s penultimate ride in the TARDIS before he bowed out on New Year’s Day, and although an audience of 10 million was highly impressive – and placed it again among the highest rated shows of the year – this was slightly down on the ratings-busting efforts of the last two years, possibly due to it being very much an appetiser to the really big episode seven days later.
The familiar successes continued to be wheeled out during the evening, with Strictly Come Dancing at 7pm filling its usual role as stooge to Coronation Street. The venerable series had not enjoyed its greatest year in 2009, with The X Factor dominating the Saturday night ratings and the papers gleefully reporting all manner of cock-ups both on- and off-stage, although regular weekly ratings of eight million-plus are not to be sniffed at. In addition, this special failed to repeat its feat of last year and actually beat Corrie, but it would be hard to see how else BBC1 could combat ITV1’s one guaranteed success without breaking the bank.
At 8pm came EastEnders, this year in one big hour-long chunk, which with an audience of 10.9 million was the highest-rated programme of the day. After the comedy block came a late news bulletin, an epilogue and at 11.45pm the film Speed, rather oddly for the second time over three Christmases. In between all that, our thoughts must go to the hapless OJ Borg who, because it was a Friday and Christmas Day isn’t quite the special occasion it is here elsewhere in Europe, found himself spending the night in a TV studio reading out the results of the Euromillions lottery draw, surely the worst job in the world.
If the BBC1 schedule is increasingly familiar, so ITV1’s schedule has that recognisable air of a channel aiming to appear festive while spending as little money as possible. Indeed, having two weeks earlier pulled in nearly 19 million viewers for the grand final of The X Factor, at a time when the shops were still trying to promote their Christmas wares, you could argue their Christmas Day had already been and gone earlier in December. ITV1’s schedule wasn’t as annoyingly unfestive as in previous years but was predictably uninspiring. Yes, Antony Worrall Thompson and the Creature Comforts repeat were back in the morning, while lunchtime was filled up with a couple of movies – The Polar Express, far more at home here than in its ill-advised primetime spot two years previously, and Santa Claus: The Movie, making its first appearance on Christmas Day ITV1 after umpteen screenings on the Beeb. It’s not quite as epoch-shattering as Eric and Ernie defecting, we feel.
After The Queen, ITV1 was probably at their most competitive, with a new You’ve Been Framed special followed by the premiere of the film Happy Feet, a more entertaining effort than some of the movies screened in this slot in recent years – one probably good enough to appear on BBC1. As usual, an hour-long Emmerdale and an hour-long Coronation Street followed, as is ITV1’s wont, Emmerdale falling foul of ‘Who but Corrie managing to beat the Beeb this year. Then ITV1 quietly retired from the fight, with a festive episode of Mr and Mrs scheduled against EastEnders, the latest in a long line of ITV1 entertainment shows shoved out in hopeless slots over Christmas to pull in a fraction of its regular audience. At 9pm came a new episode of Poirot, of the kind that could happily go out any week of the year, with most viewers deciding they could wait to catch it on one of its umpteen repeats. The film Gladiator rounded off a standard cut-price Christmas on ITV1.
It could be said that BBC2 was more entertaining than ITV1 this year, certainly in primetime where the endless opera and ballet were very much a thing of a past. Sadly it instead made way for a stack of repeats, including at 8pm the same episode of Dad’s Army in the same slot it had been for the previous two years, followed by an episode of Blackadder The Third and another outing for the previous week’s Top Gear. Earlier in the evening James May presented a new episode of his Toy Stories series, playing with Hornby trains, and the high-minded BBC2 of old was not completely forgotten, with the film of La Boheme in the afternoon.
Channel 4 rung the changes, too, electing not to screen the usual lengthy religious show in the middle of primetime. Instead came another showing for the Cutting Edge documentary about the disfigured Katie Piper, to tie in with the former model delivering the Alternative Christmas Message, and a premiere for the film Grey Gardens. Five once more reached into the bargain basement with an evening of programmes about ABBA, all repeats, with ABBA: The Movie placed at the end of the evening for merry channel hoppers to screech along to.
2009 perhaps wasn’t a vintage TV Christmas Day – by which of course we mean a BBC1 Christmas Day. Indeed the fact that two of the big programmes were actually looking forward to huge climaxes elsewhere in the festive season explain why ratings were slightly lower than in previous years. Yet throughout the decade, and despite the media landscape changing beyond all recognition, ratings have remained buoyant – testament to the timeless appeal of classic Christmas TV.