“It can be hard after losing a loved one”
After last year’s Covid-curbed Christmas, and despite the pandemic being nowhere near over, Christmas Day 2021 looked a bit more familiar. We were still getting fun-sized editions of EastEnders, and studio audiences were still sparsely populated, but the Christmas schedules were mostly free of the supersized Zoom quizzes and endless clip shows that had become a staple of lockdown viewing. And as, negative tests permitting, more families could gather together than 12 months ago, this all meant the Christmas Day schedules were once more watched by the widest possible audience.
BBC1 started as ever with Breakfast and then a host of animations from Christmas Days past, including both adventures for Zog and Stick Man. The Beeb now have a huge back catalogue of these programmes which they happily use to fill out the daytime schedules for much of the fortnight – always making for entertaining viewing and a world away from the ropey imported cartoons that would often go under the CBBC banner in the 1980s and ’90s. They sandwiched the morning service from Coventry Cathedral before, at noon, came this year’s festive Top of the Pops. A bit of an end of an era here as it was the first Christmas show not presented by Fearne Cotton since 2003, ending her 16-year span of consecutive Christmas Day appearances. Instead Jordan North joined Clara Amfo to review the year’s biggest hits.
The rest of the pre-Queen line-up was filled up by a middling premiere in The Secret Life of Pets 2 and another new Julia Donaldson animation, this time Superworm with the familiar stellar cast list – Olivia Colman and Matt Smith among those providing the voices and no doubt enjoying the additional kudos among the younger members of their family.
For the second year running, the most watched programme of the day was The Queen’s Christmas Message – and by some distance, with 7.4 million tuning in on BBC1, over a million more than the second-placed show, with another million and a half on ITV. Whether this is thanks to increased interest in what Her Majesty has to say, or it says more about the rest of the line-up, this is Liz’s most impressive period of ratings success since the 1980s. Surely one day they’ll make it a series.
Following that was a very belated follow-up – the premiere of Mary Poppins Returns, 37 years since the original had premiered in the exact same slot. The big movie premiere certainly isn’t the draw it once was, with most films available to watch from the comfort of your own home within months of their cinema release, and the fact the original took two decades to reach British TV while this was on BBC1 within three years rather illustrates that. But it did decent business for the Beeb and moved them into the evening in suitably festive fashion.
After last year’s truncated series and Christmas clip show, Strictly Come Dancing returned to full-strength in 2021, albeit with a few injuries and pull-outs along the way, and things went well enough to allow for a fully-fledged Christmas show as well. This was a return to the old format of six brand new celebrities taking to the floor for a bit of a novelty, and the excitement of seeing a waltzing Adrian Chiles was enough to pull in the Beeb’s second-biggest audience of the day with 5.8 million viewers.
Next came two shows making a second appearance on Christmas Day, after successful debuts last year. Twelve months ago Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel was only a few weeks into its first run when it was pressed into service for Christmas Night, but it was now midway through a second successful series and had established itself as one of BBC1’s most reliable entertainment shows. Then came another festive Blankety Blank, which after its revival on the 25th last year had spun off into a series in 2021 that also did decent business. Okay, so both shows benefitted from some useful scheduling off the back of Strictly, but in an era when viewers are quicker than ever to look elsewhere if they’re not enjoying something, it’s clear the audience can’t all be made up of people who’ve lost the remote and they are successful series in their own right.
Following the lightest of light entertainment at 8pm came, remarkably, the 10th Call The Midwife Christmas special – a series that shows no sign of flagging and must now be up there as one of the Beeb’s most successful ever dramas. After that came EastEnders, which had endured another unimpressive year of ratings, although the 20-minute episodes flung out at awkward times can’t have helped it, especially when it was then booted around during the summer of sport, but while no longer the night’s major attraction, clearly it’s still considered enough of a tradition.
After that came another edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys, after Brendan O’Carroll had signed a new contract with the Beeb which had apparently guaranteed an outing on the 25th for its duration. Whether this was true or not, what was a few years ago the highest-rated show on the big day failed to even make it into the top 10, behind even the programme that is now seemingly forever referred to as “the ailing EastEnders”. There hasn’t actually been a full series of the sitcom since 2013, and maybe, like Only Fools and Horses, there’s something to be said for O’Carroll thinking about a return to that format rather than having to stuff all his comedic eggs in one basket.
A repeat of The Vicar of Dibley followed to round off the night, meaning the BBC1 schedule from 5pm til midnight was the same as last year – but obviously the programmes themselves were different (including some studio audiences!) and given the highest-rated programme of the day, back at 3pm, made its first appearance back in 1952, you can hardly suggest the audience is crying out for anything amazingly new on the big day.
One great example of that is that two million people chose to watch Channel 4’s umpteenth screening of Home Alone 2 at teatime, while the rest of their line-up was pretty much unchanged from the last few years with another Gogglebox retrospective filling up the evening and the return of the festive Bake-Off to the 25th. A new animated version of Terry Pratchett’s Abominable Snow Baby meant that C4’s Christmas, in terms of its mix of familiar faces and family favourites, was barely that much different to BBC1.
And what of ITV? Despite Christmas Day being a Saturday, they repeated last year’s schedule of Good Morning Britain, Lorraine and This Morning. Hardly the most original programming, and all pre-recorded of course, but with the former’s most famous presenter having departed earlier this year, there was no danger of culture wars accompanying the Christmas presents and all three devoted their running time to the kind of good news stories and silliness that used to be the role of Noel Edmonds’ yuletide endeavours. And given the array of B-list stuff they used to fill up the daytime hours with, it’s hard to say it’s any great step backwards. After Phil and Holly’s bulging sack of festive innuendoes came a double bill of Christmas cookery shows from James Martin and Ainsley Harriott.
As ever, ITV’s aim on Christmas Day was to provide suitably festive fare without wasting any of the really big shows that would be better shown elsewhere when the shops weren’t shut and there was more advertising revenue to be had. Even so, the post-Queen screening of the old Dudley Moore film Santa Claus The Movie, as first shown on BBC1 way back in 1988, was a bit of a low point even by the standards of ITV’s recent Christmas Days, unless any nostalgic thirtysomethings were looking in. No quizzes this year, either, The Chase happily appearing on every other day of the holiday instead, with Paul O’Grady returning to Christmas Day for the first time since 2018.
Then at six came The Masked Singalong, a special edition of the spot-the-star series that had proven a big hit for ITV since its debut in January 2020. Yet once more this followed the likes of Britain’s Got Talent and Dancing On Ice as ratings bankers on any other day withering in the face of the onslaught from BBC1, and probably rightly so as this special was made up pretty much entirely of previously shown performances with the lyrics on the screen. Seemingly everyone had their fill of clip shows last Christmas. The usual hour-long episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street followed, beaten by their BBC opposition but both topping EastEnders to ensure BBC1 didn’t get a clean sweep of the top 10.
Thirty years ago, ITV’s adaptation of The Darling Buds of May was the biggest show on TV, and indeed the first sign that the commercial channel were less interested in competing on Christmas Day came in 1991 when its festive special was surprisingly not screened on the big day, as everyone expected, but a week earlier when they could sell a load more adverts around it. But in 2021, the Larkins did finally make it to the 25th with a special edition of ITV’s new adaptation of HE Bates’ stories. The series had debuted earlier this year to a positive, if muted response, and in his role of Pop Larkin, Bradley Walsh managed to do double duty on Christmas Day for the second year running. But the new series certainly hadn’t established itself in the public’s affections enough to stop this special being blown off the screen by both BBC1 and Channel 4. The umpteenth screening of Love Actually rounded off a pretty unimpressive Christmas Day for ITV.
BBC2 was the place to go for most of the trappings of a traditional TV Christmas, with black and white films and classic comedy abounding. The best example of the latter came from Morecambe and Wise – not just with another screening of the 1971 Christmas show, but also the first outing in over half a century for an episode from 1970 long thought lost before Eric’s son Gary discovered it in his attic. And while we don’t have those long slabs of foreign films and the fine arts we used to get, BBC2 did offer something suitably cultured as the main attraction with Ron Howard’s prestige biography of Pavarotti. Meanwhile Channel 5, other than a screening of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, decided to offer itself up as suitable background noise for family gatherings with non-stop pop, including three hours of Britain’s Favourite 80s Songs.
For many families, Christmas Day 2021 saw something of a return to normality after last year’s disrupted celebrations. And with BBC1 and C4 offering familiar fare, and ITV scraping the barrel, the same could be said of the Christmas telly as well.