“All hell breaks loose in the Vic”
Nobody knew it at the time, but Christmas Day 2021 saw the end of the longest uninterrupted run of any programme on 25th December in TV history. No, not the Queen’s Christmas Message, as she’d missed a year in 1969 – but Top of the Pops.
For the first time since 1966, in 2022 there was no round-up of the year’s biggest hits on BBC1 on Christmas Day. In a way it was a surprise the run had lasted so long, given that since about the early 1990s the weekly show had been seemingly permanently threatened with the axe, and then, when it did finally come to an end in 2006, the Christmas edition continued, albeit gradually shuffling to a late morning outing, rather than early afternoon. But after 55 consecutive Christmas Day outings – which had spanned Britbeat to Britpop, glam rock to grime – it was missing this year. It wasn’t the end completely, as there was still a Christmas Top of the Pops – but in the unhallowed slot of 10.40pm on Christmas Eve on BBC2. That meant it did actually continue a run of consecutive Christmas shows which went back to 1964, but it was the end of an era for one of the most familiar fixtures of Christmas Day itself.
But of course the most obvious change came at 3pm. Although there was no Christmas message in 1969, The Queen had otherwise been a part of Christmas Day every year since 1952, though the message was simply a simulcast of the radio broadcast, rather than specifically made for TV, until 1957 (and again in 1963). Over the decades, the history of the message was in many ways the history of British TV, starting off on the nation’s single channel, broadcast live, and eventually seeing the introduction of commercial television, of pre-recording, of colour, of videotape rather than film, of subtitles, of signing, of stereo sound, of widescreen, of HD and of 3D (well, they did it once).
Now in 2022, it was time for King Charles III to start a new tradition. There was nothing radically different from his mother’s messages, though there were a few small changes – had the Queen still been alive it would have been ITN’s turn to make it, but instead it was produced by the BBC, and for the first time since 1976 it was shown on BBC2 at 3pm as well, so it could be aired with sign language simultaneously, rather than later in the day. And such was the interest this year, it was by some distance the most-watched programme on Christmas Day, with 8.1 million people watching on BBC1, and over 10 million when you added on all the other channels – the biggest audience for the royal message this century.
There was one other change this yuletide too – no Doctor Who! It hadn’t been on Christmas Day for a couple of years now, but there wasn’t a special on New Year’s Day either, meaning this was the first time since 2004 without a new episode at some point over the festive season. Yet for quite a few people, the debut of a trailer for the new series in 2023 was the most exciting thing broadcast on the big day, and with Russell T Davies back in charge and suggesting he’d like to see it return to the 25th, next year might be very different.
Despite these changes, the rest of Christmas looked fairly familiar, especially on BBC1. Things got underway as usual with Breakfast and cartoons, and as Christmas Day was a Sunday there was a double helping of religion with the service from Blackburn Cathedral followed by a special Songs of Praise from Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff. In place of Pops was animated films old and new in the shape of Abominable and Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon, before the now traditional Julia Donaldson adaptation, The Smeds and The Smoos featuring the usual stellar cast of voices.
Then after the King came the afternoon film, which following on from Cinderella and The Jungle Book in recent years was another live-action reimagining of a familiar animated favourite. Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of Aladdin wasn’t perhaps the most acclaimed movie to appear in this slot but it did decent business for BBC1, with over four million viewers. This was followed by Strictly, down a little bit ratings-wise on last year but still pulling in enough to make it the most-watched show after the King’s message, and The Wheel, which pulled in a slightly bigger audience than 2021.
No Blankety Blank this year, though, as that moved over to Christmas Eve to make way for the first pre-watershed sitcom on the big day since Miranda back in 2014. Now on its fourth series, Ghosts was a great example of how the way we watched comedy had changed in recent years – it had never pulled in huge ratings live on BBC1, but millions more had watched it (many several times over) on iPlayer in recent years. Although it only pulled in just under four million viewers on the night, over the next few months it could expect to be watched by just as many people in total as the likes of Birds of a Feather and Bread in the 1980s and ’90s.
Three familiar shows followed – the 11th Call the Midwife special, EastEnders and Mrs Brown’s Boys. It’s been a long time since the last two were the highlight of Christmas Day’s viewing, EastEnders now seemingly in terminal decline as a ratings force, with the Beeb happily booting it around the schedule whenever anything more interesting came along. But the departure of Danny Dyer was enough of a novelty for it to end the day as top soap, though if anything illustrates the genre was flagging it’s that it only made it the eighth most-watched show of the day. However with the Queen’s passing and Pops shifted, EastEnders now held the record for consecutive Christmas Day appearances, having not missed one since 1992 (while Coronation Street skipped 1993). Mrs Brown’s Boys, meanwhile, was making its 10th consecutive appearance on Christmas Day, though after often being the number one show , it failed to even make it into the top 10 this year, its 10.30pm slot suggesting more contractual obligation than any great comedic inspiration is keeping it on our screens.
A Dibley repeat and When Harry Met Sally rounded off Christmas Day on BBC1 – one you’d probably file under solid rather than spectacular. But at a time when linear TV ratings were falling off a cliff, the overall figures remained pretty similar year-on-year – a few shows down a bit, a few up a bit – and that in itself is probably enough to make it a satisfying result for the channel.
What of ITV1 (the channel returned to this name in autumn)? The triumvirate of Good Morning Britain, Lorraine and This Morning have now seemingly been established as a Christmas fixture, similarly the double helping of Christmas cookery from James Martin and Ainsley Harriott. It’s true it’s not the most spectacular of line-ups, but at least it’s all new, and it was hardly as if the network were banging out the classics in this slot previously.
After the King came the usual brantub of slight light entertainment. At 3.10pm was Alan Carr, who over the past decade was a familiar presence as part of Channel 4’s Christmas Day line-up. But for the past few years he’s made a seemingly successful transition to the mainstream with his Epic Game Show running for three series on Saturday night ITV. This umbrella format of vintage quiz formats made for entertaining viewing, though some of them have worn rather better than others, and this Christmas special revived Child’s Play which was hardly the most compelling prospect back in the 1980s. In fact this Christmas Day broadcast was actually intended to be a repeat, the first transmission planned for the previous weekend, but extra time in the World Cup Final saw it postponed and meant it was now its first showing, which at least provided another hour of new content for the day. The compilation of comic sketches from Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway that followed really was a repeat, though.
Into the evening, The Chase returned at 5pm after a year off in 2021, before the regular soaps double bill. This year had seen some big changes to the soap schedules on ITV1, with Emmerdale now broadcast opposite EastEnders four times a week, seemingly denting both, while, after 60-plus years as a half hour show, Coronation Street was now shown in 60-minute instalments, three times a week. This did mean an hour-long episode on Christmas Day didn’t really feel that much different to any other edition, and both soaps pulled in pretty middling figures for some seemingly pretty middling episodes.
Ant and Dec were back at 8pm with a special edition of their new quiz Limitless Win, which had done decent business for ITV1 on Saturday nights earlier in the year, though you’d think watching the dynamic duo mess around, Takeaway-style, might be more fun for Christmas Day than seeing the pair of them looking po-faced and reciting endless rules on a pretty bog-standard big money game show. That was followed by something a bit more special, the very last episode of Doc Martin. This hugely popular drama had begun way back in 2004 and last appeared on Christmas Day in 2006. The series had come to a proper conclusion earlier this year and this was something of a seasonal bonus, a light-hearted edition played for the lowest stakes, but engaging enough people to make it ITV’s top show. The channel rounded off the evening with the umpteenth screening of Love Actually and, a bit of a novelty at 1am, a repeat of last week’s Royal Variety Performance.
As ever the biggest competition for familiar festive viewing came from Channel 4, who went so traditional this year that even The Great Escape was wheeled out to fill most of the afternoon (albeit it’s a film that appeared on Christmas Day more in sitcoms than in reality). The Alternative Christmas Message this year was delivered by a robot with their entire speech generated by artificial intelligence – and AI could probably have scheduled the rest of the evening, with Home Alone 2 and the Gogglebox compilation present and correct. No Bake-Off this time, though, which was on Christmas Eve instead. However, its place was taken by the almost identical Great Pottery Throwdown.
BBC2 provided the day’s token concession to the high arts with Matthew Bourne’s new production of The Nutcracker in the afternoon, while the classics abounded for the rest of the day with black and white films, Dad’s Army and Morecambe and Wise, though the latter was a bit of a novelty with the lesser-spotted 1972 Christmas show getting a first outing for many years. Christmas night was also Tina Turner night with a new documentary the centrepiece of a stack of musical repeats.
If you wanted the most traditional Christmas, BBC4 could oblige with a film of Mark Gatiss’ stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol, followed by classical music, while BBC3, back as a fully-fledged TV channel after several years online only, served up an edition of Canada’s Drag Race. Channel 5, meanwhile, presented a new adaptation of The Canterville Ghost in the afternoon before letting the clip shows take over for most of the evening.
The new face at 3pm was the most obvious example of change this year, though for all that some familiar shows seem to have been part of the line-up for ages, the likes of EastEnders, Strictly and Call the Midwife will need to continue for a long, long time before they start to threaten Top of the Pops’ record of 55 consecutive Christmas Day appearances. And with the once immovable Pops now found elsewhere, who knows what the next few years may bring?