“An unashamedly sentimental festive offering.”
ITV’s failure in 1993 did not go unnoticed by the press or the ITC. They may have been correct to not try very hard on Christmas Day, but a failure to gain viewers on possibly the biggest night of the year doesn’t look good. Network Centre were told to try harder the following year, and it was this decision that made Christmas Night perhaps more competitive than at any time in the past decade or so. It wasn’t hard to imagine in 1993 that ITV would “opt out” of Christmas Day altogether for the foreseeable future, but that schedule was so badly received that they had to start trying again.
So this year ITV tried harder than for many years – though seemingly nobody had told GMTV who stuck with their usual tedious Sunday line-up. Thus at 6am we had a round up of the week’s news signed for the deaf, then at 7am the odious Alistair Stewart presented “highlights” of his Sunday Programme, including the long-awaited second chance to see “Neil and Glenys Kinnock present their first TV show”. At 8am they did finally realise the vast majority of the audience was under 10, and Richard Orford and Phillippa Forrester (having left CBBC that summer) were dispatched to Disney World’s Christmas parade for a Disney Adventuresspecial.
ITV started their day with a 50 minute Scooby Doo special, then the normal weekly instalment of the disability magazine Link. As it was a Sunday, contractual obligation was brought into play next and the usual two-hour marathon Sunday Matters, with Sue Cook examining “current events from a religious and ethical perspective”. Merry Christmas to you too, Sue. At least the programme included the morning worship, from St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham. Things livened up at 12.40pm with a new animation, Mole’s Christmas, based on The Wind in the Willows (always a fave with animators, as we’ll see) and voiced by Richard Briers among others. To take us up to the Queen, though, was an unknown Disney TV movie called The Christmas Star with Ed Asner. Still, things could only get better …
On the other side, Zoë Ball and CBBC kicked off the day at 6.45am with the usual mix of festive cartoons – some enjoying their umpteenth screening, the main event being Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, an hour-long cartoon narrated by Fred Astaire, surely boring the child audience. This took us up to 10am, and while in 1988, the last time Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, Songs of Praise was given a peak time slot, this year it was relegated to mid-morning – they pushed the boat out, though, with Pam Rhodes introducing the programme live from All Hallows Church in London, a link-up with 1000 carol singers in Blackpool and Marti Caine visiting Lapland. Oh, and Don Maclean held a house party.
There was film fun at 11am with the premiere of Jetsons: The Movie, a fairly charmless piece drenched with many songs by Tiffany, but at least we had a Tom & Jerry short at 12.20pm to look forward to. Then there must be something about the preserving effect of a Sunday, as another unfestive programme seemingly couldn’t be moved from its regular slot – theEastEnders omnibus went out at 12.30pm. Later on, too, we saw a repeat of the previous night’s Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush on Channel 4. At least we didn’t get Country File. Top of the Pops followed at 2pm, but with a new producer in charge we could at last look forward to some unashamed miming and guest presenters Take That arsing around in silly hats. Also, as it was a Sunday, the programme had the honour of announcing the Christmas number one – presumably recording several announcements and showing the correct one, as opposed to dragging Gary Barlow away from his dinner.
ITV started to improve during the day, but 3.10pm saw the regions show either The Empire Strikes Back or Mary Poppins (interestingly, exactly 10 years after BBC1 had shown it), which was not quite what viewers may have expected for such a strong slot, nor was the Bugs Bunny TV Special that filled a 20 minute gap afterwards. Bond got a Boxing Day placing this year, although it was only the “unofficial” Never Say Never Again at 4.20pm. But from 6.05pm the schedule was much better – starting off with Sleeping Beauty, the Disney film which was made in 1959, but only then receiving its TV premiere. Disney seem very sparing with their films, though, and many of their most popular films have never been shown on terrestrial television, so this was a bit of a scoop. Coronation Street followed, as it should, at 7.30pm, then Blind Dateand Heartbeat were popular, if predictable, choices. These were followed by a programme from the In the Wild series, where Robin Williams was taken to meet dolphins, then Kiri Te Kanawa and guests performing carols in Coventry Cathedral.
Yet BBC1 remained the victors with another strong schedule. Things livened up after the Queen with Noel Edmonds followed by a special Animal Hospital at 4.10pm – following on from its successful week-long series the previous August. The news was followed by The Wrong Trousers – not the first showing, though, that had been on BBC2 the previous Boxing Day, but it had already been established as a favourite thanks to many screenings, and no doubt gave BBC1 a large family audience. Indeed, the premiere of A Close Shave on Christmas Eve 1995 would generate an audience of over 10 million on BBC2. Keeping Up Appearances followed at 5.25pm, then at 6.15pm was EastEnders – seemingly earlier than usual so the BBC could show the big film, Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves at 6.45pm, useful scheduling for families with slightly older children. Then after the watershed it was comedy, with One Foot in the Gravepromoted to Christmas Day (Birds of a Feather at last shifting to Christmas Eve) and then another Victoria Wood special at 9.40pm. The schedule seems to finish rather early, though, with Morecambe and Wise, this year from 1971, at 10.40pm and Eddie Murphy (him again!) in the repeated movie Trading Places at 11.30pm. But Victor Meldrew was the victor, even againstHeartbeat, with 15.1 million viewers.
BBC2 this year seemed to be aimed specifically at the elderly, starting off the day with the MGM compilation film That’s Entertainment at 8am, then Rex Harrison as Doctor Dolittle before a double bill of documentaries marking World War II and that year’s D-Day commemorations. In the afternoon there was a repeat outing for the drama Hard Times, a production made for schools TV, but with a cast list including Alan Bates, Bob Peck and Richard E Grant, it deserved an outing on adult TV. In the evening there were repeat showings for the Carpenters in concert and the best of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and a celebrity edition of the tedious panel game Today’s the Day. The channel livened up in the evening, though, with an opera (this year Aida) and Demi Moore in The Butcher’s Wife.
Channel 4’s programmes were aimed at a younger audience, but one suspects that anyone under the age of 60 may have found BBC2’s schedule a bit old-fashioned. A festive Big Breakfast at 9.25am and Take That in Concert got it off to a youthful start, followed by a vibrant gospel concert. Things went a bit off then with a double bill of Danny Kaye movies, awkwardly sandwiching The Alternative Christmas Message from the Rev Jesse Jackson. In the evening, that Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush repeat came between a Zig and Zag Special (the excellentEntertainment Cops) and The Snowman, this year at the later slot of 7pm. Then opposite the opera on BBC2 was … an opera! But someone noticed and rescheduled Turandot to an earlier slot. They still showed the Queen’s Speech at 9.40pm though, the same time as BBC2. In the evening we had music from Harry Connick Jr followed by The Woman in Black, Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of a ghost story by Susan Hill, first shown on ITV on Christmas Eve 1989. Yes, ITV – the same channel that in the same slot on Christmas Eve 1994 offered us another showing of Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats.