“The first of tonight’s two offerings from Albert Square.”
1995 was when things got dirty, as both channels battled it out over the soaps.Coronation Street and EastEnders were now being thought of as the most important aspects of the festive season – there was normally a big storyline reaching a crescendo around the festive period where lots more people were watching television. In 1995, ITV planned to show an hour-long Coronation Street, back in the days when this was an unusual occurrence, and scheduled it for 7pm. However, according to reports at the time, Alan Yentob decided to schedule two episodes of EastEnders that evening, one of which was to be at the same time. ITV cried foul – seemingly forgetting that 18 months ago they scheduled an hour-long Coronation Street to go up against the second Monday EastEnders – and it was thought that both soaps would go out at the same time.
In the event, they didn’t – Coronation Street began at 6.30pm, then the first episode ofEastEnders was transmitted at 7.30pm. ITV seemed to get the worst out of the compromise, though, as it meant that viewers switched over to BBC1 at 7.30pm, hung around until the second episode at 8.30pm, then stayed there the rest of the evening.
After many years of varying start times, BBC1 finally begun at 6am sharp, so CBBC was allowed a whole four hours of programming – much of it, of course, was the same old rubbish, but we did get a special edition of John Barrowman’s quiz, The Movie Game, with the usual set of school-age contestants replaced by celebrities – or at least, “celebrities” in CBBC terms like Toby Anstis and Mark Curry. Then at 10am, regular as clockwork, we had religion, and the accurately-titled On Christmas Day in the Morning with Don Maclean and his guests – such TV religion regulars as Harry Secombe and Ruth Madoc – at Lord Montagu’s Beaulieu estate. The family film in the morning was becoming a staple, but it was a real disappointment this year, as the Never Ending Story switched channels and appeared for the second time in three Christmases. Then at 12.25pm, it was Neighbours again – it seemed to be totally random if the series got a placing on the 25th, but this year it did so again, but once more there was no teatime repeat.
Then Top of the Pops, a victim of declining viewing figures, went out at 12.55pm, perhaps the earliest it had ever been – still the usual hour of the year’s pop hits, mind, and an excellent choice of presenters in Björk and Jack Dee. This great new double act led into the classic comedy, back after a year’s break and now in a new pre-Queen slot. Just the one classic, this time – a repeat of the 1992 Christmas Only Fools and Horses, to make up for the series’ non-appearance this year.
As ever, ITV started badly, although GMTV had made up for their high-faluting (in Christmas terms) schedule the previous Christmas by showing a morning of programmes introduced by Mr Motivator and a Power Ranger. Joining the Mighty Morphin’ ones were faves like Barney andGalaxy High, probably attracting more kids than McGee and Me and The Flintstones on BBC1. Then at 9.25am the Christmas worship came from Arundel Cathedral, but this then made way for a terrible morning – a mediocre animation, The Little Train That Could, followed by an oldBugs Bunny TV Special, then the ancient film Herbie Rides Again, meaning that for 45 minutes around noon all four channels were showing repeats. In the afternoon, Granada scheduled a second Bugs Bunny Special, while other regions went for the even less festive option of repeating the previous Friday’s Coronation Street. There was at least some fairly smart scheduling at 1.55pm when viewers having just seen Take That on the Christmas Top of the Pops could enjoy them in concert at Earls Court for another hour.
Thereafter, there was another victory for the BBC, although the schedules seemed more evenly matched than ever. After the Queen ITV went as usual for another crappy old film, this timeGhostbusters II, at the same time BBC1 had Noel Edmonds. At 4.30pm BBC1 put out its strongish film premiere, Spielberg’s Hook, while ITV, commendably, tried to grab a family audience with a new (and British) feature-length animated version of The Wind in the Willows(yes, another one), voiced by an all-star cast. This was probably better than what the BBC were offering, but how many kids would prefer it to some big budget Hollywood effects and Robin Williams arsing about? Probably very few, and so America won out. This can be seen from the fact that the sequel to the Willows, with the same highbrow cast and quality production values, went out the following year on Boxing Day afternoon, not such an exposed slot, where it could quietly charm family viewers – it couldn’t cope on Christmas Day.
Coronation Street followed at 6.30pm on ITV, while BBC1 found a useful opponent in Auntie’s Bloomers. This series, while of course obviously derivative of an ITV concept, was a popular hit for the Corporation, and almost always gained massive audiences – the previous programme, on New Year’s Day 1995, gaining the biggest audience of that week. It lost out to Coronation Street, but gained credible ratings nonetheless, and in any case served as a useful bridge into the mid-evening, able to appeal to adults and children. Besides, it cost bugger all to make anyway. Then the BBC delivered its first half hour of EastEnders while ITV presented a special programme devoted to Robson and Jerome – perhaps the channel’s “crown jewels” at the time, given that they’d had a massive media profile, and two enormous hit singles, while appearing in an ITV drama. Yet this special was not, as viewers may have expected, a big-budget entertainment special, but a bog-standard pop profile, where the boys were interviewed about “their amazing year”, interspersed with clips that most of their fans had seen several times before.
8pm saw a head-to-head battle between the BBC’s Keeping Up Appearances and ITV’s big film,Sister Act. That year, Keeping Up Appearances had achieved what many thought was impossible for the BBC – it got viewers to watch on a Sunday, opposite ITV’s massive triple bill of Heartbeat, You’ve Been Framed and London’s Burning. Also, it had the gift of being sandwiched between the two episodes of EastEnders, so some 15 million viewers sat through it while waiting for more from Albert Square. Then at 9pm, it was hardly worth any of those turning over to ITV because Sister Act was already halfway through, and besides, BBC1 had an hour-long One Foot in the Grave, publicised with a gravestone of a “Victor Meldrew” which caused many people to presume it was to be the last one ever. It wasn’t, but it was still a fantastic hour of comedy. Then at 10pm, how many viewers were tempted over to watch a special edition of ITV’s whimsical cricketing comedy Outside Edge, followed by Scenes from a Mall with Bette Midler and Woody Allen, when BBC1 were about to show Demi Moore and Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal? Not very many. The BBC won again, with 17.8 million the high water mark, though this was for One Foot in the Grave – the soaps were not the big occasion. This year, amazingly, there was Bond on both channels – ITV, 007’s normal home, had The Spy Who Loved Me in mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, but in the previous 12 months BBC1 had managed to grab the rights to Never Say Never Again, and they scheduled it at 6pm on New Year’s Day. Then in 1999 it appeared on peak-time ITV again.
BBC2 went down the aged route again, with the early morning films being a black and white version of A Christmas Carol from the 1930s, then 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (that said, it had been on early evening BBC1 18 months before). Documentaries on the National Trust, The Sound of Music and the 50th anniversary of VE Day led up to 3pm when we had the obligatory opera – La Bohème, although this was a modern version by the film director Baz Lurhman. Then it was another tedious edition of Today’s the Day, before Julie Andrews introduced an American celebration of Oscar Hammerstein. At 7pm there was a repeat showing of the Screen Twoadaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, one of the acclaimed programmes of the year since it’s first showing in April, and this screening had the advantage of following on from the Pride and Prejudice-mania earlier that Autumn. At 9pm we saw Alan Bennett make an appearance, starting off a prestige series going behind the scenes of Westminster Abbey – the other episodes going out the following two evenings. Then Farewell My Concubine was premiered, as part of 1995’s “BBC 100″ season, screening the 100 “most significant” films from the first century of cinema. Thus those who wanted to escape the soaps and sitcoms were probably tuned into this prestigious but slightly dull evening.
Channel 4 came up with the worst schedule of the day, with The Big Breakfast, now in an alarming decline, offering up two hours of badly researched, ill thought out “entertainment” from 8am. It was a set of repeats until lunchtime, then a special programme at 12.30pm visiting some Christian Raves – just right for Christmas lunch. At 3.15pm we saw a repeat of Heroes of Comedy – the 150 minute documentary which launched the popular series of appreciations, first shown in 1992. In a way, this was fun afternoon viewing, as you could relax to an array of classic comedy, which was more than could be said for Coping with Christmas which followed. This series, featuring the Central Junior Television Workshop, came from the makers of the classic ’80s kids series Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It, but here the budget was too small, the jokes too laboured and the kids too inexperienced to entertain. The Snowman followed at 6.30pm, then into the evening we saw Glenda Jackson in the film Turtle Diary, followed by a three hour drama on the life of Henry Purcell, with Michael Ball, Simon Callow and Letitia Dean in the cast list. This wasn’t as bad as Channel 4’s Welsh counterpart S4C, though, who scheduled a special Michael Jackson TV concert at 10pm, due to be recorded a week before and shown in the rest of the UK a few days earlier – it was cancelled at the last minute because Jacko was ill and S4C had a big hole to fill…