“A day spent lying in front of the telly in a self-induced coma.”
ITV by this point had seemed to have hit upon a pattern on Christmas Day – mid-afternoon would be mediocre, there’d be a rally in the early evening, then later in the evening they’d put on some ill-judged or badly scheduled programmes and let BBC1 take all their viewers. You can see this happening in 1997. GMTV sorted themselves out with cartoons from 6am, then the Rev Steve Chalke made another visit at 8.30am with some “heartwarming stories” from the recent Get Up And Give appeal. Then, however, we had a change, as the Morning Worship had gone. Instead, Carol Smillie talked to some primary school kids about Christmas, which, at an hour’s length, was probably worse TV than a straightforward service. At least we had a reasonable film at 10.25am, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, then a fun animation, Father Christmas and the Missing Reindeer – notable as David Jason swapped channels to narrate (see, he was still here, Bushell!) The afternoon was pretty weak – the TV movie Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and then Play it for Real where three members of the London’s Burning cast joined real-life firefighters.
At least they sorted out 3.10pm – no old films or whimsical dramas this time, just family fun with the premiere of A Muppet Christmas Carol. Perhaps it was a bit too early, though, while viewers were having their dinner, as it failed to make it into the top 10, and neither did Spice Up Your Christmas at 4.45pm, an hour of highlights from the Spice Girls’ concert in Istanbul. While they were certainly the sensation of 1997, and number one on the day, they were around a lot that Christmas – they’d been on Top of the Pops a few hours before, and the previous evening they were on two channels at once, as they appeared in a Top of the Pops Special on BBC1 whilst Channel 5 (which started transmissions this year) went behind the scenes of their film, which was released on Boxing Day. (This was Channel 5’s most successful programme of the festive season, and while Broadcast magazine had warned them to “brace themselves for some tiny audiences”, figures weren’t that bad – although they didn’t bother competing on Christmas Day, and stuck on some films, some too bad to show when anyone was watching.)
The early evening was rather better, as Emmerdale, long established as one of ITV’s most popular programmes, was finally allowed on Christmas Day, and did quite well with an hour-long special. Coronation Street followed at 7pm, as in 1996, but by this point the series had recovered from its shaky period 12 months before and managed to beat EastEnders, coming in at number three in the Christmas Day chart, better than the third channel had done for years (the Boxing Day showing failed to match up, although ITV were probably to blame for moving it to 8.20pm to make way for a rerun of the unpopular film Forever Young). But then it went all downhill with Home Alone 2 going out at 7.30pm – quite an old film to be premiered (it was made in 1992), and while big at the time, it was now not remembered with much affection. Figures were reasonable – about eight million – but it failed to crack the top 10. Then it got much worse, with Chris Tarrant introducing Starting Blocks at 9.45am, a Before They Were Famous-style clip show featuring sports stars in their early days, a Sunday afternoon filler surely. Then at 10.20pm, around three million watched The Bare Necessities, a repeat of a one-off drama shown two years previously, which had a similar storyline to The Full Monty. Alright, they’d thought of it first, but this second showing appeared to be of interest just to media students who could compare the two. Demi Moore’s Mortal Thoughts was a terrible choice of late movie as well. There wasn’t even a Bond this Christmas either.
Unlike ITV, where just one programme was broadcast in both 1996 and 1997, BBC1 stuck to what seemed to be a “winning formula”. CBBC at 6am, of course, but a rather better line-up than before with a new panto-style show, The Demon Headmaster Takes Over TV, full ofCBBC regulars, and best of all, the Teletubbies at 9.40am. Then at 10.05am we headed down to the Castle Museum in Kirkgate (25 years after ITV had done the same) for the carols, this year fronted by Fern Britton, with a decent guest list of Gary Barlow and the Archbishop of York. This was followed by another great choice of mid-morning movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Something odd followed at 12.40pm, though – ballet. This was not, thankfully, one of the epics favoured by BBC2 or Channel 4, though, but The Royal Ballet School’s 30 minute production of Peter and the Wolf. It’s still ballet, though …
Top of the Pops followed at 1.15pm, with another new producer in charge, and a return to DJ presenters for the first time in seven years – Zoë Ball, Jo Whiley and Jayne Middlemiss holding the gold mikes. Alas, there was no Morecambe and Wise this year, but The Two Ronnies did make an appearance in the pre-Queen slot, in a special compilation show of their Christmas episodes from the past. Noel Edmonds was irremovable at 3.10pm, though he didn’t do as well as the year before – the decline of the House Party in viewers’ minds, perhaps? The Flintstoneswas the first film premiere of the day, at 4.10pm, which was amiable enough, then the usual double header of Animal Hospital and Auntie’s Bloomers now seemed to be a Christmas tradition.
The rest of the schedule was a more-or-less straight copy of the year before, with just a few changes; so for Jurassic Park read The Mask, the movie premiere at 6.50pm. Then at 8.30pm it was EastEnders, then the double bill of comedy consisted of One Foot in the Grave and Men Behaving Badly – the latter getting the highest audience of the day, although it isn’t certain whether this was due to the quality of the programme or the terrible opposition from ITV. An unusual occurrence, though, was the placing of They Think It’s All Over at 11.05pm – a popular programme, certainly, but was the style of the show (blokes sitting behind a desk) or the level of the humour (notoriously laddish) right for Christmas Day? 12 million people thought it was, an incredible figure for nearly midnight. Comedy continued into the night with the great Airplane!at 11.45pm, then a Carry On movie, one of a season, but alas it was only the mediocre Carry On Loving. There was a further change to tradition at 2.40am though, as now BBC1 weren’t closing down but handing over to the new News 24 channel in the small hours, so we could close our festive viewing with nearly four hours of hard news.
BBC2 kicked off, as ever, with the usual double helping of black and white movies (this year, Dickens adaptions), then at last they had the good sense to move crappy old Today’s the Dayto a mid-morning slot, and it went out at 10.15am. Then it was the usual erratic schedule, ranging from the war film Mrs Miniver, to repeats of Shooting Stars and The Simpsons, to the usual old movie at 3.10pm – White Christmas. In the evening there were two foreign films – one, at 5.20pm, the premiere of Madame Butterfly, saving them the bother of commissioning a new opera themselves. There was an Arena documentary about “the story of the cigar” and, for the second year running, Simon Callow as Dickens. Amongst all this was a programme calledCardigans at Christmas, a wry look at the rise and fall of the Christmas light entertainment spectacular, including clips from Val Doonican, Christmas Night with the Stars, and so on. Amusingly, it managed to be the most popular BBC2 programme on Christmas Day for years, with around three million. Who’d have thought that from the second channel 20, or maybe even 10, years before?
Channel 4 started the day with The Big Breakfast, as was their wont, although this year it was in much better shape, with Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen in the house. Then came Rex Harrison in Doctor Dolittle, making its second Christmas Day appearance of the decade, but now on a different channel. As 1997 saw the death of Diana, it was obvious that one network would pay tribute on Christmas Day, and C4 took on the mantle by repeating an obituary that was shown four times on the morning of her death, expanded to include her funeral. The fact the programme was shown without commercial breaks emphasises the channel’s thoughts about Christmas Day. The rest of the schedule was all over the place – Pavarotti appeared in Verdi’s Requiem from 3pm, then there was a special edition of Countdown– after Christmas seasons on race, animals and New York, C4 this year decided to celebrate itself for their 15th birthday, and one of the special programmes saw William G Stewart put Richard and Carol through their paces in the words and numbers game. The classic movie Kind Hearts and Coronets was followed, inevitably, by an opera – The Damnation of Faust, for two and a half hours – then another celebratory C4 programme, looking back at the first 15 years ofFilm on Four. Nicely, we then continued the “Blood Lust” season with two vampire movies. Sleep tight, everyone.
But there’s something missing – The Snowman! After umpteen years on 25 December, the programme still went out in 1997, but on Christmas Eve. And a part of Christmas tradition disappeared.