“I’m sure we watch TV, but I just don’t remember it.”
Turn back the clock a decade and soaps play but a small part in the Christmas Day schedules. In 1992, we simply got the regular half-hour episodes of EastEnders andCoronation Street. The following year, we didn’t get a Corrie at all. This is odd because they’ve always been a hugely important, and popular, part of the schedules but somewhere in the following 10 years something changed, and so Christmas Day 2002 saw the two main channels serve up over three hours of soap between them. It makes perfect sense – it’s the time of year when more people are watching TV than usual, so extended episodes of regular favourites are bound to pull in a huge audience.
As is fast becoming a Yuletide tradition, this year we got two episodes of EastEnders on BBC1, while ITV1 countered with an hour-long Emmerdale and a whopping 70 minutes ofCoronation Street. The soap block on ITV1 obviously gave it the upperhand in the early evening, and helped salvage something from, as ever, a fairly unappealing schedule for the rest of the day. It makes sense, though – those two hours or so would have given them a guaranteed audience of over 10 million viewers, and bumped up the audience share for the evening. Even if the rest of the schedule was underwhelming, ITV would probably have been happy if viewers simply switched on for those two hours, then turned off again.
And indeed the schedule seemed to be based entirely around those Emmerdale andCoronation Street. The rest of the day’s ITV1 line-up had a festive air about it, but there was little that would have got the nation gathering around their sets in anticipation. GMTV kicked off the day as usual, but for a change the Reverend Steve Chalke was nowhere to be seen. Instead the breakfast station simply offered three and a half hours of non-stop animation; probably correct given the likely audience. That was followed by similar fare from ITV itself – a 90 minute animated film, The King’s Beard, with Maureen Lipman and Jim Broadbent on voice duties, and it in turn was followed by two religious cartoons. Indeed we didn’t see a real live human on screen until the news at 12.50pm.
The afternoon was the usual blend of fillers – a repeat outing for the fluffy documentary on The Waltons – After They Were Famous was followed at 2pm by a repeat of the previous night’sWho Wants to be a Millionaire. Not great festive viewing, but probably more fun than the rotten repeats (Britain’s Brainiest Kid et al) that had filled this slot in previous years. Then it was time for The Queen – and for the first time this year, Buckingham Palace had gone to the extent of producing a trailer to promote the speech in advance. It seemed to work, too, as 9.3 million people turned into watch (between the two channels, of course), an improvement on recent times. Then at 3.10pm it was time for the now-traditional old film, and Bond was back with another outing for Thunderball. An unimaginative choice, perhaps, but it was an amiable way to pass a few hours.
After the news at 5.30pm it was onto the light entertainment, and there must have been few surprised to see You’ve Been Framed back there. What was more surprising, however, was an appearance for Blind Date – a series which seemed to be on its last legs. Perhaps taking into account what BBC1 were showing at the same time – the first of two episodes of EastEnders – explains this scheduling. This was your standard Christmas episode, though – the usual format with a twist. Hence Big Brother’s Alex and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson sat in the chair to pick a date, and a second programme at 9.05pm (yes, opposite EastEnders again) showed us how they got on. Between the two were Emmerdale at 6.55pm followed by Coronation Street at 7.55pm. Then at 9.35pm we got the day’s second helping of Chris Tarrant, bullying more celebrities in Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The news followed, then Jaws, a decent enough choice for a movie to fall asleep to.
There’s nothing in the ITV1 schedule that screams “Christmas” at you – most of the day’s programmes could really have gone out on any day of the year. But an evening of tried and tested hits at least meant that the third channel wasn’t completely humiliated during the day. Indeed, compared to some of the awful schedules ITV have offered up on Christmas Day in the past, it’s an almost magical line-up.
But for your festive perennials, you had to look at BBC1. As ever, you could almost guess what they were going to show before the schedules were actually published. Hence we got children’s programmes from 6am, before the service from St Peter’s Church in Bolton at 10.15am. Then it was a welcome return to Christmas Day for Eric and Ern, whose 1973 Christmas show got another repeat airing. Yes, most people could probably recite the script along with the duo, but there was something almost comforting about seeing the magnificent two do their stuff. Almost as familiar, but less welcome, was The Santa Clause, the Tim Allen movie appearing on Christmas Day again – it had previously filled an almost identical slot in 2000. Then it was Top of the Pops, back in the pre-Queen 2pm slot for the first time since 1994, and with Richard Blackwood and Lisa Snowden in charge. After the Queen was a new animated adventure forRobbie the Reindeer, his first since 1999’s Hooves of Fire, and so far, all the familiar aspects of a BBC Christmas were present and correct.
But then there was a change – there were no family reunions or dreams coming true on Christmas Day for probably the first time in nearly 20 years. Of course, Noel Edmonds had long since been chased out of Television Centre, but there wasn’t even a similarly-themed replacement for his Christmas Presents show, à la Rolf Harris in 2001, or Jim Davidson the year before. Instead, and perhaps not surprisingly, there was a special edition of Bargain Hunt. David Dickinson had already started the transition from student cult to family favourite when the antiques game show had moved from daytime to peaktime earlier in the year. Now he made his debut on Christmas Day with the show’s experts facing off each other.
The second big change came at 4.20pm, when Paul O’Grady introduced Outtake TV. This meant that there was no appearance for Terry Wogan on BBC1 anywhere around Christmas, after 25 years when he’d become a regular over the festive season, from Blankety Blank, through Wogan, and onto Auntie’s Bloomers. But Bloomers had been revamped with a new name and a new host; O’Grady linking the corpsing and the pratfalls instead. Normal service was resumed with the family film (Chicken Run at 4.50pm) and then the evening’s first visit to Albert Square following the news at 6.20pm.
Then BBC1 had to fill in the two hours while most viewers would have switched over to ITV for the soaps. So we got a festive edition of My Family at 6.55pm. Despite at best indifference and at worst hostility from critics, the show had managed to pull in a large audience throughout the year, a rare feat for a new sitcom. And at least, with an episode set on Christmas Day, it was a fairly appropriate choice. Less good was the hour of Ground Force that followed – yes, it was a popular series and yes, it was Alan Titchmarsh’s final show, but as with Changing Rooms in 1998, did the audience really want this sort of thing on Christmas Day? Thankfully some proper family fun followed at 8.25pm – Alistair McGowan returned, but in the preceding 12 months, his partner Ronni Ancona had taken equal prominence in his show, and hence it now went under the name of simply The Big Impression.
Just five minutes of news at 9pm was followed by the night’s second instalment of EastEnders, then at 9.40pm was the big event – a new episode of Only Fools and Horses. This was, technically, the second of the three new episodes heralded by last year’s Christmas show, but thankfully, the production of this instalment was not quite as rushed as the last one; by all accounts, it was even quite good. Then at 10.55pm, another BBC comedy favourite – a Christmas Day outing for French and Saunders. Before They Were Famous, the normal accompaniment to the biscuit assortment, had shifted to Boxing Day. BBC1 rounded off the evening with the Adam Sandler vehicle The Wedding Singer and then, as is virtually a tradition, the British comedy film – Steptoe and Son making their second consecutive appearance on Christmas Day, at 1.10am. News 24 followed at 2.50am.
The other channels put out an as-expected line-up of programmes. After Breakfast, BBC2 showed festive episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons (the new episode opposite The Queen was missing this year, though). Then every episode of the documentaryQueen and Country, a series on the monarch’s 50 years on the throne, was shown back-to-back from 10.45am. Unsurprisingly this was followed by ballet (Swan Lake at 2.45pm), the profile of a film star (a tribute to Bing Crosby at 5pm) and then, inevitably, It’s a Wonderful Lifeat 5.50pm. Classicial music followed at 8pm with Lesley Garrett and her guests at the Harrogate Centre, and then at 9.05pm it was the lengthy film premiere – Mike Leigh’s biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy. At 11.40pm there was an abrupt change in tone, with a number of repeats that were screened each night over the holiday fortnight – The Office, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, I Love the Eighties (which had reached 1984) and music showRe:Covered – before closedown at 2.40am.
Channel 4 had the bonus this year of not having to kick off with The Big Breakfast, nor indeed its replacement RI:SE, which was on a hiatus pending another revamp. Instead we got a stack of children’s programmes, including at 8.05am a documentary celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Snowman (which C4 showed on Christmas Eve). A repeat outing for the recent Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party and a TV movie version of A Christmas Carol took us up to 3pm, and Sharon Osbourne delivering The Alternative Christmas Message. Then Peter Ustinov appeared in the old film Death on the Nile and there was a repeat outing for the drama Shackleton, first shown the previous Christmas. C4 had a rather unfestive Christmas night, though – a 90 minute portrait on John Osborne was followed by two episodes of The Osbournes (do you see?) and a repeat of Sharon Osbourne’s message. Then at 10.55pm, The Real Derek and Clive paid tribute to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s comedy in perhaps the most expletive-packed programme ever screened on Christmas Day.
Five devoted most of Christmas Night to repeated documentaries and films about World War II. More fun was the following evening, where they raided the ITV archives for an evening of classic comedy including The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show from 1981 and Tommy Cooper’s show from Christmas Day 1973. The type of thing they just don’t make anymore? Maybe so, but on the same day as the Cooper show originally went out we also got the nun-based movieWhere Angels Go, Trouble Follows – and given the choice, most people would probably opt forGround Force Goes Festive above that.