“Loved and loathed in equal measure.”
For those who are fascinated by Christmas television, one of the main attractions is finding out what the Big Film is going to be. The idea of having a massively successful, popular movie premiering on Christmas Day goes back many years – to an era when the television screening was the first time you would ever be able to see it outside the cinema, and many years after its original release. Now, even though DVD, video, satellite and pay-per-view television have made the terrestrial premiere of a film obviously less of an event, there is still normally a major movie getting its first screening on TV on the big day.
The quality and type of film has varied over the years, though. In the early 1970s, what was important was that it was a big, popular offering – hence the premieres of such things as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Airport. These weren’t particularly festive but certainly pulled in the viewers. In later years the post-Queen slot on BBC1 was the most prestigious – here’s where the legendary movies like The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz made their first appearances.
Come the early 1990s, though, the Big Film on Christmas Day seemed to lose its lustre somewhat, with many years seeing the appearance of movies that, while undoubtedly successful, seemed rather inappropriate for the prime slot of the year. The most obvious example is ITV’s 1993 Christmas Day, when the likes of Field of Dreams and DOA were wheeled out – the sort of thing you could expect on a bog-standard Saturday night, not December 25. While the Beeb tried harder, such things as Coming to America in 1991 and, especially, Indecent Proposal in 1995 hardly seemed the best choice for a time when the family customarily watches together.
However in recent years, the BBC have put the onus firmly back on family entertainment. Partly this is thanks to the larger stock of post-watershed homegrown programming that fills the slot which used to be home to the film, meaning they now go out in the late afternoon and early evening. If the premieres themselves aren’t going to be a major excitement – with the vast majority having appeared in several stockings in Christmases past – then they should at least make for agreeable post-turkey viewing. Hence in 2004, BBC1 wheeled out two premieres – 102 Dalmatians at 3.55pm and the phenomenally popular Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stoneat 6.05pm; the latter of which was a particularly expensive acquisition. Both made for perfect family viewing.
However the rest of the BBC1 schedule seemed slightly more threadbare than usual. It all started in standard form, with Breakfast making another appearance at 6am, followed by children’s programmes, including a new animation, The Tale of Jack Frost. That’s said, it’s a shame the usual Saturday morning programming, Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow, was screened only on the CBBC Channel, with analogue viewers getting to see it two days later. The boys’ anarchy would have made for a great start to the morning. Instead, at 9.50am was the traditional service, this time entitled Crackers for Christmas! and broadcast from Coventry.
Indeed, the appearance of Dick and Dom may have shored up a disappointing morning on BBC1. A screening for the Disney film Aladdin at 10.50am was fair enough – it was a popular and entertaining movie and along the same lines as previous occupants of this slot. Yet this was followed at 12.05pm by Santa Claus – the ancient Dudley Moore vehicle, first shown on this channel in 1988 and always wheeled out during the daytime somewhere over Christmas. This was its first appearance on the big day itself, bizarrely, and it surely didn’t deserve such a plum slot. It was a step down from the classic comedy and new animation that had been screened over lunchtime in recent years.
Thankfully we were back on form at 2pm with the 38th consecutive Christmas Day outing forTop of the Pops, with the current regular presenters Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates as hosts (Tim Kash having been dropped earlier in the year). However it’s possible this could have been its last appearance in the traditional position, with the programme to be rescheduled to Sunday evenings on BBC2 in early 2005. We’ll have to wait and see what effect this has on our longest-running festive fixture. Just as traditional was what followed the Queen’s speech – Dear Father Christmas, Dale Winton’s second year, and the BBC’s umpteenth, of distributing special presents to people who deserved it. This took is into the first big film of the day, 102 Dalmatians.
Then it was the first primetime Christmas special which came at 5.35pm with another festiveBig Impression from Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona – returning to a sketch show after last year’s excursion into sitcom. It’s good to see the BBC still has a comedy series that can play to family audiences rather than only appear after the kids have gone to bed. Harry Potterfollowed, the longest film in this slot since Titanic in 2000, lasting nearly two and a half hours and adding to a surprisingly large total of acquired programming on BBC1 this time around.
After several years of topping and tailing the schedule, EastEnders was back to a more traditional hour-long episode. Despite the programme suffering from appalling publicity in 2004, with endless newspaper reports of some of the cast’s off-screen exploits and critical derision for apparent poor storylines and characters, somehow the residents of Albert Square were celebrating after pulling in the biggest audience of the day – 11.8 million viewers. That said, it’s questionable how much was down to the quality of the show and how much was down to the favourable placing slap bang in the middle of peaktime.
It’s interesting how every time a major comedy show ends on BBC1, something else is always found to take its place. Hence when Only Fools and Horses finished up, apparently for good, in the mid-’90s, One Foot in The Grave was able to take on the mantle as the nation’s favourite sitcom, which in turn was superseded by Men Behaving Badly, The Royle Family and, in 2001,Only Fools and Horses again. Now the Trotters had taken their leave – apparently for the last time ever, although we’d all heard that before – The Vicar of Dibley was back to fill the prime 9.25pm slot. Earlier in 2004, the Dawn French vehicle had been voted third in BBC2’s Britain’s Best Sitcom poll – something of an achievement as, thanks to the huge demand for the cast and crew on other shows, only 16 episodes had ever been made, mostly for special occasions – the last of which was five years ago. Nevertheless the team had managed to get together for two new episodes, one on New Year’s Day and one for the big day itself. The 11.3 million audience even managed to beat Coronation Street to become the Christmas 2004’s second most watched show.
After French came Saunders, with a special episode of Absolutely Fabulous at 10.30pm. Incredibly this series had been running since 1992, and despite constant pledges that there really wasn’t going to be any more for most of that time, it was still making fairly regular returns. This was the first time it had ever appeared on Christmas Day, though if most people thought it was running out of steam in 1994, come 2004 it had turned into more or less a pantomime – so this was perhaps appropriate scheduling. The final new show of the night was a return to Christmas Day for Before They Were Famous at 11.10pm, then it was onto repeats with George Clooney film Out of Sight getting another airing at 11.50pm. David Suchet introduced a short epilogue at 1.45am, before a dramatic leap into the film Young Frankensteinand a repeat of the previous night’s Jonathan Ross show leading to a handover to News 24 at 4.40am.
Could ITV1 top a lacklustre BBC1 line-up? Well, it started solidly, if boringly, with the regularGMTV cartoons and then, at 9.25am, the regular Saturday morning series Ministry of Mayhem, with it’s half-arsed mess and dull features coming across as a pale shadow of the SM:TVspecial that had filled this slot five years previously. The day’s religious content – some two hours later than BBC1 – came in the form of Don’t Drop Baby Jesus at 11.45am, a documentary looking behind the scenes of a nativity play. We went up to lunchtime with the premiere of a mediocre family film, A Simple Wish, at 12.55pm, then a new animation, The Little Reindeer – charming enough, but rather twee and pedestrian for a big audience at 2.30pm. Interestingly, compared to the Beeb, ITV showed comparatively few films during the day, with the Queen followed, not by the usual action or comedy movie, but instead a rerun of the Martin Clunes-starring period drama Goodbye Mister Chips.
The evening entertainment started at 5.15pm with You’ve Been Framed, a slightly better proposition in recent years thanks to the presence of new host Harry Hill linking the clips in his own unique style. Then at 5.40pm came the by-now-traditional celebrity edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Though not the ratings juggernaut it once was, it was still in robust health, and the chance to see Paul McCartney and Heather Mills pondering over the options surely lured in a few viewers. At 6.55pm it was onto the usual soap block. Oddly there was only 30 minutes at Emmerdale this year, though Corrie got the full hour, where a blockbuster episode involving a wedding and the imminent departure of popular character Karen McDonald did comparatively poorly – perhaps suffering from Harry Potter’s popularity, but a rare example of something going the cockneys’ way this year.
As usual the Weatherfield soap finished at the exact moment EastEnders started up on the other side, but those left on the third channel could enjoy a new episode of Midsomer Murders. John Nettles’ series had been a consistent hit for ITV over seven years, although inevitably this special wilted in the face of the BBC’s opposition. At 10.30pm came Parkinson, who had of course defected from the BBC this year – the first time since Morecambe and Wise in 1978 that the same programme had appeared on different channels in successive years. Sadly for Parky, headline guest Elton John pulled out and he found himself chatting to Joe Pasquale instead. Bob Hope must have seemed a long way away. A couple of films then took us through the night from 11.45pm.
One major change on the minority channels was that, like Parky, The Simpsons had left the BBC and found a new home on Channel 4. To mark this change, they were afforded the honour of delivering C4’s Alternative Christmas Message this year – the first time the producers had made an episode, albeit under five minutes long, for a non-American broadcaster. Such was the channel’s excitement at this, not only was it screened at 3pm, but also 4.05pm, 6.10pm, 8.25pm and 10.35pm, along with two repeat episodes in the afternoon.
Overall it was a rather more mainstream C4 line-up this year – The Snowman returned to Christmas Day for the first time since 1996, and was screened at 2.30pm, while it was also part of the countdown of The 100 Greatest Christmas Moments, first screened the previous night and repeated at 4pm. The Pink Panther and the acclaimed music documentary Buena Vista Social Club topped and tailed the evening, though at 8.30pm was a typically C4 enterprise – Robert Beckford’s two-hour examination of Who Wrote The Bible?
BBC2 went back to basics this year with the films Little Women, White Christmas and Great Expectations in the afternoon, while Lesley Garrett trilled songs from the shows in the early evening. Kiss Me Kate at 7.10pm meant BBC2’s 40th anniversary Christmas included a new version of one of its opening night shows, while the expected Arena documentary at 9.40pm was a tribute to launch a season of programmes on Dennis Potter.
Meanwhile, five performed as well as could be expected, with a number of films, includingSingin’ in the Rain in the afternoon, and repeats of their hit shows CSI and Law and Order in the evening. We’ll draw a veil over the scheduling of Columbo at 5.10pm.
On the whole, Christmas 2004 was home to sturdy if unspectacular line-ups on all five channels – they all had good moments but there was nothing that really stood out. It seems that, if BBC1 is off form, the whole day falls a little flat. However, this is surely testament to the main channel’s continual hold over our imaginations during the festive period.