“And it’s a Happy New Year from him”
It always used to be said that people judged the quality of their Christmas by the standard of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show – testament to the importance of Christmas Day telly to our national heritage. Certainly, it’s a day that seems to come under the microscope more than any other, with everyone permanently comparing it to the legendary festive line-ups of the 1970s and ’80s. And indeed, much of 2005’s Christmas TV seemed to owe a lot to the traditions of the past.
BBC1’s Christmas Day started much as expected, with the now-familiar three hours ofBreakfast, followed predictably at 9am by some children’s animation – in this case, a new adaptation of The Snow Queen. Christmas Day fell on a Sunday this year, which in the past would have meant a commitment to religious programming in peak-time, as was the case in1977, 1983 and 1988. However with the “God slot” no longer enforced by the broadcasting authorities this wasn’t the case. There was a surprisingly large amount of religion this morning, though, BBC1 following up a service from Clifton Cathedral in Bristol with a special edition ofSongs of Praise from the Royal Albert Hall – making up nearly two hours in total.
At 11.45am came something quite surprising – an episode of Blue Peter, the first time in a long while a children’s show had received such a high-profile slot on the big day. This was a special edition where the team met kids who had done something outstanding and organised surprises for them, including the awarding of a prized BP gold badge. Basically, it was simply another variation on the format that Dale Winton, Rolf Harris and most famously Noel Edmonds had essayed in the past. The biggest low of the day followed, though, when The Santa Clause was unspooled on Christmas Day for the third time this decade.
Following this at 2pm was Top of the Pops – now its only appearance on BBC1, with the regular weekly show having been demoted to BBC2 earlier in the year. Seemingly, compared to the hit-and-miss nature of the regular chart, the guaranteed big acts the Christmas show promised were enough of a draw to allow it to return to the main channel in its familiar slot, and Shane Richie joined regular hosts Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates to add a bit of glamour to proceedings. As it was a Sunday, too, the programme also had the honour of unveiling the Christmas number one before anyone else.
After The Queen, it was, as now seems to be traditional, on to an animated film. Intriguingly, though, Shrek wasn’t a premiere, having been shown first the previous Christmas Eve. Ironically it actually pulled in a slightly larger audience than the film that followed, shown for the first time.Toy Story 2 at 4.30pm meant it was one of the rare occasions where both the original film and its sequel had both been premiered on Christmas Day – the former did so in 2001. Although two films back-to-back may have seemed a bit of a lazy option, put together they still lasted under three hours, compared to the epics like Titanic and Harry Potter in previous years, and left peaktime free for new, original British programming. Indeed there was substantially less time devoted to films today than in previous years.
So we headed into the early evening and at 6pm, BBC1 once more managed to fish something from their increasingly shallow pool of mainstream comedy hits, and screened a special edition of My Family. This was amiable enough, but not really that spectacular. Something that certainly was, however, followed at 7pm – a special edition of Doctor Who, making its first appearance on 25 December since 1965. With the relaunched series proving hugely successful earlier this year, illustrating how the right kind of show can get families watching telly together again, it seemed a dead cert for a Christmas Day slot. The fact that David Tennant would be making his first appearance as the Doctor ensured this was a genuinely special Christmas special, as the audience of just under 10 million viewers – drawing level with Coronation Street – proved. It was probably the best, most welcome sight on Christmas Night for years.
The same couldn’t be said, alas, of the next programme. Everyone had seemed to resign themselves to the fact Only Fools and Horses was now definitely not coming back ever again, but some of its spirit did live on as, earlier in the year, Sullivan had scripted a spin-off series about the adventures of Boycie and Marlene. The Green Green Grass was a medium-sized success, and clearly the show’s predecessor made a Christmas Day slot the most obvious home for its festive special. What it did mean was the show enjoyed a particularly swift promotion to the big time, getting a huge slot only four months after its opening episode. However it was hard to imagine even the most ardent fan of Del and Rodney suggesting this was in the same league as its parent show, and it seemed to win this prime slot on their reputation alone. Where a Christmas special of The Green Green Grass would be placed at Christmas 2006 would perhaps offer more of a clue of its genuine success.
Inevitably we got an hour-long episode of EastEnders at 9pm, after ITV1 had transmitted their soap juggernauts, and for a change they’d manage to rustle up a fairly happy story for Christmas Day. The departure of Alfie Moon was enough of a draw to ensure it pulled in the highest audience of the day with 10.4 million viewers.
Next up was another show that owed a lot to Christmasses past. Earlier in 2005, The Two Ronnies Sketchbook saw Messrs Barker and Corbett reunite to show again some of their classic sketches, interspersed with new jokes and reminisces from the pair. The series proved very popular – as well as being pleasingly cost-effective – and as such a special Christmas episode was commissioned. With Ronnie B in poor health, however, it was recorded very early in the year and, sadly, had to be shown posthumously, topped with a special introduction from Ronnie C. As the last thing Ronnie B ever did on television, it was something of a special event, hence the Christmas Day placing, though with all the goodwill in the world, it’s hard to imagine a compilation of old Two Ronnies clips being particularly exciting Yuletide viewing in any other year.
Another disappointment came with the final new programme before BBC1 screened the usual selection of movies into the small hours. This year’s Before They Were Famous was not a new episode as such but instead a compilation of clips from previous editions of the series, interspersed with interviews with some of the participants. Overall, then, while the BBC1 Christmas schedule hit the heights at some points – most obviously with Doctor Who – there seemed to be a lot of padding and a lot of repetition, as if they were trying their hardest to replicate the winning formulas of the past.
What did ITV1 offer against this line-up? Things started familiarly enough with GMTV, cartoons and a special programme, Help! It’s Christmas, where the Reverend Steve Chalke, a familiar sight on ITV Christmasses in recent years, was challenged to put on a nativity play relying on people’s goodwill. Then at 11am Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was shown again, as it was on this day in 1996. A documentary detailing Chris Tarrant’s experiences with polar bears followed, then the two hours up to The Queen were easily filled with a screening of The Railway Children– so far, so normal Sunday telly.
After the speech ITV1 repeated the festive Creature Comforts from 2003, and then combated BBC1’s repeated film with … a repeated film. Specifically, Jim Carrey’s version of The Grinch, which was the sort of family entertainment the Beeb normally filled up the evening with. After this, at 5.30pm, was another episode of Creature Comforts, but this one brand new, and with the Plasticine animals allowed a whole half hour rather than the usual 10 minutes – excellent fun.
The festive Emmerdale and Coronation Street episodes, both an hour long as usual, were smartly scheduled opposite the weak spots in BBC1’s line-up – My Family and The Green Green Grass respectively – and hence recorded healthy viewing figures. In between, at 7pm, came the usual celebrity edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. This wasn’t the smash hit it once was, as could be seen by the fact it was screened opposite the long-awaited Whospecial, but it was still a reliable ratings-grabber for ITV1 and surely the sight of Terry Wogan in the big chair must have lured some viewers over.
At 9pm came The Booze Cruise 2 – the follow-up to a comedy drama that had proven particularly popular. The antics of Mark Benton, Neil Pearson and Brian Murphy weren’t the most cerebral viewing, but as a good-natured romp it was probably amiable enough through a Baileys-induced haze. It also meant it was a very merry Christmas for writers Paul Minett and Brian Leveson, with the veteran comedy scribes having also scripted the episode of My Familyon BBC1 earlier. The last show of the night on the third channel was The South Bank Show, but as befits the day it was a rather more accessible edition than usual, with Melvyn Bragg looking behind the scenes of Little Britain. It perhaps says a lot about ITV’s comedy prowess that an hour on Christmas Day was devoted to little more than an advert for one of the BBC’s hottest shows.
Overall it seemed a more equal battle between the two channels on the big night than in some years, and it’s not hard to imagine a lot of channel-changing going on in households throughout the evening – the complementary scheduling meant both network’s crown jewels (Who andEastEnders for the BBC, Emmerdale and Coronation Street on ITV1) faced minimal competition and both could enjoy huge audiences.
As usual the other channels had a few bright spots in amongst the more highbrow fare. BBC2 screened ballet in the afternoon and were also able to repeat the morning’s Songs of Praise at something more like its usual hour. As ever there was an Arena for Christmas Day, the arts strand paying tribute to comedy writing legends Ray Galton and Alan Simpson with a 90-minute profile and, later, a classic episode of Steptoe and Son. The Rupert Everett-starring version of The Importance of Being Earnest was their choice of film, while later, in amongst the usual comedy reruns (Dead Ringers, Never Mind the Buzzcocks), was the first part of The Unique Dave Allen, a series of repeats running through the week paying tribute to the comedian who, like Ronnie Barker, had also died this year.
Channel 4 spent much of the daytime screening repeats of The Simpsons – there was nothing new from Springfield this Christmas, alas, as in fact there hadn’t been here since February. The Snowman was present and correct at 2.30pm and Jamie Oliver gave The Alternative Christmas Message, while Singin’ in the Rain was screened at 3.40pm – exactly one year since five had shown it. Inevitably the evening was home to some more challenging material, including a new opera and a two-hour documentary on the religious response to the Tsunami. At 10pm, however, an abrupt change saw them screen the film Jerry Maguire.
five relied on films for most of the day, including The Big Sleep, Casablanca and all three-and-a-bit hours of Dances With Wolves, while inevitably National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacationgot another run-out. In between all this at 8pm was Greatest TV Comedy Moments, a repeated clip compilation hosted by Richard Wilson, which probably made use of much material first seen on Christmas Days past.
Overall, Christmas 2005 seemed to see a consistent effort by all the broadcasters to replicate past glories with similar kinds of programmes – and in some cases the same programmes. It would be wrong to say it was a failure, however, as there was a sizeable amount of decent stuff on. And with Doctor Who alone, there was enough magic and excitement in the air to make it really feel like Christmas.