“Changing their lives for ever”
In 2018, Christmas telly is in something of a state of flux. With the streaming services continuing to cannibalise the audiences of the traditional broadcasters, the world in which they operate is changing faster than ever. Yet despite the uncertainty, the festive schedules in the past decade or so have enjoyed perhaps a greater consistency than at any time in TV history. Even the most renowned traditions on the big day – Christmas Night with the Stars, Morecambe and Wise, The Generation Game et al – had a shorter run than many of the programmes that now comprise the line-up.
But 2018 saw one pretty seismic shift on BBC1 – there was no new episode of Doctor Who. This was pretty big news, given the last time that didn’t happen was way back in 2004, when the likes of The Vicar of Dibley and Parkinson were still going concerns. For much of the show’s audience, it would be the first time in living memory there hadn’t been a special on the 25th. However, much as the 2018 series saw the programme moved from its familiar Saturday spot to Sundays, a shift that brought about vastly increased audiences, so Jodie Whittaker’s first festive episode was relocated to New Year’s Day – though everyone was quick to point out this was in no way a demotion, as it was always intended for 1st January, and set on that day. Given ratings on New Year’s Day have, in recent years, been generally higher than Christmas, and Who itself has surely exhausted every single festive-related plotline imaginable, it seemed a pretty sensible decision. Nevertheless, after 13 consecutive Christmas Day outings, it was something of an end of an era – aside from the soaps, Top of the Pops and the Queen, it’s one of the longest-running TV fixtures on the 25th.
So there was at least one change to the familiar 21st century BBC1 schedule in 2018. But much else remained set to the template that had proven consistent over the years – and given it still features the Beeb’s biggest stars in its biggest shows, it’s hard to argue against it. Yes, ratings are falling year by year, but that’s the case with television all year round – and the programmes themselves continue to pull in substantial audiences the rest of the year. Why would people be bored of Strictly on Christmas Day given they’re clearly not bored of it throughout the autumn?
The familiar mix of animation and religion saw BBC1 through the morning – some Christmas presents from previous years, including the two Gruffalo films and Wallace and Gromit’s film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (surely one of the most repeated films on BBC1 ever), either side of the service from Oldham Parish Church. Top of the Pops followed at 12.30pm, with the same presenter line-up as the previous year – Clara Amfo now established as Fearne Cotton’s co-host – and pretty much the same performing line-up too. Leading up to The Queen was a film premiere, The Good Dinosaur not quite top-drawer Disney but amiable enough for a lunchtime outing.
After the usual word from the boss came the day’s big film. Like last year’s Cinderella, the remake of The Jungle Book deviated from what once appeared to be a stranglehold on this slot by animated movies – but, again, like last year, it was fantastical enough to fit perfectly, and in ratings terms it was one of the most successful occupants of this slot of the decade. After that came another modern tradition, the adaptation of a Julia Donaldson book, with Zog entertaining royally, helped as ever by a stellar voice cast. With Strictly Come Dancing following – again welcoming back former favourites including Ann Widdecombe – this all made for fine family-friendly fare.
But what would replace Doctor Who? Michael McIntyre had appeared on Christmas Day a number of times in recent years, but always safely post-watershed. However his Big Show had become a reliable ratings winner for BBC1 on Saturday nights, mixing his outsized personality with Saturday Night Takeaway-style games and stunts. Transporting this to Christmas Day made for probably the most traditional show to take place on the big day for years – harking back to the likes of Russ Abbott and The Generation Game – and it ended up getting the day’s highest overnight ratings. Indeed the figures BBC1 pulled in during the early evening would suggest that the more traditional the shows, the better.
Despite the non-appearance of Doctor Who, there was still plenty of drama, thanks to the seventh consecutive Call The Midwife special. Although it’s easy to suggest this series never seems the perfect fit for Christmas Day, it remains one of the channel’s most reliable ratings winners – and certainly it’s less gloomy than the likes of Miss Marple and Morse, both of which had Christmas Day outings in the 1980s. EastEnders followed for the usual hour, and while the festive visit to Albert Square hasn’t been that big a deal for years, and the show itself hardly seemed in rude health, there was still some achievement in being the day’s top soap.
As ever, Christmas comedy meant another episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, appearing on 25th for the sixth year running. There hadn’t actually been a new series of the sitcom since 2013, but Agnes remained a familiar face on our screen with its spin-off semi-scripted show All Round to Mrs Brown’s (although For Facts Sake, a panel show starring Brendan O’Carroll and his family as themselves, was one of 2018’s biggest flops). In previous years these specials have frequently been the most-watched programme on Christmas Day and the highest-rated comedies of the entire 12 months, but this time ratings by its own high standards were disappointing. Perhaps the dozens of repeats throughout the year are starting to take their toll, or maybe the whole thing is just running out of steam – but with the Beeb commissioning specials up to 2020, we’ll be back with them again in 2019.
Sadly there was no other new comedy , with the late slot taken up by repeats of Outnumbered and Have I Got News For You, followed by a film. But despite some lacklustre numbers, and shows, this proved to be a successful Christmas for BBC1 as it broadcast nine of the top rating shows of the day. It could certainly be argued that this isn’t much to crow about given the ratings themselves were hardly spectacular, but you can only beat what’s put in front of you.
For ITV, the channel had seemed to enjoy something of a renaissance in 2018 – ratings were going up, beating BBC1 in primetime on a regular basis, while under Kevin Lygo, there was a sense it was getting some of its old swagger back with some aggressive scheduling and big events, like the revival of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, reminiscent of its glory days of the past. But this also meant that, as in the 1990s, its biggest shows were all reserved for earlier in the autumn when advertising revenue was at its peak, and ITV were happy to tick along over Christmas in unadventurous fashion. Indeed, you could argue the channel will be happiest this Yule by the fact that they were able to keep Emmerdale and Corrie in their familiar slots for pretty much the entire holiday.
The Beeb’s last Christmas before Who in 2004 had seen the first Harry Potter film as the centrepiece of the festive schedules, but since then the series has been a familiar fixture on ITV with at least one run-through of the entire franchise every year. Unfortunately, the decision to roll them out as cost-effective opposition to Strictly a few weeks earlier meant they were deprived of their services this Christmas, so for the first time in a while they couldn’t be unspooled to spoil BBC1’s schedule.
That meant an especially threadbare and incredibly old-skewing pre-Queen line-up from ITV, in the shape of the mediocre film Jack Frost, a Countrywise special and a repeat of a festive episode of Doc Martin from ages ago. After the speech came an episode of The Chase, which ensured Bradley Walsh still appeared on Christmas Day even if Doctor Who didn’t, although this was a repeat from the previous year, while their animated film, Monsters Inc, had been shown most Christmasses for the past decade so wasn’t much of a draw (its follow-up, Monster University, had been on BBC1 24 hours earlier, though that makes some sense as it’s a prequel).
Into primetime and Paul O’Grady made his annual visit to Battersea Dogs Home, then from 7.15pm it was the obligatory hour-long episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street. As ever, Emmerdale’s Christmas episode was among its lowest rated of the year, while Corrie had the misfortune to start in the middle of programmes on all the other channels and did mediocre business. Something a bit more interesting followed at 9.15pm – a new biopic of Torvill and Dean. This light drama, with a cast of familiar faces, made for amiable viewing and certainly seemed to fit the spirit of the day rather more than the likes of Midsomer Murders and Poirot which had filled this slot in previous years, but it didn’t do much, and could really have played on any day of the year.
It now seems to be the case that BBC1 has more to fear from Channel 4 than ITV on Christmas Day, and the fact that 2.4 million people happily watched Home Alone 2 at teatime, despite it now being on about its hundredth screening on TV, is testament to the appeal of the familiar. Channel 4 have certainly enjoyed great success from the two films in recent years – so no doubt expect the first movie to get an outing next Christmas – and it was slotted into a schedule that was virtually a straight repeat of 12 months ago, including Bake-Off, First Dates and a load of family films. Alan Carr was still hanging on in there too, although his presence increasingly feels like contractual obligation and it must surely be time for Carr and C4 to look to pastures new.
BBC2 were pretty familiar as well, the Dad’s Army repeats and movie classics nestling alongside another Upstart Crow special – meaning BBC2 had as much new comedy as BBC1 – and, like last year, some festive music, this time with Gregory Porter’s Merry Christmas Baby. Channel 5 continued to flit between the sublime and the ridiculous, the most traditional of all during the day with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the centrepiece, before it waved the white flag with clip shows filling up the evening including over two and a half hours of Britain’s Favourite Christmas Hits. In between all that came the first episode of Neighbours on Christmas Day since 1995. Famously, in its pomp, the length of time we trailed behind Australia meant it would always end up being Christmas in Ramsey Street in midsummer, but this was the first ever episode specifically made for Christmas Day. Sadly the 18 million plus audiences of 30 years ago were a thing of the past, so most people were unaware of this novelty.
As ever in recent years the smaller channels snaffled up a few hundred thousand viewers with some film favourites, ITV2 screening Elf and Jurassic World and More4 unspooling Gladiator, while BBC4 kept one Christmas tradition going by devoting a few hours to the Royal Ballet. Sky 1, meanwhile, a channel not always associated with Christmas cheer, pushed the boat out and jettisoned the familiar marathon of Simpsons repeats to make way for The Greatest Showman – just 12 months after its cinema debut and a matter of weeks after it arrived on its film channels, an illustration of how quickly movies now make it to our screens. This big premiere, along with a triple bill of live Premier League football on Boxing Day, was sold as a special treat from Sky to its customers, though it’s hard not to think that, in its 30th year on air, a channel with its prominent spot on EPGs and enormous budget should be making this much of a splash all year round.
But as always on Christmas Day, it’s BBC1 that comes under the spotlight – such is its heritage it will always be compared to those magical line-ups of the 1970s with their associated enormous ratings. But those were so frequently the days when it was often more or less BBC1 or nothing, whereas now it’s fighting for attention alongside myriad other broadcasters, which are shouting louder than ever. Reversing the downward trend, therefore, would seem to be a Christmas miracle.