“Ruby Sunday’s world is about to be turned upside down”
Christmas Day 2023 was a time for farewells – and returns. This didn’t mean the return of Top of the Pops to the 25th, though it was present during the holidays again, on BBC2 as last year but shifted from its late night outing to the slightly better slot of 6.30pm on 28th December. Yes, early evening on a Thursday – surely Pops’ spiritual home.
And also back where they belong, in many people’s eyes, was Doctor Who. The last time we saw the Doctor on Christmas Day was back in 2017, before showrunner Chris Chibnall rang the changes and moved the Doctor away from both Saturday nights during the year, and from Christmas. Initially this paid dividends with Jodie Whittaker’s first series in 2018 pulling in some of its highest audiences for a while on Sundays, but during her spell in the TARDIS ratings dipped to figures not seen since the dog days of the late ’80s, even with all the new ways of watching added. But then back came Russell T Davies, who claimed that as part of his return he wanted to see the Doctor on Saturdays, and Christmas Day.
Hence after three 60th anniversary specials starring a returning David Tennant went out on Saturdays in November and December, Ncuti Gatwa’s first adventure returned to pride of place on 25th December. As well as the new face in the TARDIS, this was also a new era behind the scenes with Disney now on board and the series going global – and this episode was an ideal jumping on point for new (and lapsed) viewers with a suitably daft story for Christmas with Davina McCall playing herself and even an original musical number. It was rewarded with 4.7 million viewers, making it the third most watched show on the day.
The return of Who helped make it a very successful Christmas Day for BBC1, getting almost a clean sweep of the ratings with nine out of the top 10 shows. Okay, so given the huge changes in the way we watch TV in recent years, being the best-performing terrestrial channel is a bit like being the favourite visiting in-law, the best of a bad bunch – but the Beeb pointed out that BBC1’s audience on the day was bigger than Netflix, Prime Video and all the other streaming services put together.
BBC1’s big day began in familiar style with Breakfast followed by the usual burst of repeated animated antics from Christmases past (like The Gruffalo), the service, this year from Manchester Cathedral, a film repeat (Cinderella, the big film from 2017) and a new but unexceptional movie in The Addams Family 2. Serving its now regular role as warm-up to the royal message was a new Julia Donaldson animation, Tabby McTat.
The King followed at 3pm, and once more this was the day’s most seen programme even if you only counted those watching on BBC1, where 5.9 million tuned in. The sundry other channels contributed another million or so between them, including the simultaneous signed broadcast on BBC2 and the few thousand who decided their choice of viewing on this day was GB News. Of course, this was becoming a regular gig for Charles so without the novelty of seeing a new face at three o’clock, ratings were substantially down on last year – but including his mum’s last few broadcasts, this is the longest sustained period of royal dominance of the ratings probably since the early days of Elizabeth II’s reign.
After that came the day’s big film, and Toy Story 4 continued this franchise’s remarkable record of having every one of its instalments premiered in this prime slot on Christmas Day. After that came the seasonal Strictly, its 18th consecutive outing on the 25th, and still seemingly bullet-proof, its 5.3 million viewers in the early slot of 4.40pm putting it in second place in the ratings. After that came Who before Michael McIntyre spun The Wheel for the fourth Christmas running.
At 7.45pm came what seemed to be another Christmas tradition – the last ever episode of a popular sitcom. A huge number have had their final episodes broadcast during the festive period, although with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Steptoe and Son (both ending in 1974) it seemed more the case that they just didn’t make any more rather than deliberately bill it as a definitive conclusion. Perhaps the first time the final episode of a sitcom was sold as an unmissable climax was Just Good Friends back at Christmas 1986, though it probably didn’t become a regular part of festive viewing until John Sullivan repeated the trick with Only Fools and Horses a decade later – although, of course, that wasn’t the end after all that. But since then, series like Men Behaving Badly, The Vicar of Dibley, Gavin and Stacey, The Office, Miranda and, er, Only Fools again have all had their final flings among the main attractions of the holiday schedules.
With few pre-watershed sitcom successes in recent years, it’s perhaps something that’s been less common, but Ghosts had done good business for BBC1 and its last ever episode was hugely anticipated by its loyal fans, ensuring ratings were up quite a bit on last year’s festive outing. Of course, many of the previous “last ever episodes” were followed a few years later by equally hyped reunions, and although the production team were adamant it was the final visit to Button House, maybe we can pencil something in for around Christmas 2030.
Three staples of Christmas Day BBC followed, all of which had been in place for a decade or more – Call the Midwife, EastEnders and Mrs Brown’s Boys. It’s been a long time since the name EastEnders hadn’t been preceded by “the ailing”, but given all soaps appeared to be in terminal decline, it deserved some credit for managing that more effectively than others, with ratings just about holding up and its loyal fans suggesting it was in pretty good shape story-wise. While we weren’t talking Den and Angie figures here, its Christmas storyline involved enough familiar faces (Cindy Beale!) and heightened melodrama to engage a wider audience than its dwindling band of regular viewers, which earned it a BBC3 spin-off to discuss the aftermath and saw it shuffle up the chart a bit, despite its unhallowed 9.45pm slot.
For Mrs Brown, this year had seen the show get its first full series for 10 years, after a decade of nothing but specials and semi-scripted spin-offs. At least this meant Brendan O’Carroll was no longer required to put all his comedic eggs in one basket, but at 10.45pm and with ratings a world away from the early days when it was the festive season’s number one, it seems to have become the televisual equivalent of getting the Beano Book for Christmas, a habit nobody seems to want to break (and with less sophisticated jokes, probably). But it all added up to a BBC1 schedule that was all-new and British from 4.40pm to 11.40pm, which certainly wasn’t the case even in the golden days of the 1970s.
For ITV1, as ever, the aim was to get through the day with a suitably festive flavour without wasting any of the really good stuff that could be shown earlier in the winter when there was more advertising revenue to be had or, increasingly these days, on ITVX to subscribers first. As in previous years, Good Morning Britain, Lorraine and This Morning were wheeled out, in pre-recorded form, to fill the morning hours, though the latter had endured something of a torrid year with the departure of its two main presenters and the former was just a clip show, seemingly a last minute replacement for a proper programme. That was followed by the Christmas cookery shows in case you were still struggling for inspiration.
First show after The King was You’ve Been Framed!, an old ITV warhorse and an obvious illustration today wasn’t a priority for the channel as earlier in the year it had been axed. In fact it transpired they hadn’t actually made any new episodes since 2020, but given how long some had sat on the shelf, and the number of repeats and re-edits that fill every available slot on both ITV1 and ITV2, nobody had noticed, and indeed this episode was a repeat as well. Slightly better followed with a show that was at least still in production, In For A Penny, with Stephen Mulhern’s daft games adding a bit of excitement to an otherwise dreary schedule. They had an animated premiere too in the shape of Sing 2, probably the one show that would have fitted in well on BBC1.
Twenty years ago or so, Christmas Day was a huge day for the soaps, with all three of the big shows ballooning in size and battling it out to be top dog. But in a year when Hollyoaks was demoted to E4, Corrie and Emmerdale both seemed to be in a bit of a bad way. It used to be that Christmas Day meant hour-long editions of both, but now regular Corrie is almost always an hour long – so for this special occasion, both were only half an hour! Clearly, given they aren’t very prominent at all on ITVX, ITV were eager to curb their reliance on these shows with their declining and ageing audience, but nondescript half-hour instalments of both, done and dusted by 7.30pm, was perhaps downplaying them a bit too much, as Emmerdale didn’t even pull in two million viewers – its lowest audience of the year by miles – and the Christmas Day Corrie failed to make it into the top 10 for the first time in its history.
Perhaps surprisingly, that hour of soap was the only 60 minutes of new scripted content on ITV1 all day. It was followed by two of its biggest entertainment efforts in The Masked Singer and game show The 1% Club, though as is often the case on this channel, these do good business throughout the year, but got blown off the screen by BBC1’s big guns on the day itself. Lee Mack’s likeable quiz did pull in 3.4 million viewers, though, which made it ITV1’s top show and stopped BBC1 having a complete clean sweep of the top 10 (only just, it was at number nine). After that at 10pm came a tribute to Barry Humphries, a familiar face on ITV Christmases past – or at least those that fell at the weekend given Dame Edna’s long association with LWT. This added a bit of fun, at least, to an otherwise austere Christmas Day on ITV1.
As in previous years, you could have ticked off all the festive staples on Channel 4, including Home Alone (though Home Alone 2 was controversially on ITV1 the previous day) and other festive film favourites including The Italian Job in the afternoon. Stephen Fry delivered the Alternative Christmas Message and discussed the rise of antisemitism. The Pottery Throw Down returned for a second successive Christmas, though there was no Gogglebox compilation this year – that was on Christmas Eve – and in its place came a festive edition of its musical talent show The Piano.
BBC2, meanwhile, were walking backwards for Christmas again with a stack of classic comedy, including a triple bill of Morecambe and Wise – their classic Christmas show from 1971 followed by a documentary from 2008 and, intriguingly, The Music of Morecambe and Wise, a special first shown (and seemingly last ) over the Silver Jubilee weekend in 1977, where Michael Parkinson interviewed the pair between archive clips. This wasn’t the only one of Parky’s encounters with the pair to get another outing this Christmas, as on the 23rd BBC4 showed the bafflingly-titled Parkinson Takes A Christmas Look At Morecambe And Wise from BBC1’s famously threadbare Christmas Day 1974. BBC2 also paid tribute to Caroline Aherne with a new documentary accompanied by repeats of Mrs Merton and The Royle Family.
Earlier in the day BBC2 had shown a new Matthew Bourne production of Sleeping Beauty, the one show that could have appeared on the channel 30 years or so ago when the fine arts dominated the schedules, a role now picked up by BBC4 who devoted the evening to classical music and weighty documentaries. Channel 5, meanwhile, knew its place and, The Wizard of Oz aside, devoted itself to providing agreeable background noise with numerous pop clip shows, Anton Du Beke’s countdown of Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs going out at 9am and then getting an almost instant repeat at 1pm.
It’s certainly the case that Christmas Day TV, as far as the terrestrial broadcasters are concerned, is now much more a case of managing decline than aiming for new heights. But BBC1 has seemed to do it more successfully than most and, while an era is clearly ending, it continued to attract and engage more of the nation than anything else on 25th December 2023.