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Christmas is Coming

Robert Weedon | Television | Thursday 26th November 2009

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man's hat.
As a metaphor for television, this rhyme is not a great choice, but if we assume that the "old man" is television, "a penny" is millions of pounds of advertising money, and "the geese" are high street retailers desperate to get us fickle consumers to spend a bit too much money in their stores, then it...was still a bit of a rotten choice.

Yes, it's exactly one month now 'til the big day; the day when television gets its biggest audiences of the year, although quite how can seem a bit of a mystery. After all, Christmas Day is the one day of the year when people probably make the effort to invite some of their revolting families over, and what with all the presents, extended meals, and attempts to fathom some variation-on-a-theme board game based on a crap TV gameshow, you might think that Christmas television would be the least of your worries. However, a glance over a list of highest ever audiences for British television shows reveals that Yuletide entertainments almost universally prop up the list.

There are lots of reasons for this. Chiefly, it's because almost everybody gets the day off at Christmas, meaning that the audience is going to be bigger to start with, not to mention other factors such as the cold weather and dark nights. Crucially, however, is the way that television has created the notion of itself being the only bringer of Christmas entertainment. TV pulls out all the stops at Christmas and New Year, to the point where it's often considered something of an 'event' when the big Christmas Radio Times finally emerges onto the shelves. Indeed, other than the early-December anomaly at No.3, the top six television audiences for a single programme run as follows:

Programme, descriptionChannel, date, viewers.
1. EastEnders - Den divorces Angie.BBC1, 25th December 1986, 30.15 million
2. Morecame and Wise Christmas Show - The one with Elton John. BBC1, 25th December 1977, 28 million
3. Coronation Street - Alan Bradley killed by tram.ITV, 8th December 1989, 26.93 million.
4. Coronation Street - Hilda Ogden leaves.ITV, 25 December 1987, 26.00+million.
5. Only Fools and Horse - "Time On Our Hands", the original final episode.BBC1, 25 December 1996, 24.35 million.
6. EastEnders - Pat Butcher runs down little girlBBC1, 29th December 1992, 24.30 million

Now, what this tells us, sadly, is that the dated, 1960s kitchen-sink-drama-inspired soaps are kings of Christmas ratings, and usually fairly cheerless fayre too - a divorce, a death, a road accident, etc. At least this misery is tempered by the much-loved Morecambe and Wise Show, which, although dated, is ideal Christmas family entertainment. The same can be said for the final episode of Only Fools and Horses, which of course was supposed to be the "last ever" episode. Unfortunately, somebody saw the enormous ratings for the final episode and pursuaded John Sullivan to write some further specials, which were awful.

Anyway, other than a shouty Eastenders special, The Snowman, The Queen, Carols from King's, and the rest of the usual suspects, in the interests of informed speculation let's have a look at what we can expect from Christmas and New Year this year.

Unless you've been living on Planet Mars you'll probably realise that ITV1 are going to be broadcasting the final of the X-Factor, the end-of-the-pier talent show that's predicted to reel in their highest ratings of the decade. However, the recent expulsion of a thing called Jedward, whatever the hell that is/was, means that the most memorable feature of the show has gone, leaving a fairly bland line-up, not exactly what the producers of the show wanted if they were going to sell advertising. As noted in this brilliantly written story, by "DAILY MAIL REPORTER", £8000 per second was being quoted as the advertising rate for the final. The fact that this story probably originated from a press release by ITV themselves, hoping to drum up even more hype is irrelevant.

Speaking of hype, we can also look forward to the Doctor Who special where David Tennant turns into Matt Smith, surely the most drawn-out TV build up of the last few years. Once, it was probably quite exciting knowing that The Doctor might suddenly regenerate at any point, but now that it's been revealed who the new Doctor is and when he's changing, etc, it makes the unexpected...expected. Anyway, the big Christmas or New Year special will be when this occurs, and will probably bring one of the bigger ratings of the season. Of course, the point in telling us that a regeneration will happen is that more people will tune in to see it, but I can't help feeling that this quest for a big audience at Christmas and New Year is an example of executive interference over editorial judgement. Doctor Who seems to be quite succeptable to this, with titles such as "The Christmas Invasion" an example of working-title television at its worst. They might as well have called it "Doctor Who at Christmas".

BBC1 is also wheeling out a Christmas special of its popular 2007 series Cranford, which by all accounts, (i.e a matriarchal relation) is quite good. The temptation to add fake snow must have been irresistable, but hopefully this will be less fatuous than last year's appalling Lark Rise to Candleford Christmas special. We'll see. Rather more excitingly is an adaptation of Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw, which promises much. Ghost story adaptations always used to be a mainstay of Christmas dramas, and BBC4 have been making robust contributions to this tradition for the last three years, so it's nice to see this one being given a BBC1 slot.

On ITV1, meanwhile, is The Fattest Man in Britain, allegedly not another Channel 4 shock-doc, but instead a comedy drama written by Caroline Aherne and starring Timothy Spall. It sounds about as appealing as a cabbage-scented fart, but the title will probably poach some viewers away from Channel 4. ITV are also looking back to former glories with An Englishman in New York, a sequel to Thames Television's 1975 The Naked Civil Servant, again starring John Hurt as Quentin Crisp.

Speaking of old favourites, judging by the commissioned tribute documentary Touched By Frost: Farewell Jack, it's fair to assume that the final episode of the excellent detective series A Touch of Frost will be gracing our screens at some point during the season. The documentary apparently "goes behind-the-scenes during filming of the emotional, final scenes", which I have to say sounds quite ominous. One to watch.

As for comedies, BBC One have Christmas specials of Outnumbered, The Royle Family and catchphrase comedy The Catherine Tate Show in the offing. There are also end of year, festive end-of-year editions of programmes such as Harry Hill's TV Burp and Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe. Victoria Wood also has a special on BBC One which, judging from her last Christmas offering, may be surprisingly good, and probably the only one of the BBC's comedy offerings that can be watched without embarassment in front of "the parents".

Compared to the likely adult humour of most of the BBC's offerings, ITV are making The Ant and Dec Christmas Show, playing to their reputation of being a modern equivalent of Morecambe & Wise, which if well-scheduled could be a big hit. Whether it will still be being repeated 40 years into the future is less clear. Rather less likely to be a classic is Cheryl Cole's Night In, in which she does some singing with other singers and some more singers. I really wish it had been called "Cheryl Cole's Christmas Sing-Song". I bet that was a working title.

Amongst more "high-brow" entertainments is BBC4's Orson Welles season, in some talking heads will probably be going on about how great Citizen Kane is forever, and ever, and ever. Fresh from Doctor Who, the BBC have planned a screening of David Tennant's RSC performance as Hamlet, although quite when this will be scheduled is unclear.

On the other end of the scale, children's entertainment on the BBC this year will be provided by a cartoon adaptation of rather sweet picture book The Gruffalo, while the big Christmas family film on BBC1 is Pixar's The Incredibles. ITV don't make children's programmes any more, but they will probably be showing an equally big film, probably at the same time, just to annoy us. Video/DVD/hard-drive recorders at the ready...

To be updated.


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