by Steve Williams

First published January 2001

“I’m the king of the world!”

The first Christmas Day of the 21st century harked back a few decades, with the main attraction being a blockbuster movie premiere. James Cameron’s Titanic was the BBC’s big deal this year, the most long awaited film premiere since, perhaps, ET 10 years before. It seemed obvious that the film would be screened on Christmas Day, although it was far from an ideal slot – the feature was over three hours long, therefore asking a lot of the audience and limiting the amount of new programming the BBC could show. Scheduling it in the mid-evening also put it right in the middle of “mince pie time”, a slot when it’s hard to give TV your full attention. Some critics took issue with the screening, as “everyone has already seen it”, but ITV’s showing of The Full Monty a few weeks before, another film “everyone’s seen”, got 11 million viewers. As we’ll see, then, the schedules for both BBC1 and ITV revolved solely around the doomed ocean liner.

BBC1 started earlier than ever before this year, at 5.30am – although technically, of course, they don’t close down anymore, simply opting in and out of News 24, so there was nothing really stopping them opening up even sooner. In any case they were able to present four and a half hours of children’s entertainment, probably the most ever, including the premiere of two new animations, Santa’s Special Delivery voiced by Rik Mayall, and better still, Spike Milligan’sBadjelly the Witch. Then it was time for religion, and the service from All Saints Church in Daresbury – the birthplace of Lewis Carroll, so the service was able to adopt a theme.

There was a disappointing morning, though – the early film was neither new nor an established classic, instead being a re-screening of Disney’s The Santa Clause, the live action movie with Tim Allen, which was admittedly topical, but not much fun for anyone over the age of 10. This was followed by a repeat of last year’s Hooves of Fire at 12.40pm – not that different a slot to last year, so most people watching TV at that time would probably have seen it before. At least there was Top of the Pops at 1.10pm, Jamie Theakston in charge again, this time joined by Richard Blackwood and Sara Cox, despite the latter having only presented one edition before. Then there was a change to the schedules – Noel Edmonds had gone, never to return, but the social action continued with the unlikely face of Jim Davidson stepping in. He joined servicemen on HMS Invincible for a special variety show under the title of Homeward Bound for Christmas - although it was all for charity and was actually introduced by Prince Charles, so it had some sort of useful purpose – if nothing else, it got Jim Davidson out of the country for a bit.

Meanwhile GMTV kicked off the third channel’s day at 6am, with the usual schedule in place – cartoons followed by the Rev Steve Chalke. Then the ITV network took over at 9.25am, but alas nothing could match up to last year’s SM:TV special - CITV instead introducing a repeated episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and then another new animation, this time voiced by Sir Nigel Hawthorne, probably not as popular among kids as Milligan or Mayall. My Favourite Hymns was the main religious programme of the day again, this time at a more appropriate 10.45am slot, and with Michael Barrymore picking the hits. A dreadful film followed, Home Alone 2 again, and it’s hard to tell who’d actually want to see this – most kids who enjoyed it at the time probably having grown out of it along with Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles. It also meant that for 30 minutes at lunchtime all five channels were showing repeats. At 2pm there was another screening for the Pride of Britain Awards, a ceremony first shown six months before, with Carol Vorderman and the obligatory “host of celebrities” honouring unsung heroes – a similarly treacly programme to what BBC1 were offering at this time.

After the Queen the BBC went for a new film, The Borrowers - quite an odd choice for Christmas afternoon, as it hadn’t been a massive hit, and again not quite action-packed enough to appeal to a general audience. The same couldn’t have been said for what followed at 4.35pm, mind; a new edition of Walking with Dinosaurs. This was the first science programme ever to go out on BBC1′s Christmas Day, but really that wasn’t why people were watching – they wanted to see the expensive animation and hear the overblown narration. The original series managed to make inroads into the chart of BBC1′s top 20 most popular programmes ever (though admittedly with the help of a same-week repeat) and though this special probably wouldn’t get anywhere near that, it was still guaranteed a sizeable audience. This would have been passed on to what followed, the first of two episodes of EastEnders, and then the main event – at 5.45pm, we were invited to take our seats on the Titanic.

Three hours later, as the nation made its way to the bathroom, the BBC were then able to concentrate on home grown programming. Auntie’s Bloomers had gone, though – there were two programmes on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day instead, though the latter was up againstCoronation Street. Instead we got the second episode of EastEnders, then it was comedy all night, as usual – Victoria Wood had a special programme at 9.20pm. The pull of Wood is something comparable to Morecambe and Wise, perhaps, as this special featured an impressive guest list of Alan Rickman, Pete Postlethwaite, James Bolam, Richard E Grant, Derek Jacobi and others, all ready to make a joke about gypsy creams or a reference to retractable bollards. Eric and Ern would have approved. Then at 10.10pm was this year’s Royle Family special. One thing noticeable about this year’s two big comedy specials was that both were ostensibly Christmas-themed – Wood’s show being based around a series of parodies of Christmas traditions, and the Royles settling down to watch the festive Animal Hospital. The ’90s tradition of Birds of a Feather in Majorca or the Trotters in Miami seemed to be over.

After the news Angus Deayton made his by now traditional Christmas Day appearance, but this year later than ever at 10.50pm. At least he was the only man this year behind a desk (well, the only man who wasn’t a newsreader) as They Think It’s All Over had been moved from 25 December, instead going out the day before – still, it had a good run for such an unfestive programme. Some interesting scheduling at 11.30pm saw another screening for a sketch fromFrench and Saunders‘ 1998 Christmas show parodying a certain film about some ship or other, perhaps in an attempt to remind viewers what they’d enjoyed that night. A double bill of comedy movies followed, and this year they were both great - The Naked Gun 2½, followed at 1.15am by the majestic Carry On Camping.

ITV’s day was also dominated by Titanic, the film casting a shadow over the line-up and the schedules being adjusted accordingly. This meant that this Christmas Day on ITV was a mess, programmes being shunted to awkward slots and no attempt made at a coherent, memorable line-up. Compared to last year’s aggressive scheduling, where programmes had gone out at user-friendly times and the channel had seemed supremely confident, this was a real step backwards. The main part of the day began at 3.10pm with, oddly, a Bond film - Octopussy, probably one of the oldest things ever shown in this slot. This was the start of a season of five 007 movies shown every afternoon during Christmas week, but it’s a shame they didn’t shuffle them around so an acknowledged classic such as Goldfinger (Boxing Day) or Thunderball (27 December) filled this slot, instead of a mediocre late period choice. Still, good to see Bond back where he belonged, and this was probably the best thing ITV had shown here since, well, the last time they showed a Bond film. Perhaps the movie was chosen purely for reasons of timing, as it finished at 5.35pm, thus allowing for a news bulletin before attempting to beatTitanicEmmerdale was, of course, drafted in, although this year the usual hour-long instalment was split into two halves. At least they had a wedding storyline to help out, though, the first part including the stag and hen nights. Then at 6.15pm it was this year’s ITV panto,Aladdin. This was not great scheduling – seemingly it returned to Christmas Day after the success of the previous year’s instalment, although that had gone out on a Sunday night. Hard to imagine this one beating the other side, despite an impressive cast including Patsy Kensit, Martin Clunes and Griff Rhys Jones.

Then it was back to Emmerdale at 7.45pm where time had passed incredibly quickly because it was already the wedding – could this have involved two distinct episodes going out on the same night rather than two specially written episodes? With half an hour of the film to go, ITV then scheduled You’ve Been Framed at 8.15pm, one of three festive episodes that week. This meant the third appearance of the day for Lisa Riley, who’d already been in the panto and, of course, there’d also been two episodes of her erstwhile series Emmerdale as well. Odd to seeYou’ve Been Framed in such a big slot, though – the current series had fallen victim to “experiments with the schedule” and had only gone out about four times in three months. Then at 8.50pm, exactly when Titanic had finished, was the first of the night’s two episodes of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and it was becoming obvious that ITV’s plan for this Christmas was to try and repeat last year’s schedule, only much more half-arsed. Thus Corrie followed with an hour long episode at the unmemorable time of 9.20pm, much later than usual, as ITV attempted to avoid both Titanic and EastEnders, then there was a second episode of Millionaireat 10.20pm, which was pretty pointless – they may as well have scheduled a single hour-long edition. Besides, the series was not quite the draw it had been 12 months before – a change to the schedule meant that instead of the programme running for consecutive nights over a period of about a fortnight, it was now running three or four times a week constantly. This seemed to make it slightly more missable than in the past, as it seemed to be always there.

At least there was a decent film at 11pm, Sleepless in Seattle, but all in all this ITV schedule was a pale shadow of the previous year, with programmes all over the place and none of them were really very distinctive at all. Whereas BBC1 scheduled a series of one-offs and specials, ITV offered up the usual old rubbish – as always there’s far too much soap, and this time there’s far too much Lisa Riley.

Meanwhile the minority channels were as idiosyncratic as ever. BBC2 made a change to the usual opening routine, though, as instead of the old movies, we were treated to 150 minutes of … Breakfast! Yes, the usual mix of news, weather and sport went out as it did every other day on BBC1 – the idea, of course, is that as a News 24 co-production, the programme is made seven days a week no matter what, and thus it was going to go out on News 24 anyway. But it’s odd how BBC2 took the programme as well – who wants to see two and a half hours of news at 6am on Christmas Day? Normal service was resumed at 8.30am with two Laurel and Hardy films, Stan and Ollie making a return to the 25th for the first time in over two decades. The morning was devoted to the usual “improving” programming – such as Classic Challenge, where musicians were given a week to compose a new work, and to replace the Royal Institution Lectures, which had defected to Channel 4, a contractually-obliged Gary Lineker fronted a new three part series, Are You Superhuman?

We entered the afternoon with the films High NoonThe War Wagon and Casablanca - a classic-heavy schedule interrupted only by the now traditional Simpsons at 2.55pm. The evening saw another heat of Choir of the Year, a repeat showing of the period drama The Woman in White and a documentary about the pianist Alfred Brendel. But the main part of the evening was devoted to Clint Eastwood, with the second part of an Arena profile followed by the movie Play Misty For Me. Note there was no opera again, for the third year running, although there was one the following afternoon. And, shock horror, we saw the return of the Beatles film after a lengthy absence – a restored version of Yellow Submarine took pride of place on the afternoon of New Year’s Day.

At Horseferry Road, Channel 4′s schedule was as ropey as ever - The Big Breakfast returning at 8am, followed by a new film, Paws, which starred Billy Connolly as the voice of “a computer-literate Jack Russell terrier”. Hmm. Then it was repeats for most of the daylight hours – the previous week’s Scrapheap Challenge special, the adaptation of MerlinFather Christmas, another Raymond Briggs animation (not the Snowman though, that was at 4pm on Christmas Eve), and the final of Fifteen to One, repeated from last Friday. The only new programme between 11.35am and 4.45pm was the Alternative Christmas Message, again moving back to comment rather than comedy, and delivered by Helen Jeffries, mother of 14 year old CJD victim Zoë – but this was only five minutes long. But there was new stuff in the evening – the final ofCountdown, a documentary on Joan of Arc, and opera from Glyndebourne – this was La Bohème, a production performed, as the composer wished, “without make-up or sumptuous costumes and sets”. Merry Christmas to you too. At 9pm was a 4-financed biopic of Jacqueline du Pre, but again it was a dull Christmas on Channel 4, which never fails to disappoint. Given that C4 have attempted, in the past, to innovate and produce exciting new programming (Queer as FolkBig Brother), why is every Christmas Day devoted to tedious films and opera? At least we had Christmas Top Ten at 11.15pm, repeated from last year, enabling viewers to round off the day with nostalgia, reminiscence and the enticing prospect of hearing narrator Bernard Cribbins say “piss”.

The fact that Channel 5 scheduled National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at 9pm probably tells you all you need to know about their schedule. On the whole, it was another weak day on the commercial channels, proving once more that ITV simply cannot find a consistent and successful formula for Christmas Day viewing.

And OTT’s conclusion? Another BBC victory and a Christmas completely in tune with the conventions of festive television.