by Steve Williams First published December 2006

Television has changed immeasurably since 1970. Back then there were only three channels, and with BBC2 offering up resolutely upmarket and non-populist fare, come 25 December, the vast majority of the audience would choose between BBC1 and ITV. Now the number of channels available has multiplied by maybe a hundred times.

Yet somehow, Christmas Day television remains resolutely traditional. Sure, the main networks can’t achieve the sort of ratings they did in their heyday – the top-rated show in 2005 pulling in just over 10 million viewers, half the audience it would have needed to get to number one 20 or 30 years previously – but compared to the rest of the year, multichannel viewing is at its lowest, and exactly what’s going to be in the BBC1 and ITV Christmas schedules remains much anticipated.

Or at least, the BBC1 schedule. What seems to have remained the case throughout the entire period that OTT has reviewed is ITV has never managed to put together a consistent or impressive Christmas Day schedule. Christmas is one of the few times of the year – aside from election nights, royal weddings or football tournaments – when BBC1 can look forward to almost complete domination of the airwaves.

Of course, episodes of Coronation Street and Emmerdale can always be counted on to pull in large audiences, and occasionally the commercial channel can enjoy the edge over the BBC – take 1978, when the newly-poached Morecambe and Wise grabbed the viewers, 1984, whenRaiders of the Lost Ark was a hot property, or 1999, at the height of Who Wants to be a Millionaire fever. Yet ITV have never managed to deliver success year in, year out.

Partly this is a business decision. ITV obviously rely on advertising revenue, and come Christmas Day nobody has much interest in that because the presents are all bought and the shops are shut – so there’s no need to churn out smash hits to lure in big audiences. Where these are needed are November and early December, so that’s when the big shows get an airing.

This factor was never better illustrated than in 1993, when ITV simply screened back-to-back movies all night on the big day and the BBC cleaned up. Greg Dyke, then running LWT, later admitted they thought it was a waste of time competing with the likes of Only Fools and Horsesand so didn’t even try. It’s likely that such a move would have been repeated in future years, but the channel received such poor publicity – and censure from the ITC – that they were never so obviously cynical again. Even so, you never get the feeling that ITV are that bothered if, come Boxing Day, it’s the BBC that are crowing.

Indeed, Alan Yentob, when he was controller of BBC1 in the early 1990s, once commented that, “Christmas is a BBC institution”, and unlike ITV’s patchy, inconsistent line-ups, there’s always been an element of tradition in the BBC1 schedule on Christmas Day. Programmes have come and gone, genres have fallen in and out of favour and there have been some headline-grabbing defections, but all of this has been addressed with the minimum of fuss.

Many aspects of Christmas television – the religion, the entertainment specials, the Queen – have remained constant on both the BBC and ITV for the last three decades, although in various different guises. In the prologue, we looked at how the familiar Christmas Day line-up came into being. So to round up OTT’s review of three and a half decades of Christmas Day television, let’s take a look at what we can expect on the 25th now, and see how the various traditions have developed and, in some cases, expired.

So, to start off, there’s normally …

Children’s TV. One of the most obvious changes come Christmas is that it’s no longer the only day of the year when you can watch telly for the whole 24-hour period. Almost all channels are now on air around the clock, and so programmes consequently begin much earlier. Aware that the average age of the audience at 6am is about five years old, both the BBC and ITV start the day with a procession of cartoons and programmes aimed at younger viewers.

There have been a few attempts to attract a wider audience first thing, attempting to lure bleary-eyed parents alongside their offspring. When breakfast television began in 1983, for a few years TV-am ran special editions of Good Morning Britain with the likes of Anne Diamond and Mike Morris wishing us a merry Christmas, but somewhere along the line this clearly became too much like hard work and it made way for slightly cheaper cartoons.

Breakfast telly was therefore an adult-free zone until 2003 when the BBC moved their kids’ shows over to BBC2 – as they were every other morning – and kept Breakfast running on BBC1 throughout the holidays, including on Christmas Day. As the programme is already running on BBC News 24, there is little extra expense, and it has now become a regular fixture on the big day, despite not perhaps being the most obvious festive curtain raiser. After the adults have hauled themselves out of bed, it’s then time for …

Religion. For many, of course, religion still plays a major part on Christmas Day. Obviously, much like modern-day Songs of Praise TV presents us with more than just a straightforward church service, so these programmes have developed from carols sung at a funereal pace. Much like all TV religion, there’s an array of faiths represented and a bit more glitz and glamour.

In the past, when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, the mid-morning line-up would be supplemented by more religion in primetime – the traditional “God Slot” was not scrapped even on Christmas Day, so there were special editions of Songs of Praise and the ITV equivalent at 6.30pm in 1977, 1983 and 1988. Come 1993, the broadcasters were no longer obliged to show religious programmes at that time on a Sunday, and inevitably this spelt the end for the big entertainment shows being interrupted by some hymn-singing.

Staying on a worthy vibe, next is often some …

Social “action”. Time was when, if children were in hospital on Christmas Day, not only would they be missing out on much of the family fun, but they might also have to watch out for Leslie Crowther sticking his head round the door. Both the BBC and ITV regularly paid a visit to local hospitals and children’s homes on Christmas morning throughout the ’60s and ’70s, with Meet the Kids and A Merry Morning respectively. Yet this was a concept that later fell out of favour, with the BBC dropping the idea in 1975 and ITV finally giving up in 1980.

However, the broadcasters still decided that it was important to spend part of Christmas Day thinking of the less fortunate. Come 1984, Noel Edmonds began spending his Christmas Day up the Post Office Tower, which as well as including some Late Late Breakfast Show-esque games and stunts also featured plenty more worthy features; such as a live link-up to Sudan to launch Comic Relief, taking needy kids up in the “Hollycopter” to have fun with The Krankies, or setting up cross-continent family reunions. When the appeal of working on Christmas Day began to pall for Noel in 1989, this element became a show of its own, and the pre-recordedNoel’s Christmas Presents ran until 1999 (bar a year off in 1992), becoming his longest running telly engagement with its own brand of seasonal schmaltz, and promoted from mid-morning to the post-Queen slot in the process.

Even when Noel left the Corporation, the same sort of show continued on Christmas Day – including Jim Davidson’s trip to visit the forces in 2000, and the straight reruns of Noel’s format with Rolf Harris in 2001 and Dale Winton in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, the Blue Peter team were also involved, giving out gold badges to kids who had done something special. Such goodwill seems to fit perfectly well on 25 December, and would probably prove somewhat unpalatable on any other day. Now it’s lunch and there’s often time for some …

Classic comedy. You’re almost guaranteed that somewhere over Christmas you’ll find a newspaper columnist or radio DJ claiming that Christmas telly is nowhere near as good as it used to be, and here’s where they could be proved right. Time was when to stick a repeat on Christmas Day would be considered an absolute insult, a waste of time on such a big day, but nowadays everyone expects and welcomes a little nostalgia. You can trace this tradition back to the ’80s, when it became obvious that a repeat of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers could attract a similar, or bigger, audience when compared to a new sitcom.

This is almost always a BBC1 staple, unsurprising given the number of classic sitcoms in the ITV archive could be counted on the fingers of one hand. For a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s, BBC1 bundled a series of repeats together at lunchtime under the banner of theChristmas Comedy Cracker, filling up two hours with the likes of PorridgeDad’s Army and The Good Life. In recent years, although the branding has been dropped, there’s almost always an episode of Morecambe and Wise or The Two Ronnies somewhere on the big day, reminding viewers, no doubt, that BBC1 has always been first choice for Christmas entertainment. Taking things up to date straight after is …

Top of the Pops. For four decades, millions of Christmas dinners must have gone cold while the younger members of the household wait to catch a glimpse of The Rolling Stones, The Bay City Rollers, Duran Duran or Take That on the festive TOTP. Remarkably the compilation of the year’s pop hits has appeared on every Christmas Day since 1967 – which, given there was no Queen’s Speech in 1969, is a record for consecutive festive outings.

Regardless of the ups and downs of the weekly chart countdown, the guaranteed big names that the Christmas show brings about meant it kept its place on the top table. It’s almost always been on at 2pm – although it shuffled a little earlier in the day in the ’90s – and until the mid ’80s was accompanied by a second programme, normally the following Thursday in the programme’s regular slot. When the show moved to BBC2 in 2005, the Christmas Day show continued on the main channel, and even now the weekly series is a thing of the past, it will return for the festive season.

Much like ITV failed to offer any opposition to Top of the Pops on a regular weekly basis, it never managed to find its own pop show to pull in the viewers on Christmas Day. In the ’70s music shows 45Supersonic and Oh Boy! all enjoyed a single outing on the 25th, as did 1975′sBay City Rollers show. The commercial channel’s most shameless attempt to compete came in the mid-’80s, when a compilation of the year’s best videos was shown at lunchtime for a couple of years, but eventually they gave up – possibly as Jim Davidson presented it in 1985.

Now, at 3pm, it’s time for …

A televised “message” from The Queen. This continues to be shown at 3pm on both BBC1 and ITV to this day, but although the concept remains the same, there has been major changes in how the programme, such as it is, has been put together.

For many years the message consisted in its entirety of Her Majesty sitting in a chair and talking, but it was the 1969 documentary The Royal Family that brought about a new approach. The producer of that programme, Richard Cawston, was appointed producer of the royal message the following year, and he pioneered a new format that would mix the usual message with filmed footage of the monarch’s exploits over the past year. Rather than being an event that television just happened to cover, like a wedding or coronation, it was now something specially made for the small screen.

Yet while it became more complex on screen, off screen technical advances meant Cawston and a tiny crew could turn up and record the programme with the minimum of fuss – as opposed to the previous method which had involved huge trucks parking up at Buckingham Palace and dozens of roadies wandering around the corridors. After Cawston retired, David Attenborough took over the producer’s chair, and incorporated much more outside filming; although the monarch, of course, had the final decision on what went in it.

The next major change came in 1997 when the BBC, who had always produced the message, had to share the contract with ITN, and the two organisations now alternate in putting the programme together – although, of course, it remains on both channels.

Some relief for republicans came in the 1970s when BBC2 stopped simulcasting the message and instead repeated it later in the evening. From the ’80s, this repeated showing began to include subtitles and sign language to allow the hard of hearing to watch the speech, something which Channel 4 also did when they began broadcasting. This continues to this day, though five have never broadcast the speech. Perhaps surprisingly, Sky One did for many years, but this is no longer the case.

The other great tradition at 3pm in recent years has been Channel 4′s Alternative Christmas Message. This began in 1993 when the network was running a season of programmes from New York over the festive season – and who better to offer a message opposite The Queen than Quentin Crisp? It then became an annual tradition, often based around a special theme C4 had adopted over the season, so in 1994, for example, “Black Christmas” was marked by a message from Rev Jesse Jackson and in 1995 Brigitte Bardot discussed animal cruelty as part of a run of shows on wildlife.

Since then the slot has varied between offering food for thought – such as the parents of Stephen Lawrence in 1998, and a Belfast schoolgirl the previous year – and straightforward irreverence, with Ali G in 1999 and The Simpsons in 2004. In 2005, Jamie Oliver delivered the message, and for the first time E4 offered an alternative to the alternative message from Avid Merrion.

Now, dinner’s over, and it’s time to postpone the washing up until after …

The Big Movie. And first things first, The Great Escape has only been in this slot on one occasion, and that was in 2001. However the appearance of a big, epic feature film to snooze in front of after the sprouts is one of the great traditions of Christmas Day. Here’s where the likes of The Sound of MusicOliver and The Wizard of Oz made their first appearances on British television back in the 1970s, and that’s where the Beeb would hopefully pull in a massive audience that would then stay tuned with the Corporation for the rest of the evening.

That’s despite, of course, the fact that most of these films were several years, or even decades, old – as in most cases this would be your first chance to see them outside the cinema. Such an idea seems bizarre in this day and age, and with DVD, pay-per-view and satellite telly, by the time a film now appears on BBC1 or ITV, viewers may well have seen it dozens of times.

Yet a popular family film is still a welcome addition to the schedules and enables the broadcasters to get from mid-afternoon to evening without frittering away any advantage. In recent years, the trend has been towards animated films, such as Toy StoryStuart Little andChicken Run, which appeal to parents and kids alike and make for perfectly enjoyable and undemanding fare at a time when a wider range of people are watching telly than at any other time.

Two other staples of Christmas afternoon have faded away since the ’60s. The circus no longer plays a part on Christmas TV, much as it no longer really plays a part in Christmas entertainment full stop. After Billy Smart defected to ITV in 1978, it began to drift away from the big day before being quietly dropped in the ’80s. Disney is still a major player at Christmas – and indeed, have produced numerous films screened in the post-Queen slot – but Disney Timeis no longer a regular fixture, with DVDs and the Disney portfolio of channels meaning that two minutes of The Black Hole can no longer really cut the mustard.

Then it’s time for five minutes of …

News. Time was when everything would close down for the festive season and so newsrooms could go off on holiday safe in the knowledge that next to nothing would happen. Nowadays we’re said to live in a 24-hour society, but despite that there’s still very little news broadcast on Christmas Day.

Throughout the ’70s there was normally just one news bulletin on BBC1 and ITV, usually broadcast late in the evening and lasting just a few minutes. This was expanded to two bulletins – one at teatimes, one later on – in the ’80s, but even as recently as 1992 there was still no news on either channel before 5pm. Perhaps oddly, though, there have been newsflashes on Christmas Day on two occasions in recent times – reporting on the assassination of Ceausescu in 1989 and the resignation of Gorbachev in 1991.

Nowadays, apart from the arrival of Breakfast, the amount of news broadcast on BBC1 and ITV on Christmas Day still comes in at under half an hour though, of course, there’s still current affairs whenever you want it on the dedicated news channels. For the most part, Christmas Day is still very much a day where real life takes a back seat for 24 hours. Now, that inevitably means giant-sized portions of …

Soaps. In 1970, there were fewer soaps on TV - Coronation Street twice a week, Crossroadsat teatime and a few half-hearted attempts at continuing drama, none of which would last very long, on the BBC. Fast forward to the present day and Coronation StreetEastEnders andEmmerdale are all screened virtually every day of the week, and you’re guaranteed episodes of all three on Christmas Day.

This has only been the case in recent years. Previously you only got soaps on Christmas Day if it happened to be the day they normally went out, if that – so after 1972, Coronation Streetdidn’t appear again on the 25th until 1985. However the arrival of EastEnders that year meant there was finally some competition, as both channels tried to trump each other. Two episodes of EastEnders on Christmas Day 1986 were a ratings smash, and the following year,Coronation Street appeared on the 25th when it was a Friday – the first time ever there had been more than two episodes in a week.

Since then, extended episodes of the soaps abound on Christmas Day, with our last festive season without a visit to Albert Square being in 1991, and Coronation Street last sitting it out in 1993. Emmerdale joined the party in 1997 and since then all three have been regulars. However they’re never likely to be in their usual slots, often shuffling around the schedules to all sorts of unlikely places to avoid any sort of clash. For ITV, this is no problem – you get the feeling that they’d be happy if viewers just switched over from the Beeb for the Rovers and the Woolpack and then switched back again.

After the drama’s complete, it’s time for …

Entertainment. Time was when this would be a huge entertainment spectacular such asChristmas Night With the Stars or All-Star Comedy Carnival, but these marathon shows fell out of favour in the ’70s. It was felt that viewers couldn’t be doing with sitting through hour after hour of shows they might not much care for in the hope of seeing a favourite act, while no doubt the cost of getting virtually every programme on the network to contribute a sketch was proving prohibitive.

That’s not to say the idea was completely abandoned. On 27 December 1982, for example, Frank Muir compèred The Funny Side of Christmas on BBC1, linking together sketches from the likes of Only Fools and HorsesReginald Perrin and Smith and Jones. Both channels have also notably resurrected the old Christmas Night With the Stars banner, with Des O’Connor hosting a special show on ITV in 1996, and Michael Parkinson doing the same on BBC1 in 2003. However these were revivals in name only, both basically being slightly more festive editions of the hosts’ regular chat shows.

Instead we got, and still get, special editions of the top comedy shows of the day. Inevitably, this is a BBC speciality, and until 1977 the masters of the art were Morecambe and Wise, whose annual festive specials became hugely anticipated and are much cherished to this day. Their defection to ITV in 1978 was intended to put the commercial channel in control, but numerous problems – Eddie Braben being contractually unavailable for some time, Eric suffering from poor health and the huge ITV strike of 1979 to name but three – worked against them, as did the BBC’s ability to fight back.

Mike Yarwood, whose show had appeared as Eric and Ern’s warm-up for many years, became the big name on BBC1 in their place, before he inexplicably decided to follow them to ITV in 1982 when his career was already in terminal decline. The Two Ronnies then became the centrepiece of the evening’s schedule, with Russ Abbott waiting in the wings to take over from Messers Barker and Corbett when Ronnie B jacked it in.

By the ’90s, extended episodes of sitcoms were now the norm, with Only Fools and Horsesbecoming as regular a visitor on Christmas Day as Santa – indeed from the early ’90s it existed only as yuletide specials. It was often reported during the decade that the sitcom was no longer a mainstream success, but the Beeb always managed to find something for the big day - Birds of a FeatherOne Foot in the GraveThe Vicar of Dibley and Men Behaving Badly all managed to pull in huge audiences throughout the decade and beyond.

It’s certainly true to say that there is nothing on Christmas in this day and age that can bring a huge audience together as there was when Eric and Ern were in their pomp, when Brucie and Larry were marshalling the conveyor belt, or Dorothy’s exploits with the scarecrow and tin man weren’t available to watch over and over again. Yet Christmas telly, and specifically Christmas Day telly, remains much anticipated – the double issues of the TV listings guides appear in the shops earlier and earlier and are eagerly snapped up. Even if it’s only to say how poor the schedules are compared to the line-ups of the ’70s, the fact that viewers expect great telly come December is testament to the magic of Christmas.