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In praise of Christmas TV: history and best moments

Benjie Goodhart / 11 December 2018 ( 06 November 2020 )

How the brightest jewels of the broadcasting schedule have brought peace and calm to many a festive household since 1936.

Vintage TV at Christmas
Since 1936 families have gathered around the television at Christmas, but the programming available has changed massively over the decades

Christmas dinner is over. The only thing fuller than the bulging stomachs is the kitchen sink, the living room is effectively a mountain of used wrapping paper, and half the kids’ toys are already broken. Everyone’s had a couple of sherries and a massive row about Brexit, and now it’s time to sink into the sofa and be cleansed by the soothing balm of telly.

Christmas TV is a lifesaver. If it wasn’t for all the festive specials we have on during the holiday period, we’d actually have to talk to each other, and nothing good ever came of that. It’s no coincidence that the broadcasters all bring out their biggest shows at a time of year when families are all crammed together under one roof. Never mind saving the world, I suspect James Bond has saved countless marriages simply by virtue of shutting everyone up for a couple of hours.

The first ever Christmas TV programmes

Christmas TV wasn’t always so diverting, though. Back in 1936, TV’s first festive schedule consisted of a demonstration of turkey carving by Mr B J Hulbert, followed by a magazine programme (an early forerunner to The One Show only with more people in black tie), and closedown at 4pm. The party really kicked in at 9pm, though, when the BBC came back on air with a Christmas choral carol concert (try saying that after a couple of eggnogs).

For many of us, the Queen’s speech is as much a Christmas tradition as charades, stockings and extreme gluttony. But it didn’t form part of the TV schedule until 1957 (before which it was on the radio). It was screened exclusively on the BBC until 1997, when the rights became shared with ITV. From 2011, Sky has also been involved, and by 2012 the speech was being shown in 3D.

1960s - the start of Christmas TV traditions

Two more Christmas staples – of rather differing natures – came along in 1960s. Top of the Pops began in 1964, the countdown to the Christmas Number One being greeted with breathless anticipation by teenagers ever since. Back in the day when people actually bought records and gave them as gifts, the Christmas Number One was a lucrative and significant milestone. Meanwhile, in 1966, the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures brought an element of educational entertainment to the screens, in a worthy and estimable tradition that continues to this day.

1970s - Christmas TV takes off

But it was in the 1970s that Christmas TV really became a ‘thing’, with both the BBC and ITV packing the schedules with their biggest stars of comedy and light entertainment. And the stars didn’t come bigger than Morecambe and Wise, whose Christmas shows went out on December 25th from 1969 to 1980 (except 1974) and who drew consistently enormous audiences. Everyone remembers the 1976 special with Angela Rippon’s legs (and, indeed, the rest of her) but it was the following year that the show garnered one of the largest TV audiences in British broadcasting history, anywhere between 21 and 28 million, depending on who you ask. The Mike Yarwood (remember him?) Show that followed it got an even bigger total, and is considered by many to be the largest Christmas TV audience ever.

That said, it’s a grey area, obfuscated by confusion as to how statistics are gathered. There is a suggestion that EastEnders’ deliciously sadistic 1986 episode (featuring the immortal line ‘Happy Christmas Ange’ accompanied by divorce papers) was watched by 30 million, though that was split over the show and the subsequent omnibus. Another candidate is one of the many (largely brilliant) Only Fools and Horses Christmas specials, Time On Our Hands, from 1996.

Channel 4’s single truly noteworthy contribution to festive TV came mere weeks after the broadcaster first went on air, in 1982: For many, The Snowman captures the magic of Christmas like no other show, and is an annual staple. An extra mince pie to any reader who can name the singer of the iconic ‘Walking in the Air’ theme song. (If you said Aled Jones, immediately go and stand outside in your smalls for five minutes as punishment – it was a long-forgotten chap called Peter Auty.)

As an enthusiastic consumer of telly since a young age, my own Christmas TV memories began with my banishing my mums, dads, aunts and uncles from the room so I could make a huge mess and construct something genuinely execrable out of toilet roll holders, sticky back plastic and tinsel. As I look back at Christmases past, memories include the annual instance of my mum shushing us all as we continued to chatter during the Queen’s speech, and my dad allowing me to stay up late so he could introduce me to the delights of the peerless classic film Some Like It Hot.

Modern classic Christmas TV

More recently, I have soft spots for The Office (Dawn and Tim’s kiss at the Christmas party) The Royle Family’s 1999 special (with the iconic bathroom scene, and dear, much-mourned Caroline Aherne) and The Vicar of Dibley’s 1996 effort, ‘The Christmas Lunch Incident’ (in which dear, much-mourned Emma Chambers’s Alice believed Jesus was born in Dunstable). And, it goes without saying, Downton Abbey.

Everyone has their favourites. Though I’m willing to bet the contents of my Christmas stocking that nobody has BJ Hulbert’s turkey carving demonstration among them.

Find out about the best Christmas films


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