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Christmas TV over the decades

PUBLISHED: 11:57 13 December 2017

Batman and Robin Only Fools and Horses

Batman and Robin Only Fools and Horses


The ghosts of Christmas TV past: TV Editor Stacia Briggs looks at how festive TV schedules have changed since 1936

Christmas – tis the season to moan about the number of repeats and films you watched in the cinema six years ago. But how have things changed since watching television became the most popular pastime for people on December 25? TV Editor Stacia Briggs travels back in time to take a look.

The first ever Christmas television programme – broadcast in the slot which is now taken by the Queen – was shown in 1936 and was named after the meal most of us would have just enjoyed at the table.

Christmas Turkey was, excitingly, a demonstration of carving said bird by BJ Hulbert which was followed by a newsreel and a talk by Edward Shackleton about his Lonely Christmas in the Arctic – the viewing figures were, to be brutally honest, poor. Only 400 people watched (to be fair only 400 people had TV sets).

In the decades which have followed, it’s fair to say that Christmas TV has changed somewhat, although there are still a fair few turkeys on the schedule.

In the 1940s, there was a shut down during the Second World War but in 1946, BBC’s television service resumed and programmes began on Christmas Day with a recording of the King’s Speech and then a visit to Queen Elizabeth’s Children’s Hospital in Hackney.

By 1955, there were two TV channels vying for the public’s attention although ITV had only been on air since September. The new channel burst on to the Christmas scene in some style by showing Saturday Night at the London Palladium, a drama called A Present from Bessie and an episode of I Love Lucy. The BBC weighed in with an early frontrunner to reality TV by gate-crashing three parties in London, Bournemouth and Sheffied and showing the action in a show called Christmas Box and adding some frosty glitz with Robinsoe Crusoe on Ice: there’s a concept.

Ten years later, the Doctor arrived in the Tardis on BBC1 with a high-concept smashing of the fourth wall with William Hartnell wishing viewers a merry Christmas – it took four more decades before he’d make it back through space and time to Christmas day again. The big show of the day was, deep breath, The Black and White Minstrel Show: no clamours to have that repeated today. ITV had some good old variety with The Bruce Forsyth Show and Opportunity Knocks. BBC2 was on air too, with a relentless selection of middle class viewing.

By the time a decade had passed, colour TVs had arrived in force and the country was in the middle of what many believe was the golden age of TV – Morecambe and Wise were there, The Generation Game was in full swing and Michael Crawford was risking life and limb in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. It wasn’t all good news, though, unless you like casual racism with your turkey leftovers (Love Thy Neighbour and its ilk). On Christmas Day in 1975, BBC2 aired the incredible sounding Great Big Groovy Horse, “a rock musical romp through the legend of The Wooden Horse of Troy”.

By the 1980s, the iconic Only Fools and Horses had arrived and The Two Ronnies ruled the box – ITV retaliated with Minder, in particular Minder on the Orient Express (spoiler alert: on this occasion they didn’t all do it) only for the BBC to hit back with an EastEnders Christmas episode in 1986 which showed Dirty Den filing divorce papers on wife Angie, watched in total by 30 million people. Channel 4 joined the party in 1982: at 12.10pm on December 25 it showed The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin “…in which the characters are played by penguins”. Quite.

Channel 5 launched in 1997 (the festive highlight that year was Xena: Warrior Princess) but otherwise, few changes have been arrived, unless you count a proliferation of reality shows and the addition of countless more channels and streaming services offering all of us more choices at Christmas than anyone could cope with. Perhaps Channel 5 had the answer last year: on August 21 2016 it dedicated an entire afternoon to Christmas films, pointing out there were “127 sleeps to go”. It’s one way to make sure you don’t miss anything this Christmas.

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