I got the Christmas TV blues…
As the UK networks release their holiday season schedules, Stephen Arnell asks: ‘was Christmas Telly better in the olden days?’
Short answer: yes
Of course, you could opine that it’s typical middle-aged nostalgia and dislike of the young on my part, and you may be right to a (slight) degree.
But every year seasonal channel offerings seem to get a little less ‘special’, primarily at the BBC, who continue to dominate the airwaves over Christmas.
This year, The Corporation offers thin gruel in the shape of Strictly, Call the Midwife, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Bad Education Christmas specials.
Oh, and for masochists, Sara Cox presents Cliff at Christmas, where Harry Rodger Webb will entertain viewers with Christmas classics, his biggest hits and some (gulp) new tunes. No doubt he’s got an album to flog.
An unseasonal surprise with the final season of His Dark Materials, which should provide something of an antidote to the saccharine. No Dr Who Xmas show this year, providing some relief from a series that looks to be outstaying its welcome, at least in terms of ratings.
Fewer quirky shows
Never one for understatement, BBC chief content officer Charlotte Moore claimed: “Nothing brings people across the UK together like Christmas on the BBC and this year we’ve got a world-class line-up like no other. Get ready to escape and be entertained with an incredible range of new festive shows across every genre. Live or on demand, there’s something for everyone.”
Compare to the past, where traditional fare was often leavened by quirkier shows; adaptations of Le Fanu (Schalcken the Painter, 1979), Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1997), a surprisingly scary adaptation of children’s classic The Snow Queen (1976) and of course MR James’ A Ghost Story for Christmas.
Mark Gatiss has revived the James stories to some success, with this year’s Count Magnus promising festive chills.
BBC2 offers new takes on Coppélia and Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, but there’s an apparent absence of classic film themed seasons and new Arena arts specials on intriguing subjects.
With ad revenues traditionally low post-Christmas Eve, ITV never really bothers, aside from a token effort or two (this year a Doc Martin Christmas episode), whilst Channel 4 and Channel 5 concentrate respectively on Yuletide panel game editions and Hallmark-style seasonal movies.
Sky will probably wheel out something suitably heart-warmingly bland as they have in previous years, the likes of The Amazing Mr Blunden, Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of The Curious Mouse, Jack and the Beanstalk: After Ever After/Cinderella: After Ever After and The Queen and I (all featuring the increasingly unsavoury David Walliams – more of whom later).
All the while, promotions for the so-called ‘Big Day’ begin ever earlier in December, popping up with indecent haste on 1 December, when previously it wasn’t until around the 10th that they appeared.
A sign of budget cuts at Auntie is the re-use of previous years promos and stings by BBC2 and 4, although BBC1 has splashed out on new idents.
Mostly inferior to those of far older vintage – the Golden Age being the 1970s-early 1980s, in my estimation.
Appearing ‘with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season’
This year will see the first King’s Christmas Message.
Bearing in mind our new monarch’s public travails with stationary and other commonplace items, perhaps someone will purchase Charles Philip Arthur George a functioning ink pen and an adult-size ‘signing table’ he can cart around to the many ceremonies he’s called upon to attend.
Back to David Walliams.
To quote Sir Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) in Moonraker (1979), Walliams “appears with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”
This year BBC1/CBBC viewers will be treated to the sequel Gangsta Granny Strikes Again! starring the man himself and the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith, who will also be appearing in Sky’s Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything this December.
Let joy be unconstrained.
Smith plays Rosie Molloy, “a woman who is addicted to everything: smoking, alcohol, Terry’s Chocolate Oranges, Xanax, Adderall, caffeine and anything else she can get her hands on.”
Not addicted to showing her face every 5 minutes on TV though, one of Smith’s own ostensible obsessions.
The BBC have previously commissioned adaptations of the prolific writer’s Mr Stink, The Boy in The Dress, Billionaire Boy, Grandpa’s Great Escape, The Midnight Gang and the original Gangsta Granny.
One would think Walliams was the only children’s author in existence.
Lazy commissioning, I say.
Why not updated versions of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, Cruel Frederick, and The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, for instance? That’ll keep the brats in line over the holidays.
Or perhaps in a more melancholic vein, Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince – or The Selfish Giant?
In the words of The Long Good Friday’s (1980) Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins): “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an ‘ot dog, know what I mean?”
Forfeiting the title of ‘Mr Christmas’
With the controversy over DWs’ disgusting comments recorded on the set of Britain’s Got Talent, will his stranglehold on coarse, Rabelaisian kids’ comedy-drama finally be at an end?
Incidentally, I once met The Great Man when working at ITV.
A mutual friend had told him who I was.
He greeted me superciliously as “Mr ITV3!”.
Attempting a witty parry, I responded, “Yes, I changed my name by deed poll.”
Having insidiously wormed his way into the affections of TV commissioners and a deluded section of the viewing public, Walliams could himself be called “Mr Christmas,” but I fear with the BGT controversy he may have forfeited the title.
Anyway, I’ll be watching Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix) on Christmas Day.
And, as a pre-Yule treat, here’s my selection of shows for a truly old-fashioned ‘Retro-Christmas’ – scheduled like an (Old) Master, if I say so myself.
Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and novelist.