Christmas Day on television… in 1997 

24 December 2017

Right then, Christmas 1997 is here upon us in Transdiffusion land and this particular TV Times first page is like no other. For a start its shockingly not festive, almost border line commercial. Sure, it mentions the word Christmas but other than a bit of snow on the TV Times logo, you could think that this could be used any time during the year. It was a shame to see this style of front page; they just about got away with doing a Wallace and Gromit-style cover the previous year even if Wallace was wearing a Santa’s hat. Previous TV Times Christmas fronts in the 90s were themed around Santa so this was becoming a sad state of affairs.

As a background to the cover, the Tellytubbies were the unexpected surprise hit of 1997, what with Britain riding the final year of Britpop, Britain winning Eurovision, Labour returning to power and Diana passing away, this was some year and maybe one of reflection. The Tubbies themselves were launched in Easter of that year after replacing Playdays on the BBC. What probably helped its mass appeal was tapping into the sixth form/college audience with its simple state of affairs and with it being transmitted during the summer holidays, it grew into being a monster and even spawned a number 1 single in December 1997 through a product of Simon Cowell.

But what about television itself at Christmas? This year gave viewers on non-satellite/cable platforms an extra channel with Channel 5, assuming they were lucky to receive it during its first months on air; and this would be the final year of just receiving analogue transmissions: the launch of digital was just around the corner.

BBC-1 starts the day bright and early with 4 hours of Children’s BBC: what better way than that style of programming whilst the kiddies open their presents? Even though this means a pantomime with The Demon Headmaster, who was frightening as a headteacher in the 90s as Mr Bronson was in the 80s. The TVTimes‘s cover stars, the Tellytubbies, take pride of place with a Christmas special that day.

It’s sad, looking back, that you had this type of programming in this BBC-1 slot to get the younger audience occupied, yet come forward 20 years and it’s a simulcast of the BBC News Channel which will occupy those same hours. Granted, children will know where to go for their viewing habits today, but it’s a shame it’s not encompassed as one channel for all to dip in and out of.

Come 10am and it’s no different in 1997 than what we see today, with a service of celebration, Fern Britton at the Castle Museum in York interviewing the Archbishop of York, and Gary Barlow performing as if he was going through his solo era first time round. It does make you wonder what Gary would be singing on a day like this, I can’t imagine a bit of ‘Relight My Fire’ on Christmas Day would be up to it.

Come 11.05 and a classic film with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Gene, who sadly passed away in 2016, gives such a strong and likeable performance. Next up is Royal Ballet performance of Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf. Something like this will more likely be seen on BBC Four these days, which is a shame.

After the 5 minute blink-and-you-miss-it news break, it’s time for the traditional Christmas Top Of The Pops programme. Even in this day and age, what with its scandals and a replacement music programme in Sounds Like Friday Night, Top Of The Pops is still on to be enjoyed at Christmas. Performances on this year’s Top Of The Pops included Aqua, Spice Girls, All Saints, Ultra Nate, Natalie Imbruglia and Elton John.

After the Queen was another traditional highlight on the BBC-1 schedule with Noel’s Christmas Presents. The show has evolved over the years from going from the top of the BT Tower to pulling heart strings of Joe Public in order to give them a special surprise that they would never forget. The show ran from 1986 and lasted until 1999 when Noel’s BBC contract ended, and whilst Noel took the show to Sky 1 many years later, the format on BBC-1 was rested until 2001 when a certain Rolf H took up the ‘surprising people’ mantle.

Back to 1997, and after the premiere of the Flintstones movie, Rolf H appears again in a Christmas episode of Animal Hospital. This type of programme – the original “reality TV” – was just becoming prevalent during the 90s, and would’ve been unthinkable in a Christmas Day schedule just 5 years before. Television started to fill with such material on ITV, and later the BBC, following the popularity of such disposable series as Maureen’s Driving School and Airport. It was around this time that this type of programme, along with Big Brother, would prove that you don’t need to do anything to become a TV star other than be a TV star.

Into the evening now and Auntie’s Bloomers is here with a two part special. Auntie’s Bloomers, as evidenced by the name itself, was a very much a BBC product – you would rarely see any of their mistakes on the other side’s It Will Be Alright On The Night. Wogan was accomplished presenter and added his charm to this type of show. But this show was very clearly: if others are doing it, join them.

Another film premiere on BBC-1 was The Mask. I must admit I wasn’t a big fan of this film at the time it came out and was probably the only one not to laugh at it when it was on at the cinema. I loved Carrey in The Truman Show, but this style of humour was really lost on me. I see in the notes that it was edited for TV so I guess in the words of the film “Somebody Stop Me”, okay, I will.

The usual depressing fest of EastEnders at 8.30 sees Phil wondering if he regrets his behaviour and even now it’s no different today than in 1997. Hard to believe if you go back 11 years to 1986 with the Dirty Den divorce episode that saw it pull in its biggest audience never to be seen again.

Comedy completes the night on BBC-1 with One Foot in the Grave, Men Behaving Badly and They Think It’s All Over, the latter two being staples for the late night end of the Christmas Day schedule and what better way to end the day with Airplane! with Leslie Nielsen in the laugh-out-loud comedy.

BBC-2 on Christmas Day offers 7 movies. Easy scheduling? Or just knowing that it couldn’t compete with its sister channel? Still, alternative to what is on BBC-1 is in order, but there are some interesting programmes of note.

The morning saw the light hearted news quiz, Today’s The Day which normally saw Martyn Lewis go into quiz mode looking back at news items over the Christmas years. An unusual early outing for Shooting Stars at 2.15 and The Simpsons at 2.45. But the Christmas classics are there what with A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield to start the day.

Another programme that sticks out at 7.40 is the Cardigans at Christmas. This programme takes a look back at Christmas light entertainment shows from yesteryear so the likes of Val Doonican will be in there. Today’s me would probably be interested in this. Funny how 20 years changes you. Arena at 9pm had a programme about cigars including famous people who smoked them no less with the likes of Lord Grade, James Belushi and Kenneth Clarke. I can’t imagine the pitch for this today.

The day ends with a ski-ing forecast meaning that it doesn’t matter what day the ski-ing forecast falls on, Christmas Day is no exception.

ITV now. GMTV is about to chalk up 5 years of breakfast service. It had a turbulent start but ended up being like TV-am before long. First up is Kids @ GMTV with Dave Benson Phillips in Iceland… I’m sure it’s the country and he’s not getting a prawn ring from a freezer aisle. Filling the rest of the GMTV schedule is a look back at what GMTV offered in 1997. I’m sure they could have just lengthened the Iceland show with more filler cartoons… or did it just tick the box for Children’s Public Service Broadcasting and move on?

After GMTV, something you don’t see today is a Nativity Play from a Primary School. Carol Smillie is host as she visits to a Glasgow school to see them perform. There are 4 films on the main schedule today on ITV and you can’t argue that it’s not aimed at the family audience. Two are film premieres, so I’d assume that ITV is doing it for the Christmas audience and not for the lucrative advertising which it had sewn up for the Christmas market.

Like BBC-1, which was soaking up people documentaries, Play It For Real followed the actors on London’s Burning going into a real life fire station in London to see if they could be who they were on screen… but is this really Christmas Day before HM Queen’s material?

It’s hard to believe that The Muppet Christmas Carol would be a film premiere in 1997 having been out for 5 years. It’d take BBC-1 just about 2-3 years to get Titanic after the VHS/DVD sales had dried up.

The Spice Girls are ‘spicing up’ the ITV schedule in the late afternoon; they would have one more year in the spotlight before Geri went off, causing all of them to attempt solo careers. Granted, they had crack at being a group now and again after that, but their bubble soon burst.

Another film premiere with Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. A classic movie from 1992 and, like Muppet Christmas Carol, is still seen today. After this, cheap filler with a Before They Were Famous-type programme in Sporting Heroes, featuring the likes of Andre Agassi, Tim Henman and Ronnie O’Sullivan. A couple of films take ITV into the late night hours at a time that ITV didn’t fill with gambling and Nightscreen. Of course the latter would only be about 12 months away.

Channel 4 was certainly the alternative of the day and is a complete contrast to what you see now. Sure, we had the Big Breakfast on that day but what better way to celebrate the festivities of Christmas than with a Diana tribute which for some viewers would probably seem raw.

Opera follows the Alternative Christmas Message. A nice programme at 5pm, celebrating the channel’s 15 birthday, with Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman as the contestants of a special edition of Countdown. William G Stewart hosts. Another show celebrating 15 years of Channel 4 runs later that evening with 15 Years of Film On Four. This celebrates the channel’s strength in filmmaking, including excerpts from Four Weddings and Funeral and Trainspotting.

Channel 5’s Christmas Day schedule shows what was to come for television, with Christmas Day simply showing programmes that would be the same as any other day. Productions like The Bold And The Beautiful, 100% (albeit as an ABBA special), Night Fever (albeit as an ABBA special) and Xena: Warrior Princess proves that this wasn’t a special day for Five. To cut them some slack, this was Channel 5’s first Christmas, but I feel like there was nothing out there to say “Hey this is Channel 5!” other than the Paul McCartney premiere of Standing Stone.

On to the satellite and cable listings. It always amuses me to see the Queen’s Christmas Message on Sky 1 which is still transmitted on that channel today. The station, with its heavily American diet of programming, still finds time for the Queen – would’ve thunk it? Other programmes to note include The Late Show with David Letterman which would be coming to an end on Sky 1 as it was soon to move to the Paramount Channel.

UK Gold repeats a 1985 Hi-De-Hi! special; Only Fools And Horses goes on the road to Margate; and Blackadder has a Christmas special that at least tries to prove that if you get creative with a schedule there is good content to be had.

The MTV and VH1 schedules prove there was a time when studio based programming ran on those stations. Interesting scheduling at 3pm on VH1 sees Queen, albeit with Freddie Mercury.

So that’s Christmas Day 1997 in TV land. It shows that whilst the TV schedule for the big day was evolving (or disintegrating, your mileage may vary), it still had charm to offer something for everyone. This year, the BBC-1 Christmas Day schedule is as predictable as last year’s. For me, I can’t imagine I will be watching anything “live” on the big day and other means of entertainment will take place. A trip around the Transdiffusion website perhaps?

You Say

1 response to this article

Victor Field 26 December 2017 at 6:58 am

Thank goodness for “Talespin” at 5.30am or ITV would be a wasteland…

Meanwhile the Disney Channel has “Chitty Chitty Bang,” TWO screenings of “The Lion King,” But at least they let other things have a shot, while Nickelodeon gives over their ENTIRE schedule to “Rugrats,” as if you needed any more evidence to show how much the channel loved the show in 1990s – well, they had yet to get their corporate hands on Ariana Grande (what with her only being 4 years old in 1997).

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