It really is. British television is at its absolute peak at Christmas, and they take advantage of the fact we’re all at home, too stuffed to move, already in the right place on the sofa.
It’s where the BBC shines, in particular. They almost always top the season (and did again this year), with the right mix of old favourites, new gems, film premieres and glitzy studio celebration shows. BBC One was the most watched channel for the majority of the 24th, 25th and 26th, and it certainly generates the most hype and spectacle.
Usual Christmas champions EastEnders have had a rough year, and though it is back on form with Dominic Treadwell-Collins at the helm, it finished fourth on the Christmas Day ratings leader board this year. The Janine and Danny Dyer storylines, promoted brilliantly as “Boxing DayER”, were good enough to get people talking, however Coronation Street beat its rival soap on the 25th for the first time since 2000. I wager Roy and Hayley’s beautifully touching story is to thank for that. Roy (on his gift from Hayley): “I imagine these are very rare.” Hayley: “So are you.” The exact right amount for sentimentality at Christmastime!
Elsewhere, Emmerdale – in my view, the best soap on British television – triumphed with its usual fun special with a big dramatic set-piece. The on/off soap wedding scenario is familiar to us but much fun can be had here with Alicia’s hair coming out in clumps! And at the emotional heart of it is a stunning performance from Gaynor Faye – Emmerdale’s biggest asset. So please don’t kill her in the Home Farm fire! (See my article about Laurel’s domestic violence story here http://wp.me/p3KHHr-97 .)
Doctor Who, meanwhile, was bidding a fond and explosive farewell to Matt Smith and managed to come second on the table of most watching programme (overnight figures) on Christmas Day with 8.29m. Its consolidated total was raised to a whopping 11.14m which beats both the 2011 and 2012 specials – and the peak audience of the day was an influx of 10.20m people wanting to see Smith’s features fade and Peter Capaldi burst on-screen in the closing minutes of the episode. The full review of The Time of the Doctor can be found at http://wp.me/p3KHHr-ft . Sadly the BBC’s other fantasy offering this Christmas, an un-festive finale for Atlantis, concluded with its lowest rating yet, but it’s a tricky one to sell – and it has next series to redeem itself.
And then there was Downton. Don’t get me started on this setting a Christmas special in Summer business, but I did nearly turn the damned thing off when they went to the beach, however lovely the final shots were. It was an enjoyable enough outing for the Crawleys, if muddied by a preoccupation with the monarchy that felt as though the show was speaking privately and exclusively to American viewers. In fact, the Summer setting is to appease the US too. Ultimately, it’s all right television but is it what we want on Christmas Day? No, to be honest, it just made the festive evening drag. Reviews of Downton Abbey, including the far superior 2011 Christmas special, can be found at http://www.grahameveleigh.wordpress.com/category/downton-abbey/.
Call the Midwife however, continues to triumph. The beautiful drama about midwives in East London in the 1950s told us three brilliant stories – that of a shell-shocked man recovering, a polio outbreak and an unexploded bomb – with perfect pitch, and tying them up in a festive bow. It’s fair to say that the end of an era, the shaking of Nonnatus House, is perhaps too quickly skimmed over – quite an odd, unsentimental choice for a very sentimental drama, but not many dramas have the ability to enthral for 75 minutes on Christmas Day, so it is probably a mercy it wasn’t longer. As always, such charm and warmth: “You’re doing that in quite a cross way,” was my personal favourite, although Pam Ferris’ “don’t go putting any bourbons out. They’ll create expectations we’ll struggle to fulfill” was a close second. And the line, “aren’t you just the best thing anyone ever got for Christmas” was lovely and trailer-worthy. This is the thing about Call the Midwife – premise-wise it absolutely suits the Christmas season, but the team work hard to make it work too. They judge the right amount of sentimentality and broad-stroke storytelling as well as detail, because you miss so much of the detail on Christmas Day. I watched it back and was glad I did, because the clever details are there, and they were rewarded for them. It would have seemed unthinkable a few years back, but Call the Midwife beat Downton Abbey 7.08m (30.1% audience share) to 7.01m (27%). I’m convinced that’s entirely down to the scene in which Ferris and Jenny Agutter sit on the steps and look up as the snow starts drifting down… Congratulations on being the best of the season midwives, and here’s to Series 3! (For my article concerning female representation in Call the Midwife go to http://wp.me/p3KHHr-K.)
Away from the two main channels, Channel 4’s most exciting offering was a rerun of last year’s excellent The Snowman and the Snowdog and the classic Snowman cartoon too. The Inbetweeners Movie was successful for them, as were the Harry Potter and Toy Story film seasons that ITV and the BBC respectively ran – a series of connected, popular films culminating in a premiere was a good idea, well-executed, for the festive season.
After a really good series that perhaps didn’t see the best dancer crowned, Strictly Come Dancing continues its top form with a fun seasonal special. These are always boundless entertainment, thanks mostly to Rufus Hound, and perfect for Christmas night.
The frivolities continue, and get even more frivolous, with Mrs Brown’s Boys – this madcap classic comedy complete with cross-dressing, fourth-wall breaking and endless swearing doesn’t find favour with everyone, but it brought some belly laughs on a joyous day. Seeing Brendan O’Carroll astride a Christmas tree just completed the day. It may have its dissenters but it finished top of the table for overnight ratings with 9.4m viewers, a 35.5% share. It’s a shame there’s no festive Miranda offering as there has been for the last two years – bring on the fourth series. We do get to see her onesie’d up in the Would I Lie to You special, as a consolation.
Still Open All Hours, a brand-new continuation of the classic comedy sans-Ronnie Barker, was the most watched Boxing Day programme with 9.43m viewers. Finding a good line between nodding to the old structure and in-references, and new funny scenarios, it was a successful return that could easily have been ill-judged.
Just beating Emmerdale’s Boxing Day blaze in the ratings was Gangsta Granny. Having loved David Walliams’s last offering, Mr Stink, this year’s had to be as funny, as jovial and as touching. And it was! Take note executives – here is a big market for this sort of cross-demographic romp, and it is so suited to Christmas. Julia McKenzie is a fantastic actress, and Walliams, a hilariously Essex’ed Miranda Hart and Robbie Williams offer excellent support in the company. I adored Joanna Lumley as the Queen and the finale, with the framing of the Scrabble game, moved me to tears. Any drama that includes the line, “Put your hands in the air and step away from the Tartan Shopper” deserves due attention.
The days after the main event need some great quality drama or something new and populist to maintain our attention, otherwise the season that’s all about the television will pass over quite promptly. Instead, we got Vicious. The awful Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacobi comedy had a couple of moments (“Jesus hates you” and the gag about playing Father Christmas), but apart from Frances de la Tour’s involvement (“I was talking about your penis”) it was sadly much like the series that came before it. See my full review of Vicious Series 1 here: http://wp.me/p3KHHr-1r .
Drama offerings were sparse apart from the returning shows, it must be said. The Tractate Middoth provided some much-needed chills on BBC Two (a ghost story is always welcome at Christmastime) but it was Death Comes to Pemberley that offered the main drama centrepiece. A decidedly average period adaptation with a very un-average cast (the brilliant Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goode, Tom Ward, Rebecca Front and of course, a worthy Darcy, Matthew Rhys.) Jenna Coleman is brilliant too, just a shame she was given nothing to but scream, although her comic timing shone through. Meanwhile ITV shoe-horned Julia McKenzie into an Agatha Christie that originally did not feature Marple, but unlike the naysayers this doesn’t particularly bother me. Some of the best adaptations of recent years have been the ones in which Marple was not originally featured, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, or even short stories supposedly-cannibalised to make a good feature length show, e.g. The Blue Geranium.
And then, to set our New Year off with a bang, Sherlock lived! The lovely little red button ditty was one of the most tweeted-about shows of the Christmas period, despite not actually being broadcast on a main channel, and the main event generated a huge amount of excitement, attention and 9.2m overnight viewers. Setting the bar high for 2014!
Source: UK TV Ratings Twitter account (@TVRatingsUK)