What Happened To Christmas TV?

Jess Ennis /
Dec 20, 2016 / Film & TV

The hyping of the Christmas TV schedule is not new – for as long as there’s been a telly watching audience, there’s been specially-plugged content, vamping the festive season with as much tinsel and glitz as the Beeb, ITV & C4 could throw at us. Tracing its ancestry back leads us to the success of Morecambe and Wise, but to me, modern Christmas TV really hit the collective consciousness of the British public following the Doctor Who revival of 2005. When the show came back, it brought back with it the idea of watching TV as a family, of finding something common between young and old and revelling in it shamelessly. This was multiplied at Christmas, when every demographic was literally in the same room.

Some of my fondest Christmas memories are tied to the TV – and I don’t mean that in your typical whiny ‘noughties-kid-who-can’t-be-away-from-the-telly’ fashion. Quite the opposite, in fact. For many of my childhood Christmases, we’d sit down at six o’clock in the evening together, full of food, to watch Doctor Who. It was the definitive warm-the-cockles festive family routine.

And so, as the phenomenon of the Doctor Who Christmas Special took over the collective British audience, everyone else had some competing to do. After a while, we got a personal favourite of mine – the Downton Abbey Christmas Special. Filled to the brim with gentle drama and snow so perfect that it can’t possibly have existed in England at any time ever, Downton was the easygoing natural progression from Who.

The Christmas drama in general became quite exciting – Sherlock New Year’s fever is still as strong as ever, and when the BBC are also churning out work as good as last year’s Agatha Christie adaptation, And Then There Were None, it seemed the primetime for British telly.

So this begs one important question: why am I no longer excited? What’s changed?

Maybe it’s my age. Take Doctor Who, for example. I was ten when the first of the new series aired, and to me, it was the height of TV – funny, emotional when it wanted to be, exciting, and filled with characters I loved. But as it went on (subtext: when Steven Moffat took over as showrunner), the progressively flimsy writing coincided with my growing up and inevitable loss of tolerance for plot holes and crackpot theories.

But I digress.

Aside from the odd brilliant drama, it seems like showrunners are coming up empty-handed when it comes to Christmas programming. Thus far, the specials I’ve seen advertised most are for Strictly Come Dancing and The Only Way is Essex. Now, it’s not that I’m trying to pull some elitist TV snobbery, because I’m not. They’ve got massive followings, and some of the nonsense I watch avidly would completely dismantle any entitlement I could possibly ever display. It’s more that they just aren’t things that unite everyone. Strictly is perhaps more demographic-crossing than Essex, but neither are unite-the-family levels that the Christmas TV of five years ago possessed. Kids and parents the country over simply won’t fling themselves down in front of the box for Len Goodman. Christmas telly needs to regain that spark of excitement and produce something that everyone is desperate to watch, something practically cancel-plans-with-your-extended-family worthy. It’s not necessarily the Scary Death of Television that would just top off 2016 – it’s just a cry for something special to deserve its slot on the 25th, so that grandkids and grandparents, covered in tinsel and crumbs, can sit down together and just be enthralled.

Writer’s note: Alternatively, ITV is showing every Harry Potter between Christmas Eve and New Year’s. So, there’s that.

Words by Jess Ennis

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