Mrs. C says: Television at Christmas is more stupendous than at any other time of year. The Christmas Radio Times appears on the magazine shelves, the festive schedules are out – it’s time to put the highlighter pen to good use. I’ll start by picking out the drama specials and hope there might be a traditional Yuletide ghost story.
Ed Elf: I’ll go for comedy specials first, especially the oldies but goodies on Gold.
Mrs. C: Then there are blockbuster film premieres and annual favourites like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mary Poppins”.
Ed Elf: Plus festive cartoons and funny reviews of the year.
Mrs. C: Not forgetting the Queen’s speech and “Carols from King’s”.
Ed Elf: There’s just so much to choose from and so many great things that clash. What did we ever do before recorders or Sky+?
Mrs. C: The mind boggles, dear Ed. Now, the How to Christmas team can’t dictate your viewing habits over the festive season – that’s for you to determine. But the team has put together some interesting notes on the history of Christmas TV as well as offering recommendations on the programmes you might want to download, purchase or record.
The Queen’s Speech
The first Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth by a King or Queen was in 1932. Delivered by the Queen’s grandfather King George V, the 251 words were supplied by author Rudyard Kipling. There was no broadcast in 1936 or 1938. The annual custom began in 1939. Queen Elizabeth’s first Christmas Day message was in 1952 on wireless. It was transmitted on television but with sound only. Her first televised message with both vision and sound came in 1957. Some viewers complained that it had been interrupted, rather bizarrely, by interference from an American police radio transmission. The Queen’s speech is what most people commonly call the annual address, but the accurate title is, in fact, “Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech”. Although it has long been broadcast on both radio and television, there was no address in 1969 when the Queen instead wrote her message. The Royals believed they had been in the television limelight enough already that year after the documentary release “Royal Family”. From 1986 to 1991, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough produced the Christmas Day address. It was in 1992 that the Queen famously referred to the year of family divorce and devastating fire as “annus horribilis”. To this day, the Queen’s speech is shown at 3pm in the UK on Christmas Day, with TV networks alternating the production duties each year.
Carols from King’s
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was first held on Christmas Eve 1918 – an idea conceived by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of the College. The BBC first broadcast it on radio in 1928 and it can still be heard each year on Christmas Eve afternoon. The televised “Carols from King’s” was first shown by the BBC in 1954. It is now recorded not long before being shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve. Both programmes always start with “Once in Royal David’s City”. The Easter broadcast is filmed the same week. You discover more interesting facts about this service on our Popular Carols & Collections page.
This weekly magazine was first issued on September 28th 1923. Since December 1969 a special double issue has been released for Christmas, which covers two weeks of programming. Until deregulation of TV listings in 1991, Radio Times carried details only of BBC television and radio shows. The ‘Christmas Number’, as the festive version of the magazine became known, traditionally bears a generic piece of Christmas artwork on its cover when the rest of the year it uses photographic front covers. You can take a wonderfully nostalgic trip down memory lane by visiting radio times.com, where you can view a selection of Christmas covers past.
This iconic children’s programme first aired on the BBC in 1958 and its Christmas episodes changed very little through the decades – certainly in the show’s long stay at Television Centre, London. Since September 2011 it has aired from Salford. The programme started with a brass band arrangement of the carol “Good King Wenceslas” played over shots of viewers’ greetings cards; the last candle was lit on the Blue Peter-made Advent crown; presents would be opened by the presenters, including some for the show’s pets; children from local schools and the Chalk Farm Salvation Army Band would sign off with a rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the Christmas manger was always the final pay-off shot. Christmas TV memories start here for so many people in the UK.
Christmas Day is a time when Britain’s biggest primetime soap operas deliver major storylines in the hope of topping the festive ratings. When Dirty Den handed wife Angie divorce papers in the 1986 Christmas Day “Eastenders” episode, 30.15 million viewers caught the now famous bust-up – although this was a combination of the original audience (19 million) and the Sunday omnibus edition. “Coronation Street” beat “Eastenders” in the 2013 Christmas ratings battle for the first time in 10 years. “Emmerdale” entered the festive ratings equation when a plane hit the Yorkshire Dales in 1993 and has become a regular Christmas Day Top 20 entrant.
Christmas advertising on television came into its own in the 1970’s. Grand productions filled minutes of airtime as stores fought for their chunk of the crucial Christmas market. Today, Christmas ads are bigger than ever – built on the history of the Woolworth epics of four decades ago. (Scroll down for more on Christmas TV commercials).
Dinner for One
“Dinner for One” is a television programme of less than 20 minutes in length that has become a New Year tradition in German-speaking areas of Europe. It was created in Britain but is unfamiliar to most people in the UK. There are two versions – the original black and white edition from 1963 and a remake in colour a few years later. The same actors were used each time: Freddie Frinton and May Warden. Also known as “The 90th Birthday”, this two-hander comedy was written by British author Lauri Wylie for the theatre. German TV station NDR recorded a 1963 performance of the piece in English, with an introduction in German. It went on to become the most frequently repeated television programme ever and became a staple of the German New Year’s Eve schedules. Versions are also shown in Scandinavia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but not necessarily on New Year’s Eve. For example, Norway has a tradition of airing the programme on December 23. Miss Sophie is the person eating dinner for one, while butler James tends to her every need. She has outlived her guests from previous dinners, so James does his best to fill in for them as well as serve. He’s told: “The same procedure as every year, James.” By the end of the dinner, James has consumed sixteen glasses of wine and is very drunk. Miss Sophie tells James that she wishes to retire to bed. Hand in hand, they head to the staircase, and James says: “By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” Miss Sophie replies happily: “The same procedure as every year, James.” And James concludes: “Well, I’ll do my very best.” This English “same procedure” line has become a familiar catchphrase in Germany and Austria.
Did you know…UK television station Channel 4 has broadcast an alternative Christmas message each year since since 1993 – rivalling the Queen’s Speech? It bizarrely flits between the serious and the frivolous and is often controversial. Quentin Crisp delivered the first, followed by Reverend Jesse Jackson. Others to take part include: Doreen and Neville Lawrence, parents of racially-motivated murder victim Stephen Lawrence (1998); Ali G (1999), Marge Simpson (2004), President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2008) and American fugitive and former contractor for the National Security Agency Edward Snowden (2013).
Here is a selection of Christmas TV programmes you may wish to add to your festive collection. Bear in mind that British TV channel Gold shows many classic Christmas comedies in December as part of its 25 Days of Christmas schedule.
“The Good Life: Silly, But It’s Fun” (1977) stars Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington and is television gold. The outrageously pompous Margot, played to perfection by Penelope Keith, has to admit: “Christmas hasn’t been delivered to this house” when she realises her order of complete festive provisions won’t be arriving. She sent back the order because her tree was a few inches shorter than specified. Tom and Barbara Good save the day with an invitation for a humble, home grown Christmas. Margot isn’t best pleased when she finds a Daily Mirror paper hat in her cracker, but finally discovers her inner child…after a threat from Tom. It will be a happy Christmas after all. (TV Magic: “Your Christmas comes in a van,” says Tom to Margot. “It’s supposed to, Tom!”)
“Only Fools and Horses” was part of the very fabric of Christmas television in Britain for 22 years, delivering 18 festive specials. The first was “Christmas Crackers” in 1981, watched by 7.5 million BBC viewers. The last was “Sleepless in Peckham” in 2003, watched by 16.3 million. A whopping 24.3 million watched the third episode of a 1996 Christmas trilogy that was entitled “Time on Our Hands”. Sir David Jason is a national treasure and gave Del Boy to the country and the season. Nicholas Lyndhurst, his sidekick plonker of a brother, is equally worthy of a place in Christmas TV folklore. (TV Magic: The perennial brilliance of writer John Sullivan and the chemistry of a genius cast including Sir David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Leonard Pearce as Grandad, Buster Merryfield as Uncle Albert, Roger Lloyd-Pack as Trigger and John Challis as Boycie.)
“The Vicar of Dibley” offers a variety of special Christmas and New Year episodes, but we strongly suggest the double bill of “The Christmas Lunch Incident” (1996) and “Winter” (1999). Dawn French stars as much-loved vicar Geraldine Granger in episodes that will live long as Christmas classics. The Vicar tries to keep all her village friends happy by agreeing to eat three separate Christmas lunches – then comes the most unwelcome invitation of all, complete with tripe. The sprout-off at the Hortons is Dawn French at her comedic best. “Winter” sees Alice give birth during the village Nativity, performed “on a real farm in front of a real audience…on a magical moonlit night” to mark the Millennium. It was watched by more than 14 million people on Christmas Day 1999. There’s more on Dibley, Christmas and weddings lower down this page. (TV Magic: Befuddled Alice is worried she may have given birth to the actual Baby Jesus but is assured that’s not the case by the Vicar because, apart from anything else, Alice’s newborn is “a girl, isn’t she?” Alice replies: “So she is – good clue.” Alice and Hugo reveal they are to name the baby after Dawn French’s character, with Alice announcing: “So I’m calling her Vicar!” Emma Chambers at her dopiest, Alicey best.)
“Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” (1988) stars Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Robbie Coltrane and Hugh Laurie. This one-off episode of the marvellous TV series is three-quarters-of-an-hour of sheer delight – a hilarious parody of Charles Dickens’s famous story. Victorian Blackadder, unlike his scheming, manipulative, unpleasant ancestors, is the kindest man in all of England…but then a Christmas ghost visits and Blackadder sees how things could be. (TV Magic: Ebenezer Blackadder, speaking to his screeching nightmare of a niece, who can’t understand the sudden change in her uncle, says: “I would explain, my dear, but I fear that you wouldn’t understand blessed as you are with a head that is emptier than a hermit’s address book.”)
“Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings” (2000), starring Victoria Wood, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie. Comedy genius Victoria Wood delivered this memorable special for the BBC on Christmas Day 2000 and invited a whole host of guest stars along for the ride: Hugh Laurie, Derek Jacobi, Richard E. Grant, Sir Roger Moore and Alan Rickman, to name but a few. Highlights of the show include Wood’s hilarious take on English period drama and a beautifully observed (when was anything Victoria ever created not?) story of a northern brass band named The General Fettlers, Warp and Weft Adjusters’ Band. Victoria Wood was sadly lost to the world in 2016, but her comic creations will live on for generations, displaying her brilliance for all to see. (TV Magic: Wood’s trumpet playing character has the brass band enthralled with her moving tune. Surely they’ll allow her to join their restricted ranks now…)
“Mrs. Brown’s Boys”, an Irish-British sitcom starring Brendan O’Carroll as the outrageous matriarch, first aired in Britain in 2011 and its Christmas specials quickly became festive fixtures on the BBC: invariably challenging for top spot in the fiercely fought Christmas ratings. Any one episode could satisfy your Christmas comedy craving, but we will kindly draw your attention to the two from 2012 – “Mammy Christmas” and “The Virgin Mammy”. Mrs. Brown is nothing if not a traditionalist so when Father Damien tells her the annual Nativity is off she decides to write her own version. Moreover, she intends to take the lead role – with typically hilarious consequences. These episodes were shown on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day 2012, watched by a combined audience of more than 22 million. (TV Magic: Mrs. Brown’s daughter Cathy has her Mammy believing hidden cameras are filming her every move for a mother of the year competition. Mrs. Brown is suddenly sweetness and light. That’s nice!)
“To the Manor Born” stars Penelope Keith, Peter Bowles and Angela Thorn. A New Year-themed edition of the hugely popular BBC sitcom had the working title “The Honours List” and first aired in November 1980. Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is at first outraged by Richard DeVere’s drastic plans for her beloved Grantleigh Estate – but then has her head turned by whispers of a local making the New Year’s honours list. Audrey would like to make a permanent return to the Manor. The title of Lady could only gild the lily. Thinking DeVere is in line for a Knighthood, Audrey abandons the group protesting about the digging up of hedgerows and hosts Richard’s New Year’s Eve party instead. But what will the first few minutes of the New Year bring? Perhaps there’s a surprise in store for Audrey. “To the Manor Born” – that ran from 1979-81 to massive audiences – also produced a Christmas-themed special in 1979 (“The First Noel”) and a silver anniversary special made for Christmas Day 2007, reuniting the wonderful Keith and Bowles. (TV Magic: Clever scripting, delightful one-liners and Penelope Keith at her brilliant best in one of the best episodes from this winning series.)
“Morecambe & Wise – Christmas Specials” (2007) is a three-disc collection containing the adored British comedy duo in eight of their heralded Christmas television specials from 1969 to 1977, minus 1974 when the duo did not make a festive programme and the primetime Christmas night slot went to impressionist Mike Yarwood. Eric and Ernie became the mainstays of Christmas night viewing in the UK and to appear as a guest on their show was a coveted accolade. In the 1971 Christmas classic, Glenda Jackson, Shirley Bassey and Andre Previn were happy to play it for laughs – but the sketch involving conductor Previn and a recital of the Grieg Piano Concerto takes some beating. The 1977 show – their last for the BBC – was watched by more than 28 million viewers, making it one of the top 25 most-watched programmes in British TV history. Morecambe & Wise moved to ITV thereafter. Among the stars to famously appear in their Christmas specials are Michael Parkinson, Peter Cushing, Vera Lynn, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Elton John, Penelope Keith, Diana Rigg, John Thaw and Angela Rippon. (TV Magic: Seeing the orchestra corpse as Eric tells Andre Previn: “I am playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order.”)
“Porridge: The Christmas Specials” feature Ronnie Barker at his brilliant best in two festive episodes – “No Way Out” (1975) and “The Desperate Hours” (1976). Barker’s character Fletcher is given little option in “No Way Out” but to help the escape plan headed by imposing inmate Harry Grout. Fletcher points out to Godber: “There’s one big event round here. It’s not the coming of the Lord – it’s the tunnelling out of Tommy Slocombe.” Fletcher likes the idea of a relatively pampered Christmas in the Slade Prison Infirmary, but has to wait for a hole to open up first. In “The Desperate Hours” Fletcher is among those held hostage at Christmas by a fellow inmate. Could he possibly play the hero? “No Way Out” was first transmitted on BBC1 on Christmas Eve 1975, with “The Desperate Hours” shown on BBC1 exactly one year later. Writing plaudits to Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. (TV Magic: Mackay wants to know where the tunnel-diggers put all the soil at the end of “No Way Out”. Fletcher’s explanation is worth waiting for.)
“Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special” (2008) is as close to the ideal festive comedy special as you will find. The Sunday Times declared that it was “brilliantly written, perfectly timed, immaculately performed” and we can only wholeheartedly endorse that review. Ruth Jones and James Corden both co-write and co-star in the BAFTA-winning BBC sitcom and somehow take the series to a new level of excellence with this episode, which was first shown on BBC1 on Christmas Eve 2008. It has the initial excitement of the Welsh contingent gathering to travel to spend Christmas with the Shipmans (accompanied by Chris Rea’s “Driving Home For Christmas” – what else?), along with last minute shopping, a grand Nigella-inspired feast, a good old sing-song, a right old barny, some reconciliation, beautifully choreographed gift-opening and a surprise proposal. And that’s just the half of it. Watch and have yourself a merry little Christmas now. (TV Magic: A lop-sided game of Battleships has Ness declaring: “I can read you like a book, Stace.” Pam Shipman, disappointed to receive Christmas cards on Christmas Eve, reveals she sends her cards out in early November to give people a good seven weeks to enjoy them.)
“Friends: Best of Christmas” (2007) features the much-loved Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica and Joey in four episodes set at the holiday season: “The One with the Monkey”; “The One where Rachel Quits”; “The One with the Inappropriate Sister” and “The One with the Holiday Armadillo”. If you were devoted to the 10-year landmark American comedy series, you will relish this collection. Jennifer Anniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer star and shine. “Friends” ran from September 1994 to May 2004. (TV Magic: Ross tries to educate his son about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, dressed as the Holiday Armadillo. He didn’t have much luck at the fancy dress shop, but Chandler did and trumps his Armadillo with Santa. Then along comes Superman Joey.)
“Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted” (1996) includes the classic and hilarious scene in which Ted and Dougal accidentally wander into the largest lingerie department in Ireland, where they stumble into six other priests. Ted leads the heroic escape and is rewarded with the ‘Golden Cleric’ award. A trip to “Ballykissangel”, a mysterious visitor, a baby on the doorstep and Mrs. Doyle’s hidden disgust over an automatic tea-maker ensure this 17th episode of Channel 4’s sitcom series is a genuine treasure. Dermot Morgan, Ardal O’Hanlon and Frank Kelly star. (TV Magic: Mrs. Doyle’s hour-long guessing name game before she randomly lands on the answer – Father Ted Unctious. And there’s also the brilliance of her face post-gift.)
“The Two Ronnies: The Complete BBC Christmas Specials” (2007) captures Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett at their Yuletide best. This famous double act became every bit as familiar to Christmas viewing in the UK as Morecambe and Wise. To call it a ‘complete’ Christmas collection in not strictly true, but the two-disc DVD release does include tremendous episodes from 1973 (“Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery”), 1982, 1984 and 1987. The Alice in Wonderland sketch is delightfully constructed and the trial-turned-game show, featuring former Dr. Who Patrick Troughton as the judge, easily stands the test of time. This evokes wonderful memories of a more innocent time, when double entendres were about as dangerous as it got in terms of risqué business. (TV Magic: It’s a goodnight from me…and it’s a goodnight from him.)
“Frasier: Best of Christmas” (2008) contains a generous seven festive episodes from one of the all-time great American sitcoms, starring Kelsey Grammar, David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves, Peri Gilpin and John Mahoney. Oh yes – and Moose as scene-stealing dog Eddie. “Frasier: Best of Christmas” starts with “Miracle on Third or Fourth Street” from season one in 1993 and is followed by “Frasier Grinch” (season three); “Perspectives on Christmas” (season five); “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” (season six); “The Fight Before Christmas” (season seven); “Mary Christmas” (season eight) and “We Two Kings” (season ten). “Frasier” ran for eleven seasons from September 1993 to May 2004. (TV Magic: Sick of his sons bickering over Christmas hosting rights, Martin Crane decides to work on Christmas Day. The boys have a plan to make things up to him with a Christmas morning surprise – but Dad beats ‘em to it. And that might just mean bricks for gifts on this particular festive morn.)
“The Royle Family Christmas Special” from 1999, in which Denise goes into labour, is a gorgeous blend of humour and pathos, written by Caroline Ahern, Craig Cash and Carmel Morgan. There have been six Christmas Day specials of “The Royle Family”, with 11.74 million viewers watching the 2009 offering “The Golden Egg Cup”. Ahern and Cash also star in this sofa-based sitcom, touched by observational genius, alongside the wonderful Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson. Caroline Ahern was a sad and huge loss in 2016, but her comedy splendour lives on. (TV Magic: Dad shows his softer side for once in consoling a tearful, frightened and pregnant Denise in a moving bathroom scene full of family love.)
“Seinfeld – The Strike” (1997) stars Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards. This 166th episode of the iconic American sitcom introduces us to the seasonal holiday of Festivus. George Costanza, played by Alexander, is cheap – the cheapest of the cheap. Instead of exchanging gifts with his co-workers he invents the ‘Human Fund’ and issues cards saying a donation has been made in their name to said charity. George is later exposed and he explains to his boss Mr. Kruger he gave these fake cards because he didn’t want to be ridiculed for the fake holiday his family celebrates – Festivus. Kruger is invited to Festivus dinner and the episode ends with George’s Dad announcing Festivus will end only once George has pinned him to the floor. George’s holiday humiliation is complete. The 10th episode of the ninth and final season aired in the US on December 18th 1997. Long-established US television magazine TV Guide put this third on its all-time Top 10 List of Christmas Episodes. (TV Magic: Jerry discovers the concept of a person being a two-face: someone who looks attractive at certain times and ugly at others, depending on the setting, lighting etc.)
“The Big Bang Theory – Christmas Episodes” (2013) offers three deliciously festive slices of brainiac brilliance. Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor Jim Parsons is the sun around which orbits a tremendous supporting cast in the long-running American sitcom. He plays super-geek Sheldon, who goes through quite the range of festive experiences in this three-episode seasonal DVD. Episode One is “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” in which Sheldon receives his dream present from Penny. It involves an autograph and DNA from a certain Star Trek legend. In the second episode entitled “The Maternal Congruence”, Sheldon receives an unexpected Christmas kiss from Leonard’s mother – played superbly by Christine Baranski. And in the third, “The Santa Simulation”, Sheldon taps into some childhood memories of Christmas while playing a festive game of Dungeons & Dragons and we realise with his rendition of the carol “Good King Wenceslas” that some of them were hard-wired in his genius of a brain. (TV Magic: Sheldon’s reaction when he receives that special napkin – and how he reciprocates. Presents are one thing…and there are lots of them. But a hug from Sheldon? Surely not!)
“Miranda” – The Perfect Christmas” (2010) sees the title character desperately wanting to break away from her mother’s regimented Christmas, where the use of a planning chart is essential. At the annual Christmas jumper party – hosted insufferably by mother – Miranda takes one embarrassment too many and escapes to spend a perfect Christmas at her flat with her friends Stevie, Gary, Tilly and Clive. But when arguments ensue, Miranda decides that Christmas with her parents might not be so bad after all. There’s slapstick, silliness only Miranda can conjure up, and a collection of trademark asides, all contributing to the warmest and most welcoming of festive episodes. Miranda Hart is joined by her regular playmates Patricia Hodge, Tom Ellis, Sarah Hadland and Sally Phillips: who proved to be a popular team over three series and two special finale episodes from 2009 to 2015. A second Christmas special “It Was Panning” aired in 2012. (TV Magic: Tom Conti shines as Miranda’s rather resigned-to-life father. And there’s an incident or two with Miranda’s anatomy, first with the dishy doctor, then the clap that she claims is a quack.)
“Modern Family”, like “Cheers”, “Frasier” and “Friends” before it, is a cherished American sitcom bound for legendary status. Each season on US network ABC delivers perfectly pitched festive episodes, such as “Express Christmas” and “White Christmas”. But “Undeck the Halls” set the benchmark very high in season one. Claire and Phil Dunphy threaten to take Christmas away when none of their children is willing to admit who put a cigarette burn in the couch, while across town Jay, Gloria and Manny are fighting their ground on Christmas traditions in a US-Colombian battle. But arguably the best storyline of this 2009 episode is Cameron and Mitchell’s role in a shopping mall Santa losing his job, how they repay him and how he pays them back in turn. (TV Magic: Cameron may have been ditched unceremoniously by an amateur choral group – and had it rubbed in his face – but revenge is sweet.)
“Rev” is the series and the superb Tom Hollander is Rev. This BBC sitcom ran from 2010-2014 and revolved around the life of Anglican priest The Reverend Adam Smallbone following his move from a rural church to a more challenging East London parish. The Christmas episode, first shown on December 20, 2011, sees Adam succumbing to the pressures of the season culminating in a Midnight Mass to forget. But Adam’s wife Alex, played by the always-stellar Olivia Coleman, has a special and rather fitting Christmas present to cheer him up and maybe the church lunch might make up for what went on the night before. “Rev” won best sitcom at the 2011 British Academy TV awards. (TV Magic: The Christmas Day lunch, a pastiche of the Last Supper, is a time for reconciliation, togetherness and friendship.)
“Not Going Out – Christmas Specials” is a collection we return to each Christmas. Lee Mack’s ability to deliver funny one-liners like few other modern day comics makes him a rare treasure and his sit-com “Not Going Out” infinitely watchable. This Christmas Specials DVD is available featuring the festive episodes: “Murder at Christmas”, “Absent Father Christmas” and our favourite “The House”. Lee wants to create a perfect Christmas for Lucy at an old house in the snowy countryside. But he didn’t plan for the presence of dopey friend Daisy, Lucy’s parents, his Dad and certainly not the ghost of a young boy. A big country house, open fire, decorations, snow and a Christmas ghost: it makes for perfect festive fayre. Sally Bretton plays Lucy and Katy Wix is Daisy, while Bobby Ball is Lee’s useless father. “The House” episode first aired on Christmas Eve 2013. (TV Magic: Lee’s ability to antagonise at will Lucy’s permanently unimpressed father. It’s an on-screen battle and partnership all in one.)
“Birds of a Feather” is one of the longest running sitcoms in British television history, starting on the BBC in 1989 and revived by ITV in 2014. The show stars Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson as Sharon and Tracey, sisters left to fend for themselves when their husbands are sent to prison. Lesley Joseph co-stars as their man-eating friend and neighbour Dorien. In its long lifetime, “Birds of a Feather” has featured ten Christmas episodes and the festive set “Birds of a Feather: The Christmas Collection” comprises them all, including “Sailing”; “Falling in Love Again”; “It Happened in Hollywood”; “Christmas in Dreamland” and “There’s a Girl in My Souk”. (TV Magic: The chemistry between the trio of lead actors has given this sitcom longevity. Childhood pals Quirke and Robson successfully translate their real life friendship on to the small screen.)
“Inside No. 9” is the marvellous creation of the peerless Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, of “League of Gentlemen” fame. They co-write and co-star in these darkly comedic “Tales of the Unexpected” for the modern age, including the Christmas special: “The Devil of Christmas”. This episode, first shown on BBC TV on December 27th 2016, kicked off series three, features Derek Jacobi, Rula Lenska and Jessica Raine and draws stylistically from seventies anthology series like the afore-mentioned “Tales…” and “Armchair Thriller”. Santa’s evil sidekick Krampus provides the fear factor and, as with all the “Inside No. 9” episodes, delivers a clever or curious (and in this case extremely dark) twist in the tale. (TV Magic: Excellent actors making the bad acting look realistic.)
We love Dawn French and we love “The Vicar of Dibley”. We also enjoy how some of the show’s most pivotal and memorable moments happened at Christmas and involved marriage. Geraldine Granger fell in love and got married at Christmas as the BBC sitcom drew to the happiest of endings. She also felt rather foolish on Christmas Day 10 years earlier when she believed she had received a proposal of marriage, only to be introduced to the real bride-to-be. That incident involved one-time Dr. Who Peter Capaldi. He had worked with the Vicar on “Songs of Praise” from Dibley and turned up again in “The Christmas Lunch Incident” episode, saying he’d never forgotten her and would love her forever if she’d agree to marry him. Geraldine says “yes”, he pops out of the cottage and returns with his fiancée (played by Orla Brady) who says arranging her wedding at Christmas seemed the perfect thing to do because “that’s what Christmas is all about…love.” That comment turns the Vicar from bitter to sweet in one delightful moment.
That episode first aired on Christmas Day 1996. Geraldine would have to wait a whole decade before finally finding her true love in “The Handsome Stranger” episode. Harry (Richard Armitage) moves into the village, love blossoms – but then his sister Rosie (Keeley Hawes) arrives and the Vicar thinks this is Harry’s girlfriend. So when he proposes to Geraldine she thinks he’s asking her to officiate at his marriage to Rosie. This is a beautiful nod to the Vicar’s confusion 10 years earlier. This time, however, Geraldine is blissfully wrong and gets her man. “The Vicar in White” would air later that Christmas season.
In the BBC Christmas schedules of 1999, Geraldine is seen in her wedding dress, walking down the aisle, ready to marry David Horton. Sean Bean, playing himself, rescues her and she wakes in her bed realising she has made a mistake to accept David’s shock proposal. The wedding is called off. The Vicar also receives a marriage proposal from Owen Newitt in the Boxing Day episode of 1997, but rejects him. Later, Hugo Horton proposes to Alice Tinker and she does accept. Phew! Happy ending assured. The Vicar of Dibley, Christmas and Marriage: together forever. If festive weddings appeal to you, maybe visit our Christmas Weddings page.
“Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” (1994) stars the magnificent David Suchet in a British television version of Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel. Simeon Lee, the tyrannical patriarch of a wealthy but dysfunctional family, unexpectedly summons his brood for a Christmas reunion – only to be murdered. Suchet’s co-stars include Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp and Mark Tandy as Superintendent Sugden. (TV Magic: How was the victim killed inside a room locked from the inside? Poirot will not be fooled. Is he ever?)
“Return to Cranford” (2009) is the two-part BBC Christmas special that followed the massively successful period drama “Cranford”, which tracked the lives of characters in an 1842 market town in the North West of England. The delicious drama production is based on a short story and two novellas by Elizabeth Gaskell, which were published between 1849 and 1863. The cast includes Dame Judi Dench as Matty Jenkyns, Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow and Imelda Staunton as Octavia Pole. Part two of “Return to Cranford” starts in October 1844 and concludes with a Christmas Eve party in the restored assembly hall – a party made possible by Miss Matty. There is love and loss, reconciliation and renewal, but ultimately joy. (TV Magic: The always captivating Judi Dench and the perfectly pitched busybody portrayed by the marvellous Imelda Staunton.)
“Midsomer Murders: Ghosts of Christmas Past” (2004) is an ITV Christmas special starring John Nettles and John Hopkins. Nine years after magician Ferdy Villers commits suicide, his family gather for a Christmas reunion blissfully unaware someone is plotting revenge for life lost. A note is discovered in a Christmas cracker announcing two family members will be dead by midnight on Boxing Day. This episode can be purchased as part of “Midsomer Murders: The Christmas Collection”. The other episodes are: “Death of a Stranger”; “A Talent for Life” and “Shot at Dawn” – although be warned none of these are set at Christmas. Rather, they were apparently shown over the festive period. (TV Magic: Pay back by DCI Tom Barnaby as he tricks his father-in-law with a metal detector and the fabricated contents of a Christmas pudding.)
“Downton Abbey: Christmas Special” (2011) is set at Christmas 1919. Downton Abbey is hosting a lavish festive party but not all is well in this season of goodwill. The arrest of Mr. Bates and his subsequent imprisonment casts a shadow over proceedings. Lady Mary and Matthew have to face some honest truths. Can a happy ending possibly result from scandalous revelations? Well, it is Christmas. This episode – watched by more than 12 million viewers on ITV in the UK on Christmas night 2011 – falls in the middle of series two and three of the worldwide hit period drama and stars Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery and Elizabeth McGovern. “Downton Abbey” developed a tradition of airing a special episode on Christmas Day on ITV each year of its impressive run, but not all set at Christmas. The last was shown in 2015. (TV Magic: Maggie Smith’s one-liners. Nobody does it better.)
“Christmas Lights” (2004) stars Robson Green and Mark Benton as competitive brothers-in-law and neighbours who turn the festive illumination of their houses into a bitter battle. It threatens to pull their families apart – until a cruel twist of fate brings perspective on the truly important things in life. It was written by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills. Maxine Peake and Nicola Stephenson also appear in a 90-minute show that was watched by 10.5 million viewers when it aired on ITV in December 2004. It led to a second Christmas special entitled “Clash of the Santas” (2008) and two spin off-series: “Northern Lights” and “City Lights”. (TV Magic: The homecoming…the biggest switch on of all.)
“The Box of Delights” (1984) is a BBC television series that ran from November 21st to Christmas Eve 1984. Patrick Troughton was among the esteemed British cast. The six-part fantasy children’s drama was an adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 book. It cleverly employed a mixture of live action and animation and went on to win three BAFTA awards. The plot sees Kay Harker returning home for Christmas from boarding school when he becomes embroiled in a battle for a magical box, the owner of which can travel in time, shrink in size and fly. Young Kay is given the task of protecting the box from those who wish to use it for ill. Newcomer Devin Stanfield played Kay. The festive theme music was an orchestral arrangement of “The First Nowell” from the “Carol Symphony” by Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947). (TV Magic: What was then cutting edge technology to combine live action and animation to create captivating sequences of adventure.)
“Call The Midwife” is a beloved British Sunday night drama that has earned a special place in Christmas television folklore since premiering in January 2012. Each year on Christmas Day, BBC1 has shown a special festive-themed episode of the series – allowing fans of the programme to share the season with the midwives and residents of poverty plagued Poplar. The series, about a group of nurses and nuns serving as midwives in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was created by Heidi Thomas and based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. Vanessa Redgrave’s distinctive voice graces the opening and closing sequences of each episode. Stars include Jenny Agutter, Judy Parfitt, Jessica Raine, Miranda Hart, Stephen McGann, Helen George and Pam Ferris. (TV Magic: The way series producers unabashedly tap into the emotions and sentimentality of the Christmas season in each and every Christmas episode. None of that ‘let’s make a Christmas special without mentioning Christmas nonsense.’)
“Doctor Who” is the iconic BBC television drama that first aired in 1963 and, in its latest incarnation, has delivered an annual festive special for Christmas Day in Britain. Russell T. Davies resurrected the show and wrote the first five Christmas episodes, including the opener in 2005 entitled “The Christmas Invasion”. Australian pop star Kylie Minogue stars in the 2007 episode “Voyage of the Damned” in which The Doctor’s TARDIS collides with an interstellar version of the doomed ocean liner Titanic orbiting present-day Earth. That ranks highly on our list of “Doctor Who” festive favourites. Steven Moffat wrote the next six Christmas Day episodes, including another of our top picks “Last Christmas”. Santa Claus lands on the rooftop of The Doctor’s assistant Clara, who denies his existence but is soon relieved that the big man in the red suit is very much the real thing. (TV Magic: The Doctor might be of alien blood, but he very much gets Christmas and what it represents to so many people on planet Earth.)
“Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather” stars David Jason, Marc Warren and Michelle Dockery. The Hogfather, Discworld’s equivalent of Father Christmas, has gone missing. Death has to take his place while the Hogfather’s granddaughter Susan tries to unravel the mystery. Sir Davis Jason takes the lead role, while Ian Richardson is the narrator. This two-part series was made for Sky and was first shown on December 17th & 18th, 2006. It was the first live-action film adaptation of a Discworld novel, written by the late Terry Pratchett.
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“The Snowman” (1982) is an animated short inspired by the book from Raymond Briggs, published in 1978. A young boy makes a snowman on Christmas Eve and it comes to life, taking him on a great adventure to meet Father Christmas as they go walking in the air. This was first shown on Boxing Day 1982 on Channel 4 in the UK and was nominated for an Academy Award in the USA for Best Animated Short Film. Choirboy Peter Auty sings the famous “Walking in the Air” and Howard Blake delivers the splendid score. In 1983, the Raymond Briggs opening to the film was replaced by one delivered by the late David Bowie. In 2012, a sequel was made: “The Snowman and the Snowdog” and premiered on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve. (Cartoon Magic: The opening scene-setter by Raymond Briggs: “I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snows I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day… and it was on that day I made the Snowman.”)
“Tom & Jerry’s The Night Before Christmas” (1941) serves up eight minutes and 47 seconds of pure, unadulterated Christmas mischief, mayhem, reconciliation and joy in the third Tom and Jerry animated short directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. (Cartoon Magic: Tom sends Jerry out into the snowy cold. But conscience can get the better of even the meanest cat on Christmas Eve and he shows that enemies can have a happy Christmas. It’s a few minutes of animated Christmas enchantment.)
“Shrek the Halls” (2007) is a television special spin-off from the phenomenally successfully “Shrek” movie franchise and features the voice talents of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz. It first aired on November 28th 2007 on the US network ABC. Shrek simply wants a quiet family Christmas. Donkey thinks he is family so makes himself at home – along with a generous smattering of fairytale friends. That’s sure to make any green ogre see red. But red and green together…that has to be Christmassy, right? (Cartoon Magic: Shrek realises family comes in all shapes and sizes, while Donkey points out: “Christmas ain’t Christmas until somebody cries – and that’s usually me.”)
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966) is an animated TV special narrated by the legendary Boris Karloff, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. The 26-minute short film was first shown on the US network CBS on December 18th 1966 and is traditionally shown every year during the festive season on American television. It also makes clever ‘cameo’ appearances in the movies “Home Alone” and “Home Alone II: Lost in New York”. The Grinch, in all his green wickedness, plans to take Christmas away from the people of Whoville. He ropes in his reluctant dog Max to play a lone reindeer to his grumpy Santa. The plan is working a treat until Christmas morning dawns. (Cartoon Magic: With his huge Christmas bag of stolen goods about to fall from the mountain, the culprit’s heart grows and gives him the strength of “ten Grinches, plus two!”)
“Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas” (2011) is a made-for-TV special featuring characters from the hit franchise “Ice Age” movies and the voice talents of Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo. It premiered on US network Fox on November 24th 2011. Manny’s Christmas rock is destroyed by Sid and, in the angry outburst that follows, Manny disputes the existence of Santa. His daughter Peaches overhears him and decides to trek to the North Pole to prove Dad wrong. (Cartoon Magic: Scrat – the true star of Ice Age – in all his glorious, nutty failure.)
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965) explores the over-commercialisation of Christmas, with the angst-ridden title character at the heart of the struggle to find the true meaning of the season. This is the first primetime television special based on the comic strip “Peanuts”, which debuted on the US network CBS in 1965, and half-a-century later it rightly stands as a treasured classic. Peter Robbins is the voice of Charlie Brown and the cartoon’s director Bill Melendez is the voice of Snoopy. Every year on national television in the United States, this is shown in the build up to Christmas. (Cartoon Magic: Charlie Brown wonders what Christmas is all about. Linus tells him, reciting from the Gospel of Luke about the birth of Jesus Christ before declaring: “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”)
“Frosty the Snowman” (1969) features the voices of comedians Jimmy Durante as narrator and Jackie Vernon as the title character in a half-hour cartoon made for U.S. television and based on an original 1950 song by America’s singing cowboy Gene Autry. A living snowman and a young girl have to elude a greedy magician who wants Frosty’s magic hat. Three sequels were produced: “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” in 1976, “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” in 1979 and “Frosty Returns” in 1995. It’s a classic story that deserves its annual Christmas airing stateside. (Cartoon Magic: The song – plain and simple.)
“The Simpsons” is an unmissable television series, whatever time of year. But the creators of the American comedy animation have produced a glut of fantastic Christmas episodes – most notably the very first festive offering entitled “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”. This was the world’s introduction to “The Simpsons” as a TV series in its own right and not as a part of the “The Tracey Ullman Show”. It aired on December 17th 1989. Homer tries to make cash for the holiday season as a shopping mall Santa. He blows the money on dog racing, but ends up adopting the 99-1 losing hound, named Santa’s Little Helper, as the family pet. (Cartoon Magic: The coming together, in a beautiful half-hour slice of Springfield delight, of the family the world should not be without.)
“Flintstone’s Christmas Carol” (1994) is an American television special based on the 1960s cartoon series in which the Bedrock community stage a production of Charles Dickens’s famous story, with Fred as Ebenezer Scrooge. The DVD release also includes “Christmas Flintstone”, another seasonal episode from the Bedrock gang first shown on Christmas Day 1964. The voice cast includes Henry Corden as Fred, Jean Vander Pyl as Wilma and Frank Welker as Barney. (Cartoon Magic: The Bedrock bug strikes but the show must go on.” Fred ends up taking a bow, but is soon green around the gills.)
“Merry Madagascar” (2009) boasts the voice talents of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and David Schwimmer and is a spin-off from the successful “Madagascar” movie series. The Christmas special, first shown on the NBC network in the USA in November 2009, sees Santa and his sleigh blown out of the sky as naughty Julien mistakes him for the “red night goblin”, who annually pelts his island with coal. Julien has no grasp of Santa Claus, coal for being naughty and gift giving. Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria show him the error of his ways and then set about fixing Christmas with a delivery service of their own. (Cartoon Magic: The fighting factions – in the blue corner the penguins, in the red corner the reindeer: a comical rivalry.)
“South Park: Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo” (1997) is most definitely – and take heed everyone – a cartoon for the adult viewer. This is the ninth episode of the first season of the American comedy that amuses and outrages in equal measure. Jewish character Kyle feels isolated from the town’s Christmas celebrations, but is comforted by Mr. Hankey; a Christmas poo wearing a red Santa hat and possessing a high-pitched voice. Only Kyle sees him, so the other kids think Kyle is delusional. Can he prove Mr. Hankey exists? The episode also explores political correctness and religious sensitivity at Christmas by stripping the townsfolk of any festive aspects that may cause offense. This is the first musical episode of “South Park” and considered a classic of a series that has been running since 1997. (Cartoon Magic: It is the only episode in the first series in which Kenny does not die.)
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Elf Helper: We love Wallace and Gromit. There hasn’t been a Christmas-based programme involving these two national treasures so they don’t quite sit in the list of animated recommendations. But their short films have debuted at Christmas and have become inextricably linked with the holiday season. So How to Christmas gives an honorary bow to Wallace and Gromit at this point and suggests adding them to your festive collection. Also for your animated consideration: “Yogi’s First Christmas” (1982), 2011 DVD Release; “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968), 2013 DVD Release; “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (1964), 2011 DVD Release.
Ed Elf: Can I just say at this point….I bloomin’ love TV , me!
Christmas advertising on television entered the big time in the 1970s. Epic productions filled minutes of commercial airtime as stores battled for their slice of the crucial Christmas market. Woolworths brought out many of the celebrities of the day to sell their wares. In 1981, to a catchy tune “Have a Cracking Christmas at Woolworths”, their commercial lasted a little more than two minutes and was a bizarre combination of The Goodies’ Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor dressed as clowns, Anita Harris as a circus ringleader, Don Estelle and Windsor Davies as soldier-drummers, along with a host of Cossack dancers prancing around and Asian women sitting on beanbags.
Now, of course, it seems all the major stores are at it. The ‘big reveal’ of each of their Christmas ads is an occasion in and of itself. Take the multi-million pound cartoon from John Lewis in 2013 about the hare and the bear. It premiered on TV during the ITV’s “X-Factor” and had its own continuity announcement set-up. Lily Allen’s version of Keane’s song “Somewhere Only We Know” accompanied the animation and rocketed to number one in the UK singles charts.
John Lewis only began with big-time Christmas ads in 2007, but has quickly become the standard bearer. In 2012, there was the snowman’s intrepid journey to find the perfect hat and scarf set for his snowwoman, which spawned a book. The year before it was “The Long Wait”: an impatient boy is positively fit to burst with excitement as he counts down the days to giving the ideal gift to his parents. It had Mums everywhere blubbering and had one million hits online on its first day. For 2014, Monty the Penguin took centre stage in another heart-melting tale and was perhaps the biggest hit of all – certainly more festive than the 2015 Man in the Moon offering. In 2018 it was – again rather un-festively we felt – the story of Sir Elton John, so it was with great delight John Lewis and partner store Waitrose (in combination for the first time) returned to festive form with the story of Edgar the excitable dragon in 2019.
In recent years, Marks & Spencer called on A-listers like Helena Bonham-Carter and Take That to grace their Christmas commercials and Morrisons threw their eggs into Ant and Dec’s basket. None of that came without a substantial cost. In 2015, supermarket Sainsbury’s created TV magic for a second consecutive year, following up the moving Christmas football truce commercial with the return of calamitous cat Mog in a wonderful new story from author Judith Kerr, narrated by Emma Thompson. A book to accompany the campaign raised significant funds for Save the Children’s move to improve child literacy. Christmas on TV would not be complete without witnessing the arrival, twinkling fairy lights in their thousands, of Coca Cola’s bright red Santa trucks on a cold winter’s night to the jingle: “The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming…” The trucks even do national tours. Christmas may have become too commercial for some, but the inescapable fact is that festive advertisements are now event TV.