They are as much a part of a traditional British Christmas as rubbish presents, family gatherings, and grandma drinking Advocaat. Since the 1950s the TV special has been a staple on Christmas Day with families gathering around the telly with a cold turkey sandwich, warm mince pie, and a glass of sherry. Eagerly awaiting the season’s festive blockbuster.
Back in the day preparations would have begun a couple of weeks earlier with the delivery of the Christmas double issue Radio Times. I well remember the ritual of planning every days viewing on the three channels and ringing each must-see programme.
It may not be quite the same nowadays, choosing from 300 channels instead of just three, setting reminders on Sky+, or watching on demand rather than sitting down with the family on Christmas Day, but the TV Special is still an important part of Xmas scheduling. Or least the TV bosses perceive it to be so.
The specials have changed over the years with variety and comedy being replaced by soaps and drama but, for what it’s worth, here are my top ten Christmas specials. In no particular order…..
Father Ted. A Christmassy Ted
A gaggle of priests are lost in Ireland’s largest lingerie department. It’s at times like this that heroes are needed. Step forward Father Ted Crilly. Against all odds plucky Ted manages to lead his men to safety and avoid scandal in a scene of genuine hilarity. Although this 1996 special is most fondly remembered for the department store scene there are plenty of other standout moments in the near one-hour episode. It is certain to be repeated again this year (apparently over 70% of the programming on the terrestrial channels this year are repeats). Catch it if you can and watch out for Mrs Doyle’s stoic attempt to guess the name of the dastardly Father Todd Unctious and Dougal’s less than successful stab at conducting a funeral.
Is it really 12 years since the fabled Office specials? After just two series and 12 episodes Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant called time on the career of the marvellous David Brent. The two-part Christmas special which was broadcast on successive days, starting on Boxing Day 2003, won a bagful of awards, including a couple of Baftas, and attracted a combined audience of around 13 million viewers. With Brent a travelling salesmen and minor celebrity, Gareth in charge of Wenham Hogg (Slough), and Tim still head over heels with Dawn there are plenty of laughs at the Office’s Christmas party.
Men Behaving Badly. Jingle B***s
Back in the days before Leslie Ash discovered the perils of collagen implants, Men Behaving Badly was a laddish hit and Christmas Day 1997 saw Jingle B***s hit the screens. With typical buffoonery Gary and Tony wend their way through a disastrous day whilst Dorothy and Debs try and rein in their boundless enthusiasm whilst dealing with crap gifts and awful food. The highlight of the show is the quick trip down the pub and the juxtaposition of a picture perfect Christmas being cut into the actual car-crash that is the reality of the fab four’s festivities.
Morecambe and Wise
Pick any one of their smash hit specials from the sixties to the eighties. A national institution it will be hard for anyone under 35 to understand just how much a part of Christmas Day the Morecambe and Wise show was. Almost always broadcast on the big day itself, it was the highlight of Christmas night, with all the family gathering around the telly for the annual chucklefest as the boys made mugs of the biggest stars of the day. As a measure of their popularity the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special pulled in well over 25 million viewers. A viewership which, with today’s multiple channels, will never be repeated.
Top of the Pops
Since the 1960s the Christmas Day afternoon edition of TOTP was always a high spot of the festivities. Featuring a countdown to the festive number one and performances of the year’s biggest hits the format is still going strong even though the weekly show was cancelled in 2006. TOTP specials would see teenagers reliving the hits of the day whilst parents, who suffered through the programme while waiting for the queens speech, would sip sherry and shake their heads in exasperation; “We had proper music in our day.” But which was the best TOTP special? Any from the 1970s.
Lads! Lads! Lads! Ah, Top Gear. What can you say about this testosterone fuelled hour of madness that has provided us with so much entertainment, controversy, and one of the biggest egos on the planet? Such a successful show cried out for a Christmas special and the first was aired in 2006. The specials would see the boys set sail overseas for fantastic escapades in foreign lands providing the opportunity for adventures galore and casual racism to keep us all entertained whilst digesting our turkey. From Norway to the Argentine the trio of scamps wrought havoc around the world. The big question of course, now the team has crossed over to the dark side, is will we see any new Top Gear Christmas specials?
Only Fools and Horses
The audiences for Fools Christmas specials are the only ones to rival those from the halcyon days of Morecambe and Wise, Mike Yarwood, et al in the 1970s. Viewing figures peaked for the brilliant Christmas Trilogy of 1996. The three one hour long festive episodes were individually brilliant. As a whole they were simply on another planet. The first of the trilogy, Heroes and Villains, was screened on Christmas Day and featured one of the iconic scenes of the whole franchise with Del and Rodney dressed as Batman and Robin preventing a mugging on the fog-shrouded streets of London. The second instalment, Modern Men, was the weakest of the three with Rodney unwittingly applying for his own job and Del toying with the idea of a vasectomy. The episode ends on a down note with Cassandra suffering a miscarriage. The final part of the trilogy saw Uncle Albert cook a horrendous dinner, including coffee in the gravy boat, before the inevitable climax saw the Trotters finally become millionaires after the discovery of a rare watch in Del’s lock up. Watched by a combined audience of well over 60 million that should have been it for Fools. Unwisely they were resurrected for three more Christmas specials from 2001 to 2003 but they didn’t hit the heights of the trilogy.
Since the series was revived in the mid-noughties, a special one-off Doctor Who Christmas blockbuster, has become something of a tradition for the BBC, and every year the budget seems to stretch to include bigger and better effects, sets, and storylines. To someone brought up on the black & white doctors beginning with Patrick Troughton along with shaky sets and awful costumes, the new polished and glitzy big productions, with their soap opera influence leave me a little cold, though I have to confess the specials are visually spectacular. But, since David Tennant gave up the sonic screwdriver, Dr Who has gone from must see to just avoid. In our house at least. For the record, Tennant’s send-off in the End of Time is my favourite Doctor Who Special. How could it not be?
Bottom – Holy
As a Christmas special this one breaks all the rules. Part of a scheduled run and first aired in October (1992), Holy is nevertheless brilliant, irreverent, and achingly funny. The violent, gore-filled slapstick isn’t everyone’s cup of tea of course, but Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall certainly created two unforgettable characters in Eddie Hitler and Richie Richard. With an inedible Christmas dinner, violence between party guests, and plenty of alcohol guzzling Holy is a pretty accurate portrayal of the typical British family Christmas.
Merry Christmas Mr Bean
The rubber-chopped Rowan Atkinson clowned his way through this hilarious 1992 special. The programme produced plenty of laugh out loud moments and scenes which everyone remembers. A shopping trip to Harrods to buy decorations ends with Bean blacking out the stores famous Christmas lights display, and is followed by a romantic stroll with Irma Gobb around a small town Xmas market, pausing to help out the Salvation Army band, before Bean somehow contrives to drive home with the town’s Christmas tree strapped to his car. But, the most memorable part of the programme is Beans Christmas Day when, after opening presents with Teddy he contrives to get a turkey stuck on his head; a scene copied by others since including hit US comedy show Friends.
And that’s it. A personal selection of the best TV Christmas specials over the years. Unsurprisingly most are comedies, none are very recent but all, without exception, are repeated endlessly, usually starting in September.
As for this year the big specials are soaps, dramas and reality shows. EastEnders, Downton Abbey, and Strictly Come Dancing are the shows tipped to pull in the (comparatively) big audiences. They certainly don’t make them like they used to.
One last cracker….
Although, on that very subject, there is one Christmas special which is repeated every year, and has been since 1963, which is wildly popular yet I guarantee 99.9% of you won’t have heard of it. I certainly hadn’t until it was pointed out to me by someone who has way too much time on his hands. Dinner for One is an English language production, featuring British actors, filmed for German television in 1963. The black and white film is less than 20 minutes long and is insanely popular in Norway where it’s screened at Christmas. It’s also repeated every year in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and other countries on New Year’s Eve. What makes it so popular? Have a look at the video above and judge for yourselves. If you can figure it out please let me know…..
Happy Christmas everyone!