The ghosts of Christmas TV past, present and future brought a bumper selection of views and festive clips to the final RTS early evening event of the year in early December.
Over nearly four decades, Michael, now Lord, Grade walked the corridors of power at London Weekend Television, the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV – no one is more qualified to discuss the enduring appeal of Christmas telly.
Lord Grade commissioned many of the nation’s most memorable festive programmes, including the 1986 Christmas Day EastEnders when Den issued Angie with divorce papers. Ratings topped 30 million, although that figure includes viewers of a repeat showing.
Soaps are a key part of festive TV. “They’re familiar and the audience knows now that something dramatic is going to happen on Christmas Day. Everyone will be at everybody’s throats, trying to kill each other – just like at home,” said Lord Grade.
“The secret of Christmas shows is that you’ve got to have a sense of anticipation”
“The secret of Christmas shows is that you’ve got to have a sense of anticipation,” he continued. “You can’t have a run-of-the-mill episode.”
The BBC dominated the festive ratings during Lord Grade’s era – and it still does. Last Christmas, the only ITV shows in the top 10 were the veteran soaps, Coronation Street and Emmerdale.
Lord Grade offered a simple explanation for ITV’s poor performance: “We never bothered. We didn’t want to give away our crown jewels over a holiday period when there was no advertising revenue.
“We used to get murdered by the BBC, which we didn’t care about because there was no revenue,” he continued. “We let the BBC have it.
“For the BBC [Christmas] is crucially important because it’s the time when the BBC can prove to the nation that it has something for everybody.”
As chief executive at Channel 4 for almost a decade from 1988 – during which time he was famously described as “Britain’s pornographer-in-chief” by Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson – Lord Grade adopted a different approach to the Christmas schedules.
The problem was, he recalled, “What the hell do you do at Christmas? All we could do was make trouble.” In 1993, Lord Grade introduced the Alternative Christmas Message, which was delivered by Quentin Crisp. At the RTS event, he showed a clip of Brigitte Bardot’s 1995 Message.
The ghost of Christmas present – BBC entertainment controller Kate Phillips – argued that festive TV should be “shared viewing”. In entertainment, she said, “I want shows that the three Gs will watch – [when] three generations come together, grandparents, parents and children. That’s a really hard thing to do, but at Christmas the BBC does it really well and has done so historically.”
Among the festive favourites filling the BBC’s 2018 schedules are Call the Midwife, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Strictly Come Dancing, the three highest rating shows last Christmas. “It’s the familiar titles but they’re all a bit special on Christmas Day, which is what people want,” said Phillips.
Winning promotion this year, from Christmas Eve to Day, is Michael McIntyre’s Big Christmas Show. “Morecambe & Wise was brilliant but Michael McIntyre is that modern, multi-strand variety show and I think he does it brilliantly,” she added.
The ghost of Christmas yet to come – Kate Russell, one of the presenters of the BBC’s consumer technology programme, BBC Click – could not show clips of future festive favourites; instead, she offered an imagined story of a family Christmas with technology to the fore.
In Russell’s vision of the future, the Queen gave her annual Christmas address in “holographic form” in the family’s living room; artificial intelligence selected comedy sketches on the TV; and virtual assistant Alexa ordered pizzas, which were delivered by a drone to the family – who were watching telly, in the traditional manner, huddled on the sofa.
Much of the technology mentioned in her story is “in existence now”, said Russell. “It was [the author] William Gibson who said: ‘The future is already here; it’s just not widely distributed yet.’”
Russell demonstrated to the audience an augmented reality app that offers instruction on how to carve a Christmas turkey. “We have this technology – it’s just a question of it becoming mainstream and affordable,” she said.
"People want to be part of the broadcast and not passively experience [it]"
“Viewing habits are changing – people are watching live streaming, people want to be part of the broadcast and not passively experience [it],” argued Russell. “But I hope we’ll still get together on Christmas Day and watch the old films as a family.”
Christmas Day TV viewing in 2017 was the lowest on record, with Call the Midwife, which took the drama to South Africa for its festive outing, topping the ratings with a consolidated audience of just 9.2 million. But Kate Phillips said: “I refuse to believe that ratings are going to keep falling each year. On Christmas Day people do want to come together and I’m hopeful that will continue.”
“Audiences in 100 years time will still have an appetite for stories, laughter and emotion – all the things that television can provide. All that’s changing is the distribution methods,” argued Lord Grade.
All photography by Paul Hampartsoumian
The RTS early evening event, “A TV Christmas Carol”, was held at the Hospital Club in central London on 6 December. The event was chaired by Anita Singh, arts and entertainment editor of the Daily Telegraph, and produced by Andrew Scadding and Sue Robertson. A full report of the event will be published in the January edition of Television.