JUST LAST WEEK, THE READERS OF RADIO Times, whom you would assume know a thing or two about matters televisual, voted the Only Fools and Horses specials their favourite Christmas programmes of all time.
One assumes that the popularity of these shows is simply a case of selective memory: regardless of the quality of the programmes they may have watched at the time, they remember a general feeling of warmth and well-being which, presumably, they connect with the yuletide antics of the Trotter family. Or maybe it's just because Christmas telly is so bad, they had no choice but to vote for Only Fools, lest they were forced to vote for The Vicar of Dibley. Which loads of them did, placing this grisly clump of laugh-free pud at number three, which just goes to prove my point that you should never poll the great British public on matters of taste, as they will always get it abundantly wrong.
But why are Christmas specials usually so disappointing? (Disappointing, that is, assuming you had any reasonable expectations in the first place; it's hard to imagine somebody watching a yuletide extravaganza hosted by, say, Patrick Kielty, and coming away from it complaining that, "I've been looking forward to that all year, but I have to say I'm a tad disappointed.")
Here's how the process works. Usually, after a programme has built up a reliable reputation in its regular, half-hour format, TV producers decide that what the public must really want after Christmas dinner is a festive version at twice the length, in which we see these characters wearing paper hats. Of course, the reason that most sitcoms last half an hour is because it's difficult to sustain comedy for much longer without introducing extraneous sub-plots and padding, which is exactly what Christmas specials are full of.
The two-part Office special, for example, although it still managed to end the series in a satisfyingly poignant manner, spread itself thin over its 90-minute running time, while back in the 1970s both the Porridge and Steptoe and Son specials (both showing this year), neither of them bad, exactly, still failed to live up to the giddy standards set in their regular runs.
There are exceptions, of course: the best comedy specials are probably the League of Gentlemen's typically coal-black effort from 2000 and 1994's Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge, which in a suitably knowing and unforgiving manner, managed to subvert the moribund nature of the average Christmas special by having Partidge host a hideous shambles of a show which ended with him attacking the commissioning editor of the BBC with a basted turkey.
Although the Partridge show was in itself a comedy, it wasn't comedy that was being spoofed; rather, a kind of grim Christmas variety show which thankfully appears to be on the wane. Which brings us to by far the most depressing entry in the Radio Times poll, namely Noel's Christmas Presents, which came in at a frankly unfathomable number seven.
For those too young to remember, or those who have chosen to erase the memory from their minds, this mirthless piece of ber-cheap BBC tat involved bearded pariah Noel Edmonds presenting live from atop Telecom Tower, the reasons for which elude me. In between hosting phone-ins with lonely spinsters from Bracknell, Edmonds, clad in a typically hideous chunky-knit jumper, probably with snowflakes on it, would spend most of the show spreading his terrifying brand of hirsute altruism before a grateful nation, usually by organising tearful family reunions or delivering presents to disadvantaged children.
Then there are the dramas and soaps, which rather than temper their usual diet of interminable human suffering for a spot of fleeting Christmas cheer, prefer to up the gloom factor to previously unexplored heights. Every year in EastEnders it's exactly the same. Everyone will gather in the Queen Vic for a spot of enforced cockney jollity (the image of a dyspeptic Jim Brennan in a party hat nursing a can of stout springs to mind) while a gaggle of cherubic carol singers gather in the square outside. This delightful scene will then be intercut with shots of Ian Beale, also in a party hat, staring blankly at his television with the sound turned down, the joyful harmonies of the singers outside lending an amusingly heavy-handed counterpoint to the misery from which the unctuous entrepreneur is suffering. Someone will then get too drunk in the Vic and say something they shouldn't (some secret, usually, probably involving infidelity or stolen whelks), Peggy will throw them out, offer drinks on the house for everybody, while outside a weeping Frank Butcher falls face down in the snow in a pool of liquer-coloured vomit. Cue credits.
This year, aside from the Doctor Who Christmas special - which, judging by the quality of the first series, will probably be fantastic - we can look uncertainly forward to the likes of Rosemary and Thyme (which didn't even deserve a series, let alone a special), Catherine Tate, Avid Merion's XXXmas Special (not even funny for 60 seconds, let alone minutes), Ant and Dec's Christmas Takeaway, featuring Ricky Gervais, who really should know better, and Gordon Ramsey's Christmas F Word (maybe this time it stands for "festive", or at the very least, "figgie"?), in which the rump-faced bully attempts to cook the perfect turkey for Sharon Osbourne.
This last one is a perfect example of producers turning an unsuitable format into a special, simply by inserting the word "Christmas" into the title. But where does it end? How about Newsnight at Christmas, in which a beaming Jeremy Paxman tears ecstatically through Westminster, distributing shiny farthings to malnourished backbenchers, followed by a live carol service from Guantanamo Bay and Andrew Marr seated by a crackling fireplace reading T'was the Night Before Christmas; while over on Channel 4 Darcus Howe as Scrooge, bellows White Christmas at the disinterested inhabitants of a Brixton housing estate. On Five, The World's Wildest Yuletide Police Chases, featuring a heart-warming clip of a drunk department store Santa ploughing his sledge into some Hispanic carol singers: "These innocent bystanders were taken on a slay ride they'll never forget, thanks to the recklessness of one crazy old coot with a sack fulla booze and a chimney full of baaaaaaad attitood...". And, most bewilderingly of all, an inspirational documentary on ITV in which Chris Tarrant follows his lifelong dream of walking with polar bears. What do you mean they've already made that one?
Feast or famine?
1. DOCTOR WHO: THE CHRISTMAS INVASION
Christmas Day, 7pm, BBC1
ET invades Earth just in time for Christmas. Cue zombie Santas, a killer Christmas tree, and new Doctor David Tennant having a swordfight in pyjamas, in Russell T Davies's gleefully over-the-top festive special.
2. STILL GAME CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
28 December, 10.30pm, BBC1
JACK and Victor face up to missing Christmas dinner, while Tam and Frances spend their first 25 December as husband and wife. Ford Kiernan, Greg Hemphill and Karen Dunbar turn up again on New Year's Eve at 11.15pm, for a Hogmanay Chewin' The Fat.
3. IT'S CHRISTMAS WITH JONATHAN ROSS
22 December, 8pm, BBC1
For those not fed up to the back teeth with the man already, there's a double dose of Woss next week. Here, he "investigates" Christmas traditions across the world, before returning to his usual Friday slot on 23 December, to interview ... David Tennant.
4. WHAT'S REALLY IN YOUR CHRISTMAS DINNER?
19 December, 9pm, Channel 4
NOT strictly a Christmas special, but not likely to be shown at any other time of year. Just as you were starting to feel festive, Channel 4 punctures the party mood by looking at how Christmas dinner is produced and processed, and how unhealthy it is for you - not to mention turkeys.
5. FRENCH AND SAUNDERS CELEBRITY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
27 December, BBC1
IT'S years since they've been that funny, but you'd still miss them if they were gone. Here, EastEnders, Vera Drake, George Michael and Brigitte Neilson are affectionately spoofed.
6. THE WORST CHRISTMAS JOBS IN HISTORY
Boxing Day, 8pm, Channel 4
GOOD old Tony Robinson tries cooking a severed boar's head, harvesting seaweed and making dolls out of horse hair.
7. THE TWO RONNIES CHRISTMAS SKETCHBOOK
Christmas Day, 10pm, BBC1
Another Christmas institution, this one also serving as a tribute to Ronnie Barker, who died in October.