Aidan Smith: Safe, predictable, old - and entirely what we want from Christmas TV

Like that extra helping of turkey which you didn’t really need and which just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating.

Morecambe and Wise live on as Christmas Day telly treats and thank goodness for that
Morecambe and Wise live on as Christmas Day telly treats and thank goodness for that

Like your gift under the tree from the batty spinster aunt, same as last year, same as every year. And why does she think you’re still eight?

Like the jokes in crackers, which never improve even if you splash out on the “designer” variety, and which this time round will actually feature gags certifiably half a century old.

This is what telly on Christmas Day is like now. Safe, samey, predictable, old, hoary, rubbishy. Apart, obviously, from Morecambe and Wise whose festive special from 1971 is being dusted down.

But why? When was the poll asking what we’d like to watch with our plum pudding? I must have missed it because I wouldn’t have requested Call the Midwife ad nauseum, no way, though I know that for many of you these angels of mercy induce warm feelings which have nothing to do with passing wind - and never more so than right now, as the pandemic roars once more.

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Now, maybe the BBC decided to go with this identical schedule to last Christmas Day because, at the time it was unveiled, the pandemic wasn’t roaring. With everyone looking forward to whooping it up, after all the cooping it up, perhaps the broadcasting bods went: “Ach, no one will be watching anyway.” But with Omricron here, and lockdown-by-stealth upon us, a captive audience is once again hovering over the Radio Times double issue with glittery marker-pens and it’s going to be mightily disappointed - once again.

Strictly Come Dancing - enough already. Blankety Blank - that’s a joke, right? EastEnders, never big on peace and goodwill, will crank up its serial killer storyline. Get outta my pub? Get outta my Christmas Day, more like. Meanwhile The Wheel is the Michael McIntyre game show which gives lie to the idea that the caveman’s eureka invention, a circular carving from stone attached to a rudimentary axle, advanced all of mankind.

The Vicar of Dibley? You thought that finished ages ago and it did - this episode is from 2006. Then there’s Mrs Brown’s Boys which should never have started. That’s all on BBC1 but ITV is hardly any more tantalising with Emmerdale also reeling from multiple slayings and the reboot of The Larkins starring as Pop the unshy and non-retiring Bradley Walsh who seems to feature in half of all telly programmes right now. Indeed such is the omnipotence and omnipresence of that toothy grin that I fully expect to see him skulking behind the Queen, signing her Christmas message to the nation.

One stat is confirmed: a third of BBC1’s output is currently made up of repeats. According to the National Audit Office, the number of re-run shows increases to 64 percent on BBC2 and 87 percent on BBC Four. Cutting original programmes is helping the Corporation meet its savings target of £1 billion but this will come at a price, MPs warn, with more viewers expected to cancel the licence fee and stop watching.

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This would seem to be borne out by a poll commissioned by the Defund the BBC campaign group which claims that 64 percent back a referendum on Beeb funding, with 62 percent of that figure already deciding they want the £159 payment scrapped.

Now, I have sympathy with the Beeb for how they’re being bashed by this government in its demands for an overhaul. The politicians insisting on the reforms can hardly be surprised that overall quality is suffering. I have sympathy, too, over the disruptions to production caused by Covid, which presumably explains the high number of repeats.

But the sympathy begins to evaporate at the sight of Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs Brown flaunting that ginormous parapet of fake boobery, knocking the other cast members into the middle of next week when, by the way, the Yuletide edition will be repeated. What do we call this comedy - pre-modern? Prehistoric? Something in which our pioneering caveman could have lost himself after a hard day’s finessing that first-gen wheel?

Or is it what we expect of Christmas Day on the idiot-lantern now and maybe what we deserve? When Boris Johnson criticised the BBC over its news coverage of “Partygate”, calling it “shamefully frivolous, vengeful and partisan”, he could have been talking about Mrs Brown’s Boys and a few other shows.

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The TV vista has changed irrevocably. Apart from a brief few weeks during the first lockdown, huddled together trepidatiously, we no longer watch communally, as families, or without also scrolling through smartphones. We are our own schedulers in this second golden age of television and there’s no need to endure crummy Crimbo fayre or stuff we’ve seen umpteen times before.

Except aren’t familiarity, tradition and groan-inducing ritual key components of Christmas? Even at the age of eight I would have been seriously unnerved if the batty spinster aunt’s present had been a Johnny Seven gun, my wee heart’s desire back then. Even now, I don’t want the little bits of paper in the crackers to contain jokes worthy of Frankie Boyle or Peter Kay. And I would be shocked if the last few Quality Streets left in the tin were not all the coconut ones.

I’ve just dug out BBC1’s line-up for Christmas Day, 1971. It included - wait for it - Top of the Pops hosted by Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris visiting a children’s hospital and The Black and White Minstrel Show. This was TV’s first golden age, of course, but at least there was Morecambe and Wise - Glenda Jackson in a play “what Ernie wrote”, Shirley Bassey putting a bovver-booted foot through some stairs and “Andre Preview” - as there will be again this year, thank the Lord.

What do you mean it’s another bloody repeat? …

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