Box standard

Television - Andrew Billen still makes a wallchart of the Christmas schedule

For much of my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, the true meaning of Christmas was television. I would buy the double issues of the TV Times and Radio Times that would appear, like shop decorations, precipitously early, and pore over them in the school library as healthier lads might Wisden. These were sacred texts, the Radio Times especially so for its beautifully illustrated covers, foretelling, as surely as the star of Bethlehem, good news. Like a human prototype of TiVo, I would comb the schedules and draw up a wallchart of highlights for the kitchen noticeboard.

Once the holidays had started, the television stations, all three of them, would gradually extend their opening hours so that, by Christmas Eve, you could watch cartoons and sappy movies at dawn to the smug charity appeals on Blue Peter and Magpie at dusk. We watched so much television that the Associated-Redifusion logo must have engraved itself on our spinning retinas. One afternoon, my father arrived home early from work, caught us supine on the sofa, and scolded us on the grounds that this must be the sixth film we had watched that day. Nowadays, with 24-hour digital broadcasting, this would be a modest haul. Excessive viewing is an everyday, not seasonal, decadence.

On Christmas morning, even if the telly wasn't actually on, the great moments were still TV-related. The most desired gifts were the children's annuals, all of which would be spin-offs, either from programmes or the comics that supported them. The toys tended to be effigies of TV characters, although these were less reliable treats. I remember one year giving a cool reception to Santa's offering of a Joe 90 doll whose glasses were broken: the spectacles were, I told my mother bravely, precisely what made him Joe 90 in the first place. As tension mounted in the kitchen, we watched Leslie Crowther de-liver presents to hospitalised children and the beginning of Christmas Top of the Pops. The meal itself, I felt, tended to be secondary to finishing it before the Queen's Speech in deference to the elderly relatives at our table. From then on, it was presents - and telly, telly, all the way.

Yet, with the greatest nostalgia in the world, I cannot say I look back with much affection at what we watched. The best Christmas programme of my childhood was Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol, a feature-length cartoon in which the short-sighted Magoo, in pre-postmodern fashion, took the part of Dickens's moral myopic, Ebenezer Scrooge. Since it was shown by the BBC in 1963 and 1964, I have waited hopelessly for its return. Little else competes with Mr Magoo, except for a children's comedy show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, which astounded the whole family on Boxing Day 1967. Starring Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, it was the prototype for Monty Python. What else do I recall warmly? The odd BBC Christmas Eve ghost story (a 1976 adaptation of Dickens's The Signalman stands out); the Royal Institution Christmas science lectures for children and, in later years, BBC2's film seasons, which meant that, by adulthood, I had a nodding acquaintance with Hitchcock and Wilder, Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart.

Most of what we watched en famille, however, was desperate: stagy pantos from Shepherd's Bush, flea-bitten circuses from Billy Smart's and saccharine variety specials recorded back in October and mainly starring Val Doonican with tinsel on his cardigan. Morecambe and Wise on BBC1 were synonymous with Christmas Day viewing in the 1970s (Christmas certainly never meant Mike and Bernie Winters on the other side). And, each Boxing Day, the national debate would be about how much less funny Eric and Ernie were than the year before - a discussion that continued for a decade, until the pair moved to ITV and settled the matter.

Most disappointing was BBC1's Christmas Night with the Stars, mini-episodes from the current crop of sitcoms, as gluttonously unsatisfactory as a dozen mini chocolate bars in a variety pack. These epigones showed all the signs of having been cobbled together in a single afternoon. For a while, ITV offered up precisely the same formula, the only problem being that, even at full-length, its comedies weren't funny. One year, Des O'Connor introduced the ITV clip show alone in an empty studio, and made jokes about how lonely he felt. He should have felt lonely, too. Everyone knew the nation watched the BBC at Christmas, especially the advertisers. The only ads ITV had to show were for Thomsons, Thomas Cook and Yugotours, giving the unfortunate impression that their summer holidays were all ITV viewers had to live for, once Yuletide had passed.

Gradually, we children learnt the most crucial lesson of Christmas - that the festivities meant more but worse TV. In withdrawal one year, we turned the set to the wall, left the programme guides unopened in their pseudo-leather jacket and, I fear, bullied our parents into playing charades on Christmas night.

It is 20 years since I had Christmases like these; however, looking through this year's Radio Times double issue, my first sensation is of deja vu. I am delighted, for a start, that there is a drawing on the cover (and for a radio programme, too), restoring a tradition interrupted, as I recall, by Mike Yarwood's agent, who insisted that his client's face, modified by a cotton-wool beard, should appear instead of a work of genius by Peter Brooks. Inside, there is much that is familiar, too. Christmas Night with the Stars is long dead and buried, animal lib has killed the televised circus, and the ailing children must have got better. Otherwise, the genres remain intact.

The Christmas Day Top of the Pops is where it always was, providing music for the turkey to dry out to. The Queen is still sternly demanding our attention at 3pm. There's plenty of Morecambe and Wise - although, given the old timers' deaths, both ITV and BBC have demoted them to Christmas Eve. ITV serves up a pantomime. Christopher Lee - get this - reads us ghost stories on BBC2. The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures start early on Channel 4 on Boxing Day and are about robotics. BBC2 runs two film seasons, on Kirk Douglas and Universal Studios horror films. Scrooge is everywhere: last week, Ross Kemp was Ebenezer Loan Shark in ITV's updated version; on Christmas Eve, Channel 4 shows the original A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Steward. Scrooge is reincarnated again as a mean bank manager in ITV's Heartbeat. And I, for one, shall be rising early for BBC1's Koala's Christmas Day at 7.45am on Christmas Day. Just as in the old days, there is not nearly enough news, making it a good time to invade Afghanistan and a bad time, if you are famous, to make Chaplin's and Beckett's mistake of dying (Sam didn't even get a mention from ITN).

In some ways, it's as if a somnambulist Father Christmas is distributing the same presents he has for the past 40 years with minimal rewrapping. Yet, with a less Scrooge-like eye, I can't help noticing that Christmas TV this year promises many, many more treats than it ever did in the golden age we endured.

Can anyone pretend that The League of Gentlemen (27 December, BBC2), Victoria Wood (Christmas Day, BBC1) and The Last Fast Show Ever (three nights of it from Boxing Day on BBC2) are less funny than almost anything the BBC1 has ever made? Thirty years ago, would the corporation have commissioned a two-part film of Lorna Doone (BBC1)? Would a commercial company - in this case, Hallmark - have been in a position to sell Channel 4 (had it existed) dramatisations of both the Merlin and the Scrooge stories? Classical music may be in decline on television, and yet, on Boxing Day, BBC2 brings us a new Royal Opera House production of Cinderella and a new documentary on Alfred Brendel on Christmas Day, while Channel 4 shows a film of Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma!. Even Channel 4 - which, for ratings, can sink as low as anyone - ascends the high ground by screening a new Susanna White documentary, The Real Joan of Arc, at peak time on the day itself. Holy Smoke.

These days, the survivors of Billennial Christmases do not switch on until well into the evening (although I'll be recording Channel 4's La Boheme and, who knows, may even get round to watching it). But I know we will all be present for The Royle Family at Christmas (10.10pm, BBC1), both for the frisson of self-recognition and out of superiority at having watched rather less box than they have. In only its second Christmas outing, this programme already feels like a tradition.

In fact, the more I think about it all, the more Christmassy I am feeling. To check if my impression that things can only get better is misplaced, I suggest we all have a look at BBC2's I Love a Seventies Christmas on Christmas Eve. Maybe it will reveal the era in a televisual glory I have forgotten, in which case I shall apologise to you and to it. In the meantime, you know, I am considering making a wallchart.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.