For the first time since 2005, the Doctor is not at home to Christmas visitors, ending a 13-year streak of Christmas Day specials, and her absence has left a conspicuous hole in the BBC One schedule for 25 December. The previously all-conquering BBC One Christmas line-up is looking tired, and the unanticipated dematerialisation of Doctor Who – the second most watched UK drama this year, and a programme plenty of people are loudly excited about – curiously calls attention to, rather than ameliorating, that fact.
Amongst this year’s returners are Call the Midwife, which has occupied prime real estate on BBC One’s Christmas day since 2012 (that’s seven in a row, with next year’s already tentatively booked); and Mrs Brown’s Boys (six in a row, since 2013). Either or both may overtake Doctor Who in time. But neither are likely to catch their schedule mate EastEnders, which has managed at least one Christmas Day episode, and often two, every year since 1991; it also chalked up two prior Christmas Day appearances in 1986 and 1987.
That’s 27 in a row; 29 in total. Even counting double episodes as one, that’s a lot. Can anyone beat that?
The size of that run, over a quarter of a century, means that you can immediately discount the possibility of anything made for Channel 5 or Sky from threatening it, leaving ITV and other BBC series as the only serious possibilities, with Channel 4 an outside bet. So can anything do it?
Sometimes your instincts with regards to these things are just plain wrong. The BBC A Ghost Story For Christmas strand, which ran uninterrupted from 1971 to 1978, and which has been revived several times since, including this year, has only been on Christmas Day itself three times: 1975’s Lost Hearts, 1978’s The Ice House and 2013’s The Tractate Middoth. More usually it’s been shown in the build up to Christmas.
Only Fools and Horses is a series indelibly associated with Christmas television in the public mind, but that can only boast 14 Christmas Day episodes between 1983 and 2003, with its longest streak being nine in a row. Impressive, but nowhere close to the record. Of even greater renown in an earlier era where the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Shows. But Eric and Ernie could only chalk up 12 in a row, from 1969 to 1980, the last three on ITV following their defection from BBC One to the commercial channel. Even then 1974, which was an interview with the pair backed by clips, put together because Morecambe’s recent heart attack made recording new material impossible, shouldn’t really count. (It goes without saying, of course, that repeats of the hardy perennials of Christmas television, such as the annually reshown Porridge Christmas episodes, can’t possibly count more than once.)
Perhaps there’s something in television’s pre-history to rival EastEnders’ dominance? ITV’s first ever Christmas schedule, in 1955, saw the evening’s entertainment dominated by Saturday Night at the London Palladium, a series that would, in various and renamed forms, bounce in and out of television schedules until 2016. Oddly, its most recent host was Bradley Walsh, who would be in this year’s Christmas Day Doctor Who, if there was one; but, it hasn’t notched up enough Christmas episodes to worry us.
In a similar vein, all but forgotten now is BBC Christmas Night With The Stars, the centrepiece of the channel’s Christmas schedule most years from 1958 to 1972. A sort of variety slash sketch show, featuring mini episodes of popular series, such as Dixon of Dock Green or Steptoe and Son, its 12 episodes in 15 years don’t get us close to either record we’re trying to beat.
To look through these earlier Christmas Day schedules is often to see current approaches to linear TV Christmas programming in embryonic form. 1957 saw the first “proper” Christmas special of an ITV series, with The Christmas Present, a special festive episode of the Marius Goring-starring adventure series, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Positioned in the early evening, as a programme enjoyed by both children and adults, it was doing the same job Doctor Who was on BBC One 12 months ago.
Similarly, in 1958 ITV premiered The Maltese Falcon, a hugely popular film which was then only 15 years old, pointing the way to the channel’s dominance of Christmas viewing in later decades, when it used its greater spending power to purchase blockbusters: the 1984 Christmas Day premiere of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, or its three Eighties Christmas week premieres of what were then all of the Star Wars films, or its recent reliance on Harry Potter.
ITV must have some homegrown programming to rival EastEnders though? Oh, of course: Coronation Street. The senior soap.
Corrie’s first Christmas Day episode was way back In 1961, slightly more than a year after its own debut. It was a curious affair, with an Equity strike limiting the number of performers available to the production. A creative solution was found, with the episode concentrating on the preparation of Christmas dinners: the male characters were all off screen attending a football match as the street’s women did all the work.
Coronation Street’s Christmas Day episodes, which vary from high drama to variety and back again, would fill a book. Yet, while it is currently a Christmas Day fixture, it has been absent from the day itself on several occasions since 1961. In the whole of the seventies the soap only managed one Christmas episode, in 1972; and its current streak started in 1994, after EastEnders’. Nevertheless, its 37 (total) and 24 (continuous) make it ITV’s nearest equivalent to EastEnders in this, as in so many other ways.
That must be ITV’s best option, and it’s just fallen short. Is it worth looking at Channel 4? Probably not. Its best option is its Alternative Christmas Message, which has run non-stop since 1993: a bit better than Corrie, a bit worse than EastEnders.
But hang on, if the Alternative Christmas Message counts, then surely that to which it’s an alternative does too? There’s one thing that’s been on every Christmas Day for as long as anyone can remember. The Queen’s Christmas Message (usually simply referred to in listings as simply “Her Majesty The Queen”) has been on both BBC and ITV simultaneously since 1957, with the curious exception of 1969. Before that, it was on the radio – with both BBC TV (from 1952) and ITV (from 1955) choosing, in the years immediately before the speech transitioned to the visual medium, to broadcast the BBC radio signal as a special “sound-only television programme”, to quote a 1956 issue of TV Times.
If that’s a television series, and I don’t really think you can argue that it isn’t, then that means that, even with that blip at the end of the sixties, HMQ has a clear uninterrupted run of 49 years of Christmas specials, with her total number of Christmas Day specials coming in at 66. EastEnders has no answer to that, and it beats everything I’ve dismissed, ignored or not included too.
When it comes to records of longevity, Elizabeth II is the only surefire way to beat the Queen Vic.