The box knows when we are sleepy

Yuletide television is a ritual. And schedulers know how predictable our viewing habits are. By Tim Dowling
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The Independent Culture
Television is everything at Christmas. From approximately 21 December straight on through to New Year and beyond, terrestrial television makes its annual expensive stab at being all things to all people. It acts as babysitter, holiday-cheer enforcer, Anti-Yuletide refuge and lowest- common-denominator, family silencer. It knows when you are sleepy, it knows when you're awake, it knows if you want bad or good, and when you've had all you can take, which is never.

Perversely, Christmas television has a tendency to peak in intensity just at the time when you actually have something else to do. The Queen's Speech, the central, traditional, rally-round-the-set moment of Yuletide telly, cuts lunch a bit short. On Boxing Day people keep dropping by while you're trying to watch A View To A Kill. Later in the week, when the wrapping paper is finally cleared away, the tree has shed its last needle and your extended family is beginning to behave like a sequestered jury, you may well find yourself sat in front of The Making Of The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (today, 11.20am, BBC2). Oh Christmas TV, where are you when we need you?

Much is made of the big Christmas-time movie premieres by the swollen and relentlessly jolly listings pages, but Christmas really is a time to watch movies you might otherwise only sit through on an aeroplane, enhancing the feeling that the holidays are an endurance test akin to long distance travel.

Already we've had Toys, Speed, Sister Act II: Back In The Habit, Super Mario Bros, Richie Rich and Free Willy 2, with Star Trek IV, North, Mr Nanny, Stanley and Iris and Fletch Lives yet to come. Christmas is also a time when the familiar film takes precedence over the new, the challenging, or the highly recommended. Ultimately we prefer the comfort of something we've already seen - not just reaffirming seasonal fare like It's A Wonderful Life, but real, bank-holiday standards such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Carry On Again Doctor. Even as you make plans to watch Mrs Brown for the first time tonight, you know in your heart you're going to end up sitting through Edward Scissorhands again. At this difficult time of family togetherness, it's important to know what you're in for. Why strain your minces on something untested? For Christmas purposes, one must simply accept that The Man With Two Brains is a better film than Kurosawa's Throne Of Blood.

Christmas is also time for the notorious "Festive Edition". Cooking, gardening, comedy and drama programmes offer up a slightly lame, heavily- decorated Christmas special, which the audience is clearly expected to watch with a sentimental, almost spiritual sense of forgiving - the way one treats over-cooked sprouts or spoiled children. If you, like me, have already been reduced to inventing games to play with your 14-day holiday telly listings, try making up seasonal versions of different programmes, and then check to see if they're actually listed.

This year we have seen, or will soon see (if you don't want to know the answers, look away now): Changing Rooms At Christmas, The Christmas Italian Kitchen, Gary Rhodes' Perfect Christmas, Auntie's Christmas Bloomers, Xmas Shooting Stars, Harry Enfield's Yule Log Chums, Christmases from Hell, Murray and Martin's Formula One Christmas Special, The Big Break Christmas Show, Who Wants To Be A Christmas Millionaire?, You've Been Framed At Christmas, Merry Mind The Buzzcocks, and special Christmas editions of Heartbeat, Homefront, Celebrity Ready Steady Cook and The Bill. In this context the fact there is no festive edition of Police! Camera! Action! or Yuletide 999 seems more of an oversight than a sudden lapse of bad taste. The Festive Edition is always followed by the Year in Review Edition, of which the Blue Peter Review of the Year and Gardeners' World Review are but two.

Anti-Christmas telly is, in its own way, just as traditional, providing alternative watching for sour young relations who refuse to join in the fun of Noel's Christmas Presents or Morecambe and Wise.

There were several options for the troubled teen set this year, but the award for the most un-Christmassy programming of 1998 must go to either the two-part Arena about the life of Brian Epstein or tonight's screening of I Shot Andy Warhol, with an honourable mention for Channel 5's nicely timed season of Russ Meyer films, which began on Christmas Eve with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! There were also the Fortean Times TV Xmas Files and Snow Graham Norton, but these are, as you may well have spotted, actually Festive Editions.

Soap operas take the festive edition idea a step further, forcing us to survive their Christmases as well as ours. Christmas lunch at the Queen Vic is always guarantied to make you feel better about your own family celebration. In general, holidays on soaps involve births and deaths, with Christmas births always straining to be some kind of babe-in-the- manger simulacrum. Casualty got it out of the way on 19 December when somebody went into labour in a petrol station, surrounded by cut-out promotional nativity characters. What were they promoting? Elsewhere, Bianca got a new baby on Eastenders, and the Street had twins. Deaths aren't as big at Christmas, although I understand that Emmerdale is starting 1999 minus one sub-postmaster.

For reasons that are unclear, Christmas is also a time for departures. Tiffany, as everybody knows, is leaving Eastenders, Denise van Outen is leaving the Big Breakfast, and Men Behaving Badly and Birds of a Feather are said to have filmed their final episodes. It remains to be seen whether All Saints are all present and accounted for when they appear on Jools' Sixth Annual Hootenanny on New Year's Eve.

Which brings us to Drunk TV. The holidays provide ample telly for the seasonally weak of head. The programmes are usually simple in design, cheap in construction, and generally involve cracking the same gag over and over again, so that drunk people can enjoy it too. More often than not they are presented by Angus Deayton. This year he's got two: Before They Were Famous III aired on Christmas Day, and The End Of The Year Show With Angus Deayton goes out on New Year's Eve. Mark Lamarr's New Year In, which is on BBC2 at the same time, probably counts as Alternative Drunk TV.

All Christmas telly, good, bad or indifferent, vies to become definitive Christmas telly, the sort of programme or film that comes to embody the spirit of the season, whose appearance proves it really is Christmas-time again. In America the post of official Christmas film has long been held by It's a Wonderful Life, which is screened hundreds of times across hundreds of channels, in varying shades, from black-and-white to day-glo, starting the day after Thanksgiving and continuing until New Year's Day. In Britain the choice is a little less clear. Traditionally The Sound Of Music is the definitive Christmas film, although in recent years it seems to have been supplanted by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A new Christmas classic could come along in any year, even this year, although it's probably too much to hope that from now on we'll all look forward to Channel 5's annual midnight screening of On Thin Ice: The Tai Babylonia Story. It doesn't have to be a film. It could be a nativity play, a cartoon, or the Countdown Grand Final.

My own vote goes to the World's Strongest Man competition, a bizarre, six-part series in which gigantic, neckless Scandinavian men engage in sports like anvil-tossing and house-pulling, giving themselves unspeakable injuries in the process. Unlike most Christmas telly, I actually remember it from last year. It appears in the late afternoons from Boxing Day onwards, at a time when one is emotionally and intellectually extremely fragile. Better than Drunk TV, better even than Hangover TV, this is Hair-of-the- dog TV at its finest: unwholesome, yet somehow restorative. What could say Christmas better than that? Lift that Lorrry/Let Them Know It's Christmas- time.