Writing a memoir about growing up in front of the telly in the 1970s, as I recently did, was an experience both rewarding and unsettling. Rewarding because of all the fond memories it unleashed; unsettling because there were times when I had to stop myself from turning the book into a kind of reproach to my children for being born altogether too late to enjoy television's golden age, and never knowing the exquisite pleasure of sitting down with a felt-tipped pen in front of the bumper festive editions of the Radio Times and TV Times – in the days when BBC and ITV listings were bizarrely kept separate – to determine the optimum Christmas viewing schedule.
Whether it really was a golden age is actually debatable – it was also, after all, an era that gave the world Yus My Dear, starring Arthur Mullard – but it is surely unarguable that Christmas telly reached its zenith as a cultural phenomenon in 1977, the year in which more than half the population watched the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show. Not that such a statistic would have surprised anyone 31 Christmases ago, indeed the 28,835,000 of us who watched with delight as a troupe of male newsreaders and presenters "performed" a tumbling routine while "singing" the South Pacific number "There is Nothing Like a Dame", would undoubtedly have wondered, had we known the viewing figures, what the hell the other 27,355,000 people in Britain were doing with themselves.
The satellite revolution and the subsequent proliferation of channels means that this collective viewing experience, and the feeling of security that it somehow engendered, has diminished almost to the point of ceasing to exist, although it fleetingly twitches back to life during series such as The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, the telly once again affording grandparents the chance to bond with their grandchildren, teachers with their pupils, neighbours with each other.
But it is safe to say that never again on Christmas Day will programmes garner viewing figures like they did in the 1970s, or indeed the 1980s. In 1986, even Eric and Ernie were pipped by Dirty Den and flirty, shirty Ange: no fewer than 30,150,000 of us watched the Christmas Day edition of EastEnders in which the scheming philanderer Dennis Watts served divorce papers on his long-suffering, bubble-permed, alcoholic wife.
These seismic Christmas Day events of course owed their cultural reverberations to the existence of only three channels, or four once Channel 4 joined the fray in 1982. Moreover, until the late 1980s, when the video cassette recorder started to become a household appliance as universal as the toaster, there was no means of watching what you had missed. I tell my Sky Plus-literate children this now and they look at me as if I'm recalling some genuine deprivation from a miserable, gruel-flavoured youth. In fact the opposite is true; limited channels and no option to record programmes or play videos are what made television what, in real time, it was and no longer is: unmissable.
Nostalgia plays tricks, though. Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 film that showcased the genius of the special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, can't possibly have been on telly every Christmas for 10 consecutive years from 1967 to 1977, yet I'm certain I watched it every Christmas morning between the ages of six and 16. Everyone I know over the age of about 40 cites one film that defined the festive viewing experience. Usually it's The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape, The Sound of Music, or It's a Wonderful Life, but for me it was Todd Armstrong as Jason who represented Christmas no less than Santa Claus himself. At any rate, I can't think of any film that engaged me more, or that I circled in the TV Times or Radio Times with quite such heady anticipation.
The arrival on the newsagent's shelf of the Christmas editions of Britain's two great listings magazines was, for me, when the festive season really started. Scarcely any conversation all year – not even the one about the transcendent moment the hated school dinnerlady Mrs Kershaw slipped on a rogue piece of cauliflower cheese and broke her ankle – was as enjoyable as the one you had with your friends once you had all seen what the big Christmas films were going to be. But videos and, later, DVDs, not to mention Sky Movies, scuppered all that for ever. And whereas none of us should lament progress, I feel the same way about Christmas on telly as I do about televised sport: that with the explosion of viewing possibilities, almost unimaginable 30 years ago, much of the magic has been lost.
That is not to say, however, that the magic has gone. The festive listings still raise a small murmur of anticipation, and I'm as much in thrall to a really good Christmas special as the next man, woman or child. Over the years, there have been various successors to the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show as numero uno in the schedules, the programme that captures everyone's imagination. It was Only Fools and Horses, until even Del and Rodders seemed to sense that their best days were behind them. More recently, it has been Doctor Who. And again this year, there is a one-off edition of The Royle Family to look forward to, thrillingly entitled "The New Sofa".
Then there are the soaps, which in some ways represent the purest connection with those TV Christmases of yore. Coronation Street this year has, in the finest soap tradition, provided a murder storyline heading for an apparent denouement over the festive period. If I lived in Weatherfield, I'd run like mad at the first sign of tinsel. More folk have expired on Christmas Day than Betty has served hotpots – in fact it's a fair bet that some of the expirations were directly associated with Betty's hotpot – although it wasn't death that carried Hilda Ogden away on Christmas Day 1987, when 26,650,000 of us gathered round our tellies to wave goodbye, but posh Dr Lowther, who engaged her as his housekeeper in Derbyshire.
And so to a woman almost as iconic as Hilda Ogden in the eyes of the nation. The most venerable Christmas tradition of all on the box is the Queen's speech, first televised in 1957 and broadcast every Christmas Day since except in 1969, when she felt that with the investiture of the Prince of Wales and the transmission of the documentary The Royal Family, she'd had quite enough exposure, thenk you very much. Even as a traditionalist I can't claim to have listened much, or indeed at all, to the Queen's wisdom on Christmas Days. But plenty have. In 1977, when she celebrated her Silver Jubilee and monarchist fervour swept the land, her viewing figures weren't far short of Morecambe and Wise's.
It is with Eric and Ernie, though, that any appreciation of Christmas television in what my children rather unnervingly refer to as "the olden days", has to end. It was André Previn's celebrated guest appearance in 1971 that established their Christmas show as unmissable, and loaded them and their producer, John Ammonds, with the responsibility of finding more illustrious performers willing to poke fun at themselves. This was easier than they expected. Superstars practically lined up to be part of the festive fun: Rudolf Nureyev was told that he owed his big break on the show to Lionel Blair's sudden indisposition, while Shirley Bassey sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" wearing one of Eric's boots.
As for the somersaulting newsreaders and presenters in the South Pacific routine, millions of viewers thought it was for real, and for years afterwards, Barry Norman and Richard Baker were invited to perform short tumbling routines in public. No wonder so many of us look back at the Christmas television of our youth with misty-eyed wistfulness: it represented a more innocent age.
'Nice To See It, To See It Nice: The 1970s In Front of the Telly', by Brian Viner, will be published in February by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99Reuse content