The top 20 TV programmes for the festive season

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In the not-too-distant past, tradition dictated that the whole family watched television together on Christmas Day, but what we view and how we view it has undergone a transformation. Gerard Gilbert reports and selects the 20 programmes not to miss during the festive season

Boxing Day 2009 – a snapshot: It's early evening in a living room in East Sussex. A teenage boy lies sprawled along a sofa staring into his mobile phone as he watches the previous night's Doctor Who Christmas special. On the other side of the room, with his back to the other boy as he rocks back and forth on a swivel chair, another teenager is catching up with the previous night's EastEnders on a computer. In between the boys, switched off and as monolithically obsolete-seeming as Stonehenge, is a vast, unloved flat-screen TV.

To be fair, the television had been used earlier in the afternoon, as the boys and various other relatives took turns to swing imaginary gold clubs and tennis rackets as they played round after round of Wii Sport (and I have to say, my tennis serves have rarely been so deadly). There was some joking about how maybe tomorrow some us could partake of Wii Fit Plus – not cheap at £50 or so, but less expensive than joining a gym.

In the meantime, as the boys catch up on yesterday's television highlights, everyone else is crowded into a room that is semi-permanently set up as a home cinema. I had once casually remarked to my incredulous brother-in- law about never having seen The Shawshank Redemption, and he is now rectifying that omission with the Blu-ray version of Frank Darabont's prison movie classic. In Dolby Surround. And my local multiplex doesn't serve such large gin and tonics (if at all).

Click here or on the image for the top 20 festive TV programmes

Welcome to the modern TV Christmas. It's not quite what the broadcasters would have us believe in – the cosy myth of the whole extended family gathered round the telly, generation passing unto generation the tin of Quality Street, as we all enjoy, together, the special treats laid on for us (predominantly by the BBC). The reality is that many of us now experience an increasingly more fractured viewing experience. It seems that habits honed during the rest of the year – separate, niche, specialist – now increasingly spill over into the festive period.

Perhaps I belong to a particularly dysfunctional family, although it has to be said that on Christmas night itself we hark back to earlier traditions than television – to quizzes and parlour games like charades. And anyway, when did it become "functional" for television-watching to be so central to Christmas? OK, so as a teenager I recall that the absolute cut-off point for Christmas lunch, for myself and my younger siblings was the Top of the Pops special. The annual round-up of No 1 singles was sacrosanct to us – the rest of the stuff laid out in the special double-issue of the Radio Times, less so. Indeed, I was probably one of the minority of the British population that didn't watch Morecambe & Wise's 1977 Christmas Show (28 million did), or the same year's Mike Yarwood Show (28 million again).

The highest ever Christmas Day viewing figures were recorded in December 1986, when over 30 million tuned in to watch Dirty Den serve Angie with divorce papers on EastEnders, but the mass viewing habits continued right through the decade (26 million to watch Hilda Ogden leave Coronation Street in 1987) and into the Nineties (24 million tuning into the 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas special). They have however been in steady and rapid decline since the turn of the century. The most watched programme last Christmas, for example, was The Royle Family, with just 11.7 million viewers. Last year's EastEnders attracted less than half the audience as the corresponding episode a decade earlier. What happened? Greater choice, in short, and only a small part of that coming from the Noughties explosion in multi-channel TV.

Here's another snapshot – from perhaps 10 years ago. I'm at my sister's house and her teenage boys have to be coerced out of the living room for Christmas lunch. They're watching television, that's for sure, but nothing specially laid on for them by the BBC or (decreasingly over the years) by ITV. A whole gaggle of them is in fact absorbed in killing various digitalised opponents by way of the quick reaction of their thumbs. Welcome to the video-game generation.

If you didn't want to decapitate opponents with a chainsaw in Resident Evil 4, or disappear into a fantasy world of elves and dragons in World of Warcraft, you could always send your avatar out to work and play in The Sims. And never mind that the TV set is being bagged by an adult playing Wii because the whole industry has gone online now. Grab the laptop, find yourself a quiet room and log on.

An increasing number of grown-ups will also be online this Christmas – checking emails, shopping, Skyping relatives abroad, downloading the Rage Against the Machine Christmas single from iTunes and so on. And what are television companies offering in competition? The big Christmas movie perhaps?

There was a time, in the quaint old-fashioned, no-choice, not-so-long-ago, when the announcement of the big new Christmas movies on TV would be a national talking point. What long-released movie were we going to be pathetically grateful for this year? When, for example, 21 million viewers tuned into watch Crocodile Dundee on Christmas Day 1989, the film had already been released in the UK for three years. And it wasn't as if you couldn't rent it out on video.

These days a movie can be available online or on DVD, pirated or otherwise, sometimes before it's even reached our cinemas. And if you're one of the 10 million Sky subscribers (Avatar is the big one this year on Sky Movies Premiere) you may well have already seen it there first. Not that we're exactly being showered in first-run movies on TV this Christmas – with research (self-servingly undertaken by the DVD rental business LoveFilm), showing that 97 per cent of movies on television over the festive period will be repeats. The other three per cent (including Shrek the Third, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Enchanted) are all at least two years old. It's not a lot to get excited about in this day and age.

Then perhaps the Christmas lull is the perfect opportunity to catch up with our box-sets – those compendium collections of every single series of The Wire or The Sopranos or Mad Men that you have been promising yourself you'll finally get round to watching over the holiday. But if you were lucky enough to receive a box-set of Mad Men series one to three (rrp £59.99) this Christmas, then you're part of a shrinking market, for DVD sales are slumping thanks to movies delivered on-demand through web-enabled set-top boxes, games consoles, and now the iPad.

But surely the biggest technological, and thus cultural, shift affecting the old myth of the whole family gathered round watching television together is that TV viewing now fits in with the individual, and not the other way round. If you don't have, or don't want, Sky Plus – the fastest, easiest way yet invented for recording TV shows – then there are the online TV catch-up websites, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Player or 4oD – all of them available by way of your computer, your iPad or your PlayStation console.

But there is another factor that is militating against the whole family having a Morecambe and Wise, Seventies-style soirée – the X Factor you could call it, after last weekend's final of the Simon Cowell talent show, in which Christina Aguilera and her dancers provided a show more suited to a lap-dancing club, and Rihanna a stripped down to her undies for some raunchy gyrating (Ofcom is apparently looking into the matter).

Have our broadcasters, in short, lost the ability to judge what makes suitable family viewing? Has it all become too niche – BBC3 and E4 for the children, BBC4 for dad, Living for mum? And what happened to the watershed? I never watched EastEnders five years ago as I do now, so I'm possibly not the best person to judge, but that pre-watershed soap sometimes seems incredibly sexualised these days. And what we might comfortably watch, or choose what not to watch, as individuals becomes rather different when we are gathered in a family group of differing generations.

You're probably safe with Strictly Come Dancing, and several other programmes this Christmas (see our guide below), but would you comfortably sit down with your grandparents to watch a new comedy by Matt Lucas and David Walliams, the comedians who gave us the incontinent OAPs of Little Britain? Or happily watch EastEnders with an eight-year-old? Boundaries of what is acceptable change all the time of course, but not the embarrassment felt when sharing graphic content with a much older or younger viewer – or even with those of the same age but a different moral outlook. Yup, that's the extended family for you. One way or another, it feels to me as if the only family that will be sitting together and watching the same television will be the Royle Family.

ALL IN THE FAMILY? THE BEST OF THIS CHRISTMAS TV

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition