Turn on, tune in, pass out

For 50 weeks of the year we consume every variety of the arts in ever-more sophisticated forms. But, at Christmas, we're happy to watch telly like it's 1976. Why? Over to our man on the sofa, Nicholas Barber
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The Independent Online

Welcome to the Independent on Sunday's guide to this Christmas's televisual highlights. Terrific as it is, we wouldn't go quite as far as the current edition of the Radio Times, whose front page trumpets: "It's The Legendary Double Issue!" Admittedly, that exclamation mark may contain a drop of sheepish irony, but it's only a drop. Inside, the editor's letter maintains that while the issue's pre-eminence has tailed off since 1988, when the Christmas Radio Times was the world's biggest selling magazine ever, it's still a publication which people look forward to. "Such is the excitement surrounding our Christmas issue," says the editorial, "that readers start to call us from the beginning of November, desperate to know when they can get their hands on it."

It's a mind-boggling phenomenon. Now that the TV schedules are available in every newspaper, and on a computer screen near you at the click of a mouse, it's odd - in a very British way - that a listings magazine which has 14 days' coverage instead of the usual seven should be such a landmark. But then, there's something eccentric about Christmas television as a whole. The BBC and ITV spend a fortune on it, and many of us get the atavistic urge to pore over the schedules as if they were the line-up of a film festival or a World Cup, and we had to book our tickets in advance. And then, after the holidays, there are pub debates about how this year's telly matched up to last year's, and there are news reports about who "won" the ratings battle, the BBC or ITV. (Last year it was the BBC, with seven out of 10 of the most-watched programmes on Christmas Day.) It's as much of a national topic as Wimbledon or a new Bond film (of which more later).

Where does this obsession come from? Some of our interest must be due to the dearth of other arts events at this time of year, with the honourable exception of a few pantomimes and Christmas shows. And some of our interest must arise from the important social role that Christmas TV has to play: if you're not a churchgoer, it's one of the only excuses you've got to sit down and have a rest from all the the eating, drinking and unwrapping which occupies the rest of 25 December.

But when you take a closer look at what's being offered to viewers this Christmas, our preoccupation with it seems decidedly strange. Let's start at the top. The most popular programme on television last year was EastEnders, even though it's on nearly every day of the week anyway, and its writers' customary yuletide tactic is to dream up a plot which is somehow even more miserable than all the others. The second most popular programme of Christmas '05 was a Doctor Who "special", so there's another one on this year - but how special can it possibly be? An hour in duration, it's only 15 minutes longer than the dozen other Doctor Who episodes that we've already seen this year.

Coronation Street and Emmerdale both get extended episodes, as if we hadn't had enough of soap operas. And, later in the evening, the BBC and ITV vie for our attention with an hour of The Vicar of Dibley and two hours of Doc Martin. But how much notice would either of these titles get if they were transmitted in, say, February? Has anyone really spent the last month counting the days until they can see the scrapes Dawn French and Martin Clunes get into among the yokels? The other essential ingredients of the Christmas schedule are the blockbuster films, but if you were really keen to see Monsters, Inc. or the first Harry Potter you would have seen it already. There's a Top of The Pops special in the afternoon, even though the BBC has seen fit to axe the regular programme.

And what about the weird throwback that is The Queen's Speech? Last year it was watched by 6.2m people on BBC1, and enough on ITV to bring the total up to 9m. But why does it merit two separate channels? Who cares about an extended royal version of Just A Minute - 10 minutes of talking without hesitation, sensation or revelation? Wouldn't most viewers rather watch a Christmas message from Helen Mirren? I can only assume this long-running series' continuing success has something to do with its rarity value. It's so uncommon to hear Her Majesty's voice on television that it's worth being reminded that she can talk at all.

The fact is, Christmas television makes no sense. In an age of Wi-Fi broadband connections, it's still tracing around the template which was drawn in the 1960s and 1970s, back when Morecambe and Wise's script-writer, Eddie Braben, remarked that the Great British Public would judge the success or otherwise of their Christmas holiday by the quality of Eric and Ern's frolics. In those benighted days before the internet, before satellite and cable and VCRs, there were just three channels to choose from, and even these had the test card on them for half the day. TV dramas had wobbly wooden sets and wobbly wooden acting. News programmes had the tone of a stern headmaster. The only way to see a Bond film, after it had left the cinema, was to wait - and wait - for it to be shown on television. In that environment, the Christmas TV schedule came as a feast after the rest of the year's famine. But it's almost irrelevant now that we're stuffed to the gills with multi-media goodies on a daily basis. Like our Christmas dinners, there's far too much of it, it's not good for us, but we can't resist over-indulging anyway.

Historically, Christmas sitcom specials had higher budgets than their weekly counterparts, but now, in the megabucks era of 24, Lost and The West Wing, there isn't much glamour in seeing Del Boy and Rodney go somewhere sunnier than Peckham. As for the time-honoured Christmas films, they're all available on DVD and numerous specialist TV channels. And while it used to seem outrageously decadent to watch Top of The Pops in daylight hours, instead of in the evening, I wouldn't expect a generation weaned on round-the-clock MTV to feel the same.

There isn't even a place for the pantomime irreverence of Morecambe and Wise on today's television. Once upon a time it was a Bacchanalian thrill to see Angela Rippon emerge from behind her desk to do the can-can. But now that there's an entire genre of programmes dedicated to famous people doing what they're not famous for, it would be more of a shock if a newsreader concentrated on newsreading, and didn't show off his or her prowess at ballroom dancing or eating beetles in the Australian rainforest. Never mind Roy Wood singing, "I wish it could be Christmas every day." On television, it is Christmas every day. The idea that families up and down the land should be especially abuzz about their holiday viewing is as outmoded as the idea of, well, mince pies and mulled wine.

And that's seasonal television's main attraction. It's the Ghost of Christmas Past. In years gone by, we might have had an uncomplicated appreciation of a fortnight's TV which was like a bulging hamper, but now it's the sheer anachronistic wrongness of it all which is the point. Today's festive output, by sticking so perversely to the contours of the 1970s, is more in keeping with the British family Christmas than ever. After all, not many of us plough fields for a living so there's no particular need to take time off when it's dark outside, just as there's no need to sustain ourselves with a midwinter feast now we've got central heating and global warming. Christmas TV is just as illogical. For me, its delight is in the way it harks back to an earlier, simpler time.

When you're surrounded by SkyPlus boxes, YouTube, and bootleg DVDs of films which haven't yet been released, it's easy to be wistful about the days when such instant gratification wasn't available, as the novelist Jonathan Coe acknowledges in an essay about Billy Wilder. "Despite the video revolution," he writes, "a film should not be like a book, something to take down from the shelf and open whenever we want... It does violence to the medium. Cinema owners and TV schedulers are the real gods of film: a movie is something we should only see when somebody else shows it to us."

It's that nostalgic hunger that Christmas TV satisfies. Switch on between now and January 2007, and the hopeful gleam of old-fashioned entertainment transports you back to a period when there was only one television set per household. The padded-out sitcoms and slightly shopworn films foster the illusion of communality, even if the reality of grandparents and aunts crowding into one room to watch one programme is getting to be as rare as if we were all gathered around the piano singing carols. I can remember, just a few years ago, being unreasonably pleased to flick on the TV after a Christmas walk and to see that Octopussy was underway, pretending to be a once-a-year treat. I didn't want to watch it, but knowing it was there was like seeing a robin hop through the snow. All was right with the world.