Good, awful, and expurgated: When not eating, drinking, or even worshipping, what will you be doing over Christmas? Our writers look at ways of passing the time

ONE OF the most comic scenes in modern cinema - Meg Ryan's simulated orgasm in a restaurant in When Harry Met Sally - will lift the post-festive torpor for BBC 1 viewers shortly before 11 o'clock on Boxing Night. Every moan will be savoured in several million living rooms: yet the film has, in Beebspeak, been 'edited for language' - numerous unarousing four-letter words have been carefully snipped.

Dedicated movie-watchers will be too stupefied to wonder at the quirks of the censors, however. For they will be more than half- way through the exhausting annual binge of televised films that fills the Christmas period.

If you had four television sets and three video recorders and needed no sleep, you could watch 232 films in the fortnight that began yesterday - not counting cable and satellite channels.

You would have started at 9.05am yesterday on BBC 2 with Cecil B de Mille's 1947 epic, Unconquered, starring Paulette Goddard and described in Radio Times as 'amusingly ridiculous', would proceed via such Hollywood hits as The Fabulous Baker Boys (BBC 2, 10pm on 27 December) and finally press the off switch at 5.35am on 2 January, at the end of ITV's 1971 made-for- TV Travis Logan DA, which gets the RT's one-star rating, signifying 'awful'. Around 18 million citizens are likely to share the over-the-top derring-do of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, after the Queen's Christmas speech on BBC 1.

Broadcasters squirrel away many of the strongest movies they acquire through the year, to parade them now. The filmfest has become so much part of the British Christmas that Ladbroke's, the bookmakers, offer odds on which will prove most popular.

Shirley Valentine, on BBC 1 on Christmas night, is the favourite, but insiders marginally favour Indiana Jones. All the likely winners are on BBC because, for some years, ITV has made less of an effort over holiday periods. However large an audience ITV programmes attract, advertisers are not keen to buy air time on the grounds that viewers are not in a shopping mood.

As head of the BBC's programme acquisition group, Alan Howden is responsible for buying exactly half the films on offer. He seems to regret that he does not get more competition from ITV: 'One of the films we expected to have to compete with was Who Killed Roger Rabbit?, but they showed it a few weeks ago to get the pre-Christmas advertising.'

ITV's strongest offering will be Arthur 2: On the Rocks, starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli, on Boxing night. At least two films tentatively scheduled on ITV at Christmas were pulled out by Marcus Plantin, the new network scheduler, and reserved for more commercial time-slots.

Mr Howden is convinced that the BBC's policy of seasonal cine- saturation is the right one: 'People want entertainment at Christmas and films are far and away the most recognisable way of doing that. It's been a tradition for as long as I can remember.'

Not though, for as long as Don Gale, his counterpart at ITV, can remember. A large, genial, white- haired man, wielding a cigar of Hollywood-mogul dimensions, he started in television as a BBC cameraman in 1950 and recalls: 'The big thing then was the Christmas party. The stars used to drop in and it was the big event. It was great to be in the studio and the viewers loved it.

'But remember you're talking about a TV service that was only on for five hours a day. Now you have four channels, some running 24 hours a day, and you need an awful lot of movies to fill it up.'

With two rival buyers keen to corner the best of the studios' output (Mr Gale also buys for Channel 4), the acquisition of films for the small screen is highly competitive. The best are snapped up as soon as they are made, although they cannot be shown on mainstream TV for nearly three years after cinema release: they are first made available to the video rental trade, then to subscription satellite channels.

If you step in early enough - and know the right people - you can get good bargains. Mr Gale, who has developed unrivalled contacts, is proud of having snapped up Dances With Wolves before its cinema success, and saved a lot of money for the network. It will be available for screening by next Christmas.

It is a mistake to think of films as cheap television. While you might pick up a turkey like Travis Logan DA for the price of a pint and a packet of Hamlet, a blockbuster such as Indiana Jones can cost as much as pounds 2m for the right to three screenings.

In fact that, and Shirley Valentine, came to the BBC as part of a five-year 'output deal' with Paramount which it negotiated in 1989. This originated when British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB), now merged with Sky as BSkyB, was building up a film inventory and joined with the BBC to buy rights from all the films distributed by Paramount and Universal. About a third of the 100 or so films bought by the BBC every year come from that deal.

The popularity of a film in the cinema does not automatically reflect its value to the TV scheduler. 'Box office isn't necessarily the guide to a good TV movie,' says Mr Gale. 'Take a film like Basic Instinct. It's a terrific box- office success but it would be a challenge to any buyer to get it to conform to the code of practice and make it transmittable. It has sex, violence and bad language.'

Most films have some or all of those elements. Much of the time of Mr Howden, Mr Gale and their associates is taken up by fussing about what Lord Rees-Mogg and his Broadcasting Standards Council will make of them.

Some of the riskier films are shot in a special bowdlerised television version - which is how the BBC can get away with the difficult Sea of Love, starring Al Pacino, on Christmas Eve. Others may have words cut, or drowned in background music, or even replaced by actors who specialise in mimicking the voices of others.

A new aid to eliminating unsuitable films without actually seeing them is an American publication called Entertainment Research Report, which goes through the new releases thoroughly, solemnly listing their naughty bits. Mr Gale subscribes to it, and from it learns that, for instance, in Night of the City, starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, the f- word is used 126 times, the s-word 35 and there are 25 'assholes'.

The magazine is prim in its own language. Offending words are described as 'slang for male genitals and female genitals' and 'slang term for urinating (expletive)'. A useful tool, if lacking in poetry. Meg Ryan's ecstasy in When Harry Met Sally was surely something more than 'implicit sex without nudity'. Tune in, like all the other couch plum puddings, and see.

(Photograph omitted)

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