TV UK, 29 December

TV's ghosts of Christmas past.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Christmas is traditionally associated with repeats like The Great Escape, A Christmas Carol and assorted Westerns and musicals, and I’ve at least enjoyed Laurel and Hardy on BBC2.

But isn’t it a bit bizarre to rerun a Morecambe and Wise Show Christmas Special from 1976, as the BBC did on Boxing Day, while Channel 5 showed the 1983 special the following night? Did the comedy double act really think they were making programmes that would last down the ages? They haven’t lasted, of course: the humour is hopelessly dated and I have no idea who the celebrity guests are. (It’s a bit like watching Letterman from London.)

Surely the whole point of a Christmas Special, especially in light entertainment, is to be ephemeral and of the moment? When schedulers turn to such insubstantial fare to put us in a festive mood, they are in danger of exposing the whole business of Christmas as an empty sham. If the nation gathered round its clunky TV sets to watch Eric and Ernie in the 1970s, it wasn’t because they were particularly funny. It wasn’t indeed that television brought the nation together, but rather that people got together for Christmas and watched television.

The much-commented on absence of really big ratings winners today is not simply the result of more channels, but a sign of a different society. No matter how big the explosions on the Casualty/Holby City Christmas Special, then, TV can’t bring back Christmas past, and its increasingly desperate attempts to do so only draw attention to the fact. Tonight on BBC1 we have A Question of Sport – the Glory Years. I rest my case.

Channel 4, meanwhile, has been shamelessly recyling its own programmes over yuletide, and not only the Christmas Specials of its successful comedy dramas, but even instantly disposable trash like The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, 100 Greatest Forgettable Crap, and Please Just Kill Me Now with Jimmy Carr. Anyone would think Channel 4 executives had cut a deal with pub landlords to drive people out of their homes.

The BBC could perhaps be given credit for experimenting with new ways of relating to its audience, albeit on the model already established by Channel 4, but that would just show desperation on my part. Flashmob: the Opera (BBC2, Boxing Day) was originally shown live on the ‘youth’ channel BBC3 in October. It was based on a combination of populism and overexcited social theory. Rather than commissioning new music, the producers took popular advert arias and replaced the libretti with a clichéd (and sexist) story about a football-mad bloke and his fickle fiancé, going for that supposedly comic bathetic effect familiar from the ads.

The ‘experimental’ bit was that the opera was performed in Paddington Station, and the final chorus was supposed to be sung by a flashmob generated via the internet. New media, new social movements, ephemeral identities… phwoah, isn’t it? As far as I could tell, though, only two or three people showed up for the flashmob, so it was a good thing there were some proper choruses on hand, too. Far from being experimental, Flashmob: the Opera was a craven accommodation to everything that is naff about contemporary culture.

For the most part, however, the BBC has stuck over Christmas to more tried and tested formats or variations thereon. Talking animals voiced by famous actors in Pride, a new Sherlock Holmes adaptation, and so on. These have been competent if uninspiring, perhaps signifying a resignation to television’s lot as a means of entertainment rather than the focus of national life. But if television were less obsessed with itself, its own past and its own future, it could do a lot better.

Happy New Year, TV. It’s time to consign Morecambe and Wise to the dustbin, and make an effort to grab audiences with exciting new programmes about the real world beyond reality television. There’s still one out there.

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