THere’s something a bit magical about television on Christmas. Maybe it’s the cold weather driving everyone indoors. The gluttonous, slowly digesting roast dinners pinning everyone to the sofa. The intra-family arguments that need drowning out with noise. For whatever reason, Christmas always seems to be the time when most everyone agrees to convene around the TV screen and watch whatever’s on – an ingrained, sacred ritual somewhat malevolent a religious holiday. I’m not sure Christmas TV has ever been less nourishing, however, than this year.
With a few notable exceptions, the UK’s 2022 Christmas TV line-up may have been the worst on record – it’s certainly the worst I can remember. There were a few highlights dotted around the festive period, of course, such as I Hate Suzie Too and a festival motherland special Children were well served with BBC One’s charming animation The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. But the bulk of the programming, especially on Christmas Day itself, was insipid, unedifying filler.
From a ratings standpoint, the highlight of the holiday was The King’s Speech – not the tally-ho Best Picture winner starring Colin Firth, but an actual speech, delivered by our freshly crowned septuagenarian overlord. The King’s yuletide soliloquy was watched by 10.72 million viewers, and saw the monarch preach a platitudinous message of unity and compassion in tough times (for some). Look at the rest of BBC One’s Christmas Day fare and you’ll see why nothing came close to King Charles’s ratings. Guy Ritchie’s live action Aladdin is, frankly, no one’s idea of a good Christmas afternoon. Much of the schedule could be fairly described as “old hat” – Strictly Come Dancing; Call the Midwife – and fans of Michael McIntyre’s broad observational stand-up are unlikely to enthuse about The Wheel, the painful festive game show that aired in a peach of a slot on Christmas Day. Even the perverse hate-watch spectacle of Mrs Brown’s Boys was dulled this year: nothing could be more damning than a two-star review.
It wasn’t just the BBC that was micturating in the eggnog, mind you. Channel 4 also clogged up the festive calendar with sub-par programming, from the excruciatingly pointless Vardy vs Rooney drama, to the inescapably tasteless Prince Andrew musical. ITV’s big Christmas showpiece, meanwhile, was the last-ever episode of Doc Martin. Far from a perfect sendoff, however, it was – as Sean O’Grady noted in his two-star review – a disjointed, out-of-touch piece of programming, punctuated by an unseemly number of ad breaks.
Perhaps it would be harsh to blame our national broadcasters for the sorry state of programming this Christmas. They are, after all, content with significant budget cuts, and fighting what may be a fruitless battle against the influx of streaming content. It’s fair to say that Netflix’s mystery drama Glass Onion made more of a splash with viewers than anything that aired on traditional TV. But we’re not yet at the point where streaming services have completely taken over the Christmas Day viewing experience: Netflix would have to do a lot better than the turgid Witcher: Blood Origin (which dropped in full on 25 December) or Boxing Day’s weak spy thriller Treason if it truly wanted to overturn the traditional TV smorgasbord.
It could be that this year’s festive line-up was also hobbled by circumstance: it was handed the daunting task of capping an unusually robust year of TV spanning many genres. Dramas (The Bear, The White Lotus and Better Call Saul). Comedies (Derry Girls and Bad Sisters). Off-beat documents (The Rehearsal and How to With John Wilson). Shockingly well-made genre spin-offs (House of the Dragon and Andor). Even reality TV seemed to thrive – I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! made our TV critic Nick Hilton’s cut of the 10 best 2022 series, and The Traitors seemed to drive everyone on Twitter into a mad frenzy earlier this month. (I can’t say I quite see the clothes on either emperor, personally, but reality TV has never been my bag.) It’s worth noting, of course, that almost all of the shows mentioned above are US productions; maybe the Anglo-intensive schedule of the Christmas period simply exposes year-round deficiencies in our national creative output.
All hope is not lost. While Christmas itself may be over, the BBC has saved what may be its trump card until New Year’s Day: the return of Happy Valley. The gritty crime drama has been one of the most acclaimed series the broadcaster has produced this century, and will likely remind everyone just what the Beeb can do with the right tools. A new year also brings new possibilities, and there’s already a plethora of other promising projects on the docket (including Channel 4’s surprisingly good Everyone Else Burns). By the time December 2023 is upon us, this year’s lackluster Christmas offerings will be long forgotten. But if our broadcasters don’t start bucking up their ideas, people are going to start looking elsewhere for festive entertainment. Or maybe even – heaven forbid – turn off their TVs.