Since the advent of television, the Christmas special has become a staple part of our seasonal TV diet. From I Love Lucy to the The Cosby Show, from The Office to The Royle Family via Downton Abbey and Doctor Who, producers covet this treasured spot. So what is it about the Christmas special that makes it so, well, special?
All sorts of shows feature Christmas in one way or another, but only few attempt the label of a Christmas special. The Christmas Day prime time slot is the Holy Grail of the season, as shows fight for our sofa-laden sprout induced semi-coma settee settlement. Few shows have really managed to actually capture what Christmas is all about, instead using the ‘special’ platform as a way to further their show’s storyline in the desired prime time slot. However there are some that nail it completely – whether a serious drama or a TV sitcom, these shows manage the enviable feat of really nailing what Christmas is all about.
We ran a poll last month of favourite TV Christmas specials with a broad range as possible but with a heavy emphasis on British TV specials as these are the ones that are closer to my heart and I think they are ones that our audience can identify with. It was touch and go for quite awhile as Doctor Who pipped everyone with a strong and impressive lead. This surprised me somewhat as though Doctor Who is a classic series, invariably its specials have not been long-lasting or memorable with vague emphasis on Christmas. Obviously this years special, Last Christmas, is sounding promising but its lead did surprise me. However, as the poll developed and was shared far and wide, 86 people cast their votes and the winner, not surprisingly, was The Royle Family.
With 37% of the overall vote, The Royle Family became the successor for Inertia’s Favourite Christmas TV Special and we couldn’t agree more. Why? Because what’s inherent for me when watching the first two specials in particular, is that its all about nostalgia. It reminds me of my own previous Christmases and of Christmas round at my Nan’s house. The old-school tin of Quality Street, the discussion of the dry turkey, a tub of KP salted peanuts, a couple of bottles of Happy Shopper lemonade and Christmas hats still crinkling on your head long after the cracker has been pulled. The Royle Family embody what most people do at Christmas once you’re stuffed full of food – sit in front of the box and peruse the bumper edition of the Radio Times. It’s the most British I can think a special can be, it’s so on the button for most people (“Parlor games my arse!”) and its the closest to Christmas we can get.
That’s not to say that other specials aren’t just as treasured. The results for The Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise surprised me, as bygone generations will attest to their appeal and how mandatory it was to watch them at this time of year. And let’s not forget The Office that simply managed to bring one of the greatest sitcoms to its best close with a beautiful, emotional and hilarious Christmas special that focused on another aspect of the British Christmas tradition: the office Christmas party. Only Fools & Horses often hit the mark too, and The Vicar of Dibley is also another example of bringing a show to a close at the best time of year.
Despite the advent of digital television and online streaming, its evident from this years schedule that the Christmas special is still a treasured mark on the festive calendar, with Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Miranda and Derek to name just a few all throwing their hat into the ring. And though The Royle Family specials have waned slightly in recent years with a tendency to move away from Christmas, we can only hope to see Jim, Barb and the rest of the Royles demonstrating modern-day Britain’s approach to the best time of year.
TOMORROW: Christmas Classics: The Santa Clause