I have never considered myself especially unhappy, though I do find, almost invariably, that most people I meet tend to be having a significantly better time than me. I feel this way particularly at Christmastime, when I am reminded that the television programmes the major channels have selected to appeal to the broadest possible demographic—that is, more or less the entire nation—appeal to me less than having my hand sewn to my face.
I find it important, however, to note the distinction between what the public want to watch and what the TV channels think the public want to watch. Surely for every person who believes there just aren’t enough episodes of Dinner Date, there must be twice as many who are driven mad by the annual influx of bawdy sitcoms, endless re-runs of Come Dine with Me, the obligatory airing of Shrek 1 and 2, and several specials of Strictly Come Dancing—a programme so flamboyantly bright that it looks as though the entire thing is being beamed out of the end of a laser pointer.
What struck me this Christmas was how so many television programmes were aimed at a public interested in little besides celebrity culture. It could be argued that Strictly Come Dancing, one of the most popular BBC shows, might be one of the few exceptions to this: after all, ballroom dancing is indisputably an interest, and it’s more than likely that a large percentage of ballroom dancers watch and enjoy Strictly Come Dancing. But I think the programme exemplifies my point on the grounds that it isn’t really about it ballroom dancing. It’s a programme about celebrities.
Similar things can be said of half of what I watched this Christmas and New Year: Come Dine with Me, for instance, isn’t really about food or even dinner parties—it’s about twats; and Tom Daley’s Splash!, which brings a whole new definition to the term water torture, isn’t really about diving—it, like Strictly, is about celebrities.
Gone apparently are the days when Christmas television meant The Great Escape, Morecambe & Wise and Ben Hur. The Christmas schedule now serves mostly as a vehicle for celebrities and twats, who are increasingly becoming one and the same. Indeed, if Christmas is the time for giving, then our gift to these people as viewers is presumably the gift of priceless exposure—an asset with which careers can be made, repaired or at the very least sewn up to look vaguely presentable.
For the past couple of years, as a means of appeasing my weariness for these sorts of programmes, I’ve taken to keeping a Christmas diary. But this year I found very little to say that I haven’t done already. More or the less the same as last year’s schedule, which itself bore a remarkable resemblance to the schedule from the year before that, this year’s schedule contained many programmes that I have covered before. They were all there: Mrs Brown’s Boys, Eastenders, Doctor Who, The Cube—plus all of those I’ve already mentioned.
Perhaps the worst part was that none of these programmes were even so bad as to be entertaining. Eastenders was far too predictable to be funny, even when Danny Dyer showed up, smiling dimly as if he’d recently awoken from a coma. He grunted almost all of his lines, sounding as he did like a man trying to scratch his nuts without using his hands. And yet from the look on his face, and in spite of his very best efforts, grunting appeared to provide him only a modicum of relief.
Then there was Doctor Who, which the BBC never misses an opportunity to call the nation’s favourite programme, and which seems to have taken up more column inches of the Radio Times this past year than there are words in In Search of Lost Time. Of course, viewers already knew what was going to happen in the episode: the current doctor, Matt Smith, who has both the charisma and looks of an oblong, was to regenerate at the end as Peter Capaldi. But before that could happen, time had to be filled, and therefore what should have been quite a short and simple story had to be prolonged and spread wafer thin.
It was hard nevertheless not to find the episode preferable to most of what aired this Christmas. Where were the Christmas dramas, the comedies that didn’t feature men in dresses wrestling with Christmas trees, as if the 1970s had never happened? By noon on Christmas day things had already become so grave that, perhaps as a means of rekindling my Christmas spirit, I had made plans to watch the Queen’s speech—something I had done only twice before.
It happened in fact to be a lovely speech, which concerned a man who had broken one of his legs. At first the Queen spoke with genuine concern for the invalid, though as she continued, and various facts were introduced, one wondered whether she had been the one who had broken the man’s leg. Then, almost as confirmation that she had, the speech tapered off with barely any conclusion, its overall message being that Christmas should be a time for reflection—perhaps a time to reflect on those less fortunate than ourselves or, maybe more to the point, those we have mercilessly crippled.
As confusing as it may have been, it was certainly one of the few sincere messages to appear over the course of the Christmas period. At the same time, on Channel 4, Edward Snowden, whose legs the US government surely wish they had broken when they had the chance, offered his alternative message about mass surveillance. I watched the speech on Boxing Day, having not seen that it was on the previous day. It proved to be a small glimmer of morality, shrouded by an inextricable mess of cheaply made shiny floor shows and repeats. Christmas 2013, after all, really belonged to these sort of programmes.