The rantings of Alf Garnet are considered too controversial today. / BBC ARCHIVE

Whatever happened to the classic Christmas TV special?

These shows were part of the British Christmas tradition and, during the 1970s and '80s, the BBC and ITV pulled out all the stops on Christmas day to secure the highest TV ratings


Once upon a time, when families around Britain relied on the good old fashioned television set as their main form of entertainment over the festive period, the nation waited in anticipation for the Christmas specials of the era’s greatest comedy shows. Once the dinner was cleared away and her majesty the Queen had delivered her message to the nation, it was time to settle down and enjoy classic British comedy at its best.

During the 1970s and '80s, the BBC and ITV pulled out all the stops on Christmas day to secure the highest ratings with festive fun delivered by the likes of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies, or the suggestive mayhem of Are You Being Served, the tongue-in-cheek humour of Dad’s Army, and later, the dodgy dealings of the Trotter brothers and their uncle Albert. The Only Fools and Horses Christmas special, Time on Our Hands, pulled in more than 24 million viewers and tops the list of the UK’s most viewed episodes of all time.

Christmas tradition

These shows were part of the British Christmas tradition and attracted millions of viewers, and they were also one of the main talking points over the Boxing pint down at the local the following day.

Many of these shows are long past their sell by dates (with the exception, perhaps, of the antics of Del Boy and Rodney) and no longer appeal to a generation weaned on Sky Movies, YouTube and Netflix.

Unfortunately, there are also many of these old shows that cannot be aired on television because they are now considered too risqué by the politically correct standards of the watchdogs that govern what is acceptable and what is not.

The Christmas specials of lovable characters such as Steptoe and Son or Alf Garnet, or the extremely controversial banter of Eddie and Bob in Love Thy Neighbour, broke all sorts of barriers before politically correct became fashionable.

Many believe that the British sense of humour is unique. It is certainly more subtle and deadpan than other nations might be used to, and we definitely know how to ruffle the feathers of the censors.

One thing the Brits can (or could) do is laugh at themselves, although times have changed and we must respect the fact that these shows are now contrived as offensive, but Christmas just doesn’t seem the same without the good old-fashion British comedy specials.

Maybe it’s time to start making people laugh again at Christmas, although, obviously, it must all be done in the best possible taste!