Thursday 18 Sep 2014
Top family entertainment from Doctor Who, Victoria Wood, Catherine Tate, Strictly Come Dancing, Gavin & Stacey and the first-ever TV adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's best-selling children's picture book, The Gruffalo, are just a few of the Christmas highlights on offer on BBC Television this year, writes Programme Information's Jane Dudley.
But, says Jana Bennett, the Director of BBC Vision who's responsible for television and multi-platform, these are just the tip of the iceberg in a festive season which also includes a celebration of the work of legendary film director Orson Welles on BBC Four; the much-anticipated television première of Hamlet, starring David Tennant; chilling ghost story Turn Of The Screw starring Sue Johnston and Michelle Dockery; and a truly unique production of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. In short, this year, more than ever, the BBC really does have something for everyone.
And of course, much of the season's offerings will also be available on BBC HD, (through Freesat, Sky and Virgin Media), as well as via BBC iPlayer, on which programmes are available to view for seven days after transmission – in October alone, there were more than 50 million requests to view shows (not including Virgin cable customers), a figure that rises to nearly 80 million if you include BBC Radio shows.
"I think BBC Television overall is expected by the British public to give audiences a very good range of different choices and a very good time," says Jana. "There's a lot of viewing time around Christmas – there's a real need for programmes that link families together.
"HD is continuing to grow and at Christmas, people are often plugging in new boxes; that's also true of the iPlayer – they have a bit more time to go into a new area of technology, for example, so we often notice an uplift with HD and iPlayer at Christmas. There's more HD content than ever before this year and the audience is starting to ask: 'Where can I find this in HD?' More than ever, it's really important.
"BBC One is the centrepiece of the Christmas offering and I think this is one of the best Christmases ever, in terms of original productions, great comedies, some real stand-out dramas and good films as well.
"They're often the building blocks of a great Christmas – you think of being in your living room and wanting to sit down together with the family."
One programme that is expected to have the whole family on the edge of their seats, on both BBC One and the BBC HD channel, is the two-part Doctor Who – The End Of Time, David Tennant's swansong in the role. "Obviously I'll be shot if I tell you any secrets," laughs Bennett. "All I can say is I think there'll be a huge amount of excitement, anticipation and also a celebration of this phase of Doctor Who before the strikingly different new Doctor [Matt Smith] arrives. I think audiences want to celebrate the amazing set of Doctor Who experiences that David, Russell T Davies and his team have created. David has given his heart and soul to that part."
Other drama highlights include a festive Cranford and The Turn Of The Screw, adapted by Sandy Welch, building on the BBC's reputation for showing distinctive ghost stories over the Christmas period. "BBC Four has had great ghost stories in previous years and the audience likes the idea that there's something traditional being reinvented on the BBC at Christmas." Both dramas are simulcast on the HD channel.
Last Christmas, more than 16 million viewers tuned in to see the new Wallace And Gromit adventure – A Matter Of Loaf And Death. Animation fans will not be disappointed this year when The Gruffalo, featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter, James Corden, John Hurt, Rob Brydon, Robbie Coltrane and Tom Wilkinson, is brought to life on both BBC One and the HD channel. "The original book was a wonderful story and had great artwork as well and this is a real television event," says Bennett. The Gruffalo celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and has sold more than four million copies worldwide.
David Tennant's Doctor Who isn't the only fond farewell for viewers over the festive period as viewers can also see the final episodes in the last series of Gavin & Stacey. But, says Bennett, she's "hopeful they might do specials so I wouldn't say it's a complete swansong – I'd hate to say that.
"James Corden and Ruth Jones have created a wonderful set of characters and have such a strong sense of the story they want to tell. There's a magic to watching them interact, and it's not just about the centrepiece characters; it's everybody else who is part of their lives."
Fans of Ruth Jones can also see her in the BBC Four comedy-drama A Child's Christmases In Wales based on a book by Dylan Thomas. "It's a lovely thing for Christmas – not everybody may know the book but I think the idea that it brings you back to this child's eye view of Christmas is great and Ruth is a marvellous character actor."
There aren't just farewells this Christmas on BBC Television, though, as BBC One also welcomes back one of the nation's greatest comedians when Victoria Wood stars in Mid-Life Christmas. It is nine years since her last Christmas show for the BBC and Bennett is thrilled at her return. "Victoria still manages to keep her comedy fresh. She has great powers of observation and brings the characters to life, as an actor and writer."
Perhaps someone who has taken over Victoria's crown in her absence is Catherine Tate, who also has a Christmas Special this year and, says Bennett, there are comparisons that can be drawn between the two queens of comedy. "I think they both have an amazing ability to create completely fresh characters and ones that stick in your mind. And I think that they both create people we recognise. So even Nan – the terrible granny figure from Catherine Tate – there's something that you want to like about her, no matter what comes out of her mouth!"
The Royle Family, Outnumbered, Not Going Out and My Family also return for one-off specials, as does Steve Coogan, in a quirky and unconventional look at his television work and character comedy. And, of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without a Strictly Come Dancing finale and festive special. This year, though, there's a twist, as Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly welcome a new judge to the panel as the current series reaches a climax. Darcey Bussell, formerly the Royal Ballet's principal ballerina, flies in from her home in Australia to offer her views on the remaining contestants. "She's been a phenomenal performer and ballet dancer at the absolute top of the world of dance," says Bennett. "She can deliver to the contestants the kind of advice that she may have been given herself, but also in a different context because of the wide range of dance that she'll be judging in Strictly. They'll literally want to raise their game because of Darcey.
"I'm also thrilled that Strictly Come Dancing has increased the take-up of dance classes and interest in dance across the UK. Darcey is adding her unique experience and another level of interest. I've talked to people at ballet companies like Sadler's Wells and they think Strictly has had a great effect on showcasing dance and providing different role models to the public, encouraging people to go into all sorts of dance."
BBC Three is also hoping to introduce some new male role models for dance this Christmas by way of the Balletboyz, who head up the network's festive offering with their unique take on Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. "It's a very original, modern take using Stravinsky's original music and composition but the Balletboyz bring an incredible street dance and ballet together," says Bennett.
"Seeing them work to a classical music score is very interesting. It was filmed in East London and just seeing the energy around the stage and the combination of classical ballet with street dance is just incredible.
"It's a brilliant piece for BBC Three – it's a Peter Maniura [the BBC's Head of Classical Music Television and Dance] production and he's one of those people that can bring different ideas together into something truly original for television."
BBC Two also puts the arts at the top of its Christmas list with the long-awaited television version of the critically acclaimed stage production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant. "Firstly, it's not just the BBC, it's a partnership with the RSC as well; it's important that we can bring this acclaimed theatrical production to television as well as work with the RSC to build educational resources for the public.
"Hamlet is filmed in an ex-seminary in North London and it uses the building in a very interesting way. It's wonderful that we got the original cast back together to do the TV film and there's a strong outreach campaign with the RSC to provide educational resources about Shakespeare. We're also liberating a lot of the BBC archive to help viewers look at Hamlet through different productions as well."
So with great drama, comedy and entertainment, not to mention this year's blockbusting films (including The Incredibles and Pirates Of The Caribbean – At World's End to name but two), as well as the fantastic arts offering on the BBC this Christmas, Bennett concludes: "All the channel teams and schedulers think a lot about trying to give the very best to the audience on all the channels and also through online. We want to be there for everyone at Christmas and it's a great line-up, which I hope helps give audiences a great time over the holidays."
Transmission details will be posted after final schedules for BBC Weeks 51 and 52 are confirmed.
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