Plenty of turkeys on TV this Christmas

Christmas movies were an opportunity for many of us to relive past favourites or even to gain a film education.

Andrew Clarke

Christmas movies were an opportunity for many of us to relive past favourites or even to gain a film education. But, after a look through this year's schedules, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke has discovered that the rich feast of acclaimed films are a little thin on the ground

There was a time when the biggest films of the year were reserved for Christmas. High profile movies and cult classics were heralded with much fanfare as cornerstones of the Christmas schedules.

High profile movies and cult classics were heralded with much fanfare as cornerstones of the Christmas schedules. Along with Christmas specials hosted by people like Morecambe and Wise or special editions of sitcom favourites like Dad's Army or Only Fools and Horses, films were a big draw. In the 1970s/80s, the arrival of James Bond on the small screen was seen as a very big deal and a coup for ITV.

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The arrival of Channel Four meant that non-mainstream tastes were also catered for. Foreign language films were screened during primetime evening slots - or at least before midnight. This spurred BBC2 to compete - at least for a while in the late 1980s and early 90s.

BBC2 was always very good at doing themed seasons. Diverse genres were creatively programmed during the two week Christmas season. Everything from Universal's horror films to the Tarzan series or a Peter Sellers season were dropped into the schedules bringing an element of fun film education to Christmas television For budding film fans like me, these seasons were hungrily gobbled up.

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When I was growing up what made the Christmas holidays so special was the fact that we had films coming out of our ears. In those days you would be guaranteed to see the latest films and have an opportunity to be introduced, or re-acquainted with some of the world's all-time greats.

We didn't just have any old feature film clogging up the schedules - we were treated to a glorious movie collage of the best films that were ever made. Big movies, event movies, like Lawrence of Arabia or Cleopatra, Ben Hur or El Cid, How The West Was Won or The Longest Day were shown with great fanfare.

Recent hits like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins and Back To The Future were equally popular and commanded huge audiences. Just as important to someone like me were the black and white classics from Hollywood's rich past - the Laurel and Hardy shorts every morning, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers seasons and classics like Gone With The Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Sadly, for terrestrial viewers this rich source of classic and contemporary films seems to have vanished - displaced by the rise of reality TV, the advent of DVD and consumed by the insatiable appetite of satellite channels and terrestrial television's on-going mania for ratings.

Satellite movie channels have hungrily gobbled up the rights to most of the big releases and mainstream telly channels, for some reason, seem to think that audiences will not be entertained by older films - even classics in colour - although I fail to see why people should shy away from black and white films. Take Some It Hot, for example. What's not to enjoy?

Fine acting along with great direction and a sparkling script still works after 50 years - whereas a second rate-script played out by a jobbing director in order to make a quick buck for a cynical studio still doesn't make great viewing.

Looking at this year's Christmas film selection, non-digital viewers are being saddled with a selection of movies that ranges from the bad to the mediocre. You can forget seeing black and white classics or great foreign language films (even at odd hours), it seems that a third-rate made for TV flick is better than something that was made before 1970 or in another language.

The number of one star or two star movies being inflicted on an unsuspecting population is staggering. ITV is particularly disappointing this year. The inclusion of an On The Buses season (supposedly marking the recent death of star Reg Varney) almost defies belief. Add to this such lacklustre fare as Honey, The Neverending Story, Curley Sue, Smokey and the Bandit 2, Conan The Destroyer and Ali G Indahouse and you will be screaming to get out of the house. Maybe that will be one way to refloat the economy?

To be fair to ITV they have a number of reasonable movies as well - ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, King Kong, French Lieutenant's Woman, Love Actually and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban but then viewers realise that only ET and Harry Potter are available to terrestrial viewers.

Instead we will have to endure the awful Nine Months, Mary Poppins for the umpteenth time and the unedifying National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation before steeling ourselves for Tooth - possibly the worst British movie ever made.

The BBC fares a little better but even they don't have much to shout about. Animation and cartoons dominate much of their film output. Thomas And The Magic Railroad, The Road To Eldorado, The Magic Roundabout, Disney's Robin Hood, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Stuart Little, Return to Neverland, The Sword In The Stone and Howl's Moving Castle will keep the youngsters entertained but grown ups will have to hunt a little harder for something to engage them.

Thankfully, a little rooting around in the film vaults does produce a few gems to introduce new audiences to the wonders of cinema's glorious heritage.

BBC 2 has come up trumps with a short Alfred Hitchcock season between Christmas and New Year including such David O'Selznick produced classics Suspicion, Notorious and Spellbound. Musical fans will be rewarded My Fair Lady, Oklahoma and South Pacific.

Those wanting more modern movies can choose between Calendar Girls, Dances With Wolves, Seabiscuit, Finding Neverland, Bend It Like Beckham, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Toy Story 2, Shrek 2, Pirates of the Carribean and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

If that sounds too good to be true then you have to factor in such turkeys as Snake Eyes, Con Air, Deep Impact, Poseidon, Daredevil, Sister 2, Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries.

But, for many film fans Channel Four has always been the home of alternative programming - at least here you would expect to find something a little different, something to stimulate the film fans' creative juices. Surely here there will be a film feast - a rich banquet of tasty celluloid morsels to get viewers excited.

Sadly, it seems that Channel Four has also turned its back on big-screen movies. There's no sign of those elusive Emmanuelle Beart or Akira Kurosawa seasons.

What do we get instead? Bugsy Malone and A Knight's Tale, Muppets Take Manhatten and Crocodile Dundee - all movies far more suited to ITV than Channel 4. Immediately after Christmas the situation is exacerbated with the Julia Roberts weepie Dying Young (surely the worst film in an otherwise sparkling career), Crocodile Dundee 2, Serial Mom, The Nutty Professor, Thunderbirds Are Go, Benji The Hunted and The Fantastic Four.

Can this really be Channel Four, home to alternative viewing?

In a shameful attempt to try and excuse this appalling film schedule they try and win us over by including the excellent contemporary French thriller Hidden along with Edinburgh Film Festival favourite Hallum Foe and The Magdalene Sisters but it is far too little and too late.

Bizzarely enough, if you are looking for good quality seasonal movies then Five would appear to be the channel to tune in to - if you can. They don't have a lot of films on but what they do have is by and large, well reviewed contemporary movies - films like Hollywood Homocide with Harrison Ford, Memoirs of a Geisha with Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang, Only You with Marissa Tomei and Robert Downey Jnr, Secret Window with Johnny Depp and the excellent Closer with Jude Law, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman.

Looking at the terrestrial schedules, the pickings are extremely slim this year. For the casual viewer there may be one or two treats but this Christmas is not one packed full with wonderful contemporary classics or half-forgotten gems. For those, it seems, you have to supply your own amusement on DVD.

Andrew Clarke's Top Christmas Movie Picks:

Nightmare Before Christmas (Saturday December 20, BBC 2, 11.50am)

Hidden (Saturday December 20, Channel 4, 11.35pm)

ET: The Extra Tereestrial (Sunday December 21, ITV1, 3.45pm)

Finding Neverland (Monday December 22, BBC2, 5.55pm)

Calendar Girls (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 8.30pm)

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Christmas Day, BBC1, 4.30pm)

Memoirs of a Geisha (Christmas Day, Five, 6.45pm)

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Boxing Day, BBC1, 5.50pm)

Closer (Saturday December 28, Five, 11pm)

Chocolat (New Year's Eve, BBC2, 9pm)

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