Soaps saving their biggest storylines until Christmas Day is a British TV tradition, upheld every year by all the continuing dramas that carefully plot maximum drama and devastation to play out on 25th December.
For this we have to thank EastEnders, which achieved one of the biggest ratings of all time with the 1986 Christmas Day double episode when Den Watts served deceitful wife Angie Watts divorce papers having discovered she had faked a terminal illness for months to keep him from leaving her.
In practically one iconic scene (how many times have we seen that “‘Appy Christmas, Ange…” clip followed by the doof-doof on Angie’s stunned face?), EastEnders single-handedly invented soaps being a cornerstone of the seasonal schedules and serving a satisfactory narrative peak to probably the biggest audience of the year.
You’ve got to hand it to them – even if you work on the show’s biggest rival, like Coronation Street producer Iain MacLeod, who acknowledges that moment’s lasting influence on the genre.
“I suppose there is more pressure on all the soaps to deliver at Christmas, because historically EastEnders wrote the rules of that with Angie and Den,” he says, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com. “Since then people have been trying to achieve that impact – it is still the holy grail.
“If you asked somebody in the street to name a famous soap Christmas storyline, that’s probably the one they’d say. Also, EastEnders prioritise Christmas Day and time big things to land there. So there is a bit of pressure on the other soaps.”
With most of the country settled in front of the box on the day itself, it’s a time when the channels unleash their biggest hitters in all genres. Seasonal editions of ratings bankers Call the Midwife, Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and the like have all become/been Christmas Day staples. That may be because broadcasters have a captive audience too stuffed with turkey to move from the sofa…
“You definitely get more casual soap viewers more than any other time of the year who are basically forced to watch it because other members of their family do,” laughs MacLeod. “It’s an opportunity to catch intermittent, or non-soap viewers and intrigue them with something to tempt them back. There is pressure in that, and you don’t think of Christmas Day as ‘just another episode’.
“Of all the soaps there is possibly slightly less pressure on Emmerdale at that time of the year, which is why I felt able to go slightly mad when I was producer with the Robert Sugden ‘Christmas Carol’ story (from 2017) which I loved but was bonkers!”