Best Christmas TV ever: From Mike Yarwood to Downton

The cast of ITV's Downton Abbey
The cast of ITV's Downton Abbey
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The BBC is hoping to regain its seasonal crown from ITV this weekend when the channels go head to head in the traditional battle to top the Christmas Day ratings.

ITV won the contest last year with the final episode of period drama Downton Abbey, which attracted 10.9 million viewers.

Impressionist Mike Yarwood

Impressionist Mike Yarwood

With no Downton in the schedule this year, the BBC will be hoping to take back the top spot - possibly with Mrs Brown’s Boys, which came first in 2013 and 2014.

Other contenders on BBC One include a 90-minute special episode of Call The Midwife and a festive edition of Strictly Come Dancing, which features the final appearance of head judge Len Goodman.

The centrepiece of ITV’s Christmas night is a two-hour Maigret mystery starring Rowan Atkinson.

Both channels have lined up extended episodes of soap operas, but recent history suggests the appeal of these programmes is fading.

While EastEnders has topped the Christmas Day ratings six times since the soap began in 1985, it has not clinched first place since 2012.

Coronation Street has not topped the chart since 2000.

The BBC has a long history of winning the Christmas Day TV battle, triumphing in 26 of the past 30 years.

ITV has fought back this decade with Downton Abbey coming first in 2011 and 2015.

It is unlikely that any record-breaking ratings will be set this year.

Christmas Day TV audiences have been in steady decline over the past few decades. No programme has won more than 20 million viewers since 2001, and 15 million has not been reached since 2008.

When Mrs Brown’s Boys topped the ratings with 9.7 million viewers in 2014, it was the first time any channel had failed to get above 10 million since the current system for measuring ratings began in 1981.

Fact file: Christmas Day television in the UK:

• The biggest Christmas Day TV audience in history was recorded in 1989 when 21.8 million watched the premiere of the film Crocodile Dundee.

• The largest single audience for a television programme on Christmas Day is 21.4 million, set by The Mike Yarwood Show in 1977.

• Only Fools And Horses has topped the Christmas Day ratings eight times: from 1990 to 1993, in 1996, and from 2001 to 2003.

• Only Fools And Horses is also the most-watched Christmas Day programme of this century, attracting 21.3 million viewers in 2001.

• Soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street have sometimes claimed audiences of up to 30 million on Christmas Day, but these figures have been calculated by including repeat showings on subsequent days.

• The size of the average TV audience on Christmas Day has fallen sequentially from 18.5 million in the 1980s to 17.4 million in the 1990s, 14.8 million in the 2000s, and 9.7 million this decade.

• A televised message from the Queen was first shown on Christmas Day in 1957. It has since been broadcast every year except in 1963, when the Queen was pregnant with Prince Edward, and in 1969 when its place was taken by the fly-on-the-wall documentary The Royal Family.

• A James Bond film has been broadcast on ITV on Christmas Day a total of 12 times. The first occasion was in 1978 with Diamonds Are Forever.

• Christmas Day has not always been treated by TV channels as a chance to replace their usual schedule with seasonal specials and one-offs. In 1963, ITV broadcast the natural history series Zoo Time, spelling quiz Take A Letter and a 30-minute regional news programme.