Once again I find myself in one of the bits between, specifically the annual Christmas post-script that occurs in the final week of each calendar. It is an awkward limbo, in which the climax of the year has been reached and passed but normality has not yet resumed.
Christmas has always felt like something of a world unto itself, somehow separated from the rest of reality. For almost a whole month (much longer if you work in retail) websites are redesigned, new dress codes are imposed, all manner of buildings are redecorated and new song rotations are adopted for radio stations. We don’t normally treat Easter this way, nor indeed Halloween. In particular, an awful lot of radio and television series are insistent upon doing the annual Christmas special, which is broadcast (and possibly filmed) separately from the regular run, with the holiday often dominating the story, and sometimes even an altered title sequence – snow effects superimposed over the visuals and bells added to the music.
There are quite a few franchises that carry on getting Christmas specials even when they are stood down as regular series. Mrs Brown’s Boys, for instance, ended its last full series in February 2013 but continues to get double bills at Christmas and New Year with the result that “special” installments now outnumber regular ones. Miranda likewise had three series of six episodes each. Oddly the second series ended on 20th December 2010 and the third series premiered 366 days later. This meant there were two Christmas episodes consecutively but they were not specials as such. The third series ended with a cliffhanger on 28th January 2013, which was not resolved until a similar special double in 2014-15. Not Going Out had its finale in 2014 (aired on Christmas Eve, but the episode was not seasonal), yet came back for a Christmas special in 2015 which then essentially became the pilot for a revival and retool in 2017.
Paradoxically, the saviour’s birthday is also a way of nailing down the timeline within a fictional story – most episodes of a fictional series could be set at any time of year – especially if it’s a studio show with no opportunity to check the leaves on the trees – and it isn’t always clear how much time is supposed to elapse between them. If there are at least two episodes set at Christmas with at least one non-Christmas episode in between, then this establishes that at least one diagetic year has gone by. This occasionally leads to problems with the series’ setting. Dad’s Army is a story about the Second World War, but more specifically the Home Guard. That institution was established on 14th May 1940 and deactivated on 3rd December 1944 (although not formally dissolved until New Year’s Eve 1945), which means that only three Christmases occurred during its period of operation. I was not able to binge the entire series again to check, but from the brief summaries I read online it appears that there were at least four episodes released at this time of year (one as part of a normal series, three as specials), although only two were necessarily set at Christmas so perhaps the chronology is preserved. The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad all famously operate on a floating timeline – where the external year changes but the main characters never physically age or progress to different life stages. All have annual Christmas episodes year on year without acknowledging the implications. The latter is especially bizarre as the Christmas stories form an ongoing series in themselves which often involves traveling through time and warping reality.
Thomas & Friends** is a franchise in which time never progresses either externally or internally. Sir Topham Hatt’s grandchildren Bridget & Stephen never grow up, nor does the technology level (or indeed the clothing) move beyond the early 1960s. This is despite the inclusion of at least one Christmas (or at any rate wintertime) episode in each series, and indeed quite a few series in which the year apparently cycles around several times. For a long time the only real human (as opposed to real locomotives, such as City of Turo, Flying Scotsman or Rocket) to be written in the franchise was, quite aptly, our immortal sovereign. From Paint Pots & Queens until the start of this year, I think I counted forty-two separate winters on the island, which means that new episodes cannot logically be taking place any earlier than 1994. Her Majesty returned to the franchise in the 75th anniversary special Thomas & the Royal Engine, this time accompanied by her eldest son. Charles is dressed in what vaguely resembles his Gordonstoun uniform, which would place the episode in the period of 1962-1967, but his height and voice would suggest an earlier date.
This year’s coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully apparent which “new” television content is actually new and which was filmed months or even years in advance. The example most prominent for me is Channel 4’s long running panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, whose Christmas special this year was apparently recorded back in January (i.e. just after the previous such holiday had finished). The studio had a full live audience and plenty of physical interaction between the panelists. The spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, was even worse.
Already the programme had been subject to some creative scheduling in 2019 due to Rachel Riley’s pregnancy. Riley announced her condition on 24th May, and gave birth on 15th December. In scripted series this might have been hidden by careful framing or an oversized labcoat, but this was probably not feasible with a studio audience. The bump is not seen during the eighteenth season (26th July-6th September), but appears prominently in that year’s Christmas special (broadcast 23rd December), during which Carr decides to stake his reputation on the joke “Rachel is heavily pregnant, so let’s get a move on before someone unexpectedly slides down her chimney.”, as well as throughout the nineteenth season (9th January-14th February 2020).
The twentieth season ran from 31st July to 28th August, by which point the pandemic was well underway, and consisted entirely of leftover material from earlier years. Episodes 1 and 2 were filmed in “late 2019” and show Riley still pregnant. Episode 3 was filmed in “early 2019” and includes references to Richard Ayoade’s role in the “recent” LEGO Movie 2, which premiered over eighteen months prior. Episodes 4 and 5 were not new material, but “Best Bits” compilations assembled in 2018 (for confirmation, look at the title slides at the end of the closing credits to see the little “MMXVIII” and “MMXIX” notices). Quite why these episodes were released in so obviously the wrong order is anyone’s guess. There was something of a Funny Aneurysm Moment in episode 2 when Jon Richardson got “Corona” as his word and the other panelists didn’t really react.
From what has been said on Twitter by people claiming to have been in the audience, the 2020 Christmas special was actually filmed in February 2019. That may initially seem crazy, but on closer inspection it is reasonable, as Riley is clearly not pregnant, yet it cannot have been filmed after the birth as the title card still says “MMXIX” not “MMXX”*, so it must have been filmed before the foetus grew to noticeable size, which realistically means no later than July. Why the 2020 Christmas special was filmed before the 2019 one is, again, a question for the ages.
An example of this effect in fiction is the BBC sitcom Ghosts, whose second season was released on 21st September, having been filmed in January and February. Episode 2 has an eerily subplot about how one of the medieval peasant ghosts returned from a holiday outside his village and accidentally gave all of his neighbours the plague, which was originally planned to be much more graphic. This season also includes a Christmas special (released on 23rd December) in which, once again, there is no acknowledgement of the pandemic.
It would be pertinent to ask whether this really matters: current-affairs programming such as Have I Got News For You? or Mock the Week need to be filmed at short-notice, but non-topical material can be stored for any time without the quality being affected. I would say that it does matter at least a little, for all works are a product of their times even if that is not their intention – each new entry being on some level a reaction to what existed before. The longer in advance a program is made, the more those in it must hedge their bets with respect to topical references, social commentary or even acknowledgement of personal circumstances, with the result that a product which should feel fresh and contemporary is instead rendered oddly generic and distant. Furthermore a game show of any kind relies on the audience being invested in the competition while a fictional piece often strives for hype regarding story arcs and major plot developments, but the tension is inevitably dulled if it is obvious that the events on-screen are all in the past.
This year, of course, adds another dimension to this problem. When the general public have spent nine months largely stuck at home, deprived of social interaction and encased in protective clothing, it can be quite jarring – perhaps even a little cruel – to see people on television apparently carrying on as if nothing has happened. Charlie Brooker in his Antiviral Wipe said “many shows which would normally seem cozy and harmless suddenly look freakishly irresponsible” and many online discussions of recent media have comments to the effect that it was like staring into a parallel universe.
*UK Maternity leave is mandatory for two weeks and then optional for up to fifty more. Riley giving birth on 15th December means, that there would only be three remaining days in the year 2019 in which she could have returned to film the special, one of them a Sunday and another New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem very likely.
**This paragraph solely concerns Thomas & Friends on television. The Railway Series in print does not have these problems.
UPDATE (January 2021)
Another season of Cats Countdown has been launched. The end card still says MMXIX and Riley is still not pregnant so presumably this was filmed around the same time as the recent special. One wonders just how many advance episodes they could have banked in 2019 – especially given that the previous season already appeared heavily padded.
UPDATE (May 2021)
The Unlucky Tug has made a video attempting to construct a diagetic timeline for the CG section of Thomas & Friends, with particular reference to the implausibility of a middle-aged Queen Elizabeth appearing with a prepubescent Prince Charles. He also notes, as I neglected, that The Royal Engine, the last of season 24 to be produced (though Thomas’s Animal Friends was the last released) is effectively the finale of this section of the franchise, which will be completely rebooted as All Engines Go! this October.
UPDATE (September 2021)
I’ve seen it stated online (though only in some obscure and dubious-looking sources) that the ‘Cats Does Countdown Christmas Special for 2021 was recorded on either 26th June or 2nd July. Sean Lock was still alive at that time but he is not said to appear in the episode.