Twelve Christmas TV crackers

From Dickens to Downton to Doctor Who, RT's Alison Graham on this year's best festive viewing

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You’ve Been Framed Christmas Special (ITV1 )

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I mean it. I do. I love “ordinary” You’ve Been Framed! with Harry Hill’s deliciously subversive narration (come on, gags  about Will Self and ex-US vice  president Dick Cheney? On a video bloopers show? Genius!) and my extended, extensive, family never, ever misses the Christmas specials. They are uncomplicated, complete fun; there is NOTHING to dislike about home-movie footage of people falling drunk into Christmas trees or slipping on dance floors at Christmas parties. You will laugh yourself to stupefaction, ideally while eating chocolate brazils. It’s what Christmas is all about.   

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Downton Abbey (ITV1)  

I have an odd feeling that from now on  until the last syllable of recorded time Downton Abbey Christmas specials will become as essential to festive viewing as the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show used to be. Because, let’s face it, Downton Abbey just so perfectly lends itself to the season: a big country house in winter, a huge Christmas tree in the hall, chestnuts, open fires, big turkeys (and I don’t mean Julian Fellowes’ occasionally weirdly clunking dialogue), piles of presents, the warmth of  belonging. Happy Downton Christmas!   

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The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff (BBC2)

Radio 4 listeners will doubtless be familiar with the arch Dickens spoof comedy Bleak Expectations, which ended in February. Well, now it’s back – but on telly (don’t get cross, radio fans, these things happen. Look at Little Britain etc).  Hand on heart, I never thought Bleak Expectations was as wildly hilarious as everyone tried to convince me it was, but I like the sound of The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff ‘s comic cast – Robert Webb, Stephen Fry (of course he’s in it, he’s everywhere), David Mitchell, Katherine Parkinson and my adored  Johnny Vegas.

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Great Expectations (BBC1)

This is The Big One, the festive blockbuster that’s aimed at bringing us together in front of our roaring log fires (after all, who can afford to switch on the heating?). Yes, it’s Dickens at Christmas, and what could be more cosy or festive? Except, of course, Great Expectations is neither, even though it begins on Christmas Eve. It’s a stupendous, dark novel that spawned a stupendous, dark film – David Lean’s 1946 version has one of the most terrifying scenes in cinema history as Magwitch rears out of the gloom. And readers of my vintage will remember the BBC Sunday tea-time series longer ago than any of us care to remember. Here Ray Winstone is the guttural Magwitch, with Gillian Anderson as barking, faded Miss Havisham.  

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Agatha Christie’s Poirot (ITV1)

We had the blockbuster Murder on the Orient Express last Christmas; this year Poirot tests his little grey cells in The Clocks, adapted from Christie’s 1963 novel. Jaime Winstone is a young secretary who arrives at a house she doesn’t recognise to do work for a woman she doesn’t know who has supposed to have asked  for her by name. The door is unlocked and there’s a dead body in  the living room, surrounded by clocks stopped at 4.13. As usual, there’s a stellar cast – Geoffrey Palmer, Lesley Sharp and the late Anna Massey. In the absence of any Christmas ghost stories on TV this year (boo!), this strange mystery should hit the spot.  

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The Borrowers (BBC1)

When I was a kid I loved Mary Norton’s books about a family of tiny wee people who live behind the skirting boards of a house. They’ve been adapted for television before but this feature-length film sounds fun and a nice chunk of telly to keep the kids quiet, if you can pull them away from their endless games of draughts and cup-and-ball. Remember, I said it was austerity-Christmas… Stephen Fry is Professor Mildeye, Victoria Wood is Grandma Driver, while Aisling Loftus is spirited young Borrower Arrietty Clock, who wants to explore life outside the family home. Christopher Eccleston and Sharon Horgan are her terrified parents, Pod and Homily.  

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The Royal Bodyguard (BBC1)

I have included this because its writers, Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni, wrote one of my favourite ever sitcoms, The Worst Week of My  Life, with Ben Miller as a hopeless  though well-meaning swain. Here, David Jason is a lifelong soldier approaching retirement who has been put in charge of  royal security. But it’s all a horrible mix-up and he’s useless. David Walliams co-stars.

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Fast Freddie, the Widow and Me (ITV1)

Laurence Fox (Lewis) and Sarah Smart (Wallander) head the cast of this soft-centred drama about a brash, boorish luxury car dealer who, after a drink-driving conviction, is sentenced to work in the run-up to Christmas with a charity that grants  sick children their final wishes. He’s an oaf and the charity is unimpressed… and I won’t tell you any more because, if you are anything like me, you will be able to see exactly where Fast Freddie, the Widow and Me is heading. And you won’t care because you’ll be too busy sobbing into a box of dates.  

Doctor Who (BBC1)

I won’t go into too much detail (you can  read about it in next week’s Radio Times),  but needless to say the now-annual Doctor Who Christmas special is one of the great uniting festive shows. This year writer Steven Moffat is giving his all, with a snowy take on CS Lewis’s classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

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Rev (BBC2)

I can’t be the only viewer to relish the prospect of the biggest-hearted show on television getting all tinselly for the first time. Christmas is, of course, a frenzy for sweet, inner-city London vicar Adam Smallbone (super Tom Hollander) and he’s full of ideas for his first Advent in the capital. But Christmas at St Saviour’s is a torrid affair, what with the vulpine archdeacon (Simon McBurney) demanding that Adam maximises seasonal profits. To make things worse there’s an unwelcome house guest:  Martin (Geoffrey Palmer), the cantankerous father of his wife Alex (Olivia Colman).  

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The Lost Christmas (BBC1)

Christmas, it’s all about the kiddies, isn’t it? Or so we are told. But even adults will enjoy the half-hour animation The Gruffalo’s Child (also on BBC1) and this feel-good drama, which benefits enormously from the charisma and cheek of its star: flights-of-fancy comedian and multiple marathon-running hero Eddie Izzard. Izzard plays Anthony, a mysterious man who arrives on the streets of Manchester on Christmas Eve with a remarkable gift. It sounds a bit It’s a Wonderful Life-y as Anthony, over the course of the day, transforms lives  that have been shattered by bad decisions.  

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Just Henry (ITV1)

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I’m well aware that, if you’ve got this far, you’ll be thinking, “My, my, such a lot of dramas set in times long ago and far away, times that were more gentle than our own.” You’d be right, of course, but until Peter Morgan comes up with The Jury Christmas special, you’re stuck with nostalgia. And, in Just Henry, adapted from Michelle Magorian’s novel, northern nostalgia. Newcomer Josh Bolt (pictured with Sheila Hancock) is Henry, a boy growing up in post-Second World War Britain, mourning the father who died in mysterious circumstances during the conflict. When a medal for bravery is posted through the door, Henry decides to find out more.

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