Last Christmas millions of families around the country gathered round their television sets to watch David Walliams’s Mr Stink. Following its success another of his bestselling children’s books has been adapted for television: Gangsta Granny features an all-star cast including Miranda Hart, Rob Brydon, Joanna Lumley, Julia McKenzie and the author himself.
Mr Stink may have been billed as family entertainment, but the only family member Walliams actually watched it with was his wife Lara. However, this year the sofa will have to accommodate another member of the Walliams household: the couple’s son Alfred, who was born in May.
“This year will be different,” he concedes. “I’m a father now. It’s something you really look forward to, a child’s first Christmas. The baby’s very young, so he won’t really realise it’s Christmas, but we’ll feel it.
“I’ve got nephews who are seven and two and a half, and having them around for the past few years has been wonderful. No one gets more excited about Christmas than children. It’s lovely to see it through their eyes, because they’re the people who enjoy it the most.”
There’s just one problem with having the family round: he can’t bring himself to watch Gangsta Granny with them all. “It’s a bit embarrassing making everyone watch something you’ve made, just in case they don’t enjoy it. Everyone’s sitting there quite tense because they think I’m checking out their reactions. So it’s better to let my family, my sister and their kids, watch it in their own time — just in case!”
Walliams’s co-star Miranda Hart has her own way of dealing with the peculiar problem of being in not one but two TV Christmas specials.
“We’re a big TV family at Christmas, we always plan what we’re going to watch,” she says. “Of course that’s ruined for me now. With Gangsta Granny and Call the Midwife, my family will all watch it and I’ll run away to another room, put on a Morecambe and Wise video and be very happy.”
In Gangsta Granny, Walliams and Hart play the parents of schoolboy Ben (Reece Buttery), who are obsessed by Strictly Come Dancing. Like the fake tan they apply every day before filming, it didn’t take long for their characters’ dancing addiction to rub off on them.
“Miranda and I had to have some dance lessons and actually do some ballroom dancing for Gangsta Granny. We got a bit carried away, and started asking the producer who was better. Really annoyingly, she said Miranda. And Miranda’s so obsessed with Strictly: not a day goes by that she doesn’t talk about it and whether we should go on it or not.”
Would he do it? “I think it’s the one show that would be fun to do. You don’t have to eat kangaroo testicles at any point — unless, of course, you want to. And there’s no humiliation involved. You can be rubbish at it but the public can still like you and find you entertaining. So maybe one day.”
Maybe it’s because she has the producer’s backing, but Hart has no such doubts: “I’ve danced with Bruce Forsyth, and I’ve now danced with David: you can’t get better than that. We’ve mastered the cha-cha-cha, we’ve mastered the waltz.
“I’m signing up for the next series of Strictly… not to be a celebrity, of course, but as a professional dancer. In my head I am a serious dancer so they better watch out!”
2. DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY Boxing Day 8:15pm BBC1
Jenna Coleman is best known as Matt Smith’s plucky companion in Doctor Who but this Christmas we’ll also see a fierier side to her. The 27-year-old actress appears in PD James’s “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley, which stars Matthew Rhys as Mr Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth.
Coleman plays Lizzy’s capricious youngest sister, Lydia Wickham. “The director’s note was: we should want to slap you in the face,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t say no to it. When you read the book, Lydia is described as ignorant, idle, vain, volatile… I had so much dramatic licence, which I was really excited about. I play someone a lot closer to myself in Doctor Who, so I was craving something that gave me that great freedom.”
Indeed, when PD James visited the set, she took one look at a caterwauling Coleman (who was making the most of Lydia’s hysterical scenes) and declared: “She’s trouble.” The actress or the character? “The character, I hope!”
Death Comes to Pemberley takes place six years after Pride and Prejudice ends and is a murder mystery. On the eve of the Darcys’ annual ball, Lydia stumbles out of a chaise screaming that her husband has been murdered. Does she worry that Austen devotees will say that a literary classic has been butchered?
“Yes, because it’s so precious. But what I love so much about it is it’s these characters that you get to know so well in Pride and Prejudice and it’s an opportunity to see their lives beyond that — to revisit characters you adore.”
3. SHERLOCK New Year’s Day 9pm BBC1
Who cares if it isn’t exactly a Christmas episode? Surely John Watson (Martin Freeman) will treat the news that his best friend Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t actually dead as the best present a man could have? Then again, he might just be, justifiably, angry. Holmes has some serious explaining to do: not just to Watson, but to the entire country, which wants, no needs, to know exactly how he survived that fall from the hospital roof after the confrontation with Moriarty.
The duo will face an added complication once the series returns, when Watson falls in love with Mary Morstan, played by Freeman’s real-life partner, Amanda Abbington. Mary is smart, down-to-earth and not taken in by Holmes’s posturing (some people are immune, apparently). How will she fit in to the 221B Baker Street set-up?
5. DOCTOR WHO Christmas Day 7:30pm BBC1
Matt Smith’s Doctor Who swan song sees the Time Lord facing off against a gathering of his deadliest enemies – including Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels and the creepy Silents – as he find himself once again on the planet of Trenzalore, home of his own tomb. It’s set to be an emotional farewell as, having supposedly used up all his regenerations, the Doctor talks about finally dying. But as always there’ll be a twist in the tale as he somehow pulls some new lives out of the bag and transforms into Peter Capaldi.
6. THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH Christmas Day 9:30pm BBC2
There’s a plethora of Christmas traditions to tick off before the new year is rung in and one of the oldest is that of the ghost story. This year actor and writer Mark Gatiss marks his directorial debut with The Tractate Middoth, a story from the master of discomfiture, MR James. In a quiet library a man (John Castle) asks for help from a young assistant (Sacha Dhawan, recently seen in An Adventure in Space and Time) in searching for an obscure Hebrew text. It quickly becomes clear that there’s something unusual about the book: the hunt for the Tractate Middoth provokes frightening apparitions and menaces from beyond the grave. The cast also includes Una Stubbs and Louise Jameson.
7. MRS BROWN’S BOYS Christmas Day 9:30pm BBC1
There’s something gloriously subversive about Brendan O’Carroll’s riotous sitcom. Yes, it’s crude, yes, it’s unsophisticated and yes, it has a dated end-of-the-pier feel about it. And boy, does it get under the skin of the critics — one of whom asked whether it was the worst comedy ever screened on British TV. But audiences absolutely adore it. Last year’s two Christmas specials each averaged a stonking 11 million viewers.
O’Carroll and members of his extended family are back for two more episodes this Christmas and he’s clear on the reasons for its popularity. “Comedy always does well in a recession. But in dark times people also get nostalgic. They want to look back at the times when summers were longer, Christmasses were brighter and family life was better.”
8. CALL THE MIDWIFE Christmas Day 6:15pm BBC1
It’s 1959. Midwife Jenny is still smitten with Alec, her colleague Chummy is adjusting to motherhood and Shelagh (the former Sister Bernadette) is facing life without her nun’s habit but with a fiancé in that nice Doctor Turner. Yet it’s not all festive births, cheery nativity plays and carols around the piano. This year, the midwives’ Christmas celebrations are interrupted by the discovery in the neighbourhood of an unexploded Second World War bomb.
“A couple of bombs were found in the east end in those years so it was in the news, it was happening,” explains Helen George, who plays bubbly midwife Trixie.
This shocking discovery means Christmas preparations are forgotten as the residents of Poplar find themselves under threat. “everyone is thrown into a bit of a tiz-woz because it happens at three in the morning,” reveals Jessica Raine (the usually calm and collected Jenny). “Suddenly PC Noakes is knocking on the door!”
The midwives soon jump into action, guiding the community to safety. “Nonnatus House is really called upon,” says Raine, “because the nuns and nurses know the community so well. They are the first ones at the rescue centre and they get it ready for the surge of people who have been evacuated.”
While the bomb is investigated, it’s the midwives’ job to keep everyone calm. Well, that and make sure there are lots of tea and biscuits constantly available! “Basically just making tea…” says George. “Lots of tea.”
But will Christmas Day dawn with a bang?
9. LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX Christmas Eve 9pm BBC1
Derek Jacobi “I loved Christmas when I was a child. I covered the house in paper chains — you couldn’t even see the fir cones on the tree. It’s different now. All my family are gone. We either have it at home and friends come in, or we go up to Scotland. Emma Thompson is one of our great friends and she has a place up there. It’s nice, but it’s not the magical time it was when I was a child.
“What I do remember about my childhood at Christmas is that it was the only time in the year that we had chicken. It was very expensive, and it was very rare. The smell was… you hadn’t smelt a cooking chicken all year. It was so special. The smell of it. Nowadays, it’s chicken schmicken, isn’t it?”
Anne Reid “I’m a Geordie and New Year is much more important at home than Christmas. But Christmas is all right, we always have goose. Now it’s about my little grandsons.
“We always had quiet Christmasses after my husband died — it was just my son and Granddad and me. But now we go up to my daughter-in-law’s family, they’re lovely.
“New Year is much more important, though — I hate being at home that night. I’ve only once been at home on New Year’s Eve in my life.”
10. THE THIRTEENTH TALE Monday 30 December 9:30pm BBC2
This has been an annus mirabilis for the hard-working, multi-talented Olivia Colman. As well as the two bafta awards she earned for Twenty Twelve and The Accused, there’s been her acclaimed performance as DS Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Run. This Christmas sees her starring opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the BBC2 chiller The Thirteenth Tale.
Based on the bestselling novel by Diane Setterfield, and adapted by Christopher Hampton, The Thirteenth Tale concerns a young biographer (Colman) who is invited to talk to a famous writer (Redgrave) at her childhood home. it all sounds straightforward, but when dealing with a terminally ill woman with dark secrets held over decades, it is anything but.
11. LEN GOODMAN’S DANCE BAND DAYS Monday 23 December 9pm BBC4
Taking a look back at the rise of british dance bands and the birth of modern pop, Len Goodman revels in the music that emerged between the wars. Tucked away in London’s surviving Rivoli Ballroom he finds the dance hall craze alive and very much kicking. “If I’m dreaming don’t wake me up!” he shouts to be heard over the scratching original 78s playing in the background. He can’t help grinning: “It’s like being in a 30s musical – just wonderful.”
And if dancing also puts a smile on your face, you’ll resemble a cheshire cat this christmas. Strictly Come Dancing crowns its champion; a Strictly Christmas Special sees new celebrities take to the floor for one night only; BBC2 will be showing the Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty, performed at the Royal Opera House earlier this year, and Carlos Acosta will leap onto BBC4 with his royal ballet production of Don Quixote. But if it’s the Strictly judge who gets your feet tapping, don’t miss Len Goodman’s Christmas Extravaganza on BBC1, a round-up of TV’s best festive programmes.
12. DOLPHINS SPY IN THE POD Thursday 2 January 8pm BBC1
There are few film-makers better than John Downer at capturing the idiocyncrasies of animal life. He acheives it with an increasingly sophisticated array of hidden cameras — you might remember his last film put penguins firmly in the spotlight.
Now, in a beguiling Christmas two-parter, dolphins get the Downer treatment, with dozens of different cameras deployed beneath the waves to capture young mammals at play. The cameras come in a variety of disguises, from turtles to tuna.
“Unlike penguincams, this time our spy creatures were having to keep pace with fast-moving dolphins, often out in the deep ocean,” says Downer. “The dolphins were very curious about their new neighbours and allowed them into their lives.”
FESTIVE HIGHLIGHTS ON THE RADIO
Some of the most sparkling Christmas gems are on radio. Throughout December, Radio 4 interrupts programmes like Woman’s Hour and Today with its Comedy Advent Calendar, where stars including Mitchell and Webb, Sue Perkins, Lenny Henry and Sandi Toksvig perform a selection of stories, sketches, songs, poems and factual pieces inspired by the time of year.
In Christmas week itself (23—27 December), Johnny Vegas has assembled a full cast for a fresh adaptation of five of Beatrix Potter’s tales on Radio 4. With Vegas on board it promises to inject some comic warmth into the ruthlessness of the food chain in the underbelly of Cumbria’s fields and hedgerows.
Desert Island Discs has three very special guests with Miranda Hart on 22 December and, a week later, Ant and Dec — the first appearance by a duo since Spitting Image creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law in 1987.
And can there be a more cheering way to start Christmas day than with David Attenborough’s radio 4 Tweet of the Day on, what else, the robin?