Christmas 2016: best TV on today, Christmas Eve

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house... the TV was buzzing with Grantchester and We're Going on a Bear Hunt

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Grantchester, 9pm, ITV

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Let’s all take a trip back to 1954 Cambridge. It’s the week before Christmas and our handsome vicar is rehearsing the church’s Nativity play. His friend the local police inspector is out shopping for toys with his children. Snow is falling. All is well with the world. For about three minutes. Because, as we’ve come to expect, this drama guides us to a kinder, gentler age that proves to be nothing of the sort. You get the feeling Grantchester would put gravel in our mince pies and a mousetrap in every stocking if it would convince us the world is a dark and lonely place. 

Poor whisky-sodden Sidney (James Norton, our star of 2016) can do nothing to save pregnant Amanda from the wrath of her horrid father (a great turn from Pip Torrens). And we know what happens to pregnant women in Christmas stories…Meanwhile, there’s a film noir murder case to solve, complete with a winter wedding, a platinum blonde and a strangled banker. It all weaves together nicely and there are, in the end, glimmers of light. 

Michael McIntyre’s Big Christmas Show, 7.25pm, BBC1

The comedian couldn’t make his show more festive if he bounced on stage dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got twinkling lights, an audience wearing Father Christmas hats, Olympic gymnast Louis Smith playing silly games, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe singing When You Wish upon a Star and Aled Jones accompanied by The Snowman in the Send To All celebrity box. Jones reckons he’s having a midlife crisis, according to the text, and is planning to have a tattoo, but can’t think what or where. Dr Hilary Jones has a very naughty suggestion. Meanwhile, McIntyre springs a very big surprise on a whole choir of Scottish nurses.

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Alan Bennett’s Diaries, 8.00pm, BBC2

As Alan Bennett sits down to be miked up for interview at the start of this joy of a documentary, he grins: “I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories before, I have such a limited repertoire.” Get away, Alan, we all know that’s not true. To mark the publication of his third hefty chunk of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, Bennett reads choice passages and chats about their context, while cameras follow him as he potters around, getting on with his life. The first surprise to any devotee is that his diaries aren’t actually diaries as we know them, but endless bits of paper, with entries in longhand, that he keeps in folders. The framework for the programme is Bennett’s choice of music for Radio 3’s Private Passions, which leads to memories of growing up in Leeds, his love of classical concerts and his haunting of the local library. Read our interview with Bennett here.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, 7.30pm, C4

This lovely animation makes Michael Rosen’s story feel new and surprisingly poignant. Intrepid siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie, Max the baby and Rufus the dog go on an adventure with their dad (Mark Williams) in search of bears, while their mum, voiced by Olivia Colman, goes to visit their recently widowed grandma. Like The Snowman, which was animated by the same people, it’s funny, sweet and sad, with a haunting score. Channel 4 goes behind the scenes during the making of the film at 9.10am and you can read our interview with Rosen here

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Carols from Kings, 5.45pm, BBC2

Even if your halls aren’t yet decked with boughs of holly and the fairy lights are on the blink, take a few minutes out of the Christmas madness to enjoy the sense of tranquillity and goodwill towards all men that this traditional festive fixture always induces. The service from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, opens as ever with the exquisite sound of a lone chorister singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City and follows the familiar pattern of readings and music to tell the story of the nativity. It ends with a rousing rendition of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

The Snowman, 4.45pm, C4

In case you needed reminding, this classic tells the story of a little boy who builds a snowman. It magically comes alive and they fly away together for a night of perfect adventure. The Snowman and the Snowdog, on straight afterwards at 5.15pm, is just as touching.

Birds of a Feather, 8.00pm, ITV

The Birds have flown the nest for this one-off episode set in Morocco (actually Malta). Tracey’s son Travis is spending his gap year in Spain, but was spotted boarding a ferry to Tangier. When the trio attempt to find him, they bump into dodgy bar owner Vince (Martin Kemp) — the gangster we last saw misbehaving in the back of a hearse with Dorien. It’s a rollicking comedy adventure involving a suspicious British consul (Robert Portal), a kidnap attempt, an insurance scam and Dorien “doing an Omar Sharif” on a camel.

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David Walliams Celebrates Dame Shirley Bassey, 9.00pm, BBC1 

Gorgeous spangly dress? Check. Immaculate hairdo? Check. Powerhouse voice? Check. The Dame’s good friend David Walliams fronts this tribute to mark her 80th birthday in January. He also walks her through highlights such as her set at Glastonbury — complete with spangly wellies. But hold your breath for the songs, including Goldfinger, delivered with astonishing potency.

 A League of Their Own, 9.00pm. Sky1

The festive edition of the sports quiz is more festivity than quiz. James Corden invites regulars Jack Whitehall, Andrew Flintoff and Jamie Redknapp to his place for a party— loud Christmas blazers and daft Victorian waistcoats mandatory— to reminisce about the series’ best moments, play pool against star guest Dennis Taylor, and compete to cook the tastiest Christmas lunch. Even the seasonal sing-along involves one of the host’s famous friends: Gary Barlow bashes out carols on the piano.

Yonderland, 6:30pm, Sky1

It’s hard enough buying last-minute gifts – harder still if you’re whisked away to a magical realm on Christmas Eve. Debbie in Yonderland finds decorations festive adorning the Elders’ chamber, too, and has to endure tone-deaf children singing The 143 Days of Thanktival.

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This bumper edition straddles the laughs and sentiment of the occasion perfectly, with the wonderful Alison Steadman and Anthony Head guest-starring as Debbie’s in-laws; a monster that devours presents; and an exiled hippy who turns out to be Yonderland’s only hope of salvation. A sideways take on Wizzard and a novel use for fatballs add to the sublime silliness. Happy Thanktival, everyone.